However meager our lives, celebrity Instagram accounts offer certain reliable comforts: front-facing studio-quality portraits of our favorite stars standing or sitting alone in careful outfits; a high percentage of photos taken from the manubrium up, so that our entire phone screen is dominated by their proportional features. And, if the celebrity is Beyoncé-level famous, a gorgeous unending color story we can fall through forever: a block of white, silver, gold and indigo clearly curated by someone with the patience to learn color theory. This is the fame trade-off in 2019: We give them attention and a lightly engaged readership with the potential to translate to advertising revenue; they give us stylized, intimate glimpses of a life more elegant and photogenic than our own.
What is the result when someone ignores these conventions and attempts to use their account like a regular person? Clashing colors, “Minions” memes and cellphone videos shot from the middle distance. What is the result when that someone has spent decades living the cloistered existence of one of the most successful entertainers of all time, and has a limited understanding of what a regular person is like? The aberrant Instagram account of Britney Spears.
On Spears’s Instagram, the light is uncalibrated — as likely to charge in from floor-to-ceiling windows offering 360-degree California views as to issue from a single overhead light bulb located behind her, casting her face in shadow. Her feed is a place where frenetic, solitary dance routines are performed with total commitment for Spears’s unseen reflection in the mirror of her home gym, which is lined with purple string lights. It is a place where Britney can share her favorite quotes, be it a typographical exhortation about staying “extra sparkly” or a musing from Nietzsche about an artist’s inability to endure what is known as “reality.” But her most memorable, jolting posts are ones that crop up every once in a while, seemingly with no rhyme or reason to their frequency: Britney, alone, pretending to be walking on a runway inside her home.
The plot of each is roughly the same: Spears quickly struts straight-as-an-arrow toward the camera in a selection of outfits that are not particularly fancy — the sort of clothes a woman might have in her closet, if she had one: a red off-shoulder minidress with glittering embroidery; a red off-shoulder minidress with flamenco sleeves. The editing is fast, amateurish and jarring; frequently Spears is back at her point of origin striding forward in a new outfit before she has finished walking out of frame in her old one. Every video is overlaid with music, by artists ranging from Beyoncé to Tracy Chapman to Britney Spears. There is a surreal lack of momentum to the clips; Spears never seems bound for anywhere in her vibrantly demonstrated ensembles. The footage presents her as a human GIF, repeating small motions with minute adjustments ad infinitum in the hallways, passages, corridors and loggias of the Italianate airplane-hangar where she lives.
Because the videos are a kind of art brut expressionism, empty of context, they fill viewers with questions. Who is filming? Why these clothes? Did Spears learn how to edit video clips? And, most perplexing, what does she want us to feel when we watch? Is she to be viewed as an innocent girl playing dress-up? An empowered stylish woman stomping across marble floors she bought herself? A sexy human Barbie with an infinite closet? Regardless of intention, the clips are illegible, generating primarily a voyeur’s guilty, mystified confusion.
Spears’s mental and physical well-being has been a subject of renewed speculation in recent months, ever since she canceled a planned Las Vegas residency and announced an “indefinite work hiatus” in January. In April, TMZ reported that she had checked into a mental health facility. An hour before the TMZ story was published, her Instagram account featured its first new post in months (an unusually long fallow period; before the hiatus announcement, a typical rate was several posts per week). It was an image of an inspirational quote, alongside the caption “We all need to take time for a little ‘me time.’ :)” Subsequent posts have made it clear that Spears is continuing to care for herself. She made a series of funny faces at the camera “after therapy.” She reclined peacefully on an inflatable peacock in her lapis pool.
But rather than deterring gossip, each new post has only watered the conspiracy theories flowering in the tens of thousands of comments beneath it. Would a message authored by Spears really feature an emoticon smiley, when history has demonstrated her preference for emoji? Would Spears really post herself working out to a Michael Jackson song two months after her former choreographer (and rumored former romantic partner) Wade Robson accused Jackson of years of sexual abuse in a well-publicized documentary — with a hairstyle and outfit identical to those in a video she posted 13 months earlier? Do apple emoji mean the legend Britney Jean Spears is about to release a single called “Apple Pie” or does that song not exist?
It’s widely known (though never acknowledged on her page) that Spears’s adult welfare is under the conservatorship of her father. Although herself a mother of two adolescents, Spears is legally unable to make personal or financial decisions without his oversight; even minor incidental purchases are tracked. Inevitably, this arrangement leads people to wonder if Spears is slapping on a smiley face because she wants to or because she has been ordered to by the entity in charge of her. In recent months, the hashtag #FreeBritney has gained popularity on social media among fans who suspect the latter.
Every generation produces a youth icon hounded into instability and dissolution by fame; for millennials who grew up listening to Top 40, it’s Britney. The last time the public watched Spears this closely, they mainly saw her in moments frozen by paparazzi zoom lenses: Britney with a tonsure of long brunette hair studying her reflection in a salon mirror mid-self-shear. Spears bleary-eyed and frantic in the back of an ambulance. Now the photos are coming from inside the house — they must, to convince an audience of casual observers that she is not being held hostage. Spears is allowed to exist out of the public eye but only if she can prove her existence by sharing private videos of herself with the public. Instagram has made it not only easier but virtually obligatory for celebrities seeking favor to show scenes from their home lives. Yet the histrionic reactions below Spears’s posts (“Something is very wrong here”) suggests viewers are seeking not real-life depictions but the boudoir photo equivalent.
Spears’s most recent runway video opened with Spears before a garment rack — her eyes rimmed in makeup as black as midnight reflected in an infinity pool — angling a phone camera onto herself from above. In a perky voice edged with exasperation, she addressed the lens: “For those of you who don’t think I post my own videos, I did this video yesterday. So, you’re wrong! But I hope you like it.” And then there was Spears, in a pink dress, a white dress, a blue dress, shifting back and forth against the exterior walls of her cavernous palace, clutching at the hems of her skirts, dragging them ever higher on her thighs, before suddenly, rotely, strutting toward the camera. Decades of performing have given Spears uncommon poise in heels, but the display is slightly off-kilter. She doesn’t smile. Because Spears is on a “hiatus,” this was ostensibly a peek at her free time. But it certainly looks like a job.
Caity Weaver is a writer at large for the magazine and a writer for the New York Times Styles section. She last wrote for the magazine about riding a train across the United States.
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