‘In some ways, it’s not about Britney at all’ – in conversation with rock & roll cultural historian and author Jennifer Otter Bickerdike
The name ‘Britney Spears’ is, first and foremost, one that generates many reactions. To you, ‘Britney’ might evoke the 90’s princess of pop, that double denim ensemble with Justin Timberlake, or her infamous 2007 ‘breakdown’. The name might conjure the smells of her multi-million-dollar perfume line, or, if you’re among her more recent fans, memories of the conservatorship battle that trended worldwide under the #FreeBritney hashtag. To Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, author of new book ‘Being Britney’, the mythos and history of Britney ‘is not all about Britney at all’.
After learning a little about Otter Bickerdike herself, it quickly becomes clear that her interest in Britney Spears is just as much anthropological as it is biographical. After the 20 minutes spent squealing about our overlapping musical taste have elapsed, and Otter Bickerdike has apologetically answered an impatient call from Echo and the Bunnyman, we finally get to the business of her career as a ‘rock & roll cultural historian and author’. After an established 30-year-long career as a Californian music executive, working with the likes of Nirvana, Eminem and Gwen Stefani, the death of a friend prompted her to pursue a lifelong dream of moving to the UK. ‘I figured out the only way I could move is if I came and got a PhD’, she confides.
After completing her MA was on blackface minstrelsy and Morrisey fans, her PHD was on Joy Division and Nirvana, becoming BIMM’s Global Music Ambassador and publishing several books, she found herself becoming an academic authority on music, pop-culture and fandom. As for Britney? She came to mind during Otter Bickerdike’s search for ‘someone who is so ingrained in the very material of our culture, that everyone from like a four year old to a 90 year old will probably know who they are. I thought there must be hundreds of books about Britney Spears. When I looked it up, there weren’t any thoughtful, well-researched, really rigorous books that had been written about Britney. I couldn’t believe it. And I thought, you know what? I wanna be the person to write that book’.
The book also has feminist motivations. ‘I think women especially are told that after the age of 30, definitely by the age of 40, that that’s your life over. Any dreams or aspirations, toss them out the window, because you’re just off to the glue factory. One of the reasons I love Britney is because she’s 40 and her life is just beginning all over again’.
The book itself is written as a series fragments spanning Britney’s live. ‘I feel like that is kind of how we know Britney’, Otter Bickerdike explains, ‘through these short vignettes. So I used the episodic stories that we know so well, and I tried to use those as a jumping off point to talk about larger issues at play and how Britney is a touchstone for those’.
It’s those larger cultural contexts that differentiate ‘Being Britney’ from the average celebrity biography, and that Otter Bickerdike is uniquely suited to writing. ‘I’m the only person I know that has worked at a record label, has worked in Silicon valley and has a PhD in cultural studies. So I’m trained in this kind of celebrity culture, critical contextualization’.
She mentions, for instance, the noughties media frenzy surrounding Britney’s virginity. ‘The year that Britney Spear’s first album comes out is also that which the highest number of aids cases is reported in the United States. Then, sex could kill you.’
‘So Britney Spears comes and here’s a woman who is a church background, a virgin, she looks very innocent. In America specifically, there’s the promise ring movement – promising to be a Virgin until you die. She’s a safe choice that parents can give their kids, right? Among all this terror, you can look at the larger apparatus, all the way up to the highest echelons in government. They’re pumping out sexual education was not actual sex education, but [pushing] heterosexual marriage and abstinence. So all these things are working in conjunction, pressuring Britney to be a virgin.’
The result of the republican purity culture that surrounded young Britney is as pertinent as ever, Roe vs Wade being overturned only a few months ago. Otter Bickerdike highlights that, while testifying against her father’s conservatorship, Britney said ‘that she was being forced to have a coil of birth control device inside of her. I started digging into that a little bit more and I found out there’s a law that still like that still exists in America, that women can be sterilized at any point’.
As Otter Bickerdike says, ‘In some ways it’s all about Britney. And in some ways it’s not all about Britney. It’s about unpacking the way we’ve treated Britney, how Britney’s a symbol of the values and desires […] Britney is a mirror to society’.
What is it, then, that Otter Bickerdike hopes her readers will gain by looking into that mirror? ‘It’s sound kind of silly to say, but be nicer to each other. Because there’s gonna be lots of other apparatus happening behind the scenes that you don’t know about. Look at the details. Don’t assume.’
Words by Kate Bowie