Our era runs on biography. Stories—in film adaptations, novels, and pop songs alike—are received as the clarion calls of so many “voices.” The myth of an unencumbered, authentic voice persists. Even if it’s never quite found, we find value in the searching. It was foreseeable, then, that readers would make much of a new memoir from the pop star Britney Spears, whose prevailing story for much of her adult life has been one of silencing.
We know the story by now. In 2008, after a series of messy public episodes, zealously documented by the tabloid press, Spears was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility and her father successfully petitioned a California court for a conservatorship, deeming Spears unfit to make personal and financial decisions on her own behalf. But Spears did not disappear from public life. What happened instead was somehow eerier. She continued to release mega-selling albums. She graced the small screen, covered magazines, and performed onstage many, many, many, many, many times, including during a four-year residency in Las Vegas. But her fans sensed something sinister at work beneath her industriousness, and they took up a rallying cry: “Free Britney.” By 2021, a swell in media coverage, including original reporting by this magazine, created a broad awareness that Spears had been severely stripped of her personal autonomy and forced to work against her will. But reporting is not direct testimony. Neither is music, even if it’s often mined for hidden messages. With Spears keeping mum about her situation, onlookers instead became scholars of her Instagram account, interpreting every dance video and emoji-laden caption as evidence of her stifled condition.
“There was so much guessing about what I must have thought or felt,” Spears recalls of that time in “The Woman in Me.” She finally spoke on an afternoon in June, 2021, during a hearing at a Los Angeles probate court that was made public at her request. “My voice. It was everywhere, all over the world—on the radio, on television, on the internet—but there were so many parts of me that had been suppressed,” Spears writes in the book. “The Woman in Me” is Spears’s most substantial address to the public outside of social media since she was released from the conservatorship, in 2021. Physically, it is a slight object—two hundred and eighty-eight pages, with plenty of white space therein—and as I read I wondered how it could possibly withstand the enormity of expectations. The memoir arrives at a time when patience for Spears’s behavior is waning once again. With varying measures of good faith, fans and other gawkers have been wringing their hands over, for instance, a video that Spears recently posted online showing her dancing with a pair of chef’s knives. (The Los Angeles Times reported that after seeing the video someone close to Spears called the police for a “wellness check.”) In an unsettling echo of the two-thousands, pop-culture prognosticators are back to reading the tea leaves—the cup is Instagram—and asking, Is Britney O.K.?
That is to say, there is the sense that this memoir must answer to, if not for, quite a lot. Meanwhile, before the book had even hit shelves, it was being combed for salacious sound bites, which circulated on blogs naked of context, intensifying the sense that a major revelation was afoot. Readers taken in by the frenzy may find themselves disappointed. “The Woman in Me” (written with the assistance of the journalist Sam Lansky) is not the last word. It is not even a tell-all. Spears, too, is still searching.
Britney Jean Spears was raised up in the country town of Kentwood, Louisiana. Her life was, for a time, quintessentially Southern, flanked by the twin pillars of family and faith. A child did not speak unless spoken to, and whatever traumas haunted the Spears familial line were crystallized into a familial truism: “It was said that the Spears men tended to be bad news,” she writes. Her paternal grandfather, one of Baton Rouge’s boys in blue, was, as Spears puts it plainly, “abusive.” His wife, Jean, died, by suicide, when Spears’s father, Jamie, was thirteen, leaving a middle name to the granddaughter she never got to meet. Jamie channelled the hell of his childhood into the little family that he eventually made. During Britney’s childhood, he was “reckless, cold, and mean,” and a nasty drunkard. He and Spears’s mother, Lynne, fought for hours into the night, well after, as far as Spears could tell, her father was coherent enough to participate, a routine that, she admits, embittered her toward her mother. “Isn’t that awful?” she writes. “He was the one who was drunk.” (Representatives for Jamie Spears did not respond to a request for comment.)
Still, Spears depicts her home town with golden fondness. Their home was a “zoo,” but it was also, “for lack of a better word, the cool house,” a gathering place for friends and gossipy moms. Spears charts the beginnings of a normal adolescence—a first cigarette, illicit Daiquiris, cutting class, sex with a high-school senior who also happened to be the best friend of her older brother. Even as show biz began to intervene, the gravity of home remained potent. “For a minute, I had to let normalcy win,” Spears writes.
One imagines that Spears might have lived her best and died in Kentwood if not for gospel music. The Spearses were “very poor,” but, before the drink took hold, Jamie had a couple of businesses that did well enough that the family could hire help from time to time. One day, Spears overheard their housekeeper singing gospel, and it was, she recalls, “an awakening to a whole new world,” a place where Spears could “communicate purely.” She writes, “When I sing, I own who I am.” Spears, who came to be seen as a lip-synching foil to Christina Aguilera’s big voice, is rarely classed as a vocalist, but she and her onetime rival—who is treated gently in the memoir in spite of their rumored bad blood—are more alike than not in the origins of their craft. Like Aguilera and their generation of stars, Spears was enchanted by Whitney Houston, by Mariah Carey, by, as Spears calls it in a 1999 documentary, “soulful” music. She also loved to dance—and shoot hoops—but singing was the thing. Singing beckoned God. It also beckoned fame.
Time moves swiftly in “The Woman in Me.” In one chapter, Spears is four years old, singing “What Child Is This?” in white tights for the Christmas program at her mother’s workplace. Not ten pages later, she is eight, auditioning for the All New Mickey Mouse Club alongside “a beautiful girl from California” named Keri Russell and “a girl from Pennsylvania,” Aguilera. Soon thereafter, Spears is competing on “Star Search,” losing to “a bolo-tie-wearing boy with a lot of hair spray,” and then understudying for an Off Broadway musical beside “a talented young actress named Natalie Portman.” The producer Max Martin, whose collaborations with Britney helped clinch his status as the No. 1 go-to for pop girls, strolls into the story at fifty pages on the dot.
One interpretation of the narrative’s breakneck pace might be that life is frenetic for anyone who becomes as famous as Spears did before her eighteenth birthday. Spears sketches, briefly but tellingly, the story of “ . . . Baby One More Time,” her smash-hit first single. She’d purposefully stayed awake late the night before recording in order to effect the “fried,” “gravelly” timbre that became her vocal signature. More important, “Max listened to me,” she writes. “When I said I wanted more R&B in my voice, less straight pop, he knew what I meant and he made it happen.” She similarly recounts her experience working with Nigel Dick, who directed the song’s music video. The school setting, the uniforms, cueing the start of choreography with the ringing of the school bell: these were all her ideas. She recalls that time as “probably the moment in my life when I had the most passion for music.” But what happened next she sums up dispassionately. “On January 12, 1999, the album came out and sold over ten million copies very quickly. I debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart in the US,” Spears writes, adding, “I didn’t have to perform in malls anymore.”
An interesting discrepancy develops in the text. It becomes clear that Spears has limited interest in some of what we onlookers might consider the touchstones of her career. Max Martin, with whom she has collaborated on four albums, is never mentioned in the book again. Spears devotes a small shrug of a paragraph to the notorious Rolling Stone cover shot by David LaChapelle, showing Spears styled as what might be described as a sexy baby: “My mother seemed concerned, but I knew that I wanted to work with David LaChapelle again.” By contrast, Spears lingers over her chance meetings with the singer-songwriters Paula Cole and Mariah Carey—“And no, I can’t say just her first name. To me she is always going to be Mariah Carey.” Of her own star power at that time, she writes, mechanically, “Meanwhile, I was breaking records, becoming one of the best-selling female artists of all time. People kept calling me the Princess of Pop.” If memoir serves as a living postmortem of sorts, in “The Woman in Me,” Spears sees no need to probe the innards of her stardom.
Instead, Spears’s most reflective passages, peppered with clusters of queries for a sympathetic reader, are reserved for her most wounding personal relationships, and the way that, rather than buffer the onslaught of the world, those closest to her accelerated the rate and severity of her overexposure. Take, for instance, that charlatan Justin Timberlake. (Already I’m betraying more ire toward him than she does.) After connecting as fellow-Mouseketeers and charting their respective paths to radio ubiquity—he as a member of the boy band ’N Sync—they bonded over their parallel experiences of pop stardom. Spears fell “so in love with him it was pathetic,” she confesses. She is gushy about their romance and only a tad chagrined by the strength of her former feeling. Spears’s account of what took place during that relationship has already provided grist for a million headlines in recent days. She depicts Timberlake’s wigger antics in dialogue (“Oh yeah, fo shiz fo shiz . . . what’s up homie?”) that turns hilariously farcical on “The Woman in Me” ’s audiobook, which is narrated by Michelle Williams (the white one). Spears writes that she got pregnant and felt pressured by Timberlake to get an abortion, and, in one almost surreal passage, how the pain from the pills left her sobbing in pain on the bathroom floor as Timberlake tries to soothe her by strumming his guitar. For some readers, the book will add to a distaste for Timberlake that has ballooned in recent years as the public reëvaluates his early career triumphs and the women, such as Spears and Janet Jackson, who served as collateral. Even at a time when skuzzy men seem poised to make a comeback, he has been unable to escape the whiff of calculated misogyny. (Representatives for Timberlake did not respond to a request for comment.)