In smoky eye makeup and a fuzzy blue bathrobe, former pop princess Britney Spears belts Frank Sinatra lyrics into her iPhone camera and, as a result, into the broader cyber universe. “I want to be a part of it / New York, New York,” she coos in a video posted to Instagram earlier this year, punctuated by an extra helping of vibrato and a filter that not only douses the performance in a cascade of golden stars but digitally endows Spears with a pair of furry ears and the voice of a drunken baby chipmunk.
“Who doesn’t love Sinatra??” the caption reads.
“Hear, hear!” more than 1.6 million followers implied with the tap of a “like.”
Spears’ lovably erratic Ol’ Blue Eyes impression is not an anomaly. After conquering the world of pop music and enduring a paparazzi-chronicled meltdown in 2007, she has reemerged over a decade later as an unapologetic social media superuser. Her Instagram in particular, a hodgepodge of corny jokes, earnest mantras and inexplicably hypnotic selfie videos, functions like a repository of all the things that make the internet good.
Of course, I am eternally grateful for all of the sonic gems Britney Jean Spears has gifted us followers. (My first concert was Spears in her hometown of Kentwood, Louisiana; I frequently attempt the choreography to “I’m a Slave 4U” when I reach peak drunk and still tear up while listening to “Everytime.”) But when it comes to Spears’ most influential, unusual and profound cultural contribution, I have to point to her multifaceted, sincere and utterly confounding Instagram feed.
I mean it. Spears’ Instagram is rife with the kind of unfiltered millennial soul-searching that can seem overproduced or unapproachable in the hands of, say, Kim Kardashian or Beyoncé. To her 18 million Instagram subscribers, Spears is certainly still the superhuman we’ve come to love, a master of metamorphosis who’s traversed the classic phases of womanhood ― Mickey Mouse Club starlet, precious schoolgirl, snake-wielding sexpot, fame-tainted “trainwreck” and, finally, Vegas icon ― in the early-internet public eye. But now, online and selfie-savvy, Spears is also a mother, patriot, Nietzschean scholar, Christian, yogi, food critic, Hillary Clinton stan, painter, tomboy and girly girl) ― all in one constantly updated feed.
Her social media persona is so enchanting because it complicates, rather than calcifies, fans’ understanding of a star.
Spears’ ability to provoke a pure sense of bewilderment and fascination is a rare feat amid an infinite feed of influencers. In one post, she’s the basic-as-hell girl next door, posting inspirational quotes like “keep the ones that heard you when you never said a word” and milquetoast jokes like “just let me shop & no one gets hurt.” But then there are the posts that don’t fit the mold, like the minion memes, elephant pics, black-and-white images of “antique children” and trippy New Age artwork.
And of course, the true showstoppers: videos of Spears herself strutting, twirling, pouting and teasing. The clips somehow feel spontaneous, even DIY, although they’re clearly cut from many takes featuring multiple costume changes.
Therein lies the allure: Spears does little to cover up the effort behind her montages. Rejecting concerted nonchalance in favor of unapologetic effort, she showcases a sincerity so exposed it becomes vulnerability. For someone who’s been so thoroughly shaped and tormented by a greedy public, Spears’ radical openness feels especially fearless.
I brought up my obsession with Spears’ Instagram in a recent email exchange with culture writer Mallika Rao (also a former HuffPost colleague), who’s written about the mysteries of self-representation online. Spears’ social media sagacity, she agreed, stems in part from her total disregard of self-conscious curation, which allows her to jump from posting calculus equations to providing bikini thirst traps in the blink of an eye.
“Instagram is a brand management tool, even among people branded as ‘creative’ or ‘iconoclastic,’” Rao wrote to me. “Britney does not seem to care for brand management. She uses Instagram as kids once used home videos, to work out fantasies for an imaginary viewer. Her primary beneficiary ― her perfect viewer ― seems to be herself.”
One of the most iconic of Spears’ Instagram posts, uploaded in October 2017, is a video of the multidisciplinary artist painting flowers and swirls on a canvas outside a Versailles-esque mansion I can only assume is her home. “Sometimes you just gotta play!!!!!! 🤓😜💋💅🏻👩🎨🎨👯👗👛👒👠🦄🦋🐠🌹💥💥” the caption says.
There are so many things to love about this video: That Mozart’s “Turkish March” is playing in the background; that Spears, perched with one leg on a stool like a flamingo, starts out wearing a men’s button-down shirt over her white pushup sports bra and workout shorts before the vid jump-cuts to an outfit change with a kimono robe; the way she purses her lips in a pensive yet flattering pout before each blessed stroke.
Above all, Spears exhibits almost no artifice while presenting her Art to the masses. Again, it’s not that she’s not trying in her presentation, but that she’s clearly trying so hard. The evidence of her effort is written all over the post, its deliberate staging ringing truer than forced authenticity. The video, described by Glamour as “delightfully bizarre,” quickly went viral, and the Spears original painting ended up selling for $10,000. (For more Spears painting content, check out this equally primo gem.)
Since she was a teen, Spears has lived her life on a stage, perhaps preparing her for our post-Insta reality, in which privacy is a right we’ve all gleefully abandoned. In her book Trainwreck, Sady Doyle describes the impossible tightrope Spears was forced to walk in the prime of her fame. To avoid public scorn, she had to be “virgin and pin-up, wide-eyed innocent and worldly temptress, icon of cool and conservative Christian role model, she would always have to be both and neither, everything and nothing.”
It’s no surprise that this unimaginable pressure made Spears crumble. And as Doyle put it, her suffering became a form of entertainment, plastered across Us Weekly and TMZ. As a result, Spears’ life between 2008 and 2016 was governed by a court-approved conservatorship, meaning her father, sister and lawyer were in charge of her personal and financial decisions.
After staying out of the spotlight and rebuilding her life and self, Spears appeared on Instagram not as a symbol of desirable femininity or calamitous adulthood but as a real, weird person with interests and a sense of humor and a passion for strutting down the catwalk. For Spears, a public figure who was asked to embody the contradictory values of sanctioned womanhood from an extremely young age, this newfound freedom appears intoxicating.
“People are obsessed with Britney’s Instagram because it offers some glimpses of hope,” critic Alicia Eler, author of The Selfie Generation wrote to HuffPost.
As Rao put it: “We re-meet someone we thought we knew until she left in a haze of mystery,” she told me of Spears, “turning into herself and turning notions of fame on their head.”
In yet another classic Britney post, the singer stands alone in her cavernous living room wearing a little black dress and belts “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” using the same affected tone she’s rocked since she was a teen. No one is in the room for the performance, save for whoever is moving the camera around Spears for the full 360-degree view the video affords. Unapologetically, she got all dressed up to perform for Britney, and Britney alone.
“I’ve always wanted to do a performance like this,” the caption reads, “singing in a pretty little black dress, with a simple 360, one take shot! I figured since it was my birthday, why not go for it?! So boom 💥 When the clock struck 12:00, I did it!!!”
For us non-famous normies, social media can offer a space to pretend that things worked out differently. On the platform, friends become followers, not unlike fans; documentation of the most mundane activities suddenly warrants attention and praise. We can use digital space to curate and perform the platonic versions of ourselves.
Spears, who grew up famous and in the spotlight, uses Instagram to do the opposite.
In the words of Spears herself, “Sometimes you just gotta play!!!!!! 🤓😜💋💅🏻👩🎨🎨👯👗👛👒👠🦄🦋🐠🌹💥💥.”
Clarification: Language in this story has been amended to clarify Britney Spears has not retired from the music industry.