By Jessica Pereira
“She’s so lucky, she’s a star, but she cry, cry, cries in her lonely heart, thinking: If there’s nothing missing in my life, then why do these tears come at night?” – Lucky by Britney Spears.
In this song of the year 2000 Britney Spears shared her discontent with her life as a celebrity. All over the world Luckypeaked in the charts, meaning that from the very beginning Britney Spears’ misery resonated with her fans.
Cara Cunningham, formerly known as Chris Crocker, is one of Britney Spears’ fans. She herself became famous through her 2007 viral Myspace video named Leave Britney Alone!. In this video she defended Britney Spears’ performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. To provide some context: This performance happened after her very public breakdown where she shaved her head. People have interpreted this act as her trying to regain control over her image and life, which had thus far been controlled by music executives and the media. The MTV Music Awards were supposed to be the platform that would allow a comeback for the singer, but the performance was not well received, and the music network were accused of taking advantage of her mental state. Shortly after, Britney Spears lost custody of her two sons and attacked a paparazzi’s car with an umbrella. Following all these incidents, in 2008, her father, Jamie Spears, gained temporary conservatorship over her life, meaning that he was awarded the rights to make decisions on matters that concern her health, estate, business deals, career, etc. This conservatorship was supposed to end in 2009 and recently, starting in 2019, many celebrities and fans have been advocating against the conservatorship through the #FreeBritney movement.
This blogpost focuses on one meme and one viral phenomenon, which indicate that memes and viral phenomena are inevitably closely related to cultural productions by other industries. They created a link between the singer and her fans and offered them the possibility to participate in creating and shaping Britney’s image instead of being mere spectators of her career and life. Since her childhood, her image has been consumed by millions which consequently enabled these two viral phenomena that will be elaborated. Without the extensive marketing of her person, Cunningham’s video would likely not have been viral and the #FreeBritney movement would have had less meaning. Most viral phenomena are tightly entangled with cultural contents shared with the masses. Therefore, these viral phenomena were shaped by multiple actors, formats, and decades.
It seems that Britney’s cause attracts many people, be it to watch and create videos or to start a movement. Cunningham’s video traveled from Myspace to YouTube and gained over 2 million views within only twenty-four hours. From YouTube, the video quickly traveled through many platforms, including numerous news outlets. Furthermore, many videos saw the light of day where people were either reacting to Cunningham’s video or commenting on it. This led to a variety of parodies of the original video. Allegedly, as a reaction to those parodies and to reinstate its original meaning, Cunningham decided to sell the video on the NFT marketplace Foundation for 44.000$, which she used to help her family financially. While Cunningham (at the time Chris Crocker) became famous for her video, she also took her opinions to the streets in 2008 and protested Perez Hilton, known for sharing gossip about Britney Spears and other celebrities in his blog. Coming back to the video however, Cunningham has said that she “had no idea the impact its message would have, years later, maybe society is finally starting to get it” (RollingStone, 2021) .
Although Cunningham was criticized and attacked for her video, society did react years later by positively reevaluating her emotional opinions and the Free Britney movement was born. Its origin goes back to an anonymous lawyer who in 2017 shared insider knowledge concerning the singer’s life on a podcast called Britney’s Gram. The podcast shared that the singer’s show in Vegas was cancelled because she allegedly refused to take medication and that she had been kept in a psychiatric facility against her will. In short, the podcast explains how Britney Spears had no control over many aspects of her life and after a clip from the podcast went viral, the #FreeBritney hashtag was born on the 17th of April 2019. Its goal was to spread the word on the ongoing conservatorship and to free Britney from her father’s control over her life. They questioned whether there was a conflict of interest and why this supposedly temporary conservatorship was still in place. Britney Spears herself reacted to the movement through a viral video on the 23rd of April 2019 where she stated that people should not believe everything they read online. The video was seen by millions of people who were now convinced that she was being controlled, stating that she was forced to say that she was fine. The videos that Britney Spears posted on her Instagram also became a vital part of the movement with fans dissecting them to find any message that the singer might be secretly sharing with them. A 2021 documentary directed by Samantha Stark called Framing Britney Spears, where the history of her conservatorship is explained, and the spread on social media also contributed to the momentum this movement gained. Then, protests against the conservatorship left the internet to take the fight to the streets. Consequently, because of the ever-growing movement, her family reacted to it as well as celebrities, including Paris Hilton. Slowly, the movement was proven to have its legitimacy when Britney started speaking out, saying that she was strongly opposed to her father being responsible for her life. Later, she spoke out again essentially confirming what the Free Britney movement had been claiming. After a very long battle in court and many different events, Jamie Spears was suspended as his daughter’s conservator and fans all over the world celebrated. Britney Spears thanked the Free Britney movement on the 5th of October 2021 on Twitter saying: #FreeBritney movement… I have no words… because of you guys and your constant resilience in freeing me from my conservatorship… my life is now in that direction !!!!! I cried last night for two hours cause my fans are the best and I know it …
How do different groups/people apprehend, use and spread these viral phenomena ?
As with any other viral phenomenon, both Leave Britney Alone! and the Free Britney movement traveled the Internet and news outlets for different reasons. While Cunningham’s video was originally intended to spark a conversation on Britney Spears’ treatment by the media, it was propagated for entirely different reasons. As said, multiple parodies were created as a reaction and at the time, news outlets and viewers of the video reacted negatively and ridiculed Cunningham by focusing on her previous appearance and emotional reaction. It was initially described as solely being a way for Cunningham to seek attention and thus it was not taken seriously. In her paper called “Memes in a Digital World: Reconciling with a Conceptual Troublemaker”, Shifman defines memes through three dimensions: content, form, and stance. She explains that those who replied to Cunningham’s video by mocking her stance were nevertheless still copying, if only ironically, the formal aspects of her video. Therefore, this is where the memefication started, even if positions held by others contrast Cunningham’s.
With the Free Britney movement, many people shared their opinion online saying that Cunningham should have been taken seriously. She reacted to this on social media saying that reminding her of the video made her relive a “decade of harassment” and that she has C-PTSD from the treatment she received following her viral video. Either way, Cunningham’s mocked video became the focus and the starting point of the #Free Britney movement.
The Free Britney movement and its hashtag also took the internet world by storm, however by slowly acquiring much support across a broad range of other sites and platforms. One notable example is a site called freebritney.net. It was created in 2019 and supports the movement, sharing information about the evolution of her conservatorship case. Its significance also grew with the documentary that was mentioned earlier. Furthermore, multiple videos about the movement also went viral online. One fan’s reaction on TikTok to the end of the conservatorship was watched 9 million times and Britney’s testimony in court has been viewed 5 million times. Coming back to the hashtag, it was also translated, notably into #LibérezBritney in France, showing its reach worldwide. Speaking of its reach, news outlets all over the world covered both phenomena. Notable examples for the Free Britney movement are the Luxembourgish RTL, the French France Inter and German Vogue. Concerning the Leave Britney Alone! video, many news outlets from different countries also reported on this viral event, such as again RTL, Europe 1 and Vice. Both viral events were thus propagated not only through the help of social media but also through multiple news outlets all over the world.
Why are these viral phenomena interesting ?
From the 1990s to today, Britney’s life has been shared from magazines to multiple platforms where millions of people consume it every day. People are more than ever constantly confronted with private information about her life, which in turn, creates intimacy and makes people feel connected to her. Britney Spears’ fans have shown that the line between celebrity and close friend is quite unclear. Britney Spears’ fans are also not only bystanders since she incites action from them. They create videos sharing their discontent and create movements supporting her cause. Those two viral phenomena elaborated are interesting because both had quite the impact. Furthermore, they are two distinct viral phenomena related to Britney Spears that unraveled differently. While both focus on Britney, they became viral for different reasons due to their distinct discourse, format, aesthetic, and usage. Such viral phenomena offer those who would otherwise simply be traditional bystanders of her life the possibility to act individually, such as Cunningham did, or collectively, through the Free Britney hashtag and movement. While fans used to be helpless when faced with their favorite celebrities’ issues, through a simple hashtag they now have the power to act and react.
Britney Spears’ life has always been viral, ever since she was a teenager. Therefore, it is interesting to look at the evolution of her viralness, as well as the massive outreach that it has. Britney Spears has fans all over the world and it seems that any content related to her gains unprecedented momentum. Therefore, her presence and importance online are unfathomable and demonstrates the power of an online fandom.
To go further…
- Cohen, Marissa, #FreeBritney: Why Indefinite Conservatorships are Unconstitutional, 24.06.2021.
- Daros, Otávio, “Celebrity News and Cyberactivism in the #FreeBritney Fandom Movement”, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 36, 2021.
- D. Travers, Scott, “The Empathetic Meme: Situating Chris Crocker Within the Media History of LGBT Equality Struggles”, Journal of Communication Inquiry, Volume 38, Issue 4, 2014.
- Limor Shifman, “Memes in a Digital World: Reconciling with a Conceptual Troublemaker”, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 18, Issue 3, 2013, p. 362-377.