Being Britney by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike

 

Styling itself a biography, this book gives the impression of having been written purely to take advantage of the huge wave of interest in Britney that built up throughout 2021. According to the author’s notes, research for the book began in May 2021 and finished remarkably promptly in July 2021. However, this wasn’t the kind of foot-slogging detective work undertaken by earlier Britney biographers such as Sean Smith and Steve Dennis. It was a desk-research project, drawing much of its text from sources accessed on the internet.

Listing no fewer than 375 such references, the reader might expect this to be a comprehensive Encyclopedia of Britney. But, sadly, there is much that this kind of research fails to find, particularly among the printed resources, not only the existing biographies but also the contemporary major newspaper and magazine articles, many by top writers. However, most or all of this material is already in the possession of fans whose love of Britney dates back to the start of her career.

For this reason, only a very new or inexperienced Britney fan is likely to read in this book something he or she did not already know. The contribution Ms Bickerdike makes to the canon of Britney literature is that she organises her findings into thematic chapters. Yes, there is a historical undertow, but a quick look at some of the 40 headline-chasing chapter headings such as “Breastgate”, “Double Denim Fantasy”, “Britney vs Christina” and “Like A Prayer” shows what manner of work we’re dealing with here.

As one might anticipate in a year in which the “Free Britney” movement became fully mobilised, several documentaries were made about her plight – some of them surprisingly impactful – and in which she finally managed to throw off the conservatorship to the sound of widespread rejoicing, most of Bickerdike’s commentary is pro-Britney, albeit not particularly warm or empathetic. Here and there it sounds as if she’s taking the tabloids’ word as a consensus, but at least she doesn’t balance her positivity with mud-slinging, or with the kind of endless negative gossip, much of it questionable, that was written about Britney back at the height of her notoriety.

In-depth biographers such as Smith and Dennis tried hard to get to the heart of the Britney conundrum – are there two distinct entities, Britney (the girl) and Britney Spears (the performer)? And if so, what is Britney the Girl really like? Bickerdike glosses over this debate, doesn’t go deep, and seems content to deal with the performer. She also has little to say about the causes and circumstances of the various traumatic factors that eventually led to the conservatorship, such as the vindictive hounding of Britney perpetrated by Kevin Federline’s lawyer and friends.

Finally, Bickerdike’s writing is workmanlike rather than stylish. We search in vain for felicitous phrases or smile-inducing wordplay – but we probably didn’t expect them anyway. However, one definite irritation is the constant oscillation between “Britney”, “Spears” and “the star” in referring to her subject. To call her “Spears” is especially jarring and only serves to empathise further the impression of a journalistic exercise that neither tried to get, nor succeeded in getting, beneath the skin of Britney Jean Spears.

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