Thinking about Britney Spears’ 2007 meltdown with the writer and director of new play Truly Madly Britney

“It’s Britney, bitch.”

These three words, uttered by Britney Spears at the start of Gimme More, have since entered the pop cultural lexicon, an enduring cri de coeur against a media-driven obsession with destroying our idols.

Released at the height of her 2007 meltdown – labelled by Rolling Stone as the “most public downfall of any star in history” – her album Blackout has since cemented its status as a modern pop classic, defining a dominant strain of popular sound while also directly addressing the vortex of events that led to its creation.

Britney newspapers

It’s also the first and last thing heard in the new play Truly, Madly, Britney, now showing at Theatreworks as part of Melbourne’s Midsumma festival.

“No cultural figure or pop star who has broken down has ever come back and released something like the Blackout album,” says director Hannah Fallowfield. “That was just so astonishing. I remember Piece of Me coming out and the lyric ‘with a kid on my arm, I’m still an exceptional earner, you want a piece of me?’, like, I just died when I heard that song. She didn’t hide it, she didn’t pretend it didn’t happen, she used it.”

Alberto Di Troia wrote the play, which follows two Australians who are long-term boyfriends and Britney super fans as they travel to America for a meet-and-greet with their idol. When that’s subsequently cancelled, things spiral absurdly out of control.

He dug into his own obsession with the pop icon while writing. “I’ve always been obsessed with Britney and especially the mythology around her breakdown era,” Di Troia says. “That’s tied really deeply to my identity as a gay man. I think it’s helped me, as it’s helped a lot of gay men, to kind of form identity around Britney, and other female pop cultural figures.”

It’s hard to overstate how wild things got at the height of Britney’s meltdown. The image of her shaving her head was front-page news, and she was constantly hounded by paparazzi. Such was the chaos that Britney became the “most dangerous detail in Hollywood”, according to TMZ’s Harvey Levin, and her resilience has since formed the basis of a widely shared meme. “If Britney can make it through 2007”, the saying goes, “I can make it through today.”

The more Di Troia worked through his obsession, the more he realised that beneath the mediated surface of Britney’s meltdown lay systems centred on exploitation, abuse and violence in the entertainment and music industries, particularly against women.

“I started to think about why we’re so obsessed with these figures, and what that means for us, as queer people, to identify with people who are so tied to a system of violence and abuse.”

Di Troia and Fallowfield met while studying Master’s programs at the Victorian College of the Arts, and the play received intensive workshopping last year thanks to the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Cybec Electric development program.

Liberally breaking the fourth wall and determinedly queer, “everything in the play tears away at that glitzy, polished surface,” says Di Troia, “in order to show this seething violence and craziness underneath.”

Truly Madly Britney digs deep into Britney fandom.
Truly Madly Britney digs deep into Britney fandom.

Britney’s meltdown was one defining moment of a particular era in American popular culture that inspires ongoing nostalgia among certain gossip devotees. Fan videos devoted to the era  are dotted around the internet: one calls 2006-2008 “one of the greatest and most iconic time periods”; another exhaustively explores Lindsay Lohan’s celebrity entirely through found media footage from the period.

It was a time when tabloid magazines were still a force to be reckoned with (Britney sold wedding and baby pictures to People for $1 million a pop), TMZ was fresh on the scene and the gossip blogger was ascendant, with DListed, Gawker, Just Jared, Lainey Gossip and Perez Hilton all raking in the clicks.

Some of those sites have since shut down, others stumble on. But as the title of one wildly popular blog tells it: Pop Culture died in 2009.

“The way I see it, it’s the last unfiltered moment in pop culture,” Di Troia says of the mid-to-late 2000s. “It’s right before social media really took off as a tool for celebrities to curate and create their images. It was the last time you could have people like Britney, or Lindsay, or Paris, imploding in front of the world. Whereas now it’s all very heavily manicured and curated.”

Instagram was launched in late 2010, changing the celebrity game for good. Kim Kardashian now has 125 million Instagram followers, dwarfing People magazine’s 5.7 million, while Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have their own Facebook show streaming directly to fans. Not that social media entirely saves celebrities from themselves: witness Lohan livestreaming her messy attempt to “rescue” two kids from their parents last year.

“I started to think about why we’re so obsessed with these figures, and what that means for us, as queer people, to identify with people who are so tied to a system of violence and abuse.”

“There’s a fascination with watching these figures who have these highly constructed images just fall apart and implode,” adds Di Troia, “and you realise that they’re actually just humans like us. But there’s a certain, I don’t know, a certain glee in watching that.”

Falowfield agrees. “As a woman, I find it really interesting that I like to watch that, that I take some sort of interest in that. Because that’s an experience I have some understanding of. You do understand the ways that you are, I suppose, sexualised, or taken advantage of, or attempted to be manipulated. You’re constantly fighting patriarchy and misogyny.

“And yet, women love watching these stories of women breaking down, too. I’m just so fascinated by that, because we have a lived experience of what these people must be going through as well, and yet, somehow, we struggle to empathise with that.”

There’s also a perverse fascination that comes from watching people who apparently have it all throw it all away, driven to the brink by success and attention.

“I guess this whole capitalistic [concept of] individualistic striving towards your own personal greatness – and forget everybody else – there’s something so frustrating about seeing somebody who seemingly has everything not know what to do with it, or not know how to handle it.”

As Britney herself sings, ‘You want a hot body? You want a Bugatti? You want a Maserati? You better work, bitch.’ But as Britney also sings, ‘Gimme more’.

britneymeme

“I think that’s part of why people like watching these cultural figures break down so much … it’s like, you had everything! Why could you not keep it together? I’m trying to be you, and you can’t be you!”

While writing the play, Di Troia created an account on Britney Spears fan site Breathe Heavy. He was shocked to discover how obsessed fans are. “And the minute detail with which they discussed her every move. How hypercritical they could be, while also being completely supportive at the same time. It’s a weird kind of contradiction.”

While other figures of the era have faded – Paris Hilton was last seen in Australia at Highpoint Shopping Centre hawking $40 bottles of perfume – Britney endures. How does she retain her superstar status?

“She has legitimately been able to evolve her sound and her image with changing trends,” Di Troia says. “I don’t think she gets enough credit for being a legitimately good reinventor of herself.”

Take that pop acumen, add a highly public breakdown and dogged return, and you have the makings of a lasting pop legacy. “The fact that she fell so low and so publicly, and then was able to come back from that, means that she’ll probably be cemented as a queer icon forever. Queer people love narratives of suffering, reinvention and rebirth with their icons.”

Adds Fallowfield: “She weaponised her own extraordinarily public breakdown and wrote an album about it, that was also really good music. To me, that’s amazing.”

 

Truly Madly Britney is playing at Theatre Works until February 9.

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