Credit: GG Illustrator AJ Duncan (@ajc.illustrates)

Free Britney

By Rachel Campbell

This is how our toxic music industry continues to fail vulnerable artists.

“Getting burnt by a fire she lit herself, it’s so easy in her business”, says Diane Sawyer of Britney Spears. When the interview aired in 2003, nobody would bat an eyelid at such a statement. But, in light of the Framing Britney Spears documentary, a discussion surrounding how we treat vulnerable people in the music industry in general has resurfaced. Sawyer’s remark hits home on the real issue here; the general public agreed that any ill fate popstars faced was ultimately their own fault. We have to accept our complicity in the bombardment of media which leads, particularly young women in music, to suffer serious effects on their mental health. It’s easy to look back fondly now at the likes of Britney and Amy Winehouse, but we should also accept that the general public played a role in the feeding frenzies which in Britney’s case led to her being trapped in a conservatorship by her father, and in Amy’s case sadly led to her death. What can we do to stop this happening to more women in music?

Before, we were complicit by buying magazines like Heat and Now, participating in the culture of mocking the latest fallen pop princess whilst prepping the next for the same fate; perusing the pages and pages of blatant body shaming. Now, though, social media has made it even easier to be just as harmful without having to out yourself. You can be maliciously jealous and cruel, picking faults in those who seem to have it all. You can watch every step as they fall apart, knowing you’ve played a part in ruining someone’s life without even showing your real name or photo. What’s more, media is even more pervasive, meaning outlets will make a story out of anything and do whatever they can to get people to click. This only worsens the trash stories written about vulnerable musicians, mocking them even at their lowest. Those of us who would never leave trolling comments still scroll past them unphased or remain unaware of the darker depths of the artists’ DMs. We like to think we’ve changed the environment since the days of Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse, but have we just mutated? Have we just become as desensitised to this new trolling as we were to interviews like Sawyer’s, and the likes of these abhorrent magazines?

We have to accept that being complicit in this kind of treatment by the media or by trolls is encouraging this behaviour. The tabloids will follow public opinion. If they see their consumers sympathising with the same stars they once endlessly criticised they will suddenly print stories of admiration, doing whatever it takes to bring in the cash. When Britney was going through the worst times, brought on by the barrage of negative media in the first place, stories continued: “Why Britney Snapped! The New Illness She’s Hiding!”, “Shear Madness: Bald Britney A Buzzkill”, and “Britney Hits Rock Bottom” which followed with a bullet point list of drugs they claimed she was using. Amy Winehouse also saw headlines like “Amy on Crack: Nosedive to Oblivion” and even after breaking the news of her tragic death they proclaimed, “They tried to make her go to rehab she said No No No”. As we see an influx of support for Britney in those same papers following the release of her documentary, and tabloid tributes to Amy on the anniversary of her death labelling it “heart-breaking”, I have to ask how long it will be before this toxic cycle comes back around.

It’s easy to look back at the treatment of the likes of Britney and Amy, who were clearly struggling with their mental health and addiction problems, and condemn the treatment of the press then, thinking this could never happen in the world we live in now. But who is protecting the likes of Demi Lovato and Jesy Nelson who are going through very similar struggles while being ripped apart by the press? When shocking interview clips of Whitney Houston or Lindsay Lohan being mocked and ridiculed resurface on your Twitter feed, years later, you are shocked that this was allowed to happen. But it is still happening. In her documentary, Odd One Out, Jesy Nelson opened up about how she developed an eating disorder and considered suicide after the barrage of negative press she received from the likes of Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins. Demi Lovato is set to release her own documentary about her struggles with addiction, in which she discusses how the pressure of the spotlight led to an overdose which left her with brain damage. At the time of her overdose in 2018, she tweeted about how the tabloids were still inaccurately commenting on her sobriety, acknowledging she needed time away from the “prying” press. Even now, we’re still seeing these vulnerable people in music being attacked and hounded at their lowest points, for the sake of the story.

It’s time to acknowledge we’ve not moved on as much as we think we have, and we need to try and end the vicious circle of berating vulnerable artists and commending them years later when they finally get to tell their side of things. 


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