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After several years of every symbol or supposed symbol that appeared on Britney Spears’ Instagram being analysed for information by her fans, her account finally yielded an undeniable signifier of a sudden sea-change in her mood late in October: her original, multi-million-dollar smile. In the video post in question, she is doing her favourite whirling dervish move to Janet Jackson, and the audio is so loud that we can’t quite make out the actual lyrics of the song, until abruptly, Janet sings “gimmie some more.”
Britney turns and mouths the words, and shimmies sweetly—not the shimmy of a professional dancer, but the shimmy of a friend who has finally caught your eye across the bar, and is about to order shots against all sensible advice—and then she casually unleashes it: this dazzling, iconic image, an expression as immediately recognisable as the half-lidded, feline look affected by Marilyn Monroe in her movies.
The fact it has been so long since we saw Britney Spears’ real, authentic smile makes the appearance of it startling, as abrupt as a slap but as delightful as a wink. She looks younger; lighter, somehow; freer, absolutely. She looks just like Britney Spears.
In light of the very recent reassessment of her treatment by the press, it is easy to forget that in the 2010s, Britney Spears’ red carpet smile became a meme because of its uncanniness: the way her mouth remained a frozen rictus, the emptiness of her eyes making her resemble a woman who had sent her mind elsewhere for the sake of self-preservation. It had been naïve of us to ever think that her innocence had been anything to do with her virginity, when really, it had sprung from her evident sense of wonder and delight, even in the face of early fame—the way she treated every opportunity to go on TRL with such enthusiasm that she herself seemed as if she were the lucky fan, and not the global star.
“She looks younger; lighter, somehow; freer, absolutely. She looks just like Britney Spears”
There is nothing much to add about the circumstances that led to the merciless destruction of that sense of wonder that has not already been outlined elsewhere in greater detail, with a greater emphasis on the ethically and legally dubious aspects of the case. Suffice to say: that it has been years since we’ve seen the sunny, sweet look that appears in that video-clip of Britney, and that it reappeared mere weeks after the removal of her father from her conservatorship, could not be said to be coincidence.
The clip is interesting, too, because it is one in a series of posts made in order for her to assert, albeit playfully, her status as an era-spanning icon. In drawing a parallel between herself and Janet Jackson, she cannily situates herself in a rarefied pantheon of female superstars, both women often compared for the almost-military precision of their moves; when she mouths “gimmie some more,” she is calling back to her own 2008 single Gimmie More, a song notable for the way she snarls the phrase “it’s Britney, bitch” as if she’s spoiling for a fight.
That refrain—it’s Britney, bitch!—runs wordlessly through the thrillingly self-aggrandising material she pulls out of her archives, every image of her dancing next to Michael Jackson or accepting an award or looking immaculate in a pair of shorts with one-inch inseams daring both her fans and haters to deny her power and influence.
“In drawing a parallel between herself and Janet Jackson, she cannily situates herself in a rarefied pantheon of female superstars”
“Thoughts while making this video,” she wrote in mid-October, slyly slipping on a newsboy hat. “Hmmmm something looks familiar …. The hat…. wait I look like that girl in the Justin Timberlake video with that hat in Cry Me A River !!! Oh shit that’s ME!!! I’m Britney Spears!” “Geez … this is me before my VMAs performance with @MickJagger 20 years ago,” she posted, casually, on September 23rd. “One of my favourite costumes,” she revealed this Halloween, beneath a 2003 photograph of her in what was nominally a “sexy devil” outfit, looking less like Satan than a stone-cold fox.
When people have complained about her Instagram making her seem unhinged or strange, their criticisms often amount to a fundamental misinterpretation of her vibe. Where Rihanna, who defines effortless cool, projects the kind of perfectly switched-on millennial image that is easily understood by social-media-literate fans, Britney Spears is very much a Terminally Not Online mother-of-two who enjoys Live Laugh Love signs, Minions memes, her himbo fiancé, pretty pictures of tea roses, and amusing, sometimes abstract combinations of emojis.
“When people have complained about her Instagram making her seem unhinged or strange, their criticisms often amount to a fundamental misinterpretation of her vibe”
She is also, as is becoming increasingly clear as she gains control of her account, a delightful little kook, funny and eccentric, and the very particular kind of woman who decides that the best way to celebrate her newfound freedom is to put her Christmas tree up even though it is October. She is making it apparent that she will no longer suffer users, fools, casual rubberneckers, or her much-loathed father, who has lately been demoted from the status of a Machiavellian villain to that of a diminished and ghostly figure, fit for ridicule and scorn.
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What she does have time for is anyone willing to return, or to appreciate, that smile. It is a cliché to describe it as being transformative of her face in the same way as, say, the sun is transformative of a winter sky when it emerges from a cloud, but how else to describe the feeling it provokes—one of nostalgia, then relief—if not by resorting to cliché?
The reappearance of Britney Spears’ smile denotes the return of a figure many of us best remember from our childhoods or our teens, a harbinger of new joy in place of an old and unkind struggle. In this sense, her Instagram account has become something like the inverse of a work by Andy Warhol, 1962’s Marilyn Diptych: the repeated image of a very famous woman, this time not recurring until colour drains and edges fade, but multiplying its way back into brilliance and focus.
Philippa Snow was shortlisted for the 2020 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize. She is working on a book about pain for Repeater Books