"Here's my documentary, and I worked really hard on it," said Britney Spears last night on MTV, introducing their exclusive, barely hour-long documentary-style teaser— Britney: For the Record—for her new album.
This raised the first red flag—it is unusual that a documentary's subject would have worked on it at all, much less "really hard.” But this wasn’t so much a “documentary” as it was an extended commercial spot for Britney’s new image, handcrafted by her manager, Larry Rudolph. Less than one minute into the special, a magazine editor emailed me: "Oh my God, it's just like The Hills,” referring to MTV’s glossy, vapid reality show that follows around blond L.A. proto-celebrities. Britney’s special was, indeed, like every other plastic, deceitful reality shock product, just with more weaves and wigs than a drag queen pageant. One might argue it was actually destructive to the very idea of documentary filmmaking itself.
But was it good for Britney? The pop princess, who has had more tabloid than commercial success in the last five years—short version: she married and divorced, had two children and lost custody of them, shaved her head and had a public meltdown, and is now under a permanent conservatorship by her father—really needed a hit right now. The MTV special was just one part of a new PR campaign designed to revamp her image, including a new album and a round of magazine cover profiles.
She does seem to be learning the impulse control she has famously lacked over the last years, but emotional life is still overwhelming to her.
From what we’ve seen with the documentary, her campaign is not working. "For the Record," the film's subtitle, reads at least two ways—the most applicable and obvious being that she did it to sell the record. But it was even more insidious than The Hills or as a blatant commercial enterprise, because the approved faux-documentary was unable to obscure that nearly 27-year-old Spears is mentally ill and still suffering.
The “documentary” was peppered with false information. A large portion early on is devoted to how terrifying the paparazzi are. Britney Incorporated could put an end to her photo stalkers in about ten minutes. Flood the market with Britney images, seize the tabloids herself, and it's all over. Plenty of famous people can walk down the street without a mob. (And never mind the complication that she knows most of the paparazzi in L.A. by name.) But Britney Inc. obviously still believes it needs the wire photo industry around for her big-earning fame machine.
There were moments of the show that were hard to watch—like voyeuristically peering into a psychotherapy session. Spears talked about how she has good days and bad days. The next moment, it was "I choose to be a happy person. I choose not to be a bitter person. If I have a bad day I get really angry with myself."
The camera cuts to the singer compulsively giving the finger to herself in the mirror of a sparkly store in New York: "I don't know why I'm whispering," she says. She then starts adjusting the store's thermostat. (She is also shown eating Kraft singles, no behavior fitting of a millionairess.)
The only revelation from the show might have been how foul and classless Spears' father, who now owns her life rights, seems to be. Spears acted out dark impressions of him and how he will "scream at her."
The most terrifying sequence was one that seemed to display a sort of dueling personality: "I'm angry, I'm very angry, I'm horribly angry!" she said, while laughing. Then, "I'm going to get married next year and have babies!" And then "I'm sad!" she said, breaking into tears.
She does seem to be learning the impulse control she has famously lacked over the last years, but emotional life is still so overwhelming to her that she can’t help but display that on camera. One second there's "no excitement, no passion, it's like Groundhog Day every day." The next? "It's never gotten to the point where it isn't fun!" She cannot make up her mind, and it doesn’t look good.
"It's uncomfortable," a man who'd worked on Britney Spears' team for years told The Daily Beast (he is a professional adult, not one of the countless young moochers and hangers-on) about being near Britney. "That's the amazing thing. When you meet an actor, a music artist, an artist—when you feel that little bit of discomfort. That energy's very uncomfortable."
He was using the same language to describe Britney that you use to describe any person with, say, borderline disorder. They are captivating, they are off-putting, they are glittery.
And what else is she besides a lip-synching phenom and instrument of projection? Apart from pop dance (without it, she says, she believes she will die) she exhibits no passions. No interests, collections, no connoisseurship.
"I was in the studio with her once," said Britney's former guy. "She was like a little girl. She was probably 20. She was with a famous photographer and myself and she was giggling. And I think her manager Larry Rudolph was there as well. She said, 'You know what I did this morning?' And I said, 'What?' And she said, 'I went to Starbucks in a basecall cap without any bodyguards.' And that elated her."
That was six long years ago—a few hospitalizations, more than a few rehabs, two children, three albums ago. She is now thoroughly radiated meat product and court documents. Sparkle, Neely, sparkle!
If the MTV documentary was her team’s attempt to prove that Britney is rehabbed and ready to take on the world, it not only failed, but it did the worst—it showed a broken-down person who needs a PR campaign and a new tour much less than she needs parental figures. Like other overproduced MTV fare, it felt fake to the eye, but underneath, the reality burned through. Britney isn’t back. She is sick.
Choire Sicha is a former editor of Gawker and was until recently the editor at large of Radar magazine. He has written for The New York Times and The New York Observer, and contributes weekly to the Los Angeles Times.