For Britney Spears’ debut single, “Baby One More Time” her label originally suggested an animated music video to accompany the song. But Britney had a different vision. One that included a high school location and a school uniform, with the shirt tied up just above the belly button.
“They had this really bizarre video idea, this animated Power Ranger-y thing. I said, ‘This is not right. If you want me to reach four-year-olds, then OK, but if you want me to reach my age group …’ So I had this idea where we’re in school and bored out of our minds, and we have Catholic uniforms on,” Spears told Rolling Stone in 1999. “And I said, ‘Why don’t we have knee-highs and tie the shirts up to give it a little attitude?’ — so it wouldn’t be boring and cheesy.”
Arguably it was 16-year-old Britney’s video concept that catapulted the single to the top of the charts and broke Britney into stardom. And yet from the beginning, society painted her as a puppet who was told what to do and what to wear in order to sell records.
In a new documentary titled “Framing Britney” a backup dancer and tour director who worked with Britney from 1999-2004 Kevin Tancharoen says,
“[Britney] was definitely in control of a lot of decisions. That idea that Britney is a puppet who just gets moved around and told what to do is incredibly inaccurate. She was the one who knew what she wanted to do and she would make that happen… She was the boss.”
But despite her high level of self awareness and autonomy, the industry and society put constraints on Britney from the beginning. She had to walk the line of being in command of her fanbase, but also be demure and accommodating.
From USA Today's article "Framing Britney exposes a problem bigger than Britney": “Culture held Spears up as an all American girl, but had her walk a tight line: ... be articulate but never opinionated.”
And Britney played that part well. Perhaps too well. Dismissed as a puppet and disregarded as a “true” artist, inevitably the documentary shows a bleak outcome. Today not only has Britney’s musical and artistic legacy been questioned, but she’s also been ripped of her mental credibility and her physical and financial autonomy due to a long standing court ruled conservatorship under which almost all aspects of her life are controlled by others.
But unfortunately Britney’s story isn’t all that unique. In fact, it’s a tale as old as the record industry. A few examples:
1970: Florence Ballard (The Supremes): The original founding member of supergroup The Supremes, Florence Ballard expressed dissatisfaction with the group's direction as the group rose to success, blaming Motown Records for destroying the group’s dynamic by making Diana Ross the star (Unsung. Season 2. Episode 4.) Under the label’s hands Ballard’s vocal prowess was never given the spotlight her talents deserved and Ballard felt forced out of the group. After leaving, Ballard tried suing the label, but never received the royalties she felt she was due. She suffered from many years in poverty, before dying prematurely at age 32.
1993: Shania Twain: In her 2011 autobiography, From This Moment On, Twain expressed displeasure with her debut studio album, revealing that she had very little creative control and expressed frustration over being unable to showcase her songwriting ability.
2015: Phoebe Bridgers: After being pursued, supposedly for her artistic talents, by well known producer and label owner Ryan Adams, Bridgers has since come forward with her accounts of Adams' emotionally abusive and threatening behavior. Bridgers says when she eventually broke off the relationship, Adams yielded his industry power, becoming evasive about releasing the music they had recorded together. When three songs by Bridgers were eventually released, bringing her serious industry attention, much of the media focused on Adams instead of focusing on Bridgers’ own talent. In interviews with major music magazines, Bridgers received questions like, "What’s the coolest thing you learned from Adams?"
(Bridgers also made headlines last weekend, getting backlash for smashing a guitar on SNL, a stunt never questioned when performed by a long line of men before her.)
Thanks to the ‘Framing Britney’ documentary, in the last week the media has been taking a hindsight inventory of past wrongs against Britney back in the 2000’s, but there’s a big question that remains:
After 20 years, has the industry really changed at all? Not according to 2021 research conducted by ItyDity via The Female Indie Musician Community
Comments made by poll participants included:
"Superiority complexes are unfortunately part of the game."
"[The producer] assumed I'm the singer chick, maybe a lyricist, but probably not a proficient musician."
"It caused me to doubt myself and the choices I made when I made my album."
In a 2019 episode of The New York Times’ Popcast titled “Behind The Ryan Adams Investigation” reporters discussed allegations against prominent indie musician and producer Ryan Adams. Allegations included accounts from multiple female songwriters who said Adams exercised career manipulation, teasing professional support only to pursue them sexually and tear them down emotionally, berating their talents.
“These are stories about individuals, but these are really stories about enterprises and systems and how the music business works, or in this case how the music business fails to work for women” said host Jon Caramanica.
“This behavior is pervasive and it has been part of the music industry almost since the beginning. And what's different now is that women are saying, not anymore... Because it can't happen anymore and people can't abuse their power and abuse the dynamic in these male dominated industries like this” added reporter Melena Ryzik.
Women fighting to overturn these power dynamics include not only independent artists resisting the path blocked by traditional gatekeepers, but also women owned music companies focused on giving control back to the artists. A few include:
#WomxnCrush create opportunities in live performance for female songwriters, whether they want to start performing at local venues, or go on a full tour. As of 2021, they also provide songwriting and performance retreats, plus tour assistance.
Sanctuary is a woman run, trauma informed music production studio dedicated to creating a safe space for artists to develop their voices as songwriters.
“After years of trying to "figure out' the music business, trying to get noticed by "the right people", I decided to stop trying to play their game and play by my own rules,” says founder Bree Noble. “So I found some great mentors - successful Indie musicians who were actually doing what I wanted to do - instead so-called Industry Pros with their empty promises of fame and fortune.”
The Female Musician Academy provides specific, actionable training to help you grow your musician business including marketing, PR, social media, building your fan base, and more.
Sort of like Bumble for music production, ItyDity is a song production platform created to empower songwriters by letting them test out producers, before picking the right match. ItyDity serves as a nurturing guide, so artists can easily navigate through an otherwise complex process and create professional recordings of their songs that feel authentic to their style.
Founder Emily Satterlee created the platform after experiencing her own heartaches working with producers.
“It's not just Britney,” says Satterlee. “We talk to so many artists and songwriters who say their journey in making music started out as this fun magical experience, and became tainted by a cloud of control and power from male producers they collaborated with.”
ItyDity aims to fix this in a few ways:
Providing guidance and oversight to help songwriters better understand the production process.
Offering The Song Blueprint, a fully-customized report of your reference songs to help you develop your true authentic voice, sound and style
Giving artists a built-in step-by-step framework for collaborating with producers - so that they can be sure to be heard and respected creatively
Supporting artists to express themselves freely without being shaped or framed in a fashion that doesn't reflect who they are
“The presence of power dynamics exists in so many different industries, music is no exception,” says Satterlee. We need to fundamentally change the way these interactions, transactions and workflows take place. That's what we're doing.”