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An illustration of Taylor Swift and Britney Spears being tightly wrapped together by boa constrictors. The snakes turn into hands, which are pointing fingers in the faces of the two women. Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox

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How Britney Spears explains Taylor Swift

Britney was too out of control. Taylor is too in control. What now?

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

There seems to be a kind of paranoid storm swirling around Taylor Swift just now. It’s as though she’s at the center of a gothic novel filled with conspiracy theories and secret doubles, with the far right placing her at the center of government operations and 4channers putting her in deep-fake porn.

Taylor is currently poised at the tipping point into oversaturation. At this year’s Grammys, she became the first person ever to win Album of the Year four times, and then stole the show by announcing her next album. Her record-breaking Eras tour is making its way steadily around the globe. In November, a filmed version of the concert became the highest-grossing concert film of all time. Her mediagenic romance with football star Travis Kelce dominates pop culture so thoroughly that the question of whether or not Taylor Swift will show up at the Super Bowl has become one of the most-discussed issues of the game. She is everywhere right now, including in places where she would probably rather not be.

In January, AI-generated Taylor Swift porn went viral on Twitter, where it had leaked from 4chan forums. The 404 reported that Taylor has been one of the most popular targets for nonconsensual computer-generated sexual imagery since at least 2017, as the technology first emerged. Meanwhile, conservatives are theorizing that Taylor is a deep state psyop, her ersatz popularity manufactured by the government in order to boost the impact of an eventual Biden endorsement from Swift.

“I wonder who’s going to win the Super Bowl next month,” posted former Republican primary candidate Vivek Ramaswamy on X in January. “And I wonder if there’s a major presidential endorsement coming from an artificially culturally propped-up couple this fall. Just some wild speculation over here, let’s see how it ages over the next 8 months.”

All the paranoia seems to stem from a recognizable anxiety. Normally, when music stars of Taylor’s archetype (white, blonde, conventionally girly) reach her stature (globally revered superstar), it’s possible to write them off as the products of overbearing stage parents and producer puppeteers. Yet Taylor has made it all but impossible for anyone to think of her this way. She put out a documentary that shows her arguing with her dad about her image choices. She got into a public feud with her old record company and then started rerecording all her old records so that she would have control over the masters.

Taylor has made the idea that she is in control central to her image, to a fault, from the beginning. Now, Taylor’s levels of control over herself seem to be threatening to people, so threatening that they are inventing wild theories and using AI to create realities where she’s no longer in charge of her career or her body.

Yet we only have to consult history to see that a woman in the opposite situation would be just as threatening to male observers. Britney Spears was famously out of control, and famously punished for so being.

The fate of Britney Spears is one Taylor has surely studied. Taylor talks frequently in interviews about examining the downfalls of other pop stars to see what she can learn from them. (“When other kids were watching normal shows, I’d watch Behind the Music,” she explained to GQ in 2015.) She also released her first album in 2006, just as Britney was beginning to publicly spiral. Looking back at Taylor’s earliest era — the time when she was always in floofy white dresses and singing about how she wasn’t slutty like other girls — it begins to seem as though Taylor had Britney in mind as who she didn’t want to be. It begins to seem as though Taylor built her career in direct opposition to the precedent Britney set.

Yet considered together, Britney Spears and Taylor Swift form a mirrored pair, opposites who have almost too much in common. They are the virgin pop princesses turned queens of the genre. They are the woman who is too in control and the woman who is too out of control. They are cautionary tales for the women who watch them. They are stories of the amount of agency we are willing to ascribe to women.

Britney is Taylor’s shadowy antecedent. Going back over the cipher of her career can make legible Taylor’s strategy of total control, and how she got to this moment: punished for being too controlling.

“Taylor Swift is on good behavior, as usual.”

When Taylor Swift released her self-titled first album in 2006 and began making her way into the music scene, she was, determinedly, a good girl. She would maintain that posture firmly for the next few years.

“On a bright Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, Taylor Swift is on good behavior, as usual,” begins a Rolling Stone profile of Taylor from 2009, when she was 19 years old. It goes on to outline her 4.0 grade point average, and her refusal to dye her hair or smoke or drink.

She declines to comment on the subject of her sex life. “I feel like whatever you say about whether you do or don’t, it makes people picture you naked,” she says.

Taylor seemed to consider her good girl status to be something of a badge of honor. “It’s a compliment on your character,” she told the New Yorker in 2011, in an article that cites her as a rare role model “in a world of Lohans and Winehouses.” “It’s based on the decisions that you make in your life,” Taylor went on. She was determined that her decisions would be good decisions.

In this era of Taylor’s career, Britney Spears haunts all her interviews like a ghost. Taylor never says Britney’s name, but nonetheless her specter looms: the shadow of the woman who went too far.

In 2008, Taylor released her sophomore album, Fearless, and had two giant early hits with “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me.” Her star was on the rise, and the pressure was on. In an interview with the Washington Post, Taylor spoke fretfully about how afraid she was of messing up, of how much she wanted to make her fans and her parents proud and never succumb to substance abuse issues, like other unnamed pop stars have. She said:

I never, ever wanted to let my parents down. And I never want to let my fans down. I never want to let those little girls I see in the front row down by doing something stupid that’s, like, completely preventable and completely my fault. When people go through drug problems and alcohol problems, everyone points their finger at them and says: “You did this to yourself.” I don’t want to be that girl.

That first time you mess up — from then on, people are going to be waiting for you to mess up again. I never want people to look at me like somebody who doesn’t take it seriously. Because I do. My career is the only thing I think about. It’s stronger than any alcohol, stronger than any drug, stronger than anything else you could try — so why should I do those things, you know? I think I have an advantage over people in Hollywood because I go out every night and have to look my fans in the eye. I know that I need to set a good example for them. Every night, I’m in a different small town, and I see those little girls and their moms and it’s a constant reminder of why I want to live this way.

Britney’s conservatorship began earlier in 2008, following two years of increasingly erratic public behavior and increasingly scathing press coverage. (“What you did was disrespectful to your few remaining fans,” wrote Perez Hilton after Britney turned in a subpar performance at the 2007 VMAs.)

Taylor, the good girl who studied the pop playbook, was going to stop at nothing to avoid the Britney Spears downfall. She was going to be virginal. She was going to stay away from substances. She was not going to be photographed strapped down to a gurney or shaving her head. She was going to stay in control of how the world saw her, always.

The strategy was effective for Taylor’s bottom line. “She’s been called ‘America’s Sweetheart’: she rarely drinks, doesn’t smoke, go clubbing, or get arrested—she’s the anti-Lohan, and this squeaky-clean image has made her an attractive advertising partner for Target, Sony, CoverGirl, Keds, Elizabeth Arden, and, recently, Diet Coke,” reported Vanity Fair in 2013.

The good girl/control freak combo image also, however, seemed to make Taylor something new, something almost unprecedented. “She has never gratuitously sexualized her image and seems pathologically averse to controversy,” marveled GQ in 2015. “There’s simply no antecedent for this kind of career: a cross-genre, youth-oriented, critically acclaimed colossus based entirely on the intuitive songwriting merits of a single female artist. It’s as if mid-period Garth Brooks was also early Liz Phair, minus the hat and the swearing. As a phenomenon, it’s absolutely new.”

She was nothing like what had come before her. If she was the anti-Lohan, she was also the anti-Britney.

“Control freaks often make good pop stars, and Britney Spears is not lacking in that department.”

When Britney Spears began her career, no one would have considered her to be someone out of control. She was a good sweet girl who did everything her label told her to, was consistently described as a pleasure to work with (as if her press releases were report cards), and, yes, had the sultry voice of a sex goddess. She was a carefully controlled quantity, and it showed.

Britney was one of the extremely good girls. “She’s not just a superkid,” wrote Jon Pareles of Britney for the New York Times in 1999. “She’s obedient, too, singing the songs and hitting the marks that are choreographed for her. … Pop provides wish-fulfillment for listeners, and kiddie pop can give adults the ultimate parental fantasy: well-groomed, perfectly behaved, highly motivated adolescents who — fantasy of fantasies — always do as they’re told.”

Britney herself seemed to relish her good girl image. She was thoughtful about her fame, and she sweated all the little details. (“Control freaks often make good pop stars,” mused Rolling Stone in 1999, “and Britney Spears is not lacking in that department.”) Britney wanted — as Taylor would want 10 years later — to be a good role model to her fans.

“You want to be a good example for kids out there and not do something stupid,” Britney said in that 1999 Rolling Stone profile. “Kids have low self-esteem, and then the peer pressures come and they go into a wrong crowd. That’s when all the bad stuff starts happening, drugs and stuff.”

Yet where Taylor made her choices from a deeply informed place as a student of fame, Britney was less skilled at controlling the way the world saw her. “I never knew how to play the game. I didn’t know how to present myself on any level,” she explained in her 2023 memoir The Woman in Me. “I wasn’t manipulative. I was just stupid.”

As Britney’s star rose and she gained more leverage, she also matured out of childhood and into adulthood. She began pushing back mildly against her management team’s strictures. The public reacted with horror.

“She has a pierced navel now, and a little tattoo, and she talks back to anyone who’d criticize her new wardrobe,” gasped Pareles in 2000, describing Britney’s transformation from “the pert parochial-school girl of her first video” into “a coquette in hot pants and halter tops.”

“Pop princess Britney Spears: Too sexy too soon?” demanded People the same year. “Little girls love her, but her image makes some moms nervous.”

Once Britney began to experiment with a more mature image, she didn’t seem to have control over the way her audience had begun to fetishize her.

In 2000, Britney told Chris Mundy for Rolling Stone that she never intended to have a sexual image. Then what, Mundy demanded, about all those sexy magazine covers?

“It was about being in a magazine and playing a part for that magazine,” said Britney. “It’s like on TV, if you see Jennifer Love Hewitt or Sarah Michelle Gellar kill someone, do you think that means they go out and do that?”

A few years after Britney transitioned away from her good girl image, she went full bad girl.

In 2007, Britney was just coming out of a divorce and enmeshed in a vicious custody battle for her two young children. She was also, she would later admit, dealing with some intense postpartum depression. She began to behave strangely. She yelled at the paparazzi in a British accent. She shaved her head. She attacked a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. She went in and out of rehab. The paparazzi were there for all of it, documenting and exacerbating every wild moment.

In her memoir, Britney explicitly positions this time as a reaction against her heavily controlled adolescence and young adulthood.

“Shaving my head was a way of saying to the world: Fuck you. You want me to be pretty for you? Fuck you. You want me to be good for you? Fuck you. You want me to be your dream girl? Fuck you,” Britney writes. “I’d been the good girl for years. I’d smiled politely while TV show hosts leered at my breasts, while American parents said I was destroying their children by wearing a crop top, while executives patted my hand condescendingly and second-guessed my career choices even though I’d sold millions of records, while my family acted like I was evil. And I was tired of it.”

The result of her brief rebellion was the conservatorship. For the crime of spiraling out of control, Britney lost control of her life altogether.

“You can see the puppet strings.”

Taylor’s laser grip on her career, her determination not to be Britney’ed, has served her well over the 18 years of her fame. It’s also been operational in many of the backlashes against her.

In the late 2000s, a narrative emerged that Taylor slut-shamed other girls, that she was a bad feminist. The case partly came from the text of Taylor’s lyrics, but some of it was responding to her image, too, its primness.

“I mean, if people want to listen to Taylor Swift, fine,” wrote Jude Doyle in 2009. “I personally can’t stand the whole cartoonishly innocent and pure (and white-dress-wearing! Always with the virginal white dress!) blonde blue-eyed white girl thing; it strikes me as just as artificial and calculated as any other pop star’s personal brand, with an added noxiousness due to its edge of moral superiority and ‘50’s-style coy submissiveness. But don’t pretend Swift is a ‘good’ role model, or even an ‘attainable’ one. Telling girls stories about how being too sexual will make them broken hollow sluts who can never succeed at life isn’t new, and it isn’t cute. Not even coming from sweet little Taylor Swift.”

In the 2010s, the case against Taylor became that she was a liar: never appearing in a paparazzi photo that wasn’t perfectly costumed and posed, never seen in public with a friend or a boyfriend who wasn’t precisely on brand. The sense of control she wielded over her brand was so intense it felt almost stressful to witness.

“My main complaint with Taylor Swift is that she no longer does it [media manipulation] well — you can see the puppet strings,” wrote Amanda Dobbins at the Ringer in 2016. “You can see the goddamn photographer she hired to follow her friends around all weekend. That’s just shoddy craftsmanship.”

When Kim Kardashian appeared to expose Taylor in a lie in 2016, she fit the mood of the moment perfectly. Taylor was a snake and a fraud and a liar, and the world had always known it.

Britney was too out of control of herself, and she was punished for it. Now, Taylor is too in control of herself, even when she follows the script the world handed her. She’s been punished for that, too.

The backlash against Taylor in 2016 was hot and ugly. She spent the following year not allowing anyone to see her in public: the control freak’s remedy to the problem of being considered too controlling. It would take two more album cycles for her to fully recover from the damage done to her reputation and climb back up the ladder of public admiration.

Now, Taylor is at the top of the world again, only higher than she was before. Her current status presents a problem to a society that doesn’t trust women with power. The paranoia accumulating around Taylor seems to demand that someone — preferably a man — take control of this girl. Either she’s a government plant or she’s a porn star, but she certainly can’t be this famous and this autonomous at once. The punishment against her is ongoing.

If the 2000s were an era when there was no right way to be a girl, the 2020s are showing that the girls who learned the lessons of the millennium will just have to keep learning it: There’s no right way to be a woman now, either.

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