Being Britney: The Origin of #FreeBritney

16th November 2021

As part of our Music Made Us campaign, creatives, music professionals, experts and journalists reflect on how music has been there for us through good times and tumultuous periods that inspire change. Throughout generations, music has sparked, supported and commented on movements, memories and moments in time.

Our contributors explore subjects from within the music industry, including being a woman in the music industry and celebrating the black women who ruled a decade of British music. In this extract from the book ‘Being Britney Pieces of a Modern Icon’ by Professor Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, she explores the origins of the #FreeBritney movement.

While some may think that the #FreeBritney hashtag came about in 2021 with the premiere of the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears, the actual inception of the slogan – and the idea that all was not well in Spears’ life – predates the film by more than a decade. The origins of #FreeBritney can be traced back to January 2009, less than a year after Britney was put into a permanent conservatorship by father Jamie. Jordan Miller was in college at the time while running the Breathe Heavy fansite. In response to a blog post asserting that Britney’s dad had taken her mobile phone away, Miller wrote, ‘Open your eyes! Free Britney!’ After a deluge of criticism, he claims he received a letter from Jamie Spears demanding that he take his website down. Besides the mobile phone comment, Miller had also reproduced Britney lyrics on Breathe Heavy, leading Spears senior to call him out on copyright infringement. ‘I felt censored,’ Miller told The Independent. ‘In my opinion, it’s not about lyrics. It’s because I was speaking out about an injustice, and they didn’t like that, and they wanted to control everything about Britney, including entities that they didn’t technically own.’

#FreeBritney was suddenly a thing again – and this time, it blew up.

Yet the site remained online. Over the next ten years, things went rather quiet in the media regarding Britney’s plight. Concerns about her legal situation were a topic mostly relegated to die-hard fan forums. The singer continued to work, putting out four records, starring as a judge on The X Factor and performing a four-year Las Vegas residency totalling 248 shows. Yet her massive audience became worried when she suddenly and unexpectedly backed out of her Domination residency in January 2019, citing her father’s deteriorating health as the reason for the cancellation. Then came the anonymous call in April 2019 claiming that Spears wanted out of her conservatorship. #FreeBritney was suddenly a thing again – and this time, it blew up.

The first #FreeBritney protesters gathered later that month outside West Hollywood’s City Hall. In May 2019, the focus moved to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse – the place where activists now gather for each conservatorship hearing. Then, when COVID-19 hit, people found themselves with more free time to commit to the #FreeBritney cause. That is how Megan Radford, aged thirty-four, Leanne Simmons, thirty-one, and Kevin Wu, thirty-six, first met and began planning their next move as the #FreeBritneyLA contingent.

While they maintain that #FreeBritney is a ‘leaderless movement’, it is clear that the trio put in a lot of time and hard grind. Every Friday, they meet virtually to strategise, in addition to keeping freebritney.army – the main website for all information pertaining to the cause – constantly updated. Radford uses the skills from her day job in marketing to write press releases and create content – all while juggling being a mum to her three-year-old son and flying back and forth between Los Angeles and her home in Oklahoma City. The trio, plus additional #FreeBritneyLA member Junior Olivas, are also responsible for updating the @FreeBritneyLA Twitter and Instagram accounts, as well as getting speakers to attend the group’s rallies. Meanwhile, Simmons has slogged through reams of information to create a detailed timeline about every aspect of the conservatorship, making the freebritney.army website an instructive template for any grassroots Britney movement looking to get started.

Being Britney Pieces of a Modern Icon by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike out 11th November RRP £20 (Nine Eight Books). But it here.

Our Music Made Us campaign is told through the students, graduates, journalists, experts and passionate people who have been shaped by music. Discover their stories here.