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When Britney posts on Instagram

Spears's mental and physical well-being has been subject of speculation in recent months, ever since she cancelled a planned Las Vegas residency and announced an "indefinite work hiatus" in January

Caity Weaver | NYT 

However meagre our lives, celebrity accounts offer certain reliable comforts: front-facing studio-quality portraits of our favourite stars standing or sitting alone in careful outfits; most photos taken from the manubrium up, so that our entire phone screen is dominated by their proportional features. And, if the celebrity is Beyoncé-level famous, a gorgeous unending colour story we can fall through forever: a block of white, silver, gold and clearly curated by someone with the patience to learn colour theory. This is the fame trade-off in 2019: We give them attention and a lightly engaged readership with the potential to translate to advertising revenue; they give us stylised, intimate glimpses of a life more elegant and photogenic than our own.

On Spears’s Instagram, the light is uncalibrated — as likely to charge in from floor-to-ceiling windows offering 360-degree California views as to issue from a single overhead light bulb located behind her, casting her face in shadow. Her feed is a place where Britney can share her favourite quotes, be it a typographical exhortation to stay “extra sparkly” or a musing from Nietzsche about an artist’s inability to endure what is known as “reality.” But her most memorable, jolting posts are ones that crop up every once in a while, seemingly with no rhyme or reason to their frequency: Britney, alone, pretending to be walking on a runway inside her home.

The plot of each is roughly the same: Spears quickly struts straight-as-an-arrow toward the camera in a selection of outfits that are not particularly fancy — the sort of clothes a woman might have in her closet, if she had one: a red off-shoulder minidress with glittering embroidery; a red off-shoulder minidress with flamenco sleeves. The editing is fast, amateurish and jarring; frequently Spears is back at her point of origin striding forward in a new outfit before she has finished walking out of frame in her old one. The footage presents her as a human GIF, repeating small motions with minute adjustm­e­n­ts ad infinitum in the hallways, passa­g­es, corridors and loggias of the Ita­l­ianate airplane-hangar where she lives.

Because the videos are a kind of art brut expressionism, empty of context, they fill viewers with questions. Who is filming? Why these clothes? Did Spears learn how to edit video clips? And, most perplexing, what does she want us to feel when we watch? Is she to be viewed as an innocent girl playing dress-up? A sexy human Barbie with an infinite closet? Regardless of intention, the clips are illegible, generating primarily a voyeur’s guilty, mystified confusion.

Spears’s mental and physical well-being has been a subject of renewed speculation in recent months, ever since she cancelled a planned residency and announced an “indefinite work hiatus” in January. In April, TMZ reported that she had checked into a mental health facility. An hour before the TMZ story was published, her account featured its first new post in months (an unusually long fallow period; before the hiatus announcement, a typical rate was several posts per week). It was an image of an inspirational quote, alongside the caption “We all need to take time for a little ‘me time.’ :)” She made a series of funny faces at the camera “after therapy.”

But rather than deterring gossip, each new post has only watered the conspiracy theories flowering in the tens of thousands of comments beneath it. Would a message authored by Spears really feature an emoticon smiley, when history has demonstrated her preference for emoji? Would Spears really post herself working out to a Michael Jackson song two months after her former choreographer Wade Robson accused Jackson of years of sexual abuse in a well-publicised documentary — with a hairstyle and outfit identical to those in a video she posted 13 months earlier? Do apple emoji mean the legend Britney Jean Spears is about to release a single called “Apple Pie” or does that song not exist?

It’s widely known that Spears’s adult welfare is under the conservatorship of her father. Inevitably, this arrangement leads people to wonder if Spears is slapping on a smiley face because she wants to or because she has been ordered to by the entity in charge of her. In recent months, the hashtag #FreeBritney has gained popularity on among fans who suspect the latter.

Spears’s most recent runway video opened with a phone camera angled from above. In a perky voice edged with exasperation, she addressed the lens: “For those of you who don’t think I post my own videos, I did this video yesterday. So, you’re wrong! But I hope you like it.” Decades of performing have given Spears uncommon poise in heels, but the display is slightly off-kilter. She doesn’t smile. Because Spears is on a “hiatus,” this was ostensibly a peek at her free time. But it certainly looks like a job.

Every video is overlaid with music, by artists ranging from Beyoncé to Tracy Chapman to

Every generation produces a youth icon hounded into instability and dissolution by fame; for millennials who grew up listening to Top 40, it’s Britney. The last time the public watched Spears this closely, they mainly saw her in moments frozen by paparazzi zoom lenses: Britney with a tonsure of long brunette hair studying her reflection in a salon mirror mid-self-shear. Spears bleary-eyed and frantic in the back of an ambulance. Now the photos are coming from inside the house — they must, to convince an audience of casual observers that she is not being held hostage. Spears is allowed to exist out of the public eye but only if she can prove her existence by sharing private videos of herself with the public. has made it not only easier but virtually obligatory for celebrities seeking favour to show scenes from their home lives. Yet the histrionic reactions below Spears’s posts (“Something is very wrong here”) suggests viewers are seeking not real-life depictions but the boudoir photo equivalent.

Spears’s most recent runway video opened with Spears before a garment rack — her eyes rimmed in makeup as black as midnight reflected in an infinity pool — angling a phone camera onto herself from above. In a perky voice edged with exasperation, she addressed the lens: “For those of you who don’t think I post my own videos, I did this video yesterday. So, you’re wrong! But I hope you like it.” And then there was Spears, in a pink dress, a white dress, a blue dress, shifting back and forth against the exterior walls of her cavernous palace, clutching at the hems of her skirts, dragging them ever higher on her thighs, before suddenly, rotely, strutting toward the camera. Decades of performing have given Spears uncommon poise in heels, but the display is slightly off-kilter. She doesn’t smile. Because Spears is on a “hiatus,” this was ostensibly a peek at her free time. But it certainly looks like a job.

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First Published: Sat, June 15 2019. 01:11 IST