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Britney Is Far From The Only Female Musician Who Has Had To Fight For Autonomy


Control - that is a theme that runs throughout the careers of many female musicians going back decades. And it was on full display yesterday in an L.A. courtroom as Britney Spears laid out her case asking a judge to end a court-mandated arrangement called a conservatorship. It's allowed her father to have final say over her finances and other aspects of her life for the past 13 years. Joining us now to have a broader conversation about the autonomy of female musicians is NPR culture reporter Anastasia Tsioulcas. Hi, Anastasia.


CHANG: So Britney Spears shared a lot of shocking details in court yesterday, including this fact that she's being forced to keep an IUD in her body, which has prevented her to have another child. I'm just curious, when you heard that detail, what struck you the most about it?

TSIOULCAS: Well, for sure it was shocking. But what Spears said to the judge seemed to indicate that Spears has lost pretty much all of her bodily autonomy in terms of medical decisions and her day-to-day choices, such as where she can go and when. And since then, I've read a lot of comments across the internet from people who have heard or read about what she said. And they're asking, would a man in her position be so tightly restricted and controlled for so many years?

CHANG: It's a great question. Well, I know that you have been doing a lot of thinking about the experiences of women in the music industry. Is there any precedent that comes to mind or any context for what we're seeing now with Britney Spears?

TSIOULCAS: Well, I can't help but think, Ailsa, of an entertainment business that has often sought to dominate talented women. And those situations have often, unfortunately, been exacerbated by artists' parents. I mean, you can look all the way back to, say, Judy Garland. Like Spears, Garland had stage parents who pushed her into public life at a very young age. Garland said herself that MGM pushed her into using amphetamines when she was just a kid. Or more recently, think of Amy Winehouse, who seems to have had a very toxic relationship with her dad, even while she struggled with alcohol and drug addictions. And as we know, both Garland and Winehouse had stories that ended tragically.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, you know, it was interesting that in court, Spears made the point that younger artists today can get away with things that she couldn't. Like, she name-checked Miley Cyrus, of course the pop star who's about a decade younger than Britney Spears. What do you think, Anastasia? Is there a generational divide now?

TSIOULCAS: Yeah. Britney specifically cited Miley Cyrus smoking marijuana at the VMAs. And I want to note that it was a little odd because Cyrus has been a long-time supporter of Britney's. But Spears does seem to have a point that there are at least certain female artists who are her same age or younger who figured out ways to either claim or reclaim their power in ways that Spears doesn't seem to have been able to access. I'm thinking about musicians like Beyonce and Taylor Swift, for example, who have been very public about their journeys to owning their own power.

What we haven't been seeing so publicly lately is instances in which managers have tried to take financial advantage of young performers. And it wasn't just Britney when she was young. Some of her peers, like the boy bands NSYNC and Backstreet Boys, had that problem, too. Of course, we can't say for sure that it isn't happening now or that it won't happen again. But at least we haven't seen things like this on the level that went on in the '90s.

CHANG: That's so interesting. Why do you think that is? What's changed?

TSIOULCAS: Well, I think there's more transparency available today, Ailsa, to younger performers. They can communicate their own experiences more openly to their fans now, especially on social media. But here is another of the unfortunate elements of Spears' situation, at least as she describes it. In her comments in court, Spears said she hasn't been able to be truthful to her fans. And she alleges her dad controls what she can say to the media. She said, quote, "I've lied, and I've told the whole world, I'm OK and I'm happy. It's a lie." And Ailsa, the other thing that's changed is that it seems like the public is now more open and empathetic to hearing about these kinds of things without turning her or other women in music and their experiences into a punchline.

CHANG: That is NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas. Thanks so much, Anastasia.

TSIOULCAS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAMBERT'S "MANDAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.