How Britney Spears Helped Me Settle into My Queerness

Johnny Darlin’ looks back at his first Britney show — and years of fandom.

I was two days away from turning eleven and goshdarnit, everything had to go right. I had just graduated elementary school, gotten baptized for the second time, and — in a surprise last-minute-second-leg twist — Britney Motherfucking Spears was bringing her Dream within a Dream tour to Little Rock, Arkansas. Nothing was going to fuck this night up if I had any say about it: not my parents, not my little sister, and certainly not my date, who was merely a casual Britney fan.

But the one person who was especially not allowed to ruin this night was Britney Spears herself. Britney’s life had taken a series of twists and turns at that juncture in 2002. There were rumors that she and Justin were headed for chaotic uncoupling. That Britney was sad. That Britney was distracted and disengaged. That she was unhealthy. One tabloid at our Wal-Mart boasted a picture from one of the coolest moments of the tour: when Britney is hanging from the ceiling on a bungee chord, stomach exposed, the camera directly beneath her. “Eating her feelings!?” asked the headline. (Britney’s tummy looked only the slightest bit less toned than usual, but still pretty unreal given the dangling.) I remember staring at Britney’s face on this tabloid dramatically, whispering whatever version ten-year-old me had of “don’t fuck this up.” Come through, Britney. Prove yourself. Make your mark in Little Rock.


No doubt Britney made her mark. My heart was racing a million miles per hour as I waited to see my perfect blonde vampire slayer queen, when she emerged center stage wearing a short, black bob. One she would wear for the. entire. concert.

My eight-year-old sister was fucking pissed.

In fact, most people were. In the lobby, droves of scorned young women from five to eighteen let out their vitriol, the open Arkansas air their therapist. It felt, to most, like betrayal. This was a small stop — added last-minute in a southern town on an otherwise massive world tour — and Britney, at the height of her prime, clearly just didn’t give a fuck about us, they felt. Never mind the otherwise stellar show she performed in said wig, the whole production seemed an elaborate middle finger to our community. It didn’t help that Blonde Britney returned two nights later in Dallas and, as far as I know, she never donned the wig again.

I, however, interpreted the event entirely differently. Take a moment and consider what a radical and downright bonkers decision this was for Britney Spears circa 2002. For me this was no “fuck you” to Little Rock, but, instead, an admission of comfort. Here was a safe space for the Queen of Pop and the tabloids to experiment with her iconic and microscopically studied looks. It was a moment away from the spotlight of the larger cities for some much needed foolishness and fuckery — among fellow southerners with much smaller newspapers. And her most genius move of the night was not to mention the wig at all.

I defended Black Bobney as if it were my job. In fact, my first experience of pride came via these contrarian opinions on the ShakeSpearsian Treason of Summer 2002. This Britney defense machine solidified itself in my brain and has lasted forever. (My official opinions on the 2007 VMA performance range from indulging in the broken-heel-conspiracy theories of YouTube to nearly shutting down a college party calling it a “brilliant piece of punk performance art.”) This is because Britney and I began our journey into queerness together on that night in Little Rock.

Since then, two lives have been developing parallel to each other.

Since then, two lives have been developing parallel to each other. Over the years, I have drawn on Britney in the most confusing of times: for solace, therapy and understanding. She was seemingly the only other person driving down this highway called life at my speed. Superficially, I pretended I was in the “Slave 4 U” video at a particularly flirty middle-school pool party, and I channeled Lucy, Britney’s character in Crossroads, as I nervously took the makeshift stage at a popular girl’s karaoke party.

Around 2003, these moments become a bit more spiritual. Britney and I discovered masturbation the same year, Britney joining Divinyls, The Vapors and Tweet in going public about her findings via In The Zone highlight “Touch of My Hand,” which I’d watch her perform on her Onyx Hotel Tour through a scrambled screen since we didn’t get Showtime. “I’ve just discovered/Imagination’s taking over/Another day without a lover,” felt vital to Eighth Grade Me. I was beginning to watch my friends date more seriously and brag about the genesis of their sexualities becoming quite real, all while experiencing romantic and sexual desires I believed excluded me from love for the entirety of my existence. This may not make any sense in 2016 after the Gay-Friendly Self-Empowerment Anthem Explosion of 2010 to 2012, but in 2004, Britney’s pangs of loneliness in a post-Justin emotional hell directly reflected my closet. So Britney and I jerked it out together — night after night.

It all started for me when I noticed a peculiar excitement in eighth grade Physical Science class when the boy in front of me passed me a piece of volcanic rock. I would linger on his hand for a bit longer than I needed to in the exchange, just in case there was a secret code I might’ve been telepathically communicating through our fingertips. I had several moments like this: trying to let people know of my queerness, but not so much that I might actually be discovered. Perhaps these first instances of secret flirtation are akin to Britney at the Little Rock show — I just might got your crazy (but maybe not, and especially if you don’t want me to!).

My rebellious teen years were met with an equally game Ms. Spears.

What followed, though, was totally 2007ney. My rebellious teen years were met with an equally game Ms. Spears. Britney lashed out at paparazzi while I slammed doors on my confused parents “just trying to understand.” I remember seeing gay porn for the first time on Halloween, mere hours before being driven to the local Hell House (the good Christian substitute for the classic haunted house where the character of Gay Guy dies of AIDS). Britney spent that evening out on the town with Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and a hundred paparazzi. I remember being pissed on in the bathroom while called a “faggot” the same week Britney shaved her head. There was no escape for either of us; Britney was followed wherever she went, and I lived in the same neighborhood as a bully who would report any behavior (from a missed shot practicing basketball in my driveway to legitimately gay things such as driving my bike around with my dog in a basket) at school the next day.

But the more they talked about us, the more we joyously lashed out. We separated ourselves from those who assured us they cared, because we didn’t feel they had the receipts. Britney was operating within the oppressive system she’d known her whole life, simultaneously imploding under the weight of its crushing expectations while fighting back with all her ugly, unpolished and profanity-laden might. I’m not saying Britney’s tough years were healthy, but, God, did they seem justified to a queer kid whose fantasies of shocking his school and church looked nearly identical.

Fast-forward to 2016, and Britney and I find ourselves in a new moment.

Fast-forward to 2016, and Britney and I find ourselves in a new moment. For her part, Britney has released her ninth studio album Glory, which finds her returning to her voice. Despite the rhetoric of the trolls and scammers roaming the planet since the release of (the excellent!) Christina Aguilera in 1999, Britney has always had a highly capable, often moving and definitively interesting voice. I am still under the blood oath I made with the Illuminati after “Fergalicious” not to mutter a negative word about, so I’ll just say Britney’s previous record (2013’s Britney Jean) felt as if the team wasn’t quite as trained on how to play the instrument of Spears’ voice. This is one reason Glory is such a welcome experience on the ears.

Britney sounds not only human, but as if she’s actively experiencing emotions in the middle of singing them. There is also no guilt, shame or taboo to be found in her sensual needs on Glory. She goes so far as to establish — and act firmly within — her own sexual boundaries the whole time. The “Lean On”-style banger “Better” is about how much better sex is when you really know the person. That line of thinking is straight out of the purity ring-cascading True Love Waits training of my youth (“Preacher, preacher, I’m the teacher, you can learn,” indeed!). And yet it still sounds thrilling. Glory finds our girl settled back in to the world she left to make 2007’s Blackout but, now, meditating in its clouds. It is a serene and confident atmosphere made with an enlightened human at its center, her voice just one element building the soundscape of a woman set free.

Britney has settled into her own personal queerness and has proven this is an exciting space.

Britney has settled into her own personal queerness and has proven this is an exciting space. She’s embraced her strangeness, her legacy of subversion and the fact that she as a person was not congruous with the girl society set her up to be. And so, the comradery between Ms. Spears and me continues. I, too, find myself ready to settle in and embrace a life enhanced, not inhibited, by non-tradition. This year, I performed a multimedia show for the New York International Fringe Festival, Johnny Darlin: In the Closet, positioning my catalog into a story exploring this lifelong process. I made certain to pay tribute to Britney’s influence. Superficially, I employed a finger snap here and there — and pretended I was the fallen bride only able to rise by the power of a Madonna kiss while I performed “Olly Alexander.”

But more spiritually, I wore the shirt I purchased as a souvenir from that very concert all those years ago. Halfway through my five-night run, the shirt ripped nearly in two. Two weeks of sweat, rowdy costume changes, and trips in and out of the laundry (plus sixteen years of wear) had done in the most important relic of my childhood. I felt the emotional weight of a lifelong era coming to a close, all with but thirty seconds to get my ass back on stage. But then, suddenly, I was fine. As I stared at Britney Spears’ disfigured teen face and perfect blonde hair, I was overcome with a sense of peace that this was no longer us. We had grown and settled into ourselves — together.

Plus, I’ve always favored Britney Spears with a short black bob.

Michael Doshier is a writer, musician and the creator of queer-electro-rock multimedia performer Johnny Darlin, who can be seen performing around New York City. His debut EP, Mr. Monogamy, was released in 2014 and his second, Hump Daze, in 2016. His New York Fringe Festival cabaret, Johnny Darlin: In the Closet, a collaboration with video artist JPEGSTRIPES, noise duo Al-Atrash, choreographer Pia Vinson, and dancers Quenton Stuckey and Alberte Nilausen, was named Best Bet and called “seamless…sharp…fantastical” by Theatre Is Easy.