The video, posted on October 13, 2017, opens with a shot of Britney half-kneeling on an improvised artist’s stool, a small easel propped on an ivy-covered pediment. The artist dabs at paints resting on a neoclassical balustrade. Dubbed over the action is the mechanical tinkling of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 11 (the third, most recognizable movement, “Rondo Alla Turca”) as the camera pans to reveal a pink and purple mélange of starbursts on what appears to be two different canvases incongruously placed beside one another. Mozart wrote the sonata in 1783, the same year that Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette’s favorite, painted the queen in nothing but a mousseline chemise dress, scandalizing the French academy with its lusty casualness.
Her breezy crêpe de chine floor-length vest is her second of two looks of the half-minute video—even on her instagram there is a seamless costume change—and it evokes that image of the queen: pastoral, focused, maternal. It also evokes Vigée Le Brun herself, who was known to paint en plein air on the grounds of Versailles. (Though curiously, the art on Britney’s canvas bears no relationship—at least in figurative form—to the scenery around her.)
On the occasion of her 37th birthday, this Sunday, December 2nd, we celebrate Britney as artist, and the uncanny zen of this particular vid.
In Instagram years, the video is ancient, but its charm and ambient pathos feel definitive, as if it were from any day in the last few years at Chez Spears, which since 2017 has been a sprawling Italianate mansion in Thousand Oaks, California. The clip’s power is in everything that it is not: an unambiguous rejoinder to the madness and despair of Britney’s public self-immolation now over a decade go, which still feels just out of frame. That brief but harrowing period of her life, and the attendant images, are a touchstone for the accomplishments and peace she has found since.
@britneyspears is an account as iconoclastic as it is breathtakingly normal for a 37-year-old mother of two who has also lived as a pop-cultural cipher for the last 20 years. Inspirational quotes about God and jokes about shopping live alongside throwbacks to Spears’s outsized contribution to the zeitgeist, particularly the first decade of the millennium (lightning rod magazine covers, televised feats of serpent whispering). Nietzsche even makes a jarring, if totally uncalculated, appearance (July 2, 2017: “No artist tolerates reality.”—Nietzsche). There are also her hypnotizing “fashion show” videos, which feature Spears in a jauntily edited cavalcade of nearly identical mini-dresses. The earnestness of her ‘gram betrays her status as an “old millennial,” more so than her gym-toned abs and youthful blonde tousle, which seem fixed at their 22-year-old state with Faustian permanence. There is nary a whiff of a meme, the stock-in-trade of other pop goddesses; her vertical feels more suited for a Facebook page abounding with wine moms and jettisoned high school friends whose cheery posts you begrudgingly tolerate.
I am old enough to remember first reading about Britney in the April 1999 issue of Rolling Stone, the one that announced her as the new teen dream, in a black Dolce & Gabbana bra and Frederick’s of Hollywood hot pants. The opening line of her first on-the-record interview: “Britney Spears extends a honeyed thigh across the length of the sofa…” The die was cast, and she would never not be valued on the tautness of said thigh. The other points I remember (from the issue I still own 20 years later) were the background stories buried after the jump of men showing up at the Spears’s Kentwood, Louisiana address looking for the singer, once with 16-year-old Britney home alone hiding from a prowler at her window. I like to think the arcadia she has built for herself with her easel and acreage outside of LA two decades later was one she imagined after those first glimpses of the lurid, all-access gauntlet that fame was refashioning for itself at the turn of the century.
One of Spears’s artworks pieces made news when it was sold at a charity auction to benefit survivors and first responders of the Las Vegas hotel shooting in 2017. It was purchased by none other than Mr. Caviar & Champagne himself, Robin Leach, in a heartwarming ending to what felt like a frivolous Insta-moment. But fast forward a year later, almost to the day of Leach’s auction prize; there would be a similar shooting seven miles from Britney’s balustrade at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, and Leach would also be dead, felled by a sudden stroke in Mexico that August. A series of unrelated events, to be sure, but it reminded me too that the week after her Rolling Stone debut, we had Columbine. And that when Britney captured the decadent national mood at the VMAs on September 6, 2001, the world would change irrevocably five days later, with her writhing, snake-wielding body body as the punctuation mark to that previous chapter’s innocent end.
That Britney’s fame and face are even tangentially related to these generational moments of horror and violence, chronologically or geographically, are coincidental. She became famous at the same time that terror did. But it makes her canvases, in magenta and daffodil yellow, wrought in the sylvan California sun, all the more poignant. After all she’s been through, Britney’s still sitting down to make something new.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.