She's been Miss American Dream since she was 17, and while many had hoped (or feared) that the former Mouseketeer would fizzle out soon after being crowned a pop princess, Britney Spears has remained a staple of American culture for close to 20 years.
And like many of the female pop stars who have come before her, Ms. Spears owes much of her continued success to a legion of gay men who came of age at the turn of the millennium, saw a diva worth celebrating, and will do nothing less but stan for the "Holy Spearit." Today, her music remains a gay-bar staple, has plenty of drag impersonators, and has made an appearance on Will & Grace. Plus, her career just received a horribly camptastic Lifetime biopic film, Britney Ever After. But all that queer adoration begs the question: What draws gay men to Spears?
The question was, perhaps, easier to answer back in the early 2000s. With record-breaking albums, outrageous live performances, and a tabloid-ready romance with Justin Timberlake, she was an alluring presence in the pop-music scene. For Jordan Miller, founder of Breathe Heavy, a music site that began as a Spears fan blog in 2004, the pop icon harnessed this gargantuan presence that captivated him as a kid. "Her star power was blinding, and everything she did—the iconic performances, publicity stunts, the music... the untouchable music—it was an intoxicating combination," he said.
The facile (if PR-ready) liberation narrative she wrote as she went along was revelatory, where each single and album showed a more sexual, less squeaky-clean, PG-rated Spears. It was a template many of her contemporaries used quite successfully—Christina Aguilera did, after all, turn heads and earn accolades when she released "Dirrty" off her third album—but there was something more relatable and more subversive in Britney's strategic deployment of her liberated sex drive. Perhaps it was the way it remained couched in metaphor and performance, giving gay men coming out in the TRL age a taste of role-playing as key to one's identity and central to one's pop music tastes.
In her early aughts heyday, Britney built her career on radio-ready singles that flirted with transgressive messages about frisky sexuality. But there was always something lurking beneath that characterization of the pop princess. As B. Pietras, who wrote a touching essay on his conflicted relationship with the pop idol for BuzzFeed late last year, told VICE, "Britney's appeal for gay men rests in the way she brings together this sense of empowered sexuality with an essential vulnerability. The '…Baby, One More Time' music video is a perfect example—it's full of all this naughty schoolgirl imagery, and yet the song is all about loneliness." That image of a lonely (if lucky!) girl trapped within the glittering façade she projected onto the world would follow her through what became the most tumultuous era of her personal life.
Amid scandals and tabloid headlines, and despite the release of what was arguably her best record so far (2007's Blackout), only her die-hard fans stuck by her. "We watched a woman hit rock bottom," remembered Miller, "yet she never surrendered. Britney found the strength within to stand back up and continue sporting the role as a bombshell pop star." The infamous head-shaving incident, the dead-eyed VMAs performance, the lackluster "Gimme More" video: All signs pointed to an impending career-ending train wreck, the kind that Hollywood adores. But Spears endured. Her perpetually hinted at vulnerability now seemed ever present, and those who'd seen a beacon in Britney now saw themselves as her caregivers.
The most infamous example came in the instant-viral YouTube hit "Leave Britney Alone!" where a teary-eyed gay fan lashed out against those piling on his adored diva. To stan for Britney is to endure the world alongside her, and today, there's a protectiveness to her gay fans' relationship with the performer, which leads them to excuse her latest video misfire or "basic" live performance, as if her mere ongoing existence were proof of her tenacity. Where other gay icons exude self-possession, Spears's fragile resilience has made her an even more fascinating role model, closer to Judy Garland than to Lady Gaga.
That fragility is further complicated by her father and lawyer's conservatorship (which continues to provoke questions about whether she can stand on her own, as the New York Times asked last May), but since her first post-meltdown album (2008's Circus), her fragility has become the bedrock on which her persona stands. She blushes and stumbles in interviews. In performances, we're encouraged to buy into the image of Spears as a pop star whose signature line ("It's Britney, bitch!") suggests a fierceness worth celebrating and imitating. But in reality, that fierceness seems depleted now. Her most memorable line from Blackout, "Gimme More," has always seemed a more appropriate catchphrase, because rather than a reflection of Britney's own agency, it's hollow—one her fans can make their own. And that hollowness may also be a key driver of her gay fans' adoration.
After all, Spears's career sometimes feels like a vessel on which our cultural ideas about pop stars and their sexuality could be projected. For all we know about her personal life, the "very boring" mother of two remains a removed figure in our imagination, and her shifts from coy schoolgirl to toxic seductress, from diner gal pal to kinky suburbanite, aren't quite the type of convincing and thorough reinventions that Madonna has mastered and Lady Gaga has come to make her own.
But her gay fans even have their own playful lingo for her universality, using quippy portmanteaus to refer to specific Britney eras (Circusney, Gloryney) while praising various aspects of their favorite pop star. She's Godney above all else, but she's also Sassney when she gets testy, Danceney when she reminds us why she's a great performer, Fierceney when she's serving it, even Starbucksney when she hits up her favorite coffee franchise. All these Britneys speak to the variety of personas Spears can embody, seemingly at the drop of a hat. She merely projects endless possibilities. Perhaps that's why Britney continues to find a place in gay clubs around the world—she's a glittering mirror ball, a fractured reflection of those men on the dance floor back onto themselves.