Britney Spears is an iconic pop star and one of the most famous women in the world today. She released her highly anticipated memoir this week — it’s called “The Woman in Me.” And our next guest will be talking all about it Thursday night at Subtext books in St. Paul.
Chris Stedman is an author, activist and professor who teaches in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Augsburg University. He is also writer and host of the Britney-themed podcast Unread. He joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer.
Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.
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INTERVIEWER: Of course, you recognize that 1998 debut single from Britney Spears, right? The iconic pop star, and one of the most famous women in the world today. Britney released her highly anticipated memoir this week. It's called The Woman In Me. And our next guest will be talking all about it tomorrow night at Subtext Books in Saint Paul. And no, it's not Britney herself.
Chris Stedman is an author, activist, and professor who teaches in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Augsburg University. He's also a writer and host of the Britney-themed podcast Unread. Professor Stedman, welcome to Minnesota Now.
CHRIS STEDMAN: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.
INTERVIEWER: This is, I have to say, I don't even know where to begin with you. You're a religion professor. And you-- and you have a Britney-themed podcast Unread. How do those two kind of coexist?
CHRIS STEDMAN: Sure. Well, ultimately, I'm interested in how people find meaning in their lives, and how they make sense of the world around them. And so I actually read Britney's book last night because it just came out yesterday. And one of the things I really took away from the book is just how much of that she does in the text, how she is sort of reflecting on her own life, and the things that have happened to her, many of which have been incredibly public, and how she's managed to find meaning in all of that.
As for the podcast, I guess what I can say is, I'll be honest. Though I was the exact right age to be, I was not a Britney Spears fan growing up. I feel like I should just put that on the table now. And that was due to some of my own biases about pop music and feeling like it was light, or superfluous. But also, because I was queer and closeted. And I was hyper conscious about liking anything that might give people any hint that I was gay. So I think I associated Britney with that.
And I also just generally associated her with the popular, wealthy kids at my school, the people for whom life seemed to come easily. But of course, as we all know now very well, life really has not come easily for Britney. And it was in 2007 when those cracks started to show, and as it became popular to mock and ridicule her that I actually started to take a closer look at her, and began to see some of my own struggles as a queer person reflected in her story. And this is a common experience for a lot of queer people.
INTERVIEWER: So you sat down with--
CHRIS STEDMAN: Including one of my--
INTERVIEWER: Go ahead.
CHRIS STEDMAN: Oh, sorry. Go ahead.
INTERVIEWER: No, please, please. Finish your thought.
CHRIS STEDMAN: Oh, I was just going to say that it was an experience a lot of queer people have. And that was very true of one of my best friends who died by suicide in 2019. And so as I was processing his death and trying to make sense of what happened, I found myself thinking so much about why he loved Britney and the resonances that he felt with her and her story, which ultimately is what led me to make Unread.
And really, that's one of the sort of things that I explore in that podcast in addition to this Britney-related mystery that he left for me when he died, which was kind of what started my exploration is just, why is it that so many people who seem to struggle in life in some way, as he did, see themselves reflected in the experiences of Britney?
And for me, that's why this book is so powerful because it gives so many people who have found themselves represented in some way by Britney, it gives them this opportunity to see someone else who has struggled like they have, but who also is amazing and talented, and this superstar at the same time.
INTERVIEWER: I have to listen to a little bit of this podcast. OK, for listeners who have not heard this Britney-themed podcast, this is called Unread.
- In 2019, Alex shook up our world again when he sent out a handful of scheduled emails saying he had ended his life.
This person who had changed my whole world was suddenly no longer in it. And I couldn't understand how it had happened or why. But he left something behind for me, a small detail near the end of his email that at first appeared random and trivial, a link to a private SoundCloud page. When I opened the link, I found two audio files of him talking to someone he had met in a Britney Spears fan forum almost a decade earlier, someone who went by the name Alice, and who happens to sound just like Britney Spears.
- If I ever said her name, y'all would flip out. I know.
INTERVIEWER: Ha. OK, so this is your friend that you were talking about just a couple minutes ago. Pretty delicate story to tell, professor. What kind of response did you get?
CHRIS STEDMAN: I have to admit, it was probably the most challenging writing project I've taken on. And I was incredibly nervous about sharing it with the world. A big part of what motivated me, honestly, to tell this story was that when my friend died, I had made a GoFundMe to try to help cover some of the costs with his funeral. And just sharing it online, I heard from so many people afterwards who reached out and said, thank you for saying how he died, even though I had just really matter of factly said that he had died by suicide.
And I came to realize that there was such a culture of silence and shame around suicidality. And I-- as I was navigating the aftermath of his death, I found myself looking for resources as I tried to make sense of his death and this loss. And ultimately, that's why I decided to share this story. And I felt so grateful for the response from-- I've heard from so many people around the world who connected with this story, maybe because they love Britney Spears, maybe because they themselves have struggled with mental health.
Again, so many people who struggle in life, I think, find themselves identifying with Britney. And I-- again, I just feel so grateful that that has truly been the response across the board, has just been so many people who are looking for more space in this world to talk about, people for whom life doesn't come easily, which again, I think Britney is doing a huge service in telling this story in her book.
And it was so bittersweet for me to read it last night because I wish my friend was here to read it himself. But I'm just so grateful for all the people that her story will help. And my hope is that Unread has done that for some people as well, and will continue to.
INTERVIEWER: I wonder what you think of some of the blowback that's occurring right now on Instagram, because Britney is out of her conservatorship. She's posting on social. And some people have some concerns over her posts. What do you hope-- how do you hope her story plays out?
CHRIS STEDMAN: Yeah, I think unfortunately, though Britney is no longer under her conservatorship, she continues to be under a lot of the sort of cultural narratives that have shaped how people have seen her from the very beginning of her career, much of which she wrestles with in the book. And I think that a lot of people look at her Instagram posts and they see how unfiltered and unvarnished they are. And we're so used to seeing celebrities who are hyper curated in their digital presentation, who have a whole team managing what they share.
And so ironically, even though we live in an age when celebrities should be more accessible than ever because of social media, many of them actually feel like more distant than ever because their lives look so different from ours. And I think, sure. Some people look at Britney's social media, and speculate, and are concerned. But I think a lot of people look at how unpolished she is. And again, that's what draws them to her, just how human she feels, how real she feels.
And again, this was just something that I have-- that really came across in her book, and then I really discovered while making Unread, was just how much that aspect of Britney speaks to so many people, and how important she is for them as a result of that in this world where online, it feels like everyone's living these perfect lives, how much it means to have someone like Britney who is just feels so much more human, just like so many of us.
INTERVIEWER: Well, Chris, I appreciate the time. Thank you so much.
CHRIS STEDMAN: Yeah, thank you for having me.
INTERVIEWER: Chris Stedman is an author, activist, and professor who teaches in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Augsburg University. He's also a writer and host of the Britney-themed podcast, Unread. He's going to be talking about Brittany's new memoir at Subtext Books in Saint Paul tomorrow night at 7:00 PM. By the way, we're going to go out. I think this is-- we need some more Britney music. This is 2008's "Gimme More."
[BRITNEY SPEARS, "GIMME MORE"] I see you, and I just want to dance with you. Every time they turn the lights down, just want to go the extra mile for you. Your public display of--
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