Taking Pop Seriously

Britney, LOONA and BTS around a microphone

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by Explicit (CC BY-SA 4.0), U.S. Navy Chief Warrant Officer Seth Rossman (CC0), Korean Culture and Information Service (KOGL Type 1), Joshua Coleman (CC0), Efe Kurnaz (CC0)

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Original Air Date: 
March 26, 2022

Pop music is a gazillion-dollar industry that churns out hits and creates celebrities. It seems like the definition of ephemeral – today’s chart topper is gone tomorrow. But pop music is a powerful vehicle for bringing people together, and fans - from K-pop to the #FreeBritney movement — have something to teach us about community and hope.

BTS fans waiting to see their idols on stage

K-pop is connecting fans from all over the globe in a time of great disconnection, creating one of the biggest fan communities in the world. Producer Angelo Bautista takes us on a journey to the heart of K-pop fandom.

a band performs on stage

Music critic and author Kalefa Sanneh says "pop music" is no longer a pejorative label. He traces the rise of "Poptimism" and discusses the challenges of being a pop music critic.

Britney Spears and the #FreeBritney movement

When the "Free Britney" movement started, it was initially treated as a joke. But the fan movement has drawn attention to exploitative conservatorship arrangements that celebrities like Britney Spears have been subjected to. Filmmaker Samantha Stark tells us the story of how the fans saved Britney's life.


Show Details 📻
March 26, 2022
November 26, 2022
July 29, 2023
March 16, 2024
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. This hour we're talking pop music, big, brash, stadium filling, fandom inspiring, mass produced, industrial strength, lyrics hooks, and beats. Music designed to top charts, span the globe, go big or go home. Music that's about one thing and one thing only, fans.

Dina Bautista (00:44):

Yes. I'm Dina Bautista. I'm a mother of three I'm 53 years old.

Angelo Bautista (00:51):

And you're also a?

Dina Bautista (00:55):

A BTS fan. We call ourselves army moms.

Anne Strainchamps (01:00):

Today the sound that's riding that wave is K-pop producer, Angelo Batista.

Angelo Bautista (01:10):

Korean pop music has made its way into our ears whether we like it or not. Everyone alive in 2012, probably heard the song Gangnam Style by PSY. And by now you've definitely heard of the superstar boy band, BTS. If you were like me and thought K-pop is just for 14 year old girls, you're wrong, it's also for my mom, the biggest BTS fan that I know. Yeah. You tried really hard to enlist me in the army.

Dina Bautista (01:42):

Yeah, I do. The reason why I want my kids to know, you, even your sister, I want you to listen to them it's because the beat of their songs, the way they dance, and I know you love to dance. And I had the same resistance too when I first learned about them. I've heard about K-pop, but I don't want to listen to them. I'm a one direction fan, I don't want to change. I don't want to see anybody else. It's like, no, I don't want Asian Boyz. I don't want to look at Asian Boyz.

Angelo Bautista (02:13):

Don't say that. Don't say that on the radio, mom.

Dina Bautista (02:19):

Sorry, but I mean that's not my type.

Angelo Bautista (02:23):

But now my mom is absolutely crazy for too J-Hope, RM, Suga, Jimin, Jungkook. And her favorite, her bias.

Dina Bautista (02:32):


Angelo Bautista (02:34):

What was it like to finally see them in person?

Dina Bautista (02:38):

Surreal. Oh my God is so surreal. Everybody carries a light stick and it's called the army bomb. It's crazy. It's just like a sea of beautiful colors and the songs and just the way they perform everybody just having a good time. But really next time I want to get closer, closer.

Angelo Bautista (03:04):

But it's not just my mom, K-pop is huge today. If you made a country of just K-pop fans, it's estimated population would be well over 100 million. The K-pop industry breaks in over $5 billion a year. But when it comes to talking about the music itself, that's a little complicated. There's so much music in Korea that you could call pop.

Regina Kim (03:34):

Like if you ask 10 different people what is K-pop, chances are you'll get slightly different answers from each person.

Angelo Bautista (03:42):

But the kind of K-pop we typically hear about, the boy groups and girl groups is what Koreans would call idol music. And it's more than just music, it's kind of a whole package, the songs have super catchy hooks.

Regina Kim (03:59):

A lot of K-pop songs lend different genres.

Angelo Bautista (04:02):

This is Regina Kim. She's a culture writer at Netflix and covers Korean film K-dramas and K-pop.

Regina Kim (04:09):

A not just pop, but rock and hiphop and rap.

Angelo Bautista (04:11):

The music videos are super slick, the idols look perfect.

Regina Kim (04:20):

Often young and good looking.

Angelo Bautista (04:22):

Almost unreal.

Regina Kim (04:23):

They can sing and they can dance.

Angelo Bautista (04:26):

The choreography is next level.

Regina Kim (04:28):

There is like bright and splashy colors.

Angelo Bautista (04:32):

It's a whole party. But at the same time, an intense music competition, who will top the charts, win music shows, get the most views, download, album sales? So there's a lot to take in with K-pop, but to understand how it blew up into this global music phenomenon. I think we need to look to the 1980s. This was around the time that South Korea was transitioning from a newly three decade military dictatorship to democracy in 1987. Before American R&B and hip hop made its way into military bases and was brought over by Korean Americans, South Korea's popular music was primarily Ballads and a genre known as Trot.

Regina Kim (05:48):

It's basically like I would say Korean country music, a lot of Koreans tend to think of Trot as music that their parents or their grandparents listen to. Modern K-pop really started in 1992, which is when like Seo Taiji and Boys performed their song called, I Know, and they performed it on this popular Korean music show. It was the first time that a lot of Koreans probably saw that kind of performance on TV. They were the first ones to incorporate rap and hip hop into a Korean popular music. They were dancing a lot while they were also singing and they were also rapping. And a lot of people like in the audience, as well as the judges didn't really know what to make of the performance.

Angelo Bautista (07:08):

The judges actually gave Seo Taiji and Boys the lowest score of the night, but the south Korean youth watching at home absolutely hate it up. I Know, went on to become a huge hit and it stayed at the top of the Korean singles charts for a record breaking 17 consecutive weeks. But this moment on TV was the beginning of a dream that had never existed before the dream of becoming a K-pop idol.

Regina Kim (07:41):

A lot of the artists that would become popular in the K-pop scene when they saw Seo Taiji and Boys performance on TV that day they were blown away and they knew that they were seeing something special. And you could say that like this K-pop idol concept really started to take shape when H.O.T first came out onto the scene.

Angelo Bautista (08:10):

So if Seo Taiji and Boys were the blueprint, H.O.T was the first ever K-pop idol group made by an entertainment company, SM Entertainment using that blue print. Not only using it, but improving upon it, slicker dance moves, polished vocals, media training. This was the start of what's known today as the K-pop idol training system where young trainees, some starting as young as 12 or 13 audition for the top entertainment companies or get scouted. And if the company thinks they have potential, they'll put them under contract and start molding them.

Regina Kim (08:50):

Hours and hours of singing and dance practice, some of them had to learn like foreign languages.

Angelo Bautista (08:58):

Some will drop out of school, and they even live in dormitories under their company and they're highly controlled.

Regina Kim (09:03):

Strict rules around like no drugs. Many of these idols were not allowed to date even and reveal a lot of details about their personal lives. And so their entertainment agencies made sure that the image that these K-pop idols gave off to their fans was a very clean.

Angelo Bautista (09:21):

The result is groups of super talented performers, impossibly beautiful heartthrobs with no romantic attachments, perfect for the adoring fans, but not everyone makes it through this process.

Regina Kim (09:33):

It's a lot, it's very intense and you do it for a year or even multiple years and there's no promise that you'd be able to debut as an idol at the very end.

Angelo Bautista (09:49):

After H.O.T more companies popped up training idols, debuting groups, all wanting to cash in on this new music market.

Regina Kim (09:58):

And of course, if you have more competition, and that means the bar just keeps getting raised higher and higher, including a lot of south Korea's conglomerates, like Samsung and Hyundai, they kind of wanted to join in and they created agencies of their own, but the Asian finance crisis wiped most of them out. That crisis in 1997 severely impacted Korea's economy.

Angelo Bautista (10:34):

South Korean currency hit an all time low, stocks crashed, there were massive layoffs, but ironically, this financial disaster is what precipitated K-pop's global rise.

Regina Kim (10:47):

Korean music execs they had to start looking outside of Korea to promote these K-pop artists.

Angelo Bautista (10:54):

And they even had help from the south Korean government. In 1998, the ministry of culture and tourism was established to in part promote the Korean entertainment industry. It's been called a soft power project aimed at raising the country's reputation on the world stage. And in 2000, SM entertainment, one of the big three entertainment companies debuted 13 year old Boa who many have dubbed the queen of K-pop.

Regina Kim (11:21):

The first successful K-pop artist period to be successful outside of Korea.

speaker 6 (11:27):

Get ready for the first ever United States appearance by, Boa.

Regina Kim (11:37):

She was huge in Japan and in many other parts of Asia.

Speaker 7 (11:40):

Are you ready to celebrate?

Angelo Bautista (11:42):

SM entertainment thought Boa might be the right artist to introduce K-pop to the US. Here's a bit of her performing at San Francisco pride in 2009. 2009 was also the year that I first heard K-pop on YouTube in eighth grade, a classmate showed me the song GE by nine member girl group Girls' Generation. Nine members in a girl group that blew my mind. And also Ring Ding Dong by Shinee. That swinging hip move that they do, I did all the time at parties. Back then, K-pop was still a niche thing and I'd wish I'd known then just how big this would become. I kind of stopped paying attention into K-pop pretty much from 2010 to 2020. A whole decade of growth. In 2009, there were 15 new K-pop groups that year. Since then, approximately 570 groups debuted. Where do you even start?

Anne Strainchamps (13:16):

After the break, a YouTube algorithm takes Angelo down the K-pop rabbit hole. It's to the best of our knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio And PRX. Hey, it's to the best of our knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. Let's get back to producer Angelo Batista, story about K-pop and how after a 10 year absence that came roaring back into his life.

Angelo Bautista (13:56):

So five months into the pandemic, it was July. My YouTube algorithm decides to show me a dance practice of these four girls on a pink backdrop. It was Blackpinks, how you like that? Blackpink, the biggest K-pop girl group right now really kicked the door down and reintroduced me to K-pop. After Blackpink, I got into the Nine Member Girl Group twice. Their song Feels Special was the first TikTok that I made in my kitchen. I really got into the dances. I mean, it was a pandemic and dancing in my kitchen to K-pop was probably the best thing I could do.

Angelo Bautista (14:44):

Then YouTube shows me another video. It's a video filmed at the 2019 takeon in LA. Hundreds of kids are in this convention space and there's an open space in the middle of them. You hear this robotic countdown and then a song starts to play and there's this rush to the center and everyone's to dancing and singing. It was amazing. This was how I learned about the K-pop random play dance game. It started as a game that K-pop idols would play on variety shows in Korea, and it became a game that K-pop fans all over the world play at the height of the pandemic. Seeing this video of young people dancing so close together to K-pop, reminded me of how far away I was from everyone. I really wanted to go to one of these so a year later, I did. Someone was putting on a small K-pop meetup in Madison Wisconsin at the park, just a few blocks from my house.

Kayla (16:06):

Hey, everybody. For anybody that hasn't met me, my name is Kayla. I'm [inaudible 00:16:07] put this together. So thank you guys for coming.

Kyla Nicole (16:12):

My name is Kayla Nicole. I'm 21 years old, and today we're having a K-pop flash mob, K-pop choreography. We're going to watch some performances from some Madison based K-pop dance groups and we're just going to have a good time today.

Angelo Bautista (16:24):

What got you into K-pop specifically? Like what's the story there?

Kyla Nicole (16:29):

I think when I really became a super fan of K-pop it was BTS.

Angelo Bautista (16:33):

Yeah. My mom is super into BTS.

Kyla Nicole (16:35):

Yeah. I love BTS so they really got me into K-pop when they were just getting big, late 2017, early 2018, so that's what really got me back into K-pop.

Angelo Bautista (16:45):

What is it about BTS for you?

Kyla Nicole (16:48):

I don't know. I feel like aside from the music BTS are really great people. Like if you just sit down and actually get to know them as people, they're really, really inspiring and they like motivating me to do all these K-pop events. So I think it's just bigger than music that's in Korea.

Angelo Bautista (17:12):

When it comes to the question of why are fans so devoted to K-pop groups? I think BTS is the best example. They've clearly cracked the code when it comes to growing the biggest music fan base on the planet. So how did they do it? Again, here's writer, Regina Kim.

Regina Kim (17:30):

A lot of credit goes to Bang Si-hyuk. He's the one who stared BTS. A lot of people will say that he's a genius. His company in its early years was struggling. The traditional way of marketing a K-pop group would be to have them go on like Korean music shows and he didn't have that kind of money. He had to rely on social media. He allowed the members to record their everyday lives. Fans are really able to feel a sense of connection. I think if you talk to many members of the army, they'll say that they see the BTS members as unique individuals.

Angelo Bautista (18:22):

That's exactly what my mom told me.

Dina Bautista (18:25):

And just very true to themselves. What you see in front of the cameras, how they are, they really had to fight hard.

Angelo Bautista (18:43):

My mom has sent me so many feature length fan made documentaries about BTS's hardships and their underdog story in the K-pop industry as this scrappy boy group from a small broke unknown company who were relatable and who were honest about their personal struggles and their doubts on their way to achieving their dream. And that is a big part of BTS's musical DNA.

Regina Kim (19:08):

They've dealt with topic like mental health, the societal pressures that young people have to go through, self love.

Kayla (19:18):

Yeah. So when I was getting into like BTS at the time, I was just not in the greatest head space, BTS has this whole model of loving yourself. And at that time I took that as just a kind of inspiration to just be more positive and to just be a little bit more motivated in the things that I did. People just want a purpose in life and seeing BTS find their purpose, helped me find my purpose, if that makes sense.

Angelo Bautista (19:55):

Right. I wish someone would love me as much as I love my K-pop idols. Could you imagine someone having a photo card of you?

Kayla (20:04):

I just have a bunch of [inaudible 00:20:06] photo cards and a binder right now. And what if non of you had a bunch of pictures of me that'll be like, what the heck?

Angelo Bautista (20:18):

It's not as simple as saying that BTS fans just really love BTS and that's it, this deep fan idol relationship really boosted BTS into the K-pop stratosphere. Here's how my mom explained it to me

Dina Bautista (20:33):

Without the army BTS won't go anywhere, so in every song that BTS will put out, the armies are there to support downloading, buying albums, listening to their music, playing it on Spotify over and over again. They would play it all day long, all night long, and they're willing to pay to give them the success.

Angelo Bautista (20:57):

In other words, fans put in the work for these idols, just as these idols put in the work for their fans. Every music show win, every award won, every record broken or chart top is a shared success as a team. Army goes hard for BTS. And when that fan power is turned towards social and political issues, it's hard to ignore.

Speaker 10 (21:21):

K-pop fans are overwhelming social media hijack a hashtag used by white supremacists.

Speaker 11 (21:26):

Postings so quickly that it is impossible for the racist posts to see the light of day.

Speaker 12 (21:31):

President Trump's rally in Tulsa, not bringing out the crowd K-pop fans claim tickets to president Trump's Tulsa rally causing his turnout to look weak.

Angelo Bautista (21:40):

I will say though, that K-pop fandom can get kind of intense online the most vocal K-pop fans are super opinionated, competitive, and protective of their groups. Fan wars can erupt, bullying can happen, but that passion shows up in other ways too. Issues surrounding race and culture in K-pop is a whole other discussion that fans are still trying to have today. Fans are demanding better treatment of their idols by their companies when it comes to mental health, labor abuses and strict contracts. And I think all of this comes from a place of wanting K-pop to be better. Even though it's gone global and the fandom is more diverse than ever, there's still so much room for the K-pop industry to grow and improve. So where does K-pop go from here? Well, back to being together for one?

Speaker 12 (22:39):

What I love about the K-pop events is that all of the toxicity doesn't exist.

Kyla Nicole (22:48):

It is different. Pre COVID, the K-pop community was less toxic than what it is having these events interacting in person. I think right now, a lot of K-pop stands lack that unfortunately. K-pop counselors that are like my happy place. I go there to get a Sarah Tonen boost or I go there to kind of just forget about everything.

Angelo Bautista (23:21):

How far the K-pop wave will go is unknown, but K-pop's effect on a deeply felt personal level is undeniable.

Dina Bautista (23:32):

It gives you hope. Like if you feel down and out, take another step and another step. And by the time you know it, this is the best time to accelerate, so it's positive vibes really.

Angelo Bautista (23:49):

There is so much investment in K-pop from the Korean government, the companies, the idols, the fans, and me. For the longest time, I did not understand what my mom was getting out of BTS, but I kind of get how she feels now. I'm not an army, I love BTS, but falling down the K-pop rabbit hole in the pandemic somehow led to me becoming a hardcore orbit that's what you call fans of the 12 member girl group, Luna.

Angelo Bautista (24:26):

I could spend hours trying to explain the entire Luna verse to you, I won't, but I will say there was something about Luna, about how these 12 girls are coming together to save a world that's stuck in an endless time loop. Honestly, I sound like my mom right now, but what these girls stood for a world where we embrace our colors, embrace our differences, a world where we fly higher together. That is something I really needed to hear especially through these really difficult years. We tend to think of pop music as being ephemeral, it's here, it's gone, we move on. But no matter who you listen to, there's a beautiful resilience in pop. No matter the language, it finds its way into our core, teaches us something about ourselves and we're changed forever if you're willing to hear it.

Anne Strainchamps (25:37):

Thanks to Angela Batista for sharing his path to K-pop fandom. There was a time when the phrase pop music was put down. It meant musical junk food, pop as in soda pop and popcorn, empty sonic calories. But you know people like pop music. It's fun and it makes us happy. And at a certain point, even music critics got tired of dissing it and switched to celebrating it. Kelefa Sanneh came up as a music critic during that era. From 2000 to 2008, he covered the rock and roll hip hop and pop music scenes for the New York times, then moved to the New Yorker. Now he's written a history of popular music called major labels. And so just to get the terms straight, Steve Paulson asked what exactly pop music is?

Speaker 13 (26:33):

Pop music is the music that critics aren't very good at talking about. Right? Pop music is defined in some ways, by the idea that it doesn't get respect. In my book, I write about how in the '60s, everything's all kind of mixed up when people say pop music, they're talking about all this stuff that the young people like they're talking about, the Beatles and the Supremes and the Temptations and all this stuff, right? And something that starts happening, especially in the '70s is that pops arts to be used as an insult. Pop is a pejorative term. It means that you've left your genre behind, or maybe you never had one. You used to be a rock and roll singer, but now you've gone pop. You used to be country, now you've gone pop. But I would argue ever since the 1980s, you've also had musicians who are waving the flag of pop. In the 1980s, acts in the UK like Boy, George started to say, wait a second. We don't want to be rock and roll, we don't want to be punk rock, we want to be pop.

Speaker 13 (27:38):

We think pop is actually cooler than rock and roll. We love being pop. By the time you get to in sync in the Back Street Boys in the late '90s and the early 2000s, they're happy to be pop. And these days, when you think about someone like Katie Perry, who's happy to be pop Lady Gaga, doing art pop. It's gone from being a pejorative term, now many more musicians are happy to wave that flag. We are pop.

Speaker 14 (28:15):

So we have to talk about authenticity in music, which was the gold standard for so long, especially in rock music. We had to know that the rock stars were bearing their souls, that they had earned it. But for the biggest pop X today, like BTS or Katie Perry or Lady Gaga, I mean, does authenticity matter?

Charles monroe-Kane (28:44):

Authenticity is another one of these words that's a little hard to define, but I think authenticity is really hard to escape. The idea that from music, you're getting some sort of connection to something that feels "real" I think that's something that people really look for.

Charles monroe-Kane (29:05):

For a long time, especially, but not only among music critics, there was this idea that authenticity meant rock and roll. It meant loud guitars, scruffy, and slightly imperfect vocals. There were all these aesthetic things that were thought to be linked to authenticity. And what happened was people realized like, Oh, that's not the only way to make music. That feels somehow real. There's a sense of authenticity in Madonna, even though Madonna is more about music videos than concerts. But again, when you look at the fans of someone like Madonna, they're going to have really strong ideas about what she's doing, what makes her great, what makes her better than someone else? And so I think that again, if you define authenticity broadly enough, there's really no getting around it.

Speaker 14 (30:13):

So to sort of try to get at what has changed about pop music, let's say in the last couple of decades, I want to go back to this famous essay that you wrote in 2004, that you called the rap against rockism, which became quite influential. What was your basic argument?

Charles monroe-Kane (30:29):

So I was picking up an argument that had actually begun in the '80s in the UK. And this was this argument about this word, rockism. It started as kind of a joke. This idea that maybe rock and roll was boring, maybe punk is dead, and maybe we're sick of this thing about a guy getting on stage with a guitar and maybe we're going to embrace something that's more colorful, more fun, more feminine, more accessible. And so there was-

Speaker 14 (30:57):

And there was this sense of the great, the O-tours of the rock world, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, these old, straight white guys. There's something a little passe about them.

Charles monroe-Kane (31:07):

Yeah. There's this idea that this is passe, this is dower, this is no fun. We're going to have fun. We're going to celebrate the fact that pop music is fun. And more than that, there was also a sense that we're going to rethink what we value. And so I wrote in my essay, it sounds funny now, I wrote in my essay that we should take more seriously an R&B group like Destiny's Child. And I think in the years since we have definitely remedied that issue and Beyonce is taken very seriously as she should be.

Charles monroe-Kane (31:53):

And so some people started to talk about the opposite of rockism, which some people said was, poptimism, a term I didn't use in the essay I think it's a fun and funny term. And it gets at some of the complication. In other words, in the US starting in the 2000s, when people celebrated pop, there was often a political edge, right? The idea that the old rock paradigm was dominated by like old white guys with guitars. And that celebrating pop music was a way of celebrating music made by women, music made by non-white artists, music made by people, as you see in disco and many of the genres that came out of disco. And so there was an idealism that came alongside this celebration of pop music.

Charles monroe-Kane (32:39):

Now I think there is something slightly incoherent about that. In other words, if you're celebrating, what's popular, a lot of times what you are celebrating is the music industry and lurking in the background of this discussion is always this idea of someone else being in control, right? This idea that the pop system is rigged. That whoever's popular is only popular because the industry is shoving it down our throat. When I became a full-time music critic, one of the most heartwarming parts of my job was watching how often record companies fail, how often they tried so hard to make something a success and it just didn't go. And how often the thing that became popular would be a real surprise to the record executives.

Speaker 14 (33:26):

So I would think from a music critics perspective, things get really complicated here, because I mean the point of a critic in most professions is to try to tell us whether it's good or not.

Charles monroe-Kane (33:57):


Speaker 14 (33:57):

And in film review, I want to know whether I should the movie. Maybe it's a little more complicated about reading a book review. I want to know about the author's history, why the book matters, but at the most basic level, I still want to know whether this book is worth reading. Does it make sense to pass judgment on a big pop act or a new album?

Charles monroe-Kane (34:19):

You're, you're getting into the existential crisis that confronts every critic of popular music. You know, when I was doing it full time at the New York Times, I'm I'm at the New Yorker now, but when I was a daily newspaper critic at the New York Times in the two thousands, I thought of myself as trying to tell people three things, whether the music I was writing about was popular, whether it was interesting and whether, or it was good and those are three separate things. I don't really believe that there's a meaningful difference between a song being good and a song being something that I like. I think those are kind of two different ways of saying the same thing or another way to say that is ... I don't trust anyone who says this song is good, but I don't like it. I'm like, if you don't like it, I'm not sure that you're a reliable judge to whether or not it's good or not. I don't know that has that much meaning. And so-

Speaker 14 (35:08):

But you've also written that at the end of your time as a music critic, you kind of stop wanting to pass judgment to sort of tell us whether it was good or not. That's not where you wanted to go.

Charles monroe-Kane (35:19):

That's a very kind way of saying that I got a little soft, which I think either thing can happen. Some critics get crankier the longer they write and the more they're like, ah, this stuff is not like it was when I started out and I kind of had the opposite reaction. I spent so much time in rooms seeing shows. There's a certain amount of Stockholm syndrome because at a concert you're surrounded by people who are having the greatest night ever. They bought tickets, they're excited to go see the thing and so there's a limit to how much you want to necessarily be a party pooper and say, "These people are wrong to have a good time at this concert." So that might've influenced me too.

Charles monroe-Kane (35:56):

And there's also the sense that there's just like so much music. Is it worth going out of my way to say this band that you've maybe never heard of is not that good. And I think that those dynamics have gotten stronger. I write in the book about how a lot of mainstream outlets have largely stopped publishing negative music reviews but I don't think it's ever possible for negative opinions about music to go away. I think that part of loving music is disliking music. Part of loving music is hating music. Part of what it means to love music is to have opinions and to have an idea that this thing is better than this other thing.

Speaker 14 (36:35):

Well, I have to ask you about one line right at the end of your book, where you say, when we complain about music, what we're really complaining about is other people.

Charles monroe-Kane (36:43):


Speaker 14 (36:45):

Which suggests, I mean pop music in particular, it's really kind of about identifying your tribe, to some degree, your own identity. You're sort of expressing what you like through music.

Charles monroe-Kane (36:56):

And sometimes that can be really intense. When I was a teenage punk rocker, I was like, this is my entire identity. And I don't like anything that's not punk. I want all my friends to be punk. I want a dress punk. I want to be all in. And as a grown up now I'm not all in to any particular genre in that same way. But still music is really social. We listen to it with other people or at least while thinking about other people. And often when we complain about music, that's why I say we're complaining about other people, part of often what it means to say you dislike music is I'm not like those people who like this. It's a very human feeling to want to set yourself apart from other people.

Charles monroe-Kane (37:36):

I was at a concert the other night at Madison square and saw the country singer Morgan Wallen. One of the most popular singers in country music, kind of a polarizing figure because he was pulled off country airwaves for a few months after being caught on tape, using the N word during a night out with friends. And so his concert felt like a tribal event. People were chanting USA and let's go Brandon between songs. And there was this idea that part of the excitement, part of the fun of this concert was that you were a member of this tribe, especially in Manhattan, right? You're different from those other people in New York, you are a Morgan Wallen fan. And that's a great example of the power that popular music can have to make you feel like you're part of something.

Anne Strainchamps (38:21):

Kalefa Sanneh is a staff writer at the New Yorker and author of major labels, a history of popular music in seven genres. He talked with Steve Folson.

Anne Strainchamps (38:41):

Coming up, the power of fan communities goes way beyond music. The free Britney movement rescued a superstar. What could be next? I'm Anne Strainchamps and it's to the best of our knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Elizabeth Dunan (39:11):

Dear Britney. My name is Elizabeth Dunan and I'm 29 years old.

James Miller (39:15):

My name is James Miller and I'm from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Jasmine (39:18):

My name is Jasmine, I'm 28 and I am a Scorpio from New Jersey.

Elizabeth Dunan (39:22):

Dear Britney.

Jasmine (39:23):

Dear Britney.

James Miller (39:23):

Dear Britney.

Elizabeth Dunan (39:26):

I'm so nervous, I'm like sweating.

Jasmine (39:26):

Your whole situation is consuming me now. I can't believe that it's just been this long and I didn't know.

Anne Strainchamps (39:36):

That's an excerpt from Framing Britney Spears, Samantha Stark's documentary about the Free Britney Movement. Let's back up. In 2008, Britney Spears was one of the best selling musical artists of all time. She was a young mother with two children under age four, famously unstable and constantly hounded by paparazzi. And then her life seemed to fall apart. She lost custody of her children in a messy divorce. She wound up arrested, committed to a psych ward and at age 26, a court sanctioned conservatorship gave her father legal control of her fortune and even her body. Spears would later testify in court that under the conservatorship, she was drugged compelled to perform even prevented from removing her birth control device. When fans started the Free Britney Movement, it was initially treated as something of a joke, but it wasn't. Charles Monroe-Kane asked Samantha Stark to take us back.

Samantha Stark (40:39):

The hashtag free Britney had actually been started soon after the conservatorship began, because there were some fans saying, "Listen, how is this happening? Why are these rights being taken away when she's still able to work? This woman is making millions of dollars performing for millions of people over the course of her conservatorship and she's not able to decide what to do with her money. Then why is that happening?"

Charles monroe-Kane (41:05):

Yeah, she made three albums. She was a judge on X-Factor and did her Las Vegas stint, but yet she can't buy sushi on her own without permission. It's a little bizarre. She obviously was on it. She was obviously able to do a lot of things. I mean, when I don't want to get overly involved in the conservatorship, but you start to have to say why, and then you start thinking, oh, it's about money. She's surrounded by sycophants but then again, there are these people with signs protesting that was growing and growing. How big did the movement get?

Samantha Stark (41:40):

It got huge. So it started when I was there in 2020, there was 15, 20 people who were protesting outside. And I think this last year, as time went on and it started becoming more, people started looking into it more and more, celebrities started posting on their social media, free Britney. And it's huge. It's around the world now. I was there for the day that the conservatorship was ended. They were able to set up a stage on the street. They had had like 30 pink confetti cannons that they all like set off. There was speakers, there were special guests. There were singers up on this stage. People were so interested in this, that all the different outlets wanted to cover it, which is a really big transformation from making fun of them and belittling them to taking them seriously, which is very similar to Britney, how people reacted to her.

Charles monroe-Kane (42:40):

I read that the aggregate use of that hashtag is over 24 million, who are these free Britney people or are these everybody?

Samantha Stark (42:49):

When I first started making the film, I kind of imagined that it was going to be people who looked like Britney when she was younger, like beautiful people with great bodies. And when I was there meeting them, it was actually kind of incredible because it was a lot of people who are queer who were shamed for sexuality as young people, the way Britney was shamed for her sexuality as a young person, there were a lot of people living with mental illness. There were people who were bullied as kids. It was really this ragtag group of outsiders. And they kept saying Britney made it okay for me to be myself. Britney made it okay for me to talk about my mental health and we saw her struggling. She was treated so poorly that we don't want anyone to be treated that way. Again, there's a lot of queer people who are in the center of this gay men in particular, the fact that Britney was shamed for her sexuality so much also really speaks to people.

Samantha Stark (43:55):

So I think it's deep. It's people who have this really deep connection with her. I heard more than one story of people who were thinking that they didn't want to live anymore. And thinking about Britney and her, she has a message of acceptance actually. And she's very rebellious, which I didn't realize. And it really spoke to them. There was one person who I interviewed, who said he attempted suicide because he didn't want to be gay. He woke up in the hospital and decided if he was alive he was going to be himself. And he went in his car, blasted Britney Spears and drove around his neighborhood because he used to listen to Britney Spears in secret because he didn't want people to think he was gay.

Charles monroe-Kane (44:45):

Oh my God.

Samantha Stark (44:45):

So there's huge symbolism. It feels like they're fighting for themselves as well as her.

Charles monroe-Kane (44:52):

There's a relationship there where, let's just be blunt where you say, this woman saved my life. Literally you start a movement where you save hers, literally. I don't think I even have a relationship with any of my friends like that. Like what is it like to have that relationship? And that sounds almost a little dangerous in some ways.

Samantha Stark (45:14):

A lot of people were saying, Brittany saved my life, she helped me so much and now I have the opportunity to help her. I think a lot of people actually felt guilt in some ways because they saw Britney perform. A lot of people went and saw her at her Las Vegas residency. She performed hundreds of shows over the conservatorship and that was a highlight in their year. They got to go there and you feel so good. Pop music, we play it. When we're dancing in a club, we play at that high school dances on road trips. It's the pop star can make you feel a lot of these emotions and are included in a lot of your memories. And I think when they realized, wow, I was watching this woman and she felt trapped and I didn't know, in a lot of ways they wanted her to know, we hear you, we see you, you're right.

Charles monroe-Kane (46:10):

Yeah, you're right.

Samantha Stark (46:12):

There's something that was one of the most magical moments for me, which is when Britney spoke, I was inside the courtroom. And one of the things she said is I feel ganged up on and I feel bullied and I feel left out and alone and I'm tired of being alone.

Charles monroe-Kane (46:33):


Samantha Stark (46:34):

And when I looked at the footage that was filmed outside, there were dozens and dozens of fans crowded around a cell phone, listening to her say that. And she was not alone at all, but she didn't know.

Charles monroe-Kane (46:49):

You know, we have such disdain for our pop stars, but in this case we know just watching your documentary, but we know that's not hyperbole. That's not her trying to get publicity and press. She was bullied. She was taken over. She was overpowered and it felt so real. I want to read something that Britney wrote on Instagram after the conservatorship ended. And to me, I just find this amazing, this simple way she wrote it. She wrote you guys rock. Honestly, my voice was muted and threatened for so long and I wasn't able to speak up or say anything. Honestly, think you guys saved my life 100%. Can you imagine being in the free Britney movement and being active a part of that and then getting that message. I mean, if Britney Spears wrote you that message that could change your life after all the hard work you did.

Samantha Stark (47:37):

Absolutely. And I think when I first started interviewing some of the fans who were there at the beginning of the free Brit movement, they felt very wary of talking to me because they had been made fun of so much.

Charles monroe-Kane (47:50):

Oh, right. Yeah.

Samantha Stark (47:51):

People just kept saying over and over, she's never spoken publicly about this. She must be fine. What if you're making a huge mistake and Britney doesn't want to be free? What if she's embarrassed about this? They had to stick to their gut and their instinct. And they said, "No, something is wrong and I'm not giving up on that no matter what her lawyers or her father, whoever is saying to media outlets. I know in my gut, this is happening." And so can you imagine you've stuck to your gut for years and all of a sudden it comes out that you were right. She was feeling that way.

Charles monroe-Kane (48:29):

And I really want to say something to you, not only were they right, but they won, they freed her. I mean your documentary let's give you some credit. Plus the free Britney movement, freed her. As soon as your documentary came out, the phrase, we are sorry, Britney it started trending on Twitter and I followed it and it trended for a long time. Sarah Silverman, Justin Timberlake, US weekly magazine, the list goes on and on, Glamor magazine just recently apologized, listen to this "We didn't cause Britney Spear's downfall, but we funded it." Well, what do you think? I mean, you personally made a film, one of the impacts, which you weren't even trying to do, but happened as people, famous people, hundreds of people you don't know are apologizing.

Samantha Stark (49:11):

Something I realized making the documentary and watching all the footage is how much Britney was bullied and made fun of and how okay it was to make fun of Britney Spears. When I was making the film, a lot of people I'd say I'm making something about Britney Spears and there'd just be this smirk on people's faces. There's memes if Britney can survive 2007, you can survive anything and different pictures with her shaved head and it was just like culturally acceptable to make fun of Britney Spears. And it's not culturally acceptable to make fun of Britney Spears anymore. And to me, that's like one of the hugest things I've ever accomplished. So the we are sorry, Britney hashtag was incredible to me.

Britney Spears (50:03):

The free Britney movement, you guys rock. Honestly, my voice was muted and threatened for so long and I wasn't able to speak up or say anything. And because of you, I honestly think you guys saved my life.

Anne Strainchamps (50:26):

That's Britney Spears thanking her fans. Charles Monroe-Kane was talking with Samantha Stark about her documentary for the New York times called Framing Britney.

Anne Strainchamps (50:39):

Hey, thanks for listening, To The Best of our Knowledge is made each week by a tiny team of audio producers, Charles Monroe-Kane, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Angelo Bautista, Mark Riechers, Joe Hardtke, Steve Paulson, and me. We're always glad to have you along with us. Come back often.

Last modified: 
March 14, 2024