For Michelle Williams, Britney Spears Is the Role of a Lifetime

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Michelle Williams was a teenager, emancipated from her parents and living alone, when she became famous. She was a star of the teen zeitgeist drama Dawson’s Creek, playing the desired object of the titular protagonist. From there, Williams could have teetered into ruin, as so many prodigious young careers (and lives) have, buckling under the stresses of notoriety. Instead, Williams forged an independent path, gradually building a résumé of considerable respectability. She’s won and been nominated for many awards; she enjoys a particular kind of esteem.

In 1998, the year that Dawson’s Creek premiered, another teenager was embarking on her own journey into the wilds of fame. “…Baby One More Time,” the first smash single from Britney Spears, debuted in September of that year, perhaps the loudest early blare of an emergent teen culture boom (of which Dawson’s Creek was certainly a part). Spears became very famous very quickly, tossing her into a crucible through which it would take over 20 years to pass. Williams went one way, Spears another.

It feels fitting, in some cosmic way, that Williams is the narrator for the audio version of Spears’s hotly anticipated memoir, The Woman in Me. Who but someone who got close to the same fires that burned Spears could best interpret a recounting of what it was to be famous at that age, in that era? I don’t know how exactly Williams came to the job, but there was clearly some thoughtfulness on someone’s part in hiring her to give such elegant voice to the recollections of a peer, a contemporary.

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The Woman in Me is not itself elegant, exactly. The writing—done by a small fleet of ghostwriters—half mimics Spears’s cadence, half pushes things toward the literary. Its strength lies in its meta-textual dimensions: That Spears is finally expressing herself after spending years under a rigid conservatorship is the triumph. Rambling and discursive, The Woman in Me does not drop any huge bombshells. But it gives a much wondered-about person the opportunity to speak, uninterrupted. That Spears didn’t want to do the audio recording herself is understandable; as she says in the introduction, the book revisits many painful things. Better, maybe, that she doesn’t have to relive it in the way a long taping would require.

Throughout, Williams is a capable, compassionate stand-in. There are no notes of condescension in her grave, focused reading; she takes a calming tone in the heavier parts, and sounds light and silly when Spears shifts into humor. This happens often in The Woman in Me, a testament to Spears’s enduring goofiness, miraculously intact after so much hardship. That is as much a part of her mettle as her tenaciousness and work ethic. Williams finds that balance in her narration, letting Spears be happily naive and wizened at once.

It’s strange, maybe, to hear Michelle Williams, lauded indie darling, say things like “Kevin Federline” and “PopoZao.” Those references seem of a lower culture than the places where Williams spends her time. But of course, all of Spears’s context is Williams’s context too. They came of age at the same time, in the same Y2K soup of plastic ephemera. There’s almost a deference in Williams’s reading; she carries the objects of Spears’s iconography with a solemn steadiness. She seems to understand that Spears’s story—her struggle toward independence, toward an understanding of herself free of parental and managerial pressure—is of a certain generational importance.

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One does long, in a selfish way, for moments of editorializing. While listening to the audiobook, I found myself wishing that Williams would pause and offer her own input on what it was to be a celebrity back then. Surely she drifted through some of the same parties, past that same peculiar ecosystem of nascent viral renown. What does Williams make of all this, now that she, like Spears, is a parent in her 40s contending with the reconsiderations of middle age? But giving her own thoughts is not her job here, obviously. She is merely a steward of Spears’s experience, a task she treats with care.

Those skeptical of Spears will leave The Woman in Me more convinced, I think. Spears makes plain what she sees as the greedy predation of her parents; they stripped her of agency to make her a more controllable, reliable cash cow. No contempt is spared in the book, not toward Spears’s parents nor toward her sister. One has the impulse to mourn for a family torn apart, but as The Woman in Me unfolds, it becomes clear that estrangement is the best thing for Spears. She has had precious little time since the late ’90s to assert herself on her own terms. The title of the book is less about confirmation than it is about new discovery.

We don’t know who that woman might be. Toward the end of the book, Spears reveals that her interest in her career is low; work is not of primary concern right now. Maybe this book will be Spears’s last moment of celebrity. Or perhaps she will return to the spotlight at some later time, one hopes sturdier and more centered. For now, though, The Woman in Me will stand as the final word on the Spears phenomenon, its wonders and woes made so beautifully manifest by Williams. I’m glad these two fellow travelers were able to collaborate in this way, one helping the other to gather the detail of so many years and try to explain what it all might have meant.

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