Trigger warning: This interview includes the mention of death, though no graphic details are shared.
Many artists influence millions of people every day with their success, their words, and their acts. However, we can only learn as much about them as they allow or, more importantly, as much as we want to. There are some aspects about artists that are so evident that everyone talks about them, yet their stories are more than that, just like everyone else’s. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s book Being Britney: Pieces Of A Modern Icon aims to show us more of Britney Spears‘ strengths and accomplishments than we are aware of.
Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is proof that fans have the ultimate power. Growing up with the influence of music and fandoms, Jennifer is a professor and music ambassador at the BIMM Institute but also a rock & roll cultural historian and author career. She is the teller of many stories about celebrities and music. In her book Being Britney: Pieces Of A Modern Icon published by Nine Eight, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK in November 2021, Jennifer tells us the story of Britney Spears without the dark shadow of society.
Part biography, part social history, Being Britney pieces together a collage of stories, interviews, legends, and fan experiences to construct a definitive portrait of one of the biggest stars in recent history.
In her unique narrative, acclaimed music author Jennifer Otter Bickerdike provides a sympathetic yet objective re-examination of Britney’s trajectory from girl next door to a woman trapped by fame. Being Britney is the compelling account of a talented, troubled, and talked-about modern icon, whose life, work, and individual significance will be recognized for many decades to come.
As The Honey POP, we got the chance to talk to Jennifer Otter Bickerdike about her book, her other works, the impact of music on her life, and how she decided to write books. So, lean back and have fun as you get to know this fantastic author!
Order Being Britney: Pieces Of A Modern Icon in here.
First of all, we must admit that we are so happy to have someone like you as an interview guest. In The Honey POP, we are all fans just like you, and we are trying to show the world that being a fangirl is not a bad thing. And you are literal proof of that. So, can you tell us a little more about yourself? Who is Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, and how has being a fangirl changed her life?
Thank you so much for having me! Music and fandom have saved my life. I started working in the music industry when I was 18 years old, going to school full time, working full time, and working as a college marketing representative for Sony Music. This was in the 1990s, so it was all about Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Rage Against the Machine. It was fantastic; I was just a kid from a lower-middle-class household, and literally, through grit and grind, I found myself rubbing shoulders with the artists that were creating the soundscape of my life. By the time I was 24, I was the west coast marketing director for Interscope Geffen A & M, collaborating on the plans for groups like No Doubt, U2, Dr. Dre, and many more. However, when I was 30, Hunter McPherson, a friend I had grown up with, was murdered just blocks away from my house in San Francisco. Within the same month, both of my grandfathers, who were more like dads to me, passed away as well. It was a horrible, horrible dark time. I was so numb and just sick to my stomach all the time. Nothing would make me feel better- and I tried every drug, drink, meditation, religion. The only thing that got me to the other side were the bands that I loved.
I can honestly say that without the music of The Smiths and Joy Division, I would not be here. I think the tendency is to undervalue and even sometimes demean the idea of fandom and the act of being a fan. However, it can be such a powerful and affirming part of life.
You are currently a professor of Popular Music and Global Music Ambassador, and it is something that most of us are not familiar with? What can you tell us about this position of yours? Do you think the world needs more professors like you?
I am a professor and music ambassador at the BIMM Institute, the largest provider of music education in Europe. It’s such an honor and a privilege to work with colleagues who are as dedicated as me to mentoring the next generation of music business professionals; but most importantly, I love being able to talk to students and share the excitement of finding new music, whether its an emerging artist or looking back to a band from the past. I still get goosebumps when I play, ‘Keep Ya Head Up’ by Tupac to a room full of 18 years olds then talk about the meaning and moment of that track. My day-to-day role at BIMM, though, is to help create new courses, make sure our current courses are up to date with all new and emerging trends and technologies, and support the recruitment team. It’s imperative that the art created by folks like the amazing Tupac is held as important, relevant, and genre-defining as any classical music, or as beloved as, say, The Beatles.
“I wanted to celebrate Britney as a survivor.”
Jennifer Otter Bickerdike on her book.
How did you decide to write books? What made you notice that you can share your knowledge and experience with other people by writing books? What was the motivation behind it?
I have wanted to be a writer since discovering An Illustrated Pride and Prejudice at age five in the Live Oak Elementary School library in my hometown of Santa Cruz, California. I never thought, though, of myself as being able to be creative, smart, and well-spoken enough to actually write. It seemed beyond anything I could even dream or say out loud. It was not until I was in my 40s that I was brave enough to acknowledge this idea was something that had been germinating inside me for so long and be able to say to myself and others that I want to write. This may sound silly, but allowing myself the space to have this idea, then to say it to the people around me was a huge step.
My motivation to write was twofold. One, after losing my friend Hunter, I vowed not to be fearful of anything. I fail miserably at this intention a lot, but I always try to remind myself of Hunter’s motto, which was to go as big as you could. When I lean into this “Hunter creed,” I seem to do my best. Why not only dream but go for the biggest, most crazy thing you can? You are only here once, so dive in.
The second was I wanted to write about artists I respected and admired as humans, as amazing, provocative, brilliant creators, but also as three-dimensional people.
Before your upcoming book Being Britney: Pieces Of A Modern Icon, you have published You Are Beautiful And You Are Alone on Nico this year, another biography. And you have portrayed Nico’s in a better light. We are sure that it takes a lot of time to do proper research while writing memoirs, but how much time are we talking about?
It took me four years in total to write and publish my book on Nico. I finished the manuscript before the COVID pandemic, so it was a very anxious time between the uncertainty of when the book was going to come out, what was going on with the world and how the future for everything fit into it all. It has been wonderful to see how people have embraced the book and are giving Nico another thought as a fully-fledged, complicated woman instead of just relying on exaggerated and often inaccurate mythology.
Can you tell us the best and the most challenging thing about writing biographies and maybe give some tips for people who want to work on this genre of literature?
Probably the hardest part of doing a biography is the ‘A’ word: access. You have to ask yourself, no matter how much you love your subject and find it fascinating, what are you bringing to the story or narrative of the subject that no one else can? Who can you talk to that will shed light or create a different perspective? This is crucial.
Let’s talk about your upcoming book, Being Britney: Pieces Of A Modern Icon which will be released on November 11. We must admit that we are so excited because even though we all know Britney’s story, we are sure that you are definitely going to give us another aspect of her life to help us get to know her and her story more. Britney’s story is obviously inspiring, but at which point you stopped and thought, “I should tell this story to people?” What inspired you?
Being Britney is about how Britney has profoundly impacted popular culture since she arrived on the consciousness of the public back in the late 1990s. Britney is a touchpoint to explore and examine many other phenomena, such as how child stars are treated, misogyny, the media obsession with creating celebrities, and our own insatiable consumption of stars as a commodity. I wanted to celebrate Britney as a survivor, badass and inspirational heroine; I hope I succeeded!
We only can imagine the depth of Britney’s story until we are able to read your book. But can you spill us a little bit? Which part of Britney’s story stayed in the shadows, and most people aren’t aware of when we definitely should?
The biggest thing that hit me when I was working on this book was the many accomplishments Britney has, musically and in the business world, yet are rarely, if ever discussed. For example, Britney was executive producer on the arguably punk rock masterpiece, 2007’s Blackout. Here is a woman in the midst of a media feeding frenzy, probably at one of her lowest emotional points, yet she puts together a pastiche of interesting and dynamic writers and producers to create this album of f*cking bangers, with weird, alien sounds and songs that are such earworms you are singing them for days after you first hear them. No one ever talks about that. Or Britney’s perfume empire; a bottle of Britney perfume is bought every 15 seconds. These things are incredible feats, yet the fixation is still on her looks and body.
“Only Britney knows who she is, and hopefully, it will stay that way.”
Jennifer Otter Bickerdike on “Who is the real Britney?”
With this book, you are trying to answer the question “Who is the real Britney?” but who is the real Britney for you, especially?
I am not trying to answer the question of who is the real Britney; I think only Britney knows who she is, and hopefully, it will stay that way. So much has been taken from this woman, I hope she has something for herself. The closest I can come to answering ‘who is the real Britney?’ is that ‘Britney’ is whoever you need ‘her’ to be. She is an excellent mirror to project onto.
If we want you to compare Being Britney: Pieces Of A Modern Icon and You Are Beautiful And You Are Alone, which one was harder to write and why?
They were equally hard in different ways; You Are Beautiful was a meticulously researched book, which required tracking down documents in dusty archives, long hunts for people associated with Nico, and lots of myth-busting. I found it frustrating that there existed hardly if any ‘real’ information on Britney, in the way of well-respected media outlets or books. I wanted to create something that placed her as the crucial figure she is in a serious, scholarly way; it still is dumbfounding that she is not taken as a serious artist and businesswoman in the same way as many of her peers and those that came before her. She is completely unique and needs to be held up as the anomaly- in a good way!- that she is.
Writing biographies can be terrifying also, right? Especially while writing about a name that we have been following closely for a long time, like Britney. Have you ever thought, “Maybe this is a little bit dangerous, I don’t want to risk it?” If yes, how did you manage to cope with that feeling? What made you keep on writing?
I always worry that I am going to get some backlash, but it is important to me to create books that contextualize both Nico and Britney as the complicated, flawed, brilliant, and interesting women that they are, stripping away the tabloid bullsh*t. As a lifelong feminist, supporting other women is very important to me, and writing these books is part of that personal value system.
We are so happy about the opportunity to talk to you and get to know you better. Last but not least, do you have a message for young fangirls who aren’t aware of their capabilities and how they actually play a massive role in industries?
I grew up without having any money; there were many times during my early years and at times in my career where I would be down to my last $20 with no idea how I was going to pay rent. You got this. You can do this. Surround yourself with people who lift you up, and keep pushing forward. Try to go by the “Hunter creed” of living as fearlessly as possible and go big; You are only as limited as your imagination.
If you love and support Britney Spears as we do in The Honey POP, Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s Being Britney: Pieces Of A Modern Icon is a must for your bookshelves! Did you enjoy the interview? Have you ordered the book yet? What are you most excited about reading Being Britney? Tell us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram! If you want more bookworms in your life, don’t forget to join our Discord server, The Hive.
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Featured Image Source: Bibi Lara for The Honey POP Graphics Team