Continuing our series on powerful music fandom, Alim Kheraj explains how finding like-minded Spears fans helped him turn the page on a dark chapter in his life
‘One night I cried as the DJ played Lucky, overcome by the sense of connection I felt’ … Spears performs at the 2001 MTV VMA awards. Photograph: Chris Polk/FilmMagic
The Guardian –Alim Kheraj
I have been a Britney Spears fan for more than two-thirds of my life. Raised on Top of the Pops and fixated on the Spice Girls, eight-year-old me was primed for the 1999 release of Spears’s debut single, the game-changing … Baby One More Time. I still remember going to Woolworths in Crystal Palace with my dad to buy the single on cassette, and my excitement as we played the song in the car on the way home. I don’t know exactly when I saw the video, Spears powerfully strutting down that high-school corridor – midriff exposed, hair in bunches – but I do remember that I was desperate to recreate that schoolgirl look. It was no surprise to my parents when, aged 13, I came out as gay.
While Spears’s music was a constant presence throughout my childhood and adolescence, my affinity didn’t mutate into devotion until I was in my late teens and she released her 2007 album, Blackout. Despite the media circus around her at the time, trailing her during a reported breakdown as if it were sport, here was this fascinating, dank, grungy pop record that eschewed soul-searching in favour of hedonism and raw sexuality. I was gripped, and soon I was frequenting fan forums, revisiting her back catalogue and exploring the treasure trove of online leaks.
I was lonely and adrift; I had no proper job and knew no other queer people. But online I started to connect with fans … who embraced me when I needed kindness the most
By 2008, I would talk about Spears to anyone who would listen, constantly analysing her complicated personal situation or her praising her artistry, which is still so often overshadowed by her celebrity. I dragged my mother to see her 2009 comeback tour at the O2 Arena, bemusing her with my tears as Spears performed Piece of Me in a metal cage. If the opportunity arose at parties, I would put on playlists predominantly made up of her music, desperate to hear her utter “It’s Britney, bitch” one more time. When her seventh album Femme Fatale was released, I bribed my university housemates with Greggs sausage rolls so that I could play the record over and over again. My friends and family indulged me, but I know that they often found my Britney tunnel vision exhausting at best and irritating at worst. For me, being a fan of Britney Spears was a solitary endeavour.
That would change, but only after a period of intense unhappiness. Having always struggled with my mental health, I experienced a particularly bad depressive episode the year after I finished university. I was living with old school friends in a house share that had turned toxic. Completely lost and desperate, I tried to take my own life. I was lonely and adrift; I had no proper job and knew no other queer people. I didn’t see a way out of my isolation. I ended up moving out and cut myself off from almost everyone I knew.
But while I felt friendless IRL, online I started to connect with pop music fans, many of who were also LGBTQ. Being a Britney obsessive also led me to music blogs, and through them the Twitter accounts of music writers. One night I wound up accompanying one of these writers to a gig. Going for a drink afterwards, we bonded for hours over our shared love of Spears. It was probably the first time that I had ever met anyone who cared about her in the same way that I did.
We were soon inseparable and drew other fans into our orbit. I made more friends – many of whom I knew from discussions about Spears online – at queer club nights we went to together. I recall one night where I cried as the DJ played Lucky, overcome by the sense of connection I felt. As a group we would gather to watch Spears’s movie Crossroads, pore over her most iconic performances and debate what she should do next. I even travelled with one friend to see Spears’s Piece of Me Las Vegas residency, and when, a year later, she performed at the Apple Music festival and I wept during Work Bitch, no one I was with judged me.
Dealing with my mental health in the years since hasn’t been easy, but I credit those friendships and our shared devotion to the Princess of Pop for helping me rebuild my life. That fandom embraced me when I needed kindness the most and helped set me on course for my career, Spears becoming an integral aspect of my work as a writer. The natural course of life means that some of those relationships have lost their intensity, although I’m still in daily contact with one, amazing person who will eagerly discuss the minutiae of Spears’s career. Should the time ever come that I recreate that schoolgirl look, I know my friends will be there dressed up with me.
- In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org