Lynsey sits in a bright pink room talking about some of the darkest moments of her life. She was suicidal, and she spent time in a London hospital recovering from severe depression. Now 23, she is a dance instructor in North London and works during the day in a local dentist's office. She is pretty, poised, and intelligent, and she's a Britney Spears fan. Actually, she's a superfan—she says Spears helped her recover.
Over the past few years, Britney Spears has given new meaning to the phrase "Oops, I Did It Again." From her breakup with Justin Timberlake to the 55-hour Vegas wedding, to K-Fed, the head shaving, the pink wigs and so on, she's had enough drama to give Lindsay Lohan an ulcer. It's clear the 27-year-old pop princess hasn't always been able take care of herself (or her children for that matter). So it's ironic that some teens and 20-somethings find salvation in Spears. These groupies emerge in a new documentary, Britney Spears Saved My Life, which had its debut on the BBC this month. In the film, fans describe how the star has guided them through the deepest, darkest, most confusing moments of their lives, from eating disorders and depression to coming out to family members as gay. It culminates in a mass reenactment of "Hit Me Baby One More Time"—complete with Catholic-school-girl skirts and pink-tasseled barrettes.
Music is one of the oldest art forms, and it certainly has its therapeutic benefits; that's why moms have their kids listen to Mozart in the womb. The right melody has the ability to calm or excite, console and sooth, lift us from sadness or bring us to tears. As Eddie Vedder, my own teen idol, told me recently, "The best songs are the ones that make you feel something." Celebrities have long influenced fans, too, often in ways they never intended. The Beatles, Elvis, Madonna, Zac Efron—each has had the power to make grown women (and men) faint or cry. Teens are particularly susceptible to the power of music, says neurologist Daniel Levitin, because of the way their bodies and brains are changing: a combination of raging hormones and neuron activity that tends to make just about everything seem OMG-worthy.
That's part of the reason Britney has such a special power—and why many are so obsessed with her. Britney came of age during the '90s, at a time when there were few other young female pop icons for the media to focus on. Her fans have grown up with her, from the cutesy redhead of The New Mickey Mouse Club to the sexy schoolgirl of 1998's "... Baby One More Time," to the writhing, greased up, fully formed sex symbol of "I'm a Slave for You." The critics hated her for being a tease—or for being too sexually provocative—but that only empowered her. And sure, her songs may be cheesy—but they're inspirational to teens who can relate to Britney's own emotional struggles: decisions about chastity, first love, insecurity, loneliness, and rejection. "Her lyrics really address a lot of core issues in the lives of her fans," says Levitin, the author of The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. "In a way, it's the same connection my generation had to the Beatles."
Among the teens featured in the documentary who say Britney helped save them is Sam, a gay 18-year-old from Wigan, a working-class town in England who says the songstress helped him find the courage to embrace his sexuality. There's 15-year-old Shannen, who overcame an eating disorder and says Spears "has been there for me when nobody else could be." And Luis, a 16-year-old Jehovah's Witness from East London who says the song "My Prerogative" inspired him to question his faith—and ultimately leave the church he'd grown up in. "It just always seemed that when she was going through something, the words that she would sing would mean something to me," says Lynsey, the dance instructor.
Perhaps it's so easy for fans to sympathize with Britney because they've seen so much of her—and we're not talking about her underwear indiscretions. Just as Marilyn Monroe encapsulated the '50s, Britney was the first tabloid star of her time. "This is a woman who has the ability to knock the Iraq War off the front pages of the mainstream press by her choice in underwear," says Vikram Jayanti, the film's Oscar-winning director. Her rise and fall was chronicled by a 24-hour stream of paparazzi photos, celebrity blogs, and cable-news networks devoted to covering every detail of her life. We've seen her coming out of a gas-station bathroom barefoot, driving her infants around L.A. without a car seat, shopping at Wal-Mart, buying tampons and a pregnancy test and, of course, being wheeled out of her Hollywood mansion strapped to a gurney. None of this was glamorous, but Britney didn't seem to care: she frequently appeared in public without makeup, her face splotchy with acne and her hair extensions falling out. "It's like every day you open a paper, you read something new about her," says Sam, the 18-year-old featured in the documentary. "So if you are a fan, you feel like you actually know her."
In many ways, it's that feeling of closeness that makes her such an inspiration to these teens. As they are interviewed in front of the camera, many of them come across as awkward, emotional, and at times hard to watch. But Britney fills a void for them in a way that no one else can. "It's the idea that even Britney Spears, this fabulous star, this huge celebrity, this beautiful woman, even she has problems—and big ones—that are just like mine," says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. In other words, no matter how bad it gets for the rest of us, Britney probably has it worse. And despite all that, she was still able to pick herself back up again. "In a sense she's unstoppable," says Village Voice pop-culture critic Michael Musto. "She has her hair back, she has her career back." And now, she's even a role model.