Alim Kheraj tells the story of the track which has become the subject of many conspiracy theories and countless discussions among the singer’s devotees
On a typically sun-filled Los Angeles day in 2007, paparazzi filmed Britney Spears listening to demos from her then-unreleased fifth album, Blackout, while she was driving around the city in her convertible Mercedes. In the clip, filmed during a tumultuous period during the singer’s life when the tabloids were documenting her every move, Spears sits in the car pointedly ignoring the photographers’ intrusions as she cycles through three songs, none of which ended up making the final tracklist for the record.
Two of those songs, “State of Grace” and “Baby Boy”, made their way onto the internet in a mega-leak that saw Blackout spread ahead of its release, along with a treasure trove of unreleased material. Such a leak, while large, wasn’t unprecedented, but the explosion of material fit with the chaotic energy that surrounded Spears at that time – in the same way her life appeared unfiltered, these songs provided a raw and uncompromising portrait of the once pure Princess of Pop.
Missing from this treasure chest, however, was a complete version of the third song Spears had blasted in her car that day. It’s a song that she teased fans with, allegedly against her label’s permission, by sharing a snippet on her website accompanied by an animation of her face transforming into a tiger. That song is “Rebellion”, and in the 16 years since, it’s become the subject of many conspiracy theories and countless discussions among the singer’s devotees. Despite everything we now know – or don’t – about the complexities of her life since her father placed her under the now-dissolved conservatorship in 2008, for Britney Spears fans, “Rebellion” remains their biggest white whale.
Along with the snippet Spears supposedly secretly shared on her website, various fan-made edits of “Rebellion” have made their way online. There’s even a tantalising 11-second, high-quality snippet, which teases a fully produced version of the song.
Yet what makes “Rebellion” significant is not its obscurity but its lyrical content. “Be wary of others / The ones closest to you,” Spears sings in the opening verse over a gloomy beat and claustrophobic strings, her voice quiet with paranoia. “The poison they feed you / And the voodoo that they do. But in rebellion / There’s a sparkle of truth / Don’t just stand there / Do what you got to do.”
This lyrical nugget is scarily prescient given the horrors that came to light during the reports and disputes about the controversial conservatorship that controlled the singer’s life for nearly 14 years. But “Rebellion” predates the conservatorship. It even arrived before the events of 2007 and 2008, which led up to its formations – including allegations that Sam Lutfi, Spears’s manager during that period, was drugging and manipulating her (Lufti denies these allegations). Instead, the song speaks to another form of control that Spears was battling against, one that perhaps coalesced with the players of the conservatorship and led to the singer’s imprisonment in her own life.
On December 30, 2004, Britney Spears appeared as a surprise guest on Los Angeles radio station KIIS-FM, where she debuted a rough mix of a new song called “Mona Lisa”. The track, recorded with her band while she was on tour, is about the demise of a famous woman, the consumption of her downfall as entertainment and her quest for freedom. “They want her to breakdown / Be a legend of her fall,” Spears sings in the second verse in another spine-chillingly prophetic lyric.
She told the radio hosts that the song was from her upcoming album called Original Doll. The singer’s label, Jive, later denied its existence. Speaking to BuzzFeed in 2014, Spears’s manager, Larry Rudolph, also dubbed reports of the album “a bullshit story with zero factual basis”. (Rudolph, who had managed Spears for over 25 years – aside from a brief period between 2007 and 2008 – resigned as her manager in 2021 amid the legal proceedings surrounding the dissolution of the conservatorship.) A reworked version of “Mona Lisa” later appeared on the EP Britney and Kevin: Chaotic.
Still, Spears talked about wanting to be taken more seriously as an artist, according to people who worked with her during that time. “She said nobody really listens to her,” songwriter Michelle Bell, who worked with Spears before the release of 2003’s In the Zone album, told BuzzFeed. “She just wanted somebody to say I believe in you beyond this pop machine.”
Spears also spoke about the restraints enforced by her label and those around her in a letter she posted on her website in 2004. “I’ve actually learned to say NO!” she wrote. “With this newly found freedom, it’s like people don’t know how to act around me. Should we talk to her like we did when she was 16 or like the icon everyone says she is?”
In the years that followed, the singer’s behaviour became more concerning, as did the media circus that grew around her. But she continued to connect with her fans via her website, sporadically posting letters where she chastised the tabloids, discussing motherhood and giving her side of the story. In one letter published at the beginning of 2007, around the same time that Spears briefly fired Rudolph as her manager, she spoke about “where I want to go with myself as an entertainer with absolutely no strings attached”. “I am now more mature and feel like I am finally ‘free’,” she wrote.
This brief glimpse of freedom, which made space for Spears to release her most adventurous and cohesive record yet with Blackout, was short-lived. Spears was placed under the conservatorship less than five months after the album’s release. Larry Rudolph returned to manage her, and by November 2008 she had a new album out and a world tour planned.
“Rebellion” lingered on in the background, the song’s paranoid lyrics playing out in real-time. Concern among fans about the validity and necessity of the conservatorship grew, especially as Spears herself had expressed her desire to terminate the arrangement. And so “Rebellion” took on further significance, becoming emblematic of the situation that fans believed Spears now found herself in.
In 2010, one producer involved with “Rebellion”, Christopher “Notes” Olsen, sadly died. After his death, his sister, Angelica, gave an interview with Spears fansite Breathe Heavy about the track that added flames to the fires of conspiracy. According to Notes’s sister, Jive pulled the snippet of “Rebellion” Spears allegedly uploaded to her website; Rudolph also sent Notes an email saying that the song wasn’t the direction the label wanted to go for with the album. All this, some fans speculated, demonstrated that Spears was not only being suppressed in her personal life, but artistically, too.
There were other curious circumstances that affected those involved with the song. Co-producer Scott Storch would later struggle with substance abuse and financial issues, while Notes’s manager was murdered. Another producer allegedly involved with the song, Jeff Dandurand, also spoke several times about trying to gain the rights to the song but was “shot down four times with various cease and desists”.
Of course, all of this is surely a coincidence. But along with the fact that “Rebellion” remains as much an enigma as Spears is herself, these events have provided fertile ground for conspiracies, one of which suggests that Spears was a prisoner in her own life, her every move controlled by those involved with the conservatorship. As we know now, this turned out to be true.
What is unknowable is the level of control that was exerted over Spears by her management and record label before the introduction of the conservatorship, although her letters certainly seem to signify that there was discord. Fans believe that they may find clues in the Original Doll album and with the full version of “Rebellion”. So much so that someone on Reddit has even put a bounty on the track (although it stands at a measly $100).
This dogged pursuit of “Rebellion” is evidence of the obsessional fan behaviour that could have only sprouted in the internet era. While there have been musical white whales in the past (the Beach Boys’ SMiLE, Jimi Hendrix’s Black Gold, Prince’s Dream Factory, and even Lady Gaga and Kanye West’s cancelled Fame Kills tour), “Rebellion” arrived at the dawn of the digital era. Social media and camera phones meant that information was disseminated so widely that even passing reference to something could take on mythical status (who else remembers the talk of Artpop 2?). Likewise, the internet allowed fans from all over the world to congregate in great numbers, pushing discussions, debate and speculation on fan forums into overdrive.
Similarly, greater transparency by artists on social media about the machinations of the music industry has also led to a bigger sense of distrust between the consumer and the machine. Artists like SZA, Doja Cat, Tinashe, Kelly Clarkson, Megan Thee Stallion, Charli XCX, Kesha and Raye have all spoken about, or alluded to, the difficulties they’ve had with their record labels, producers or management. Taylor Swift’s fractured relationship with her former label Big Machine has even led to her re-recording all her old music in order to take ownership of her masters, an exercise that likewise highlights the insatiable appetite fans have for previously unreleased material.
For Spears fans, this period was full of activity. Along with the singer’s apparent artistic discontent, her seemingly erratic behaviour, speculation in the media about nefarious outside interference and the subsequent secrecy surrounding the workings of the conservatorship provided the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy and conjecture about how Spears was being suppressed. The song at the heart of it was “Rebellion”.
When the conservatorship was ultimately terminated in 2021, cries for the song to be leaked online spread again. On Instagram, Spears began exhibiting her own rebelliousness, sharing topless pictures, often-deleted diatribes about her family and the conservatorship, posts about drinking champagne and eating cakes, and living her life without constraints. For the first time since who knows when, Britney Spears is living without outside interference.
The myth of “Rebellion”, meanwhile, lives on. Despite people’s best efforts, it remains elusive; there’s even debate whether a full version even exists. Either way, the song has also become symbolic of something deeper – along with the #FreeBritney movement, the unrelenting speculation about “Rebellion” gives validity to the power and passion of fans. With “Rebellion”, fans are now searching for answers to questions they have about their favourite pop star and what led to a situation where they were gaslighted by those involved in the conservatorship into complicity. But as Spears sings, in rebellion there’s “a sparkle of truth”. Looking at her Instagram, perhaps she’s now ready to give it to us.