There’s a video of Britney Spears shot in 2007, not long after Valentine’s Day. She’s pacing around a tattoo parlor, where she’s just gotten a pair of bright red lips inked on her wrist and a cross etched onto her hip. She’s bookended by men so large their silhouettes rival refrigerators, but enough of her is visible to see that her hair is freshly shorn, by her own hand as it turns out.

Britney turns and faces the camera. There is a loopy, crooked grin on her face, and her eyes, when they skip across the lens of the camera, have a feral glint to them. That expression, in combination with her buzzed skull, gives off the distinct impression of someone unhinged, someone teetering on the verge of an unknown abyss. It’s unsettling how satisfied she seems.

After that scene, in the days and weeks to come, any time Britney Spears’ name came up in conversation, whether you were a fan from the start of her meteoric fame or just someone who tuned in toward the end to watch with amusement as she married a dopey backup dancer nicknamed “meat pole,” flashed her bare derrière to the paparazzi and toddled in and out of public bathrooms barefoot, the same question arose again and again: What in the hell happened to Britney Spears? And what did it mean?

Today, in an era of Kardashians and Winehouses and “Toddlers and Tiaras,” this is the norm. But back then, it wasn’t. Britney turned her private life inside out. She put every terrible piece of it on display for us to dissect.

And in “The Tragedy of Britney Spears,” Vanessa Grigoriadis tries to understand what her demise, set against a backdrop of an unhappy country, knee-deep in an overseas war and an uncertain future, all meant.

The challenge of any journalist tasked with writing a celebrity profile is to tell readers something they don’t already know, and I’m not talking about revealing the little-known fact that your subject is actually a devout vegetarian who wanted to figure out a way to test pharmaceuticals without harming animals when she grew up, but got discovered in a shopping mall in Wyoming and things took off from there, and boy, wowee, isn’t life a strange and bizarro ride. No. I’m talking about getting an accurate portrayal of what celebrities’ worlds are like and satisfying our insatiable appetite to know what it is truly like to be famous, what life is like when all of your wildest dreams come true.

The opening graph paints a grim picture of that reality.

Grigoriadis writes,

Only a few kids are in the store, a young girl with her brother and two blondes checking out fake-gold charm bracelets. Britney rifles the racks as the Cure’s “Pictures of You” blasts into the airless pink boutique, grabbing a pink lace dress, a few tight black numbers and a frilly red crop top, the kind of shirt that Britney used to wear all the time at seventeen but isn’t really appropriate for anyone over that age. Then she ducks into the dressing room with Ghalib. He emerges with her black Am Ex.

The card won’t go through, but they keep trying it.

“Please,” begs Ghalib, “get this done quickly.”

One of the girls runs to Britney’s dressing room, explaining the situation through a pink gauze curtain.

A wail emerges from the cubby — guttural, vile, the kind of base animalistic shriek only heard at a family member’s deathbed. “Fuck these bitches,” screams Britney, each word ringing out between sobs. “These idiots can’t do anything right!”

Grigoriadis did not seem to get extensive access to Britney for the piece, which she deftly discloses to the reader by weaving in descriptions of the shrewd attempts of Britney’s handlers to elicit $2 million in exchange for the interview. In doing so, she gives the reader a sense of the exploitative nature of everyone, absolutely everyone, in Britney’s life. And yet, even without candid access, she is able to paint a portrait of Britney’s life through thorough and numerous interviews and accounts of the exes, friends, lawyers, handlers and the people who orbit around her, and piece together how Britney fell so spectacularly from her perch as a pop princess into an inky pool of isolation, paranoia and madness.

Grigoriadis is not in love with her subject; she is not seduced by Britney’s celebrity. She is blunt and unforgiving: 700 words in, she shockingly describes Britney as an “inbred swamp thing.”

She goes on to say,

She is someone who, when she has had her one- and two-year-old sons taken completely out of her care, with zero visitation rights, appeared at Los Angeles’ Superior Court to convince the judge to give her kids back, but then decided not to go inside, and she’s someone who did this twice. She’s the perfect celebrity for America in decline: Like President Bush, she just doesn’t give a fuck, but at least we won’t have to clean up after her mess for the rest of our lives.

The brilliance of this piece, what makes it so good, is the way Grigoriadis turns Britney’s breakdown into an examination of popular culture and in doing so, delivers an unflattering glimpse into the undercarriage of the entertainment industry, the price of fame and the way that celebrity can warp your perception of reality, so much so that even as it is ruining your life, you still crave more and more attention, you are still giving a performance, the only way you know how.

While it may be true that Britney suffers from the adult onset of a genetic mental disease (or a disease created by fame, yet to be named); or that she is a “habitual, frequent and continuous” drug user, as the judge declared; or that she is a cipher with boundless depths, make no mistake — she is enjoying the chaos she is creating. The look on her face when she’s goofing around with paparazzi — one of whom, don’t forget, she is dating — is often one of pure excitement.

And then in this paragraph, she neatly ties together the theme of celebrity culture with our disposal notion of entertainment and entertainers, so much so that even the fascination that compels us to read this article, to know what really caused her meltdown, is all part of a big putrid cycle:

If Britney was really who we believed her to be — a puppet, a grinning blonde without a cool thought in her head, a teasing coquette clueless to her own sexual power — none of this would have happened. She is not book-smart, granted. But she is intelligent enough to understand what the world wanted of her: that she was created as a virgin to be deflowered before us, for our amusement and titillation. She is not ashamed of her new persona — she wants us to know what we did to her.

Britney’s transformation from a carefully manicured sexpot into something more grotesque, something undesirable, calls into question the kind of culture and news infrastructure that we are building:

There is one group of people who love Britney unconditionally, and whose love she accepts: Every day in L.A., at least a hundred paparazzi, reporters and celebrity-magazine editors dash after her, this braless chick padding around town on hilariously mundane errands — the gas station, the pet store, Starbucks, Rite Aid. The multibillion-dollar new-media economy rests on her slumped shoulders, with paparazzi agencies estimating that she has comprised up to twenty percent of their coverage for the past year. It’ not only bottom feeders running after Britney — a recent memo leaked from the Associated Press, which plans to add twenty-two entertainment reporters to its staff, announces that everything that happens to Britney is news (they have already begun preparing her obit).

The piece conveys that no matter what happens next to Britney, this was the performance we all tuned in for, and would always remember her for.

Toward the end of the piece, Grigoriadis writes:

We want her to survive and thrive, to evolve into someone who can make us proud again. Or maybe, we just don’t want the show to end.

It is a stunningly articulate conclusion. Grigoriadis makes it clear that if this spectacle is about Britney, it is also about us.

I can remember waiting for this piece to come out online, then checking local magazine shops in San Francisco to buy a hard copy (retro, right?) and reading it again. This story made me want to be a journalist and uncover the things that give us pause, all of the triumphs and casualties that reflect who we are as a culture, and put them on display, no matter how discomfiting they may be.

Jenna Wortham (@jennydeluxe) is a technology reporter at The New York Times. In her spare time she makes zines and stalks former “America’s Next Top Model” contestants in Brooklyn.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.

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