Miss American Dream
How Britney Spears went to Vegas and became a feminist role model. No, really.
By Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Illustrations by Geoff J. Kim
A t the top of the steps of Planet Hollywood, on the Las Vegas Strip, an elderly woman dressed in a black wig and a tiara and a fur coat over an evening gown lodged a formal complaint with a woman holding a clipboard.
“She’s fucking up my day,” said the woman loudly. “This is where I work.” This was her turf, it seemed, a place where she allowed tourists to take pictures of her or with her in exchange for a dollar or two. This is a common occupation up and down the Strip, but most practitioners are dressed as familiar characters like Darth Vader or the Minions from Despicable Me. It was harder to discern who this lady was supposed to be. The Queen of England, maybe?
Either way, there would be no pictures today. About an hour before dawn on a windy morning last December, several tired-looking men had rolled out heavy metal equipment and slowly assembled the various components into what seemed to be a stage: high-intensity lights, a long red carpet, an industrial-looking 360-degree rotating platform. Security guards had taken their seats at strategic corners, settling in for what they knew was going to be a long day with a chaotic ending.
“You better believe she’s going to fuck this up, like she fucks up everything,” the Queen said. “How am I going to get paid? Who will pay me?” The woman with the clipboard listened to her sympathetically and then pretended to be called away.
A surprisingly forceful wind began to blow, and more and more people emerged from the 150,000 hotel rooms along Las Vegas Boulevard and began to gather around the barriers. They shared no clear demographic, unless being people who chew gum loudly is a demographic, which maybe it is: families with small children; drag performers off their nightly shifts; women who were anywhere between their late 20s and early 40s and who had the aggressively stripey blonde highlights and severe, long-in-front, shorter-in-back haircut of so many female visitors to the Strip; those women’s despondent male companions; women still drunk from the night before who kept hoisting up their wilting strapless dresses and who carried yard-high cups in the shape of the Eiffel Tower, now equal parts frozen drink remnants and backwash. Whenever anyone sidled up to the guards and asked what was going on, the answer was always just “Britney.”
Nobody had to ask which Britney. From the time you deplaned into McCarran airport, you were full-court pummeled with giant billboards of Britney Spears in a red, sequined leotard, an actual scarlet V on her chest, hands on hips, head bent disconcertingly downward as she stares, either seductively or drunkenly—it could be either, and determining it depends largely on your worldview, but more on that later—into the camera. The mini TVs in the cabs played Britney music as mini show hosts talked about Britney. Inside Planet Hollywood, life-size Britneys covered the elevators, so that when the doors opened she was cut directly down the middle, which is exactly the subtle sort of metaphor that Vegas is known for.
All this was to advertise Piece of Me, her new two-year Las Vegas residency. Vegas doesn’t make as much as it used to on casinos—you don’t have to travel to gamble anymore, not since the advent of online gambling and the Indian casino; plus the crash in 2008 left Vegas’s tourist-dependent economy in tatters. The thing that pulled it around was a phenomenon known as the “trip-driver,” a star so big that people would come to Vegas to see her, as opposed to a star who people would see if they just happened to be visiting Vegas. Celine. Elton. Shania. Britney.
This event was Britney’s Las Vegas Welcome, which is a sort of official greeting ceremony, usually a few weeks before a residency begins, when, ostensibly, the star settles into her newly adopted city, and is received by the hotel brass and other Vegas dignitaries, like DJs and the people who impersonate her at late-night variety shows. To Welcome Shania Twain for her residency, Still the One, in 2011, the Strip was closed off and 40 actual live horses were set loose to thunder from one end to the other. Rod Stewart’s residency was Welcomed in 2011 with a bunch of synchronized swimmers in the pool at Caesars because why shouldn’t he be. For Britney’s Welcome, Caesars had decided on a retrospective of her career, including a medley of her most popular songs and outfits. Though she’s only 32, she’s had a long enough career that this seemed to make sense.
The sun rose and descended over the Strip, quickly, like it does in a reality show, on sped-up film. Some dancers who were also gymnasts and contortionists rehearsed over and over for hours on the revolving platform, doing everything from a sexy schoolgirl-uniformed “…Baby One More Time” to a fire-breathing “Circus.” The wind blew even harder, and some in the audience paused their gum chewing to express to the security guards that perhaps it was dangerous for these dancers, and of course, Britney, to perform on top of the structure. Everyone seemed quite worried, but also there was nothing else to talk about. A young woman who had slowly gotten drunker and drunker over the past hour thanks to a double Eiffel Tower of frozen drink said, “Where the hell is that bitch?”
Fifty stories above all this, Britney Spears was working. She didn’t know about the wind or the dancers or the fire-breather or about the old lady whose day she had fucked up immeasurably, the one who might be the Queen of England. She was sitting in a room in the semi-dark, slightly hunched over, a little bored, at the tail end of a daylong junket in which TV journalists asked her questions like “What do people not know about you?” (“Really that I’m pretty boring.”) and “What was the craziest rumor you ever heard about yourself?” (“That I died.”) and who her secret famous crush is, a question that she’s been asked for years and years and that she’s been giving the same answer to for years and years (“Brad Pitt”).
Suddenly, one of the lights went out and the interview stopped as assistants scurried, trying to fix it. They were running a very tight clock. Britney needed to be downstairs at 4:30 for her Welcome.
Britney sat there with a polite, blank expression. This is the job, right? She knows there’s a lot she has to do so that she can continue to do the thing that she loves. You can’t just sing and dance anymore. You have to prepare to sing and dance, which is getting harder as you get older. You have to talk about preparing to sing and dance to reporters, and then talk about what you plan to sing and dance. Some interviewer had given Skittles to her as a gift during the junket, and now an assistant handed them to her when the lights went out. That’s what the interviewers do. They come and they give her food. Yesterday had been her 32nd birthday. Mario Lopez had brought cupcakes. (The month before, a foreign journalist had asked her what her birthday plans were. “Probably working,” she’d said. His response: “You’re so American.”)
The residency had been Britney’s idea in the first place, one she’d been kicking around for years, this notion of setting up shop somewhere, making life a little bit more predictable and normal for her kids. But how can a pop star do that? For a while, she tried TV, and Fox paid her a reported $15 million for a judging gig on The X Factor. But she was terrible at the banter and bitchy sound bites that are so much the matter of those talent shows. Britney came up in a time of CDs, one of her managers, Adam Leber, reminded me, before interaction with fans was so unpredictable and needy and could come at you through your phone.
But it wasn’t just that, really. She told her publicist, Jeff Raymond, that watching other people perform made her wistful. She wasn’t ready to hang it up in her early 30s and assume the bizarre position of grande dame judge, trotted out for her wisdom rather than her talent, like Liza Minnelli or an errant Pussycat Doll. Britney quit before Simon Cowell could fire her so she could quit before he could fire her.
So what do you do next? You could set up shop in London or China and do a regular show. Or Broadway. But the other cities felt too remote and Broadway seemed too old. Vegas seemed old, too, with its so-called heritage acts that coalesce so well with what the city loves about itself: its ability to create a museum in time that tourists can visit, where you can tell them the story of what it was like for you, and how you’d like them to think of you. Elton John remembers when rock and he were young. Over at the Flamingo, Donny & Marie are still testing the boundaries of acceptable sibling love like it’s 1974.
Still, it’s hard to compete with Vegas, which brings in 300,000 new people every single weekend. That, and the 45-minute private jet ride back to Britney’s home in Westlake, California, made it seem doable. Plus, there had been a few younger residencies recently that had done well: Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses had done mostly sold-out runs at The Joint, the clubby concert venue over at the Hard Rock Café. (Okay, so not younger. Hipper? Hipper.)
It was actually electronic dance music that inspired her to think she might fit in there, with Deadmau5 and Tiësto and Avicii ruling nightclubs that were able to charge $500 for a VIP couch and a bottle of champagne. And EDM was proving good for Vegas. In 2011, the Electric Daisy Carnival yielded an economic impact of $136 million. (To put that into perspective, look at some of the city’s top-earning events that year: The NASCAR Sprint Cup race contributed $177 million and the Consumer Electronics Show, $202 million.) And Britney would be a trip-driver for sure, even after what people thought might be her peak. She is still more famous to more people than, say, Carrot Top, and he’s filling seats at the Luxor several nights a week.
Britney had once been a get—the subject of much-previewed, much-advertised prime-time interviews with the morning TV hosts who are our unelected arbiters of all that is wholesome and morally upright. Diane Sawyer demanded an explanation of exactly where her hymen went and when and what the girls who look up to her were supposed to make of all of this. Britney reacted the way we all did when we were confronted about our virginity as teenagers: She answered the questions, either truthfully or not, never summoning the disgust that was her due for having people ask the question in the first place. In 2006, Matt Lauer interviewed a pregnant, gum-chewing version of Britney on the cusp of a breakdown, a perceptible Matt Lauer sneer on his face, wanting to know if she truly understood what her behavior was doing to her children. She cried and begged for privacy. “You have to realize that we’re people,” she pleaded.
Now she just does a quick televised announcement of the residency with
sunny-tanned weatherman Sam Champion, followed months later by these junket interviews, so that she can fulfill her obligation to get out as much of the information to as many of the people as she can. Britney handed over the bag of Skittles, unfinished, to an assistant and answered another riveting question, which had already been asked of her multiple times that day and whose answer was available to anyone with YouTube access or a memory: “What’s something that people don’t know about Britney?” (“Really that I’m kind of boring.”)
The security and management and publicity teams assembled in the hallway, and Britney shivered a little—big crowds make her nervous. Not because of safety or anything. No, she has tried to explain this in interviews: Something that isn’t her takes over when she’s on stage. When she’s not, she’s, well,
really kind of boring and regular and doesn’t love being the center of attention, or in a large group. Britney was ushered toward the elevators, through the casino, and outside to a ’58 Impala, chosen from the classic car collection at the Quad (another Caesars property) that was waiting to drive her around the block so that she could get out and deliver what everyone had been waiting for all day.
So, just after 4:30 on that Tuesday, as the Las Vegas police were becoming irate in their insistence that the crowd not spill onto the street and someone behind me nervously mentioned the Walmart worker who had been trampled the week before at a doorbuster, Britney stepped out of the Impala. She walked past the crowd, up the stairs. She was blonde and shiny, and for a minute it was as if everyone in attendance faded to a muted dark and she was the only thing on the entire Strip that glowed. Her performance was not a singing performance, or even a vamping one. She received a bouquet of roses and thanked Planet Hollywood and the city of Las Vegas for Welcoming her so warmly, took a few pictures, and she was gone.
The Welcome, you see, is as false a construct as the word residency. Most residents save Celine Dion actually reside outside of Vegas, and the minute she was able to, Britney hightailed it back to her private plane and went back home to put her two kids to bed and then went to bed herself, because there were more rehearsals in Manhattan Beach tomorrow.
In the elevator, on the way back to our rooms in Planet Hollywood, inside those doors that had opened Britney up and closed us up inside her, a young lady told her friend that that was some fucked up way to spend the last four hours.
I met Courtney Fitzgerald, a public relations manager from the tourism bureau, for lunch at Burgr, one of several Gordon Ramsay-operated restaurants on the Caesars properties. The waiter had a one-sided discussion about the menu for maybe five whole minutes, using not one but two iPads to make his case. During his filibuster, he used the buzzwords of Las Vegas, “tempted” and “sinful” and “indulge,” winking and smiling his sparkleteeth at me like it wasn’t a hamburger he was talking about; like it was an underage virgin or my best friend’s husband. I like to think Vegas would have reminded me of Britney Spears even if I hadn’t been at work on a story about her in the first place.
“Las Vegas is getting younger,” Fitzgerald told me when the waiter finally beat it. Between 1998 and 2013, the percentage of people under 40 visiting
Vegas went from 29 percent to 42 percent. The amount of people 65 and older dropped from 20 percent to 15. Just about every person I met in Vegas excitedly shared this statistic with me, as if eliminating age in favor of youth didn’t sound creepy and dystopic. But looking around the city, all I can say is: you could have fooled me.
You could have fooled Cher, too. Cher had a residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace from 2008 to 2011. She didn’t like it—the official story is “Vegas throat,” which is the impact of consistent exposure to dry air on the vocal chords. That was just the cover, though. The theater she was performing in had been built for Celine with a microclimate system—moist air jetting up from vents in the stage into her face. Her dressing room had roughly the same humidity levels as a rainforest. But, really, Cher couldn’t stand the old people. Playing a concert and seeing the walkers up and down the aisles and the blue hairs and the wrinkles filled her with an existential dread that sent her running back to Malibu.
But the old people who came to see her—old people in wheelchairs, on
motorized scooters, hooked up to oxygen tanks and smoking—they have money, and they spend it, pounding away at slot machines with no other aspirations for the day except maybe to hear some music at the end of it, so long as they don’t have to leave the building.
The tourism sweet spot, of course, is the middle-aged double-income couple, which is why AEG Live, the concert promotion company, bet the Celine Dion residency would be a goldmine back in 2002 when the Colosseum was first built as her personal theater. People who want to see Celine can pay for a steak afterward, and maybe a few rounds of blackjack, too. Or they can just buy more Celine tickets! The Colosseum has hit a total of $1 billion through its various residencies (Celine, Rod, Shania, Elton John) since 2003.
Celine, which is the second iteration of her residency, was described to me as a celebration of Celine, and Celine sure is great at celebrating Celine: She sings “Where Does My Heart Beat Now” with a bunch of LCD monitors that are playing recordings of her singing that song at various other times in her career, which is reminiscent of the scene in Being John Malkovich where they go into his ego and it’s all Malkoviches. This should but doesn’t prepare you for later, when she does a duet with—I shit you not—a hologram of herself, and at times it is difficult to determine which of the Celines is the hologram. Later she does a duet with a hologram of a piano-playing Stevie Wonder, but by then, sure, why not.
Shania Twain’s Still the One residency fills the 4,000-seat Colosseum when Celine isn’t performing. She’s Canadian, too, and she’s country, so that leaves only about 12 Vegas tourists who don’t want to see her. (A note here on Canadians: They are not only the largest international group visiting, with all major airlines delivering planeloads of Canadians directly every few hours, but they’re also running the place. There’s Celine and her husbandager René Angélil and Celine’s protégé, the vocal impressionist Véronic DiCaire, and her husbandager, Ray, but also Cirque du Soleil is entirely Canadian, making Vegas very much the American land of Canadian opportunity.)
I don’t know what the best part of Shania’s concert was for me—if it was the silk leopard print robe replica from the “That Don’t Impress Me Much” video, or that she brings not one but two live horses up on stage, one black one to represent her tough times (her husband, Mutt Lange, running off with her best friend, who was her assistant), one white one to represent her healing (Vegas, and the fact that she’s now married to that assistant’s ex-husband! Booyah!). In the bowels of the Colosseum, a woman named Glynda removes that silk robe and all of Shania’s other clothing each night, checking it for rips or stains before retiring it lovingly to the safety of a hanger. Perhaps this is a trade secret, but here’s something that Glynda told me that echoed panicky through my brain later that night: There is no alternative for that robe. It’s the only one.
Each residency is a reflection of the demographic the property is going for—the Mirage made a play for the affluent and not-quite-debaucherous late 30s/early 40s crowd with Boyz II Men, these boyz who are now patchily gray men, who remain pure in their desire to romance you, to make gauzy, romantic, sweet, consensual love to you, and quickly retreat when you give the nod, who wear sequined letter sweaters and overestimate the impact their music had on our sex lives (“I bet there are some Boyz II Men babies in here!”). The Venetian very much wants the Midwestern, soft-country audience of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Planet Hollywood, with its hot pink accents and movie-themed rooms, was built for the Britney fan.
It’s only late in the evenings that Vegas visibly becomes what the tourism board says it is: young and saturated with sex—and not the Boyz II Men-sanctioned lovemaking kind, either. Out on the Strip, aging women wear shirts that say “Girls! Girls! Girls!” A man working for a competing strip club has a shirt that says “Orgasim Clinic: Accepting New Patients.” (Sic on that tragic typo.) Single-named DJs pump their skinny arms as women in tight tube dresses and Lucite heels they bought online a year ago straddle mouth-breathing men on VIP couches like they just heard there was an asteroid headed toward earth or just took a handful of Ecstasy; platonic girlfriends decide to make out at no urging at all because we’re in Vegas bitchez! One does not have to go far to feel the erection of a stranger in the rear of one’s jeans. It is in these small, handsy hours of the night that Caesars’ hope for Britney was born.
Caesars owns several properties—the Paris, Bally’s, Harrah’s, the Flamingo, Caesars Palace, of course, and Planet Hollywood. Kurt Melien, the smiley, tan vice president and head of Caesars Entertainment, wanted a star to call his own, someone he didn’t have to share with AEG Live, someone bigger than Season 5 American Idol winner Taylor Hicks, who looks like he’s 50, seems like he’s 60, even if he’s actually not even 40. Taylor Hicks was selling out the 200-seat Napoleon room at the Paris to horny, bosomy middle-aged women and their gloomy, hopeless husbands. So, thought Melien, why not bring in someone young to drive youthful spending? Sure, he’d do a fast gut on the Axis theater. Anything for Britney!
Britney’s contract for this show, which pays a reported $15 million (about $300,000 per show), demands that she create a spectacle that’s bigger than anything she’d done before, so that people who had seen her live before would still be tempted to come. (Celine’s first residency featured 53 dancers and a bunch of clowns, impractical to take on the road, to say the least.) Fine by Britney. She told Baz Halpin, the show’s creative director, that she wanted elements: fire, water, snow. She wanted a jungle theme, which is something she always wants. Halpin loved the idea and gave her a tree to jump off of in the middle of the third act; it’s 56,000 pounds and 32 feet high and takes six people to move.
Halpin and Britney began working on the set list, and the subindustry that is hired when a show like this goes up—costumes, dancers, ticket sales kiosk-builders, etc.—got to work. The contract, like all residency contracts, insisted on the hits. Vegas shows are normally just 90 minutes, no intermissions, no matter who is playing. Halpin told me it’s because you have more creative control in Vegas, and that stars don’t like intermissions: “You prep and prep and you’re getting ready for the show and then you hit the stage and then it’s a roller coaster. It’s a blur. Then it’s over and so to get plucked out of that and then sit in your trailer for 15 minutes and then like have to build up that excitement again is incredibly frustrating for the star.”
That’s not the only reason, of course. You can’t tire an audience out. It used to be a Britney show was your whole night, a special event. Now, her show is very deliberately just one part of the night, and that renders her just another of the women you encounter in Vegas who ease your way to the baccarat tables and buffets: card dealer, table dancer, hostess, prostitute, waitress, bartender, Britney Spears. (The first thing you notice when you land in Vegas is all the breasts. Breasts are the shining, veiny centerpiece of the uniforms in Vegas; it’s a city built on the breasts and shoulders of women. The only thing women aren’t in this city are magicians, but they are the people being sawed and made to disappear nightly for the magician’s applause.)
Notably, AEG Live was one of the only entities in town that didn’t make a play for Britney. Though John Meglen—the president of AEG Live, the mastermind behind the Celine deal, and, as such, the father of the modern-day, post-Wayne Newton residency—said, “We were offered it a few times.” Meglen has a lot of gray hair and is built like a muscle car—dense and handsome. There is nobody who understands the inner workings of Vegas and its properties like he does.
“Even if you believe in Britney, that gives you 50 shows [per year], great, what are you going to put in there your other 200 nights a year?” Meglen told me, in his office in L.A. “If all they have in there is Britney Spears and she is sold out for 50 shows, they have failed. They need Britney Spears and the Spice Girls and Jennifer Lopez and Pink or whoever, okay?” That said, even if the theater is sold out and the seats filled, that doesn’t quite fulfill the residency’s mission, which is to say: Vegas may claim to want youth, but young people aren’t actually good for business.
“You have to ask, ‘Are those kids buying tickets yet?’” Meglen continued. “Because most of them still are seven in a carload driving out from Southern California, they all sleep in one room, they spend the day at the pool and at night they go to the clubs. They’re great at using the workout room, that comes with your ticket. They don’t get the body scrubs or the facial wraps, you know? They don’t gamble and they don’t eat at restaurants and right now, in my opinion, it’s fucking tanking the whole fucking city.”
Almost immediately following the announcement of Piece of Me, a memo on Caesars letterhead leaked, listing possible responses that Planet Hollywood staff should use when asked by the average ticket-buyer if Britney plans to sing live. (Sample: “Certainly she will be singing live!” “Yes, all vocals will be live!” “No lip syncing will happen at the show.”) The document was a fake, concocted by who knows, which is not to say she’s singing live, either.
Britney knows she’s no Celine in that department; she’s not even a Shania. A voice teacher I know said she uses “unnatural and precarious forceful closure of the pharynx with corresponding raised larynx and tongue root” to effect equal parts sexy baby voice and major vocal fry—it’s a way to compensate for what is not a naturally lovely voice. On her albums, her voice isn’t just auto-tuned, it’s layered. What we’re hearing is Britney on top of Britney on top of Britney, filling in the thinness with quantity.
I don’t begrudge her the backup track, though. Our expectations of a woman in her 30s who has built two people in her body might be a little bit of a reach. “To put on the show that she puts on, it’s virtually impossible to sing the entire time and do what she does,” Adam Leber told me. “She’s singing on every song, basically, when she has the ability to sing. There’s no way you can dance for 90 minutes straight and sing the entire time.”
Vicious assessments of the show’s likelihood for failure soon flooded the Internet. Fox News wondered if Britney could handle the pressure of the gig, quoting unnamed sources close to Britney who said, “There is little chance that she can actually do this. The stress of a daily public appearance and the physical nature of a show could overwhelm her for sure.” Fox also brought out a legal analyst, who said, “There is no doubt that Spears has mental health issues or the judge would be forced to lift the conservatorship,” which allowed her father and lawyer control over her money, a move initially necessitated by her breakdown. She was going to fuck this up too, just like the Queen of England had predicted. (The truth is probably closer to what sources close to Caesars, which means that they work at Caesars, tell me: that the company had insisted on the conservatorship just in case, and that it must remain throughout her contract.)
But if you weren’t watching in the years since the head-shaving, the car-beating, and the conservatorship—and tabloids didn’t really cover this in-between part, so your ignorance is understandable—Britney managed to have six top-10 Billboard hits and two successful world tours: 2009’s The Circus Starring Britney Spears grossed $131.8 million, making it the seventh highest grossing tour that year and the sixth highest ever by a female artist, and 2011’s Femme Fatale, which was the 11th highest grossing tour that year, with a take of about $70 million.
Britney and her team decided it was time for a new album, too, and the new album, Britney Jean, which she promised would be her most personal and intimate yet, would come out around the same time that Vegas came to fruition. One would feed the other. That doesn’t appear to have happened. 209,000 albums had been sold by early January. For context, Beyonce’s album, which dropped in the middle of the night on iTunes more than a week after Britney Jean, had sold 1,432,000 albums by the same time.
If you think instead of the residency as a two-year tour to promote the album, which is sort of what it is, the jury is still out on how well it did. This is the kind of efficiency born of a smart management team, sure, but also what Britney has become since we last really watched her: a single working mother, and all that entails—a balancer, a scheduler, a picker, and a chooser. Britney is the machine that supports both her immediate and extended family. And of course there’s the matter of keeping her sons’ father, the upwardly motile Kevin Federline, who receives a $25,000 monthly child support check from Britney. That money mostly helps support Kevin’s new startup, which is building an empire of tiny Federlines to rise up and one day demolish us all, Idiocracy-style. At this writing, Federline’s sixth child had just been born.
“There’s Britney Jean, the little girl from Louisiana,” said Fenton Bailey, who co-directed the documentary I Am Britney Jean and spent months with her. “There’s Britney Spears the pop star. And then there’s Britneyplex, which is the enormous machine built around Britney Spears. It’s not just one person. It becomes like an aircraft carrier, all people, personnel, interrelation business, and industries.”
If you imagine the Britneyplex as concentric circles, you’d find her and her parents and her sister and brother, but also her kids and Kevin and Kevin’s other kids, and then the managers and the agents and publicists. Further out on those circles are the dancers, many of whom have trained all their lives to be her dancers. (Unlike some other stars, she likes to share the stage with them, and isn’t threatened by their presence — something that occasionally works to her detriment with some of the critics, when they compare her with her much younger compatriots.) From there are the musicians and costume designers and the many, many people who work for the costume designers, stitching in silk and locking in corset boning. Additional circles house the people who make their livings, even if briefly, documenting Britney — like Bailey and a 26-year-old Vegas local named Jordan Miller, who has run the fansite BreatheHeavy (which receives more than 70,000 uniques per day) since he was 15 years old. And then there are the people who work the Britney Spears store that’s open after her show, all the way down to the carpenter who was now in charge of gutting the old Aladdin to make way for Britney, and even further to the twerking little person Britney lookalike who was doing impressions of her down the road at a dive bar for $300 a night. (It is not lost on me that I, too, have momentarily entered the Britplex while reporting and writing this story.)
“There is a myth out there that she is a robot or just a controlled person,” said Bailey. “I don’t think it’s true at all. I think she is the captain of her ship. It’s just that she’s not an alpha personality in the way that Madonna is an alpha personality. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, I think.”
Not everyone counted Britney out. There was, of course, her fan base: the Britney Army, a true organism filled with what appears to be people from their late teens to early 40s who can mark a special place in their lives with a Britney song or era—communicating primarily in capital letters and animated GIFs of past Britney sound bites, dance moves, looks, and gestures that highlight her overall fierceness. (The one thing they cannot abide is Beyoncé. A Twitter war can break out when a Britney fan simply states, apropos of nothing, “BEYONCÉ STOLE BRITNEY’S MOVES,” and it’s on, motherfucker. Fifty retweets, Beyoncé’s fans engaged in tepid quasi-comeback. This is probably the worst part of it all, the way the Beyoncé fans don’t even care about the baiting.)
They refer to her not as Brit-Brit, which is her family’s nickname for her, but as an assortment of words to describe her made into portmanteaux with her name: When she’s practicing for her show, they call her Rehearsalney. When she’s caught learning choreography or participating in a new sequence, she’s Dancney. When she goes to Target, which is constantly, she’s Errandney. And when she inspires them or pulls something amazing off, which is practically always, if you ask them, she is Godney.
Andrea is not the real first name of a New York-based dominatrix who is a Britney obsessive. She is very skinny, with long hair, a pointy nose, smiley eyes, and perpetual excitement. We met on BreatheHeavy and I’d asked if we could meet the day of the show. She had texted me to look for her — “I’m in a cowgirl look” — and she was, boots and hat included.
She’s been a Stan (an obsessive fan, a term plucked from Eminem liturgy) since 2003; that was when Britney, to Andrea, became Authenticney, less Bubblegumney and dropping that bullshit wide-eyed Virginey act. It was Meltdowney circa 2008 that sealed the deal for her, though. “Oh, I loved it,” Andrea said. “She was just saying fuck you to the world over and over. This was who I knew she was. In the early 2000s, she was a phony. This was really her.” The Britney Army believes in her in a way that is touching. They watched Britney do the ugly work we are all charged with: leaving our innocence behind and figuring out a way to be real people without being living reactions to what we once were or were perceived to be.
This was Andrea’s first Britney show—there was literally no way she could be disappointed, she told me. It’s worth stopping to consider why Andrea was here in Vegas, or why anyone was. Increasingly, we are all experiencing one another only from our desks and our phones and our Twitter feeds. This Britney concert is real. Maybe the singing isn’t, sure. But this, a weekend in Vegas, is real. It is a concentrated vacation experience in which the only expectation is that you act like the type of person you usually are not. You might not even enjoy it—for truly, over my month there, I saw much drunkenness, much screaming, much innuendo, much grinding, but I don’t believe I saw much enjoyment. Time in Vegas will, however, give you something to go back to your computer about. The longer we spend at our computers, the more we need those that times to post about.
When opening night came around, among the tearful fans in line, replicas of the red vinyl catsuit that she wore in the “Oops! … I Did It Again” video could be seen in great abundance; Andrea wore one, too. I ended up sitting near a group of trans women who each, individually, acted as though they were alone with Britney, singing to her like I would never have the guts to do with anyone in public, or maybe even alone. These people just wanted to be in the same room with Britney, and with people who also wanted to be in the same room as Britney. These people didn’t care that Britney was a pawn for foot traffic to the casino. Fuck foot traffic to the casino.
O n the surface, “Work Bitch” is a bizarre dance song with depressing lyrics. It is the first song she sings in Piece of Me:
You want a hot body? You want a Bugatti? You want a Maserati? You better work bitch
Without getting into the politics of a woman calling herself or another woman a bitch, consider what Britney is trying to tell us. She’d promised that this album would be her most personal album yet, and what do we get? “Work bitch”? Is she the bitch? Are we calling her a bitch? Is she instructing another bitch as to the secret of her success? How is this personal?
Vulture published a disgusted review, calling her not just the most boring singer on the planet but “the most boring person,” and “anti-matter in a belly shirt.” Flavorwire kindly rushed to Britney’s aid, asking why we talk about Britney as if she’s not a prisoner. (A reference, again, to her conservatorship.)
I’d like to submit a different theory: What if this is a personal song? The song’s sentiments are certainly the only ones in current pop that I can relate to. Its message is that nothing comes easily, that you can’t keep your kids in private school and your community gated and your ex-husband in his nation-building ambitions without work. Britney isn’t the fuck-up we decided she was during a relatively short but well-publicized period of her life. She drops off her kids and picks them up from school just about every day. She shows up on time, hits every mark, is polite and soft-spoken. She rehearses five or six hours every day, saying, “Let’s run through it one more time.” Britney works.
So, are we prepared to dismiss our preconceived notions of her as some sad gum-chewing has-been to make room for another interpretation? What if Britney has somehow become a feminist role model for single working mothers here and everywhere?
Maybe that’s what I was seeing. For her entire career, Britney has been a living, breathing Rorschach test not just to me but to anyone who regards her. She presents us with action and art, all for interpretation, maybe even fucking with us a little while she does it. And whatever we see in it, that tells us a lot about who we are, not who she is.
Example: She recorded a song for the 2013 Smurfs sequel called “Ooh La La.” Here are the lyrics:
Take my hand, we can go all night And spin me round just the way I like It feels so good, I don’t wanna stop So baby come with me and be my ooh la la
If you find that song sweet, you are one kind of person; if you find it to be a song about anal that somehow made it into a children’s movie, you are quite another.
Meanwhile, here is the bridge for “Work Bitch”:
Hold your head high Fingers to the sky They’re gonna try to try you But they can’t deny you
Mine is just as valid as any of the hundreds of theories that others have proposed over the years. Alas, Britney’ll never confirm or deny it. I never did get to interview her—as I said, she refuses most in-depth interviews. In December, she told InStyle that she’s gotten lip injections, and so the coverline reveals this is “Her most candid interview yet!” Everyone wants her most personal album and her most personal interview ever—we are a nation riveted by Britney’s personhood—and no matter how many times she answers our questions, still she is a whore and a liar and an idiot and a fraud.
Instead she answers the same questions she’s always answered: The crazy rumor, the favorite city to visit, the secret crush (that she died, for Christ’s sake; London, but she’s not sure why; Brad Pitt! Brad Pitt! For the love of god, it’s always Brad Pitt!). They’re gonna try to try you but they can’t deny you.
So now we get nothing, either because she’s wary of us or because she knows that if you’re reading this, your decision has already been made. Now she’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle bound together by a hair extension. Now, the weatherman gets to interview her.
And then, on opening night, Britney descended into the crowd inside a basket-weave metal orb, sparkly in silver and flesh, alighted from the thing, doing her famous strut up and down, draaaag step, draaaag step. It had been a hellish few weeks for those involved in the show. One of the dancers had been injured, and the whole thing was running over, so they had to cut a number. A publicist for the show told me, “I flew home for like a day. But then even, I did not answer a single e-mail on Christmas Day. I’m like, This is for Jesus. Like, he doesn’t care about Britney. I mean, he does. But not like about this job.”
Britney did some major dancing, dipping low and jumping high and leaping faithfully into other dancers’ arms. She did a lot of those robot-who-mated-with-Janet-Jackson fast movements we’ve always known her for. She swung from a tree. She dressed like an angel. In all her public life and in Piece of Me, she treats her abdominals like they are an organ connected to her lungs: They cannot be covered up, lest the entire organism shut down. She famously used to do 1,000 crunches a day, but these days she bakes cookies with her kids and sometimes finishes off the batter. Still, these abs are formidable and deserve the stage time they get. (Personally, I think not enough attention is paid to her knees, which take the most brutal beating in the show, with quick squats and slides across the floor.)
The only fan I met who didn’t like the show—and I did meet so many fans—was, if you can believe it, poor Andrea. A few days later we talked on the phone and she told me that Britney had seemed so unhappy to be there that Andrea, in her catsuit and still with her cowgirl hat, almost wanted to leave. Andrea had once thrown a sex party where she’d had to hire prostitutes to have sex with a group of people while she stood over them with a whip. There was this one prostitute who technically did a good job—“She got fucked and sucked, which is all I asked her to do, right?”—but there was something so vacant in the prostitute’s eyes, something so unwilling that it kind of killed the whole thing for Andrea. That’s what this felt like. She returned to her hotel room afterward and removed the BreatheHeavy app from her phone.
The residency is considered a success. According to Caesars, the show had Grossneyed $18.6 million, from as-of-this-writing 27 performances. And the Axis has found other acts to house while Britney’s not there — her old pals The Backstreet Boys, followed by New Kids on the Block, followed by Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. “Look, this is 8 to 80,” Britney’s publicist, Jeff Raymond, told me about her show, “This is couples. This is families. This is gay. This is straight. This is single guy, single girl. It’s literally 8 years old to 80 in there. Do you know what I mean?” In May, she was Reupneyed through Christmas 2016.
We demand her hard work, and she complies. At the Welcome event, an insipid local DJ hired to excite us led us into the part of “Work Bitch” that goes, “Work work work work”—and we screamed it as a way of beckoning her, we actually did this. Someone from Planet Hollywood had handed out signs to the crowd that looked like they’d been handwritten (but weren’t) and a child no more than 4 years old, who was seated atop an adult’s shoulders, held up one that read, “You Better Work, Britney!”
She is, you little shit, she is. We all are. Under the Planet Hollywood sign, a contortionist is hanging by her neck, spinning around while everyone looks away from her and toward Britney instead. The Queen of England poses for another picture, staring resentfully at the younger, more buoyant showgirls, so pretty in their feathers, so willing to be touched at their waists and to giggle submissively. A few blocks away at the Colosseum, Celine inhales air that is 98 percent moisture and conducts a full run-through again, though she’s done this a million times. One story beneath her, Glynda carefully pulls a thread from Shania Twain’s leopard cloak, knowing the stakes that rest on that swath of material. A woman is ignored as she stands in the middle of the sidewalk, handing out flyers to a strip club to the swarms of large-headed, burping young white guys pounding down Las Vegas Boulevard. Inside the Bellagio’s casino, a waitress who is hired as a model so that she can be legally fired if she gets fat or rips a fishnet gets touched on her knees, then a little above, then a $5 chip tip for not complaining. Inside the Axis, I take notes on what I see, bracing against the desperate, desperate loneliness of this strange city, intermittently receiving photos my husband texts me of my children, who can’t figure out why I’m gone so much these days. And Britney, Britney finishes the concert with “Till the World Ends,” which she used to dance back into the Christmas ornament-shaped orb. She ascends up, up till she is out of view. Backstage, she takes off her black leotard, hands it to the wardrobe assistant, puts on her sweatpants, throws her hair up into a messy bun and goes upstairs to where her sons are sleeping to kiss them on the foreheads, and takes a shower.
It was barely 11 p.m. In the theater, the lights came on and the crowd spilled out into a new set of lights, vowing that they, too, would dance until the world ends. There were still hours before five-inch stilettos were taken off and walking barefoot down the Strip seemed like one’s only option. There was so much gum left to chew, so many nips awaiting their slips, so much mascara yet to run down faces. It was time for these bitches to get to work.
This story was written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, edited by Mark Lotto, fact-checked by Hilary Elkins, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi. Illustrations by Geoff J. Kim. Cat Thomson narrated the audio version.