At the top of the steps of Planet Hollywood on the Las Vegas Strip, an elderly woman dressed in a tiara and fur coat over an evening gown lodged a complaint with a woman holding a clipboard.
“She’s fucking up my day,” said the woman. “This is where I work.” This was her turf, where tourists take pictures of 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. It was harder to discern who this lady was supposed to be. The Queen, maybe?
Either way, there would be no pictures today. Earlier that December morning, several tired-looking men had assembled what seemed to be a stage: high-intensity lights, a red carpet and an industrial-looking rotating platform.
“You’d better believe she’s going to fuck this up, like she fucks up everything,” the Queen said. The woman with the clipboard listened, then pretended to be called away.
More and more people emerged from the 150,000 hotel rooms along Las Vegas Boulevard and gathered. They shared no clear demographic, unless being people who chew gum loudly is a demographic: families with children; drag performers off their nightly shifts; women still drunk from the night before who carried yard-high cups in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. Whenever anyone asked what was going on, the answer was just: “Britney.”
Nobody had to ask which Britney. From the time you left the plane at McCarran airport you were pummelled with billboards of Britney Spears in a sequinned leotard, hands on hips, head bent disconcertingly downward as she stares into the camera. Inside Planet Hollywood, life-size Britneys covered the lifts, 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 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 since the advent of online betting. Plus, the crash in 2008 left Vegas’s tourist-dependent economy in tatters. The thing that pulled it around was the “trip driver” – a star so big that people would come to Vegas to see them, as opposed to a star people would see if they happened to be visiting Vegas.
This event was Britney’s Las Vegas Welcome, when, ostensibly, the star is received by the hotel brass and other Vegas dignitaries. To Welcome Shania Twain for her residency Still the One in 2011, the Strip was closed and 40 horses thundered from one end to the other. Rod Stewart was Welcomed with synchronised swimmers in the pool at Caesars Palace. For Britney’s Welcome, Caesars had decided on a retrospective, 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.
Fifty storeys above all this, Britney Spears was at the end of a day-long junket in which journalists asked her questions like: “What do people not know about you?” (“Really that I’m pretty boring”) and “What was the craziest rumour 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”).
The residency had been Britney’s idea, one she’d been kicking around for years, this notion of setting up shop somewhere, making life more predictable for her kids. She tried TV, and Fox paid her a reported $15m for a judging gig on The X Factor. But she was terrible at the banter and soundbites that are so much the matter of those talent shows.
So what do you do next? It’s hard to compete with Vegas, which brings in 300,000 new people every 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 that had done well: Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses had done mostly sold-out runs at the Joint, the venue over at the Hard Rock Café. (OK, so not younger. Hipper? Hipper.)
The security and management and publicity teams assembled in the hallway. Britney was ushered outside to a ’58 Impala that was waiting to drive her around the block so that she could deliver what everyone had been waiting for all day.
So just after 4.30pm on that Tuesday, Britney stepped out of the Impala. 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 Strip that glowed. 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 minute she was able to, Britney hightailed it back to her private plane and went home to put her two kids to bed and then went to bed herself, because there were more rehearsals in Manhattan Beach the next day.
Some time later I met Courtney Fitzgerald, a public relations manager from the tourism bureau, for lunch at BurGR, one of several Gordon Ramsay-operated restaurants. “Las Vegas is getting younger,” Fitzgerald told me. Between 1998 and 2013, the percentage of people under 40 visiting Vegas went from 29% to 42%. The number of people 65 and older dropped from 20% to 15%. Just about every person I met in Vegas shared this statistic with me, as if eliminating age in favour of youth didn’t sound 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 cover. The theatre had been built for Céline Dion 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. What Cher couldn’t stand was the old people. Playing a concert and seeing the Zimmer frames up and down the aisles and the wrinkles filled her with existential dread.
The tourism sweet spot, of course, is the middle-aged double-income couple, which is why AEG Live, the concert promotion company, bet that the current Céline residency would be a goldmine back in 2002. People who want to see Céline can pay for a steak afterwards, and maybe blackjack. The Colosseum has hit a total of $1bn through its various residencies (Céline, Rod, Shania, Elton) since 2003.
Céline, which is the second iteration of her residency, was described to me as a celebration of Céline, and Céline is great at celebrating Céline: She sings “Where Does My Heart Beat Now?” with a bunch of LCD monitors playing recordings of her singing that song at various times in her career, which is reminiscent of the scene in the film Being John Malkovich where they go into his ego and it’s all Malkoviches. Later she does a duet with a hologram of herself, and at times it is difficult to determine which of the Célines is the hologram.
Each residency reflects 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 grey men, remain pure in their desire to make sweet, consensual love to you. The Venetian 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 a man working for a strip club has a shirt that says “Orgasim Clinic: Accepting New Patients” (sic on that tragic typo). Single-named DJs pump their arms as women in tube dresses and Lucite heels straddle mouth-breathing men on VIP couches.
Caesars owns the Paris, Bally’s, Harrah’s, the Flamingo, Caesars Palace, of course, and Planet Hollywood. Kurt Melien, the smiley, tanned vice president and head of Caesars Entertainment, wanted a star to call his own. So, thought Melien, why not bring in someone young to drive youthful spending?
Britney’s contract for this show, which pays a reported $15m (about $300,000 per show), demands that she create a spectacle that’s bigger than anything she’s done before. Fine by Britney. She told Baz Halpin, the show’s creative director, that she wanted elements: fire, water, snow. She wanted a jungle theme. Halpin gave her a tree to jump off in the middle of the third act; it’s 32ft high and takes six people to move.
The contract, like all residency contracts, insisted on the hits. Vegas shows are normally just 90 minutes, with no intermissions. Halpin told me it’s because stars don’t like intermissions: “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 sit in your trailer for 15 minutes and then build up that excitement again is frustrating.”
That’s not the only reason, of course. It used to be that a Britney show was your whole night. 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, waitress, bartender, Britney Spears.
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 Céline deal, and, as such, the father of the modern-day residency – said: “We were offered it a few times. Even if you believe in Britney, that gives you 50 shows – great. What are you going to put in there your other 200 nights a year?
“If all they have in there is Britney Spears and she is sold out for 50 shows, they have failed – they need the Spice Girls and Jennifer Lopez and Pink.” That said, even if the theatre is sold out, that doesn’t quite fulfil the residency’s mission: 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 are still seven in a carload driving out from southern California. They 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 gamble and they don’t eat at restaurants, and right now, in my opinion, it’s tanking the whole fucking city.”
Soon after it was announced, vicious assessments of the show’s likelihood for failure flooded the internet. Fox News wondered if Britney could handle the pressure of the gig. 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.” (This allowed her father and lawyer control over her money, a move initially necessitated by her breakdown.) She was going to fuck this up, just like the “Queen” had predicted.
But if you weren’t watching in the years since the head-shaving and the conservatorship – and tabloids didn’t really cover this part, so your ignorance is understandable – Britney had six top-10 Billboard hits and two successful world tours: 2009’s The Circus Starring Britney Spears grossed $131.8m, making it the sixth highest-ever by a female artist, and 2011’s Femme Fatale made about $70m.
Britney and her team decided it was time for a new album, too: Britney Jean, which she promised would be her most personal 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 2014. For context, Beyoncé’s album, which came out more than a week after Britney Jean, had sold 1,432,000 albums by the same time.
This is the kind of efficiency born of a smart management team, sure, but also of what Britney has become since we last really watched her: a single working mother. Britney is the machine that supports both her immediate and extended family. And, of course, there’s the matter of keeping her sons’ father, Kevin Federline, who receives a $25,000 monthly child support cheque from Britney. At the time of 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 2013 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.”
If you imagine the Britneyplex as concentric circles, you’d find her and her parents and her siblings, 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. From there are the musicians and costume designers and the people who work stitching in silk and locking in corset boning.
Additional circles house the people who make their livings, even if briefly, documenting Britney – like Fenton Bailey and a 26-year-old Vegas local named Jordan Miller, who has run the fansite BreatheHeavy (which receives more than 70,000 unique visits 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 gutted the theatre to make way for Britney. (I, too, have momentarily entered the Britplex while reporting and writing this story.)
But not everyone counted Britney out. There was, of course, her fanbase: the Britney Army, filled with people who can mark a special place in their lives with a Britney song or era – communicating primarily in capital letters and animated gifs of Britney dance moves, looks and gestures that highlight her fierceness.
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 practising for her show, they call her Rehearsalney. When she’s learning choreography, she’s Dancney. And when she inspires them, she is Godney.
Andrea is not the real first name of a New York-based dominatrix who is a Britney obsessive. She is skinny, with long hair, 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 – “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, dropping that Virginey act. It was Meltdowney circa 2008 that sealed the deal for her. The Britney Army believes in her in a way that is touching.
This was Andrea’s first Britney show – there was literally no way she could be disappointed, she told me. 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 sat near a group of trans women who 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 didn’t care that Britney was a pawn for foot traffic to the casino.
On the surface, “Work Bitch” from Britney Jean, 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.”
New York magazine’s vulture.com published a disgusted review, calling her not just the most boring singer on the planet but “the most boring person”.
I’d like to submit a different theory: what if this is a personal song? Its message is that nothing comes easily, that you can’t keep your kids in private school and your community gated without work. Britney 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 a day. Britney works. What if Britney has somehow become a feminist role model for single working mothers?
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. And whatever we see in it, that tells us a lot about who we are, not who she is.
On opening night Britney had descended into the crowd inside a basket-weave metal orb, sparkly in silver and flesh. It had been a hellish few weeks. One of the dancers had been injured and the whole thing was running over.
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.
The only fan I met who didn’t like the show was poor Andrea. She told me that Britney had seemed so unhappy to be there that she almost wanted to leave. Andrea had once thrown a sex party where she’d hired prostitutes to have sex with a group of people while she stood over them with a whip. There was this one girl who technically did a good job, but there was something so vacant in the prostitute’s eyes that it kind of killed the whole thing for Andrea. That’s what this felt like. Afterwards she removed the BreatheHeavy app from her phone.
The residency is considered a success. According to Caesars, the show had Grossneyed $18.6m, from (at the time of writing) 27 performances. And the Axis has found other acts to house while Britney’s not there : the Backstreet Boys, followed by New Kids on the Block, Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. In May she was Reupneyed through to Christmas 2016.
At the Welcome event, a 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. Someone had handed out signs that looked like they’d been handwritten (but weren’t) and a four-year-old, who was seated atop an adult’s shoulders, held up one that read: “You Better Work, Britney!”
She is, she is. We all are. Under the Planet Hollywood sign a contortionist is hanging by her neck while everyone looks away from her towards Britney. The “Queen” poses for pictures, staring resentfully at the showgirls, so pretty in their feathers, so willing to be touched at their waists. A few blocks away at the Colosseum, Céline inhales air that is 98% moisture and conducts a full run-through, though she’s done this a million times. 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 hired as a model so that she can be legally fired if she gets fat is touched on her knees, then a little above, then given a $5 chip tip for not complaining. I take notes, 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 finishes the concert with “Till the World Ends”. Backstage she takes off her leotard, puts on her sweatpants, throws her hair into a bun and goes upstairs to where her sons are sleeping to kiss them on their foreheads, and takes a shower.
It is barely 11pm. The crowd spills out, vowing that they, too, will dance until the world ends. It will be hours before 5in stilettos are taken off and walking barefoot down the Strip will seem like one’s only option. There is so much gum left to chew, so many nips awaiting their slips, so much mascara yet to run down faces. It is time for these bitches to get to work.
A longer version of this article originally appeared on medium.comTags: concert, director, film, movie, music, producer, singer, tour, tv