Las Vegas and Britney Spears are strange and similar American bedfellows, with a long and entangled relationship. The first blip in an otherwise perfectly manicured career, and a sign of personal chaos to come for Spears, happened in Vegas, when Britney married childhood friend Jason Alexander in quickie ceremony at the Little White Wedding Chapel that was just as swiftly annulled by her management team. In March of 2004, she released a video for “Everytime,” a shatteringly sad song she wrote herself (a rare feat in Spears’ catalogue) about the breakup of her relationship with Justin Timberlake that shows her committing suicide in the bathtub of a Vegas hotel. And in 2007, a now infamous year of personal struggle for her, Britney released Blackout, the best album of her career and also its bleakest, with a song called “Why Should I Be Sad?” that describes divorcing her second husband, Kevin Federline, after a trip to Vegas with a pocket full of paper…only brought the player out of [him].
But there’s a deeper connection: the city and the singer are in many ways mirrors of each other. Just as Britney was climbing to astronomically decadent pop heights by pushing herself further and further over the top with skimpier outfits and sexier songs, a Bush era building boom sent Vegas into the stratosphere with taller, bigger, neon-lit casinos and ever increasing bottle service prices. They were the two shiniest stars rotating in a constellation of American party culture that included Paris Hilton, the Bush Twins and Lindsay Lohan. It was an era of FOMO and YOLO before those terms had been invented, a who-cares, bigger-is-better, party-at-all-costs attitude. As though somehow goading the other on, Britney would accept $300,000 fees to attend casino parties and perform at hotel gigs, and Vegas would sell Grey Goose and soak up the association, the Queen of Sinning on her throne in Sin City.
But that kind of decadence inevitably hits a wall, and after years of debauched co-dependence, the two icons of American culture started faltering together too. At almost the very same time that Britney’s drug use and mental illness led her through a tabloid trip through hell that culminated in head-shaving, a stint in a psychiatric ward and subsequent placement under financial conservatorship of her father, the stock crash of 2008 and rampant debt from over-building dried up Vegas’s seemingly limitless construction funds and made investors seriously worry about the region’s economic prospects. Almost simultaneously, Vegas stopped building, and Britney stopped Britneying, two too-big-to-fail pop icons teetering over and needing help getting back up on their heels.
Trouble is no longer Britney’s industry, but she and Vegas are back in business together anyway, each giving the other a much-needed boost by orchestrating a two-year residency at a small theater in the back of the Planet Hollywood hotel. Vegas hasn’t started building massive new hotels again yet, but EDM draws like Calvin Harris have given it a new life and cab drivers will tell you that if things continue to go well, they suspect fresh casinos are coming. Likewise, a carefully planned post-rehab career reboot of EDM-heavy albums has kept Britney’s career stable (except for her most recent album Britney Jean, an album produced by will.i.am that is both a critical and commercial flop). But both Britney and Vegas’ post-crisis appearances have left many wondering what darker realities are lurking underneath the surface. Though her PR team has gone into overdrive to try to show that she is healthy and happy, she’s seemed strangely vacant in recent appearances and interviews, and while she never really cared to sing live, reviews of the Las Vegas show are tepid at best, especially when you consider how Britney used to do anything for the sake of exciting entertainment: douse herself in waterfalls, dance with a snake, kiss Madonna, simulate masturbation on stage.
Ever since a much-mocked 2007 performance at the MTV Video Music Awards at the height of personal troubles, hosted of all places at the Palms in Las Vegas, though, Britney has lost most of that performance mojo. Chaos is the pink elephant in the room with Britney. Her team is careful to never let interviewers ask her about the tough times she’s had in the past, but any good pop star knows that chaos can also be a necessary evil. Good performance requires spontaneity and energy, not just control. A knee injury that she sustained in 2004 means that she doesn’t dance much anymore, but more importantly, the special Spears spark that so many people remember from their childhood seems to be gone. Last week, a drought in the area left newspaper journalists in Nevada questioning the wisdom of investing in a town without its own water supply in a century of climate change, but most of the chatter around Vegas was that everyone’s favorite new resident had dyed her hair brunette, which in Britney land has historically been a symbol of rebellion from blonde perfection and a sign of some odd behavior to come. Among her fans, there was a self-aware but strange hope that maybe she had become unhinged again, which was bad for her personal health of course, but better for us in our pursuit of show and spectacle.
In an era where sexual liberation has become, to some, just another excuse to do whatever it is we want at any time, Britney has been our most strident freedom fighter and spokesperson. So while we often hear pop songs as fun things to dance to, or as generalized sentiments that we can apply our own life experiences, when Britney sings “Gimme More,” a song about her insatiable appetite for decadence, we know that she really means it, that she wants more. Blackout, one of the most masterfully produced and evocative records in recent pop history, is an exercise in the pursuit of pleasure at any cost and Britney’s last defiance before a court order would place her under the legal care of her father. On it, she produced some of the most avant-garde electronic pop music the world has ever seen while at the same time channeling some of the strangest, saddest charisma you’ll ever hear on American radio. Because of that presence, we feel that we know her better than almost any other pop star. And to know Britney is to love Britney.
The show I saw as part of her residency at Planet Hollywood last week, however, was harder to love. Walking through a small rotunda at the front of the theater past glass cases of her signature outfits and old music videos of hers playing on loop, you’re left awed at how iconic she is, every crop top and camera wink as familiar to those of us who grew up with Britney as the national anthem. A clock by the stage counting down the seconds to the beginning of the show, though, is the first clue that Britney’s performance is going to be by-the-book, but as she finally emerges to sing her 2013 single “Work Bitch” without so much as nodding to the audience, you realize there will be no improvisation at all.
After she delivers a short, scripted welcome to the audience, you notice that there are no video screens in which to get a close up, presumably to keep audience members from seeing how little she’s even attempting to lip sync. But because we never even get a glimpse of Britney’s face, it almost feels like it could’ve been a body double up there on stage. Almost anyone could march around the stage with arms swinging as a DJ plays an unbroken progression of Britney hits, which is mostly what happened. A short section where she recreated the “I’m a Slave 4 U” choreography made for a transcendent moment of old Britney, but she sat down soon after to finish the rest of the song in rest mode. Her dancers were talented, but they only put into relief how little she seemed to care. There was so little improvisation or spontaneity, it seemed like even the beauty queen hand waves she made to the audience were scripted, and she seemed pre-occupied with trying to remember all of her moves. I don’t even recall seeing her casually brush her bouncy bangs out of her face, and even her more reflective moments, like “Everytime,” a song so tender it sounds like a single tear gliding down a cheek, was performed entombed inside a giant angel’s costume suspended from the ceiling.
Only “Lucky,” a strangely prescient song from 2000 about the story of a lonely celebrity forced to go through the motions of fame but who still has tears [that] come at night, was touching, but only in a complicated way. You realized that “Lucky” was a cry for help that we never took seriously, an example of Britney singing her truest blues about issues that were never resolved. But as audience members cheered and whistled along with her while she sang the cry, cry, cry refrain, it was easy to think that everyone was missing the point of the song. In fact, the whole evening had an air of missing the point. There’s a nuanced critique of YOLO culture and celebrity embedded in Britney’s career, but most fans seem to ignore it. As I walked out of the show, people were crying and exalting, but had they seen the same show as me? It’s quite possible that their expectations were merely different; like show mothers at a child’s pageant, they were just happy to clap for the group effort involved in getting Britney in a fun outfit and onto the stage, or the nostalgia they felt for their own childhood love for Britney. And just like a toddler in a tiara, you sensed something nonconsensual about the whole affair, like she’s striving for a prize she doesn’t even want and that will sit in someone else’s trophy case. She ended her set with “Till The World Ends,” and the lyrics keep on dancing till the world ends seemed more like a judge’s sentencing than a call for fun.
Ultimately, when we root for Britney, I don’t know what we’re rooting for anymore. I’ve spent the past decade obsessed with her—smitten with her music and fascinated by what she represents for our culture, a sort of living Laura Palmer for the reality TV era, her every tragedy documented, unpacked and serialized for our enjoyment. I listened to Blackout my entire plane trip home from Vegas, thrilled by the indignant and electronically intact Britney I heard crunching through my headphones, and even through the disappointment of the show, remembered why I loved her as an artist. But she’s also a person, and I feel protective of her—Britney is family to me, a black sheep cousin who I worry about it and hope the best for. So while I believe that the sympathy and empathy that her fan base feels toward for her comes from a tender place in the American psyche, a never-ending hope that all will be resolved and fixed and that everyone can fall but will inevitably get on up and be happy, I also wonder if it’s misplaced. What does success mean to a woman who doesn’t seem to care about it, who once described her life in the spotlight as a sort of jail that she can never escape? The old Britney is certainly not to be desired—her reckless behavior, as it played out on TMZ, was it’s own kind of dangerous celebrity prison. But it feels like there are still jail bars around the new Britney Spears, and even though they are wide enough that you can see through them just enough to catch her dancing on a stage doesn’t mean they aren’t a cage anyway. New casinos will be built, Britney will keep performing, and if she can make it through 2007, let’s hope she can make it through this mess too.