There was a moment, and it wasn’t long ago, that Britney Spears seemed lost to us forever.
She was shaving her head, flashing her bare cooter to the paparazzi, attacking the paparazzi with umbrellas, attacking car doors with umbrellas, being carted away in ambulances, marrying high school acquaintances, divorcing high school acquaintances, marrying backup dancers, having kids with backup dancers, divorcing backup dancers, using gas station restrooms without shoes, and, worst of all, hanging out with Paris Hilton. It got so bad her dad had to step in and actually be a dad.
Then there was the performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2007. That’s the one, you’ll recall, where she stumbled around in her bra and panties in what appeared to be a heavily medicated daze, and a quick crowd shot revealed Rihanna staring on in horror and laughing uncontrollably.
After that, silence. A couple years’ worth.
Now, her career seems back on track, her Tabloid Throne snatched by people who actually make her look talented. She has an undeniably catchy dance hit on the radio and is once again selling out arenas, the cooter flashing and head shaving but a blip on the radar. A quick career recap looks like this: From Pop-Princess-in-waiting to devil spawn intent on sexualizing tweens, from tabloid curio to train wreck, to all is quiet on the water front to, now, bonafide Pop Icon.
If you think that last bit a stretch, it’s because you weren’t one of the more than 14,000 on hand at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night watching her straight rip the roof off the fucking place during the closing number, “Till the World Ends.” (Of course, the fireworks, elaborate stage set, blinding lights and incredibly athletic/acrobatic dancers helped.)
To be sure, a good deal of Brit Brit’s Femme Fatale show invokes many of the same “Is she for real?” moments of that widely lambasted VMA performance of ’07. She remains only mildly interested in choreography—half-committed, she is, to even the most basic of dance moves, her outstanding dancers make her look as though she’s performing under water— and, it’s no longer even denied that she lip-syncs through about 80 of the 85 minutes she’s on stage.
But the capacity crowd at Wells Fargo didn’t mind. LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE ! The gathered mass pulsed with an undeniable electricity from opening number “Hold It Against Me” on through to a medley of hits like “I’m A Slave 4 U” and “Baby One More Time” and the aforementioned barnburner, “Till the World Ends.” Around the arena, women in Ugg boots and men dressed like backup dancers sang every word. Britney and her fans remain thick as thieves, her influence on them incredibly strong.
Her influence on the modern crop of pop ingenues, however, is limited. Katy Perry and Rihanna, both at Wells Fargo the last few weeks, are better performers. Taylor Swift, at Lincoln Financial this Saturday, eschewed wearing corsets and fishnets and singing slyly about sex. Gaga is from a planet that doesn’t exist in Britney’s orbit. Of the current class, only Ke$ha—who performs at Festival Pier on Aug. 17 and who co-wrote “Till the World Ends”—owes any bit of her act, look or vibe to Britney.
But Britney is still the OG of this Pop Princess shit, and her fans are loyal and legion. She’s the only one of her class who had any staying power: Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore and Christina Aguilera have faded to varying degrees, the latter canceled her last tour due to a lack of ticket sales. For her longevity, for her ability to make a swift U-turn at the gates of a lifetime of infamy, Britney deserves credit. The crowd at Wells Fargo was happy to give it.
That she’s managed this considerable feat without ever learning to sing or dance might inspire you with contempt, awe, or a confusing mix of both. Either way, to paraphrase “Till the World Ends,” you’ve never felt like this before.
PW's Music Issue 2014