Baby One More Time

Las Vegas

The Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. (All photos: Kevin McGarry)

“UM, what’s your favorite bubblegum?” a voice asks off camera.

“Watermelon. Watermelon bubblegum, man. It’s the best. It’s so good…” Britney Spears answers the question with a pained smile and an air of bittersweet introspection, as if Watermelon Bubblegum were the name of her childhood sled. A flare of white erases her.

These first fifteen seconds of I Am Britney Jean, the E! network documentary about the making of Britney’s latest stage show, are endlessly richer than the film’s ensuing ninety minutes. Though dull in itself, it’s one of two off-brand cable TV biographies whose anticipation (among people in my life, anyway) was a topic of conversation in late 2013. (The other is Lifetime’s House of Versace starring Gina Gershon as Donatella Versace, another paragon of Y2K kitsch addled by the vices of celebrity.)

The production at the heart of the film is Piece of Me, Britney’s two-year residency at the AXIS Theater at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, which kicked off on December 27. I caught last Monday’s show, the third to date (there is a planned hiatus now until late January), and it was a marvel to behold. Fundamentally similar to her tours and awards show appearances—replete with choreography, costume changes, and pyrotechnics, and sustained by an unremitting spirit of camp—Piece of Me is built to stay put, so the set and the toys that embellish and inhabit it are more spectacular than those of a portable version. As a Planet Hollywood bartender intoned before the event, “It’s not a concert, it’s a show.”

Until now, the Vegas strip of lore has been reserved for Celine Dion, Cher, Elvis—cash-cow pop stars who are ready to trade their life on earth for a place on this Olympus at the bottom of the desert. But even at her young age (Spears is thirty-two), Britney has already walked for years among the pantheon of living-dead American icons, existentially stunted, as child stars often are, tormented by the circumstances that preclude her from simply being herself, or as she would say, like she often does in her Louisiana twang, to be “mei.”

Left and right: Views of Britney Spears's Piece of Me.

“I don’t do US cultural references too well,” Hito Steyerl, who regrettably was not in attendance, wrote me by e-mail. “I’d compare her to Nadia Comăneci. I love Brit, but I can’t pretend to really ‘get it’ because, probably, I really don’t.” It’s a fruitful parallel. Comăneci was not just an athlete du jour; she was transcendent at gymnastics, certifiably perfect. When she was an adolescent, crowds worldwide were riveted by her body, watching her move it artfully and effortlessly through space, just like Britney. As Comăneci matured, her diamondiferous sharpness was tempered, though in memory she remains brilliant. Britney’s career followed a similar, inevitable course, albeit with a much steeper decline, the depths of which she seems to have inched out of in recent years.

The show opens with an ominous, flickering sequence of mythological Britney moments, her kiss with Madonna and the albino snake around her neck during a Bush-era MTV VMA performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U,” intercut with faux-vintage footage of a young Spears playing dress-up in her bedroom, scampering past a LIKE A VIRGIN poster and donning a fedora and pink feather boa (proxy for the boa constrictor). The video ends and the curtains part: A squadron of dancers advance from a bank of smoke and light as Britney is lowered onto the stage in a spherical cage. It detonates on impact, showering the set with sparks.

Britney wears a headset, but she only uses it to awkwardly chat with the audience a couple times during the twenty-four-number, hour-and-a-half-long show. “Hi Vegas, can you help me count to three?” she asks, as a segue into “Three,” a single from her second greatest-hits album that recasts Peter, Paul, and Mary as code for ménage a trois. (“One… Twoo… Threee!”) All the singing is unambiguously lifted from the vocal tracks from her studio albums. Her own dance moves, though tricky, mostly consist of flicking her extremities (the dozen or so dancers, meanwhile, do quintuple backflips and jog upside down in DayGlo hamster wheels, the latter exercise occasioned by the self-referential song “Scream & Shout,” which is presided over by a house-size hologram of chanelling the Wizard of Oz). There are no live-cast close-ups of the performer’s face, probably a huge relief for someone who has to muster the energy to do this one hundred times.

Left: A view of Britney Spears's Piece of Me. Right: Britney Spears impersonator at the Planet Hollywood “Heart Bar.”

Despite all these apparent deficiencies, the excess of pageantry more than compensates, and the resounding effect is overwhelming, intimate, even authentic. The show is an incarnation of pop in a temple of consumption, and whether one is watching its star dodge jets of fire, dive off a three-story-tall tree, or simply prance around the stage officiously flirting with her (presumably gay) backup dancers, there’s a unique honesty to her warped nature and in watching her perform work that has not figuratively, but quite actually, and for many years now superseded her life.

As more heavyweights from the music industry join Lady Gaga and Jay-Z in making overtures to the art world (hoping, perhaps, to conjure some cross-collaboration sales voodoo), Britney puts all her strategy into perspiration, carrying on more or less as she has since she was a kid. As she flounders on the charts, rather than try to wedge her way back in through calculated, fashionable gimmickry, she sticks to classic, oblivious gimmickry. Beyoncé’s new “visual album” cannily exploited the Internet and the enduring traction of music videos, but B’s “Queendom,” to quote Nicki Minaj’s new perfume ads, is Teflon. Arriving at Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport, you’re greeted by a self-conscious cardboard cutout of Britney aping overconfidence. The same image is emblazoned on buildings and drawn in lights all around the city, like the face of a dystopian megacorporation, the American psyche, where she smiles, center ring—a figure tragic and golden just like we like them.

Kevin McGarry