The defining pop artist of her generation is playing the UK for the first time in five years. Nick Levine talks Beyoncé and doppelgangers with the star
Britney Spears doesn’t have a squad like Taylor Swift. Or a name for her fans like Ariana Grande (‘Arianators’) and Katy Perry (‘KatyCats’). Or a history of complaining about doing meet-and-greets with fans, like Justin Bieber. Or a list of beefs she’s had, even though she broke up with fellow pop superstar Justin Timberlake in 2002. It’s hard, too, to imagine anyone doing a Kim and Kanye style ‘takedown’ of her, because it’s just not how she goes about her business.
The 34-year-old is a pop star from another era, but still the biggest of them all. And in 2016, 18 years since her debut single, still so famous that even if you’ve never heard a Britney album you’ll know her lyrics – “Oh baby baby, how was I supposed to know?”; “I’m not that innocent” – and remember her best looks. Everyone recalls her as an air hostess in 2003’s ‘Toxic’ video, draping a snake over her shoulders at the 2001 VMAs or dressing up as a schoolgirl in the video for ‘…Baby One More Time’.
As Lana Del Rey put it in 2012: “I’m not interested in a ton of female musicians, but something about Britney compels me – the way she sings and just the way she looks.”
She’s got ‘it’. She’s a pop star who inspires devotion and obsession, whose fans call her Godney and The Holy Spearit. Down the phone from Las Vegas – where her Britney: Piece Of Me residency has been running since December 2013 – she explains how she feels about those nicknames. It must be weird being called Godney, right? “Yeah! But that’s just how the fans are – and I don’t want to let them down. At the end of the day, we’re all human and we all make mistakes. It’s really flattering, but I don’t know if I can set my bar that high. I mean, I’m sure a lot of them have almost felt like they’ve grown up with me, you know?”
She’s being too modest. A generation of fans and musicians have absolutely grown up with her, including Lady Gaga (who said in 2009, “When I was 13 she was the most provocative performer of my time”) and Charli XCX, who recently declared herself an “endless fan of Britney Spears”, explaining: “She massively inspired me when I was younger and still now. Britney’s punk, she doesn’t care. She’s amazing and her videos are next level.”
Her critics have always been pretty merciless. But anyone with a modicum of sense can see that her voice is instantly recognisable, great pop stars don’t have to be great songwriters (though Britney’s been racking up co-writes for most of her career), and performers with no talent rarely build 18-year careers.
How does she explain her longevity? “I try not to analyse it too much. I love what I do and I think that helps because it speaks for itself when I perform. Seeing other artists continue to do this kind of thing inspires me too. Because sometimes I’m like, ‘What am I doing? Like, I could be a teacher.’ But then I see other people doing it too and I’m like, ‘Well, you know, it’s probably all they’ve known for so long, so it just kind of makes sense.’”
In 2016, she’s a bigger live draw than ever. Britney: Piece Of Me has been a mould-breaking success.
Post-Britney, Vegas is no longer where your granny’s favourite singers go to top up their pension, and both Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey have followed her to Nevada. Because she’s been so busy in Vegas, Britney hasn’t performed on a UK stage for five years, but she’s preparing to play London’s 1,700 capacity Roundhouse for the Apple Music Festival on September 27.
The fans who call her Godney are probably digging a tunnel into the venue as we speak.
What’s fascinating about Britney is that although she’s been one-name-only famous since ‘…Baby One More Time’, we don’t know much about her. The basic stuff is out there: grew up in the small town of Kentwood, Louisiana, appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club as a teen, transitioned with ease into pop stardom, mum-of-two, two marriages. We’ve gleaned from pap shots that she likes a Frappuccino and from her increasingly revealing Instagram that she really loves her kids. But that’s kind of it.
When asked what she thinks she stands for, she replies: “I guess just a good person. Someone who makes people happy and cheerful, whose music lifts you up.” Which is charming, but not too revealing. It turns out the way to access her soul is to quiz her about new album ‘Glory’, which is her best since 2007’s ‘Blackout’. The songwriting is surprising, the production on-trend, her vocals a revelation. She sounds like she’s having fun again. Why is it so full of life? What makes it different from her last one, 2013’s ‘Britney Jean’?
“Honestly, this is the first project where I’ve really been hands-on. I was really specific about who I worked with and I’ve been learning to say no. I’m a people-pleaser, so that’s hard for me – even if I don’t like something, I’ll do it just to make a person happy. I made sure this album was everything I wanted it to be. I was really selfish with it.”
Britney, the pop star who likes performing way more than she likes talking, is spilling her heart out. “The beginning of the project wasn’t that great – the songs that were coming in weren’t very good. So we got a new A&R girl, totally turned it around and gave it a profound new direction. I wanted to use my voice more, which is why I’m losing my voice this morning. I did different stuff with my voice, bluesy stuff, urban stuff, and played around with different things.”
A standout track on ‘Glory’ is ‘Just Like Me’, one of five co-written by B. Spears. It’s a catchy but sad ballad about a woman who finds her boyfriend in bed with a doppelganger. Where did that idea come from? “Me and my girlfriend, we came up with that. I was inspired by that Tracy Chapman song ‘Fast Car’, because it’s just her and the guitar. I wanted to do something simple like that. The idea of coming home and seeing the one you love with a girl that looks identical to you is just completely devastating.”
Britney’s music taste has long been a mystery, so it’s surprising when she gushes about Beyoncé’s latest album. “Generally, I like songs that are bit different and I like moody stuff. I just listened to ‘Lemonade’. I’m a little late on that, but it’s good, really angry, a really hardcore album. There are moments where you feel the light, airy Beyoncé, but most of the time it almost feels like a therapy album. I respect that. She’s an artist and that’s what she needs to touch on at this moment in her life.”
Britney’s never been shy about her adoration for Madonna, whom she famously kissed on stage at the 2003 VMAs. A year later she said: “I’d rather meet Madonna than the President of the United States.” Can she see herself on stage, doing the pop star thing when she’s Madonna’s age? “Nope. Nah. Give me five – two? – more years, and yeah.” She’s probably exaggerating for effect, but what if she isn’t? Enjoy Britney Spears – the defining pop star of her generation – while you can.