Read down below the full interview for V Magazine issue n°100 and check out the HQ photos in our gallery.
– Photoshoots > 2016 > Mario Testino
THE STAR WHO DEFINED A GENERATION IS STILL IN THE CENTER OF THE RING THANKS TO HER BLOCKBUSTER LAS VEGAS EXTRAVAGANZA. AS SHE PUTS THE FINISHING TOUCHES ON HER NINTH STUDIO ALBUM AND REVAMPS HER STAGE SHOW, POP’S REIGNING FEMME FATALE REUNITES WITH JOHN NORRIS TO EXPLAIN HOW TAKING CONTROL OF HER WORK GAVE HER THE FREEDOM TO LIVE LIFE ON HER TERMS
A galaxy of musicians has graced the cover of V over the years, but only the star who appears on our 100th issue has a career that was born simultaneously with this magazine.
V1 dropped in September of 1999, only a few months after the release of …Baby One More Time, the landmark debut album that heralded the arrival of pop’s new princess, a Mickey Mouse Club alumnus who’d grown up into a music video Lolita, engineered by God to send the TRL generation into hysterics in the middle of Times Square.
Seventeen years, seven more albums, seven tours, two husbands, and two children later, Britney Spears is being captured by Mario Testino at Jim Goldstein’s architecturally renowned home in Los Angeles—the second time she’s posed for a V cover with the photographer. Her music of choice at the shoot includes female-driven hits from the past and current eras of pop: Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Selena Gomez. The vibe, she says, was relaxed. “It was really simple and sexy,” Spears recalls a few days later. “We were in a rock-and-roll guy’s house, which was out of this world, insanely beautiful. It was really different.” But Spears gives most of the credit for an enjoyable session to the maestro, Testino. “So much of it depends on the photographer you work with,” she says. “And he’s one of the best in the world. He was great, very quick, and we just had fun all day.”
Fun, relaxed, and efficient: all bywords for the way that Britney Spears exists in 2016. At 34 and a very “hands-on” single mother of two, she’s all about maintaining a work-life balance. She makes it apparent, in both arranging time for our interview and during the conversation itself, that nothing is more important to her than sons Sean Preston, 10, and Jayden, 9. Fortunately, Spears has a long-running gig happening that allows her to juggle her time between career and family most deftly: Piece of Me, her hit-packed show in residency at Las Vegas’s Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino, which recently relaunched for a second two-year run, in revamped form. With Vegas only a quick 40-minute flight from her L.A. home and the boys, Spears plays three shows a week in six-week legs. “I’m on for six weeks, then off for six weeks,” she explains. It’s about as stable and low-stress a scenario as a working pop musician can find, in marked contrast to a world tour, which Spears says would typically keep her away from home for as many as six months. “I just love the lifestyle of being in Vegas and going back and forth. No traveling and going to all those places, and just having this be my home. It’s amazing. Actually, we just moved in the last few weeks to a new house. It’s only two minutes away from my old house, and it’s really nice, and big. It’s really open for the kids. So I get to stay there, and just go back and forth.”
The big question surrounding Piece of Me when it launched in December of 2013 was whether a residency by an artist with a younger fan base could sustain itself in casino land, where the Strip has long been populated by veteran performers with older, deep-pocketed followers. Yet as of last fall, Britney’s show was still at 75 percent capacity business, according to Billboard, and over its first two years, it’s averaged a nearly 85 percent box office. It’s been a financial boon for Planet Hollywood and Caesar’s Entertainment, was voted “Best Overall Show” in 2015 by the readers of the site Best of Las Vegas, and has become a prime attraction for the more youthful crowds now frequenting Sin City. But when Spears made the decision to re-up for another two years, she resolved to make some tweaks to the show. “Since I’d been doing it for so long, I just made a few changes to keep it fresh. It’s fun for me, so it doesn’t get too old.”
Daily “ass-kicking” rehearsals in January led to the launch of Piece of Me 2.0 on February 13th, featuring an updated setlist, choreography, dancers, costumes, and video production. The Vegas theatrics are there—fire, water (Spears was inspired by Cirque du Soleil’s hydroplaning show O), snow, and simulated flight—the latter of which has led to a few hiccups. In her second show of 2016, a flying apparatus didn’t work, and she had to descend from a tree perch via hidden staircase, while on another occasion, she was left hanging. “The harness came off,” she recalls, as though it was no big deal. “It hooks from the right and the left, but the right came off, so I was just hanging from the left. In the moment, I was totally freaked out. But then I just got down, and it was fine.” While the show’s setlist spans Spears’s best, from “Baby One More Time” through 2015’s duet with Iggy Azalea, “Pretty Girls,” there will be more changes on that front as well, adding songs as the year goes on from the singer’s forthcoming album, details of which have been kept tightly under wraps.
“We really can’t talk about it,” Spears says, quickly shutting down any discussion of her ninth record, which comes at a critical time for her: her last release, December 2013’s Britney Jean, felt undercooked, despite its inclusion of the campy EDM delight “Work Bitch.” It was Spears’s lowest-charting album in the U.S. and U.K., and got a tepid reception from critics. If she’s going to reassert herself as a relevant pop star delivering new music, the time to do it is now, and Spears seems to know it. “I’m being more hands-on with this one,” she says, adding that she’s had ample time to devote to writing and recording during breaks in the Piece of Me run. Rumors have abounded online about the direction the record will take (“artsy,” one fan site offered) as well as potential collaborators. Spears logged studio time last year with songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk and white-hot producer DJ Mustard, and tweeted a shot of herself in November alongside hit makers Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, captioned, “Working hard and hardly working…new album…Wheeeee!”
“Honestly, I’m just particular with this record,” she explains. “It’s my baby, and so I really want it done right.” And, she adds, she won’t be rushed in the interest of delivering new product ASAP. “I would much rather have it be completely how I want it to be, whether that takes another year for me to do, or two months. I have no idea at this point. But I just know that the direction I’m going in is so good. It’s the best thing I’ve done in a long time. I’m proud of the work, and it’s very different; it’s not what you would think at all. But I’m not rushing anything. I just want it to be done right, so that my fans will truly appreciate it.”
Talking about a 34-year-old as a grande dame of millennial pop speaks volumes about where we’re at in a time when it often seems there is no such thing as “too young.” But there are discernible ways in which this icon, whose career took off on the cusp of the digital revolution, before social media became the very currency of modern pop celebrity, is wired differently from the girls who’ve come after her. “Honestly, I still don’t use my computer,” she laughs. “My kids use the computer more than I do! I understand that a lot of people are into it, and I have days where I write and stuff, but it’s really not for me. It’s not my thing.” Which doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an online presence—a pretty lovable one at that, thanks to Instagram, where Spears’s feed is something to behold. In a time when certain unnamed artists would never think of posting anything with a hair out of place or just the right click-worthy composition, Spears’s shots feel refreshingly unrehearsed: grainy, imperfect, and real. Here she is doing yoga. There she is teasing herself about the size of her forehead, or her orange spray tan, comparing herself to an Oompa Loompa. There are random, tranquil pictures of nature alongside lots of shots of the kids. The takeaway is an unapologetic embrace of life as a pop star turned soccer mom. “I do love Instagram,” she concedes. “And my kids are with me like 24-7, so it’s inevitable that they’ll be on there. And honestly, I know it sounds weird, but I look up people all the time on it. Because I find people so interesting, and I’m curious about them. It’s a gateway to meet new people. I think the whole concept of Instagram is really cool.”
If she lets her hair down in visuals, verbally Spears is measured, relentlessly positive, and not one to talk smack about her peers—“That’s just kind of the way I am,” she offers. But the same cannot be said of some of her successors, and with Twitter as rocket fuel, it seems we’re now living in a beef-a-week cycle of time, much of it overblown nonsense. Spears briefly appeared to be dragged into one with the famously filter-free Azalea last summer, following the release of “Pretty Girls,” as online word-parsers noted tension between the two. Spears dismisses those stories, preferring to celebrate female collaboration over fan-manufactured rivalries. “We are here together, and that’s a cool thing. There’s no war here, we’re here to help each other out. We all have something to say. We’re all just people, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Spears is no stranger to judgments. Tabloids and TMZ chronicled her mid-2000s struggles, which dominated MySpace feeds—mercifully, Twitter was still in relative infancy at the time—and as she moved into a new, more grounded phase of her life and kept to herself, the media moved on to shiny new targets. Now, thanks to social media platforms, every donut-licking, bucket-peeing, culturally insensitive, skin-baring, “too thin” or “too fat” pop star can become Public Enemy Number One in minutes. But Spears doesn’t blame that often, um, toxic environment on the technology. “I don’t think that really has to do with computers and stuff,” she concludes. “Whoever is in the spotlight, people are really quick to judge. I mean, there are a lot of kids coming up who’ve experienced that. You know, Justin Bieber, he’s huge, and he experiences that. It’s just the way the world works, unfortunately.” And if there’s a rare disparaging word written about Spears nowadays, she’s got more important things to worry about. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” she explains. “I kind of don’t pay attention to it. I have my relationship with God and myself and that’s what matters to me. I really don’t care what most people think.”
That sort of centered wisdom doesn’t come overnight, and those who are dominating the music game right now might do well to remember the lesson of Britney Spears: that it’s possible to stumble and find your way back, possibly into a better place. Her status as an icon emblematic of an era of pop is set. What remains to be seen is what she does for a next act. The name of the Spears family compound in Kentwood, Louisiana, is Serenity—as good a word as I can think of for what Britney appears to have achieved today. Seventeen years ago, it was at another house in Kentwood, her ranch-style childhood home, where I sat down with Britney—surrounded by her doll collection—for her first-ever interview with MTV News. It’s a conversation I still get asked about to this day, by the legions of 20-something women and gay men who remain enthralled by her dazzling entrance into the pop lexicon, and for whom there is still nobody bigger. So what advice, with nearly two decades of hindsight, would 2016 Britney offer to her 1999 self?
“God, I don’t know,” she replies, with typical modesty. “Just have an open mind, be true to yourself, and always follow your heart.”