With chin lifted and arms outstretched, a magenta strobe light illuminated his angular face, framed by his shoulder-grazing hair, revealing his twisted expression to be one not of pain but sheer, celestial joy.
“All of this created pop music,” yelled the man, a dead-ringer for the deity, who appeared near tears in the rows of the Axis Theater, above the skull-thumping drum machines pulsing through the concert hall’s speakers. “And we’re obsessed with it!”
He motioned to the fellow disciples flanking him, a group of friends who had wandered to the Nevada desert from Brooklyn — nominally to celebrate the fellow superfan’s 25th birthday, but mostly to see this showcase of miracles.
But the real savior of the night was skip-walking a few hundred feet in front of him in a crop top, necktie and shimmery emerald hot pants embossed with giant letters: “KISSES.” In his rumpled white T-shirt, a flannel button-down knotted around his narrow hips, he would have looked more at home at the Warped Tour.
But that’s the thing about Las Vegas. Things aren’t always what they appear.
“The reality is, Britney Spears saved our lives. We’re all gay dudes.” He shout-repeated the first line of the creed over the bludgeoning synths, this time unable to suppress an expletive.
What if I told you that there was a place with no sadness? That there was a longitude-latitude coordinate in the United States where, in these dark times of sociopolitical disintegration, red-state retirees, gay black Gen Z-ers and marrieds with mortgages unite in one 4,600-seat-capacity sanctuary of fellowship? That, in roughly 90 euphonic minutes, a world-weary spirit could be healed, because America has already been made great?
Wait, there’s one person at this old-school revival at Planet Hollywood who’s sad. He has come to see Britney (known here by others as Queen, Godney and Mommy) with his wife and a misguided assumption.
“I think I paid $600 to watch her lip-sync,” says Ray, a bearded, lightly sunburned and burned-out-looking Baltimore resident in a peach button-down, from a primo seat in the second row. Confetti that was supposed to mimic snow was pirouetting through the air, closing the ballad “Everytime.” At about a third of the way into the show, Ray is entertained — he wants to emphasize that — but he had hoped to hear the star’s vocals in the wild, undigitized. Especially because his last-minute ticket grab was a budget “splurge.”
“You know what?”A moment of enlightenment. “My wife let me rent a Ferrari today, so I might as well take her to Britney Spears.”
Obliging husbands and boyfriends be warned: Visitors to Vegas who wish to witness real choral acrobatics should head elsewhere on the Strip. But if you’re even vaguely interested in pop music, dance and the art of performance, see “Piece of Me,” which Spears will perform at the Planet Hollywood casino through 2017. With a set list and choreography that was revamped in early spring, the freshened-up concert wisely buries the last vestiges of the ’90s pop princess’s Mouseketeer roots and faces her forward, dominatrix whip in hand, on the musical landscape of 2016.
Think a Las Vegas base is a risky bet for an artist — especially one a decade out from real cultural relevance? Turns out, thanks to a variety of factors, the tawny terrain into which Spears drove her stake a little less than three years ago has been fruitful, if $35 million to extend her uber-successful residency counts. The city’s live-music industry is blossoming as arena headliners deem it a required stop and festivals thrive there. Rappers, electronic dance music talents and fellow pop stars are inking those sought-after residency deals every other month. The singer follows her own work-ethic anthem: In May, Spears opened the Billboard Music Awards and next month she’ll join a score of marquee names at the IHeartRadio Music Festival. Her latest single, “Make Me,” a pensive, R&B-soaked sex jam, is winning critical “likes.”
But these stirrings of promotion ahead of her ninth album, which will drop Aug. 26, seem like overkill when considering her valuable audience here: a regenerating fan base of die-hards.
I was one of the first. A lifelong unabashed pop lover — and old millennial who was coming of age just as the teen-pop industry metastasized — I thought that my front seat on the first candy-colored, plastic-coated Britney bus and patient loyalty through the Federline Years placed me among top devotees. My “Email My Heart” intimacy with the B-sides was shared with my college roommate, a Denverite who initiated a 12-person convergence in Sin City this spring to fulfill a Britney bucket-list wish for her birthday.
But getting me to Las Vegas involved a battle of wills.
Using the parlance of our era, emoji, my adulthood attitude toward the place has been the molars-bearing cringe-face, if not the scatalogical one. As a non-gambler and risk-averse person overall, I’ve not only never felt tempted by Bacchus to a destination where what happened needed to stay there, I’ve actively avoided it. I haven’t felt deprived. I’m a gal who jibes with certain East Coast stereotypes — fashion preferences tending toward the buttoned-up. In Vegas, my wardrobe might as well be a burqa.
I also lack the desire to see garden-variety desperation, warped standards of female beauty and depravity around every turn. My inaugural visit to Las Vegas, in 2014, when I attended a professional conference and tacked on a few days for exploring, confirmed the geographical friction. An advertisement for escorts shoved in my face on the sidewalk — by a bedraggled middle-aged woman making kissing noises? My evening didn’t need that. The Heart Attack Grill, where “over 350 lbs. eats free,” spilling a line out onto Fremont Street? Come on, America. Most alarming, Ed Hardy and Affliction apparel continued to plague the pedestrian population. This is the superbug we’ve feared. Inside the Miracle Mile Shops — an indoor mall whose design, like every building in this town, was commissioned by King Minos — I watched people snap selfies in front of one-half of a fake ship, inexplicably docked above a restaurant, and during a barely detectable two-minute simulated rainstorm.
You’ll never see me take photos here, I vowed smugly.
On the first night in town, I found myself at Paris, slurping a frozen cocktail out of a two-foot-tall plastic souvenir cup shaped like the Eiffel Tower. It came with a Tricolore ribbon as a neck strap. What global landmark would doubting Thomas drink from? Still, it’s easy to be seduced by this city if you’re in the right mood. Who doesn’t enjoy a vacation from reality, a sun-swaddled pool-side nap, an all-night dance party? To find no fun here requires an advanced species of killjoy.
Defenders will say, and rightly so, there exists outside the casinos an alternative, if not the authentic Las Vegas. At Red Rock Canyon at dusk, Mojave yucca lead the way to juniper trees under a salmon-pink infinity of sky. A balmy, 75-degree afternoon can be idled away, shame- and hangover-free, browsing the small shops at eco-friendly, G-rated Container Park, where Shakespeare was being performed the day I visited this year. Furthermore, the postcard panorama of “Las Vegas” isn’t even technically Vegas; the actual city limits don’t include the Strip, which is in unincorporated towns.
But circumventing that four-mile eyesore of artifice is impossible, and Britney doesn’t have a gig under a Ponderosa pine. A cherished friendship — in duet with a synthesized siren — called. I was conflicted.
I was contemplating how the Vegas-industrial complex, a songwriting dream team of Swedes in the ’90s and the male gaze had all conspired to deposit me in this $500 front-row seat — which, 2,400 miles away, back home, was nearly the going price for one opera within the Wagner “Ring” tetralogy at the Kennedy Center — when a group of about two dozen middle-aged businessmen in belted khakis and women in sheath dresses sauntered into the only spots in the venue better than ours: the bottle-service tables.
“Fun is one of our core values. It really is!” says Bruce, a salt-and-pepper-haired executive at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., construction company who says he and his co-workers are here for an annual swath of meetings, which the firm’s president has scheduled around golf and this show.
Is he a big Britney fan?
“No,” says Scott, everyone else’s boss, “but I have a lot of fun.”
Also avowed fun-havers: the 51- and 65-year-old aunt and niece attending their third live Britney concert. The Hammond, La., women “love” their state’s native daughter. “She’s a sweet girl,” the niece says with a drawl.
Through my false eyelashes — Gloria Steinem famously wrote about all women being female impersonators — I spy a singular attendee: the unaccompanied silver-haired man. He turns out to be the only audience member successfully swayed purely by cross-promotion: The Milwaukee retiree, who “couldn’t pick out a song,” was inspired to spring for a ticket after taking spins on the Britney Spears-themed slot machine on the floor. He vacations here multiple times a year, he says, sometimes without his wife, who isn’t a Vegas fan. And, with two daughters who sing and dance and a granddaughter who has auditioned for Disney, he reasoned: What better way to keep up with the industry?
“We’re kind of a musical family, and I like seeing Broadway,” he says. “From what I’ve been reading, she’s as slim and trim as ever.”
Over the next hour and a half, the Queen performed, by an unscientific count, 300 squats, mostly in heels.
Through eight costume changes, the Queen’s cascading mane, the color of a Pringles chip, whipped and swirled to its own choreography steps, like a mermaid’s hair in the current.
A hard-bodied Britney grinded on a fireworks-spewing guitar, leapt from a rotating Amazonian tree and generally directed a nonstop nostalgia dance fest that was, with minor exceptions, worth it. The show’s made-over playlist is fan-tailored with deep cuts: She has scrapped the ho-hum “Perfume” and saccharine tween track “Lucky” for PG-13 faves “Breathe on Me,” “If U Seek Amy” and “Touch of My Hand.” In an unholy union of bad-gal blondes, a digital Iggy Azalea raps her part on the underappreciated “Pretty Girls” as the DayGlo’ed out crew bikes and rollerskates across the set.
Joseph Miranda, 28, from Ehrenberg, Ariz., is among the many die-hards who would cite the singer’s phoenix-from-the-ashes comeback from public tabloid hell.
“The thing about Britney that makes me a big fan of her is not just her music, but Britney herself,” he said in an email. “A woman who can get through anything and just come out stronger than ever.” The RV park employee, whose Facebook feed overflows with tributes to his idol and who has custom-made his own Britney merchandise, experienced what he called “a dream come true” in April, when he met her backstage through the four-figure VIP package. He had even written her a letter before his Vegas trip — in case he blanked in the moment, he said — “to tell her how she touched [his] life.”
“I feel as if she’s an angel sent from God.”
Phone-checking time is “Everytime,” a missing-you ballad in which a vision of our heroine appears, in a veil, in a Tolkien-inspired video dispensing relationship advice, or something (“Love. Love all you can”) before the real thing floats above the stage in angel wings and an iridescent white dress. “Everytime” is the perfect visual footnote to Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.”
The show’s dazzling group-dance foundation is a refreshing sensory espresso compared with the languid showmanship of our current crop of left-footed popsters. The sharp hip-hop, jazz and contemporary moves revealed Spears as a dancer back in top form. Each twerk was spirited but polite, sequences were stuck with arms akimbo. They were power poses.
Best of all is a school-pep-rally-style Missy Elliott medley bursting with what seemed like genuine exuberance by Spears and her troupe.
A shame, then, that the superstar’s adoring fans subsist on only a piece, really a crumb, of unguarded personality. The night of my show, Spears’s crowd work was a sentence or two at the top as a warm-up, and she never again ventured off-script.
Afterward, on a post-concert high — a mix of exhaustion and exhilaration not dissimilar to what I’ve felt a few minutes after crossing the finish line of a halfmarathon (and with the same amount of foot pain) — two friends and I opted to continue the night. Strolling Las Vegas Boulevard and meandering the upscale casinos I hadn’t made it into yet, at some point in the single-digit hours I realized that, the entire night, I had been entirely sober. I had also been thinking about recruiting friends to come back.
Past the famous kaleidoscopic ceiling of 2,000 hand-blown glass flowers in the lobby, we cruised through the Bellagio. Near a craps table, I saw a man approach an elegantly dressed white-haired woman from behind and mime goosing her in front of his friends. No matter. Just too much sauce, I thought to myself. Who can cast a stone?
The glass flowers morphed into real ones — or was this place playing with my senses? — at the hotel’s show-stopper garden conservatory, which was transporting guests into a Japanese tea garden this month. Under a flowering cherry-blossom tree, I stood romanced by a re-created bamboo teahouse with a handmade bird’s nest in the middle. Floating on the soft pink, fuchsia and green hues, I came to when my pals called out to me on their way to the exit.
I flagged my group. “Ooh, hold on.”
I reached for my camera.
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Britney’s residency concert runs through December 2017. When not on hiatus, shows are generally three days a week. Tickets, whose prices are subject to change, range from $59 for back-row seats to a bottle-service table that costs $3,150. Any ticket-holder can meet Spears and take a photo together for an additional $1,500. General admission tickets (read: standing only) start at $169. Doors to the lobby open 90 minutes before showtime; to get touch-the-stage close in general admission, be first at the concert hall doors when they swing open at 8 p.m.