“I’m warning you now, I’m gonna dance like a lunatic."
Carla Donatelli, my seat neighbour at the Britney Spears: Piece of Me show at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, is ready to party. Like many of the Britney fans in the room, she's a longtime fan. She's seen the act twice in Las Vegas, where Spears recently wrapped a nearly five-year residency, and when counting the amount of times she's seen the singer on one hand, she soon runs out of fingers.
Two little boys make up the background of Carla's phone. I know this because, Cosmo in hand, she's passing the time until the show starts (45 minutes late) taking selfies with her best friend, and I have already unwittingly photobombed at least five of them. The boys look like they could be her sons, but I don't have time to ask because the lights dim, and Carla makes good on her caution from earlier. And who can blame her? Britney is in it to win it tonight, and so is everyone in the audience.
Atlantic City is the third stop on the North America leg of the worldwide tour, which kicked off in June 2017 with gigs from Tokyo to Tel Aviv. Tickets sold out so fast that new dates had to be added in the UK and Ireland. Britney's fans are thriving, and they are more committed than ever. They're also older, mirroring the singer's own journey from teen pop sensation to seasoned performer.
Carla is fairly representative of the demographic crowding the Borgata's convention hall, which doubled as an intimate venue on 19th-21st July. The screaming teenage girls of Britney's past have been replaced with screaming mums in their mid-to-late 30s.
This makes sense. Now 36, Britney Spears is celebrating a 20-year career, which started when she was a teen herself. Spears was just 16 when she released "...Baby One More Time" as her debut single in October 1998. Dressed as a naughty schoolgirl, the instant superstar symbolised both youthful innocence and Lolita-like temptation, a combination which helped the single sell more than nine million copies worldwide. Now the mother of two boys, 12-year-old Sean Preston and 11-year-old Jayden James, she spent the day before Friday's show go-karting and eating ice cream on the beach with them, activities she documented on her now-legendary Instagram feed.
It's a far cry from the kind of pastimes she used to be known for. 2018 also marks a more sombre milestone: her January 2008 hospitalisation at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for substance abuse that led to her temporarily losing custody of her children to her ex Kevin Federline, and being placed under the conservatorship of her father, James Spears. (A court-approved order that he is just now looking to end.)
Still, the atmosphere of the 20th July show was light and overwhelmingly joyous, mostly because Britney was in fine form. Her set list of nearly 30 songs was a run down of her biggest hits, from "Crazy" to "Womanizer," alongside more low key tracks like Blackout's "Break the Ice" (Carla's favourite). From the second she emerged onstage in thigh-high boots, a green feather bolero and a black top hat, the energy in the crowd was electric. But what was really striking — aside from just how many pop classics she's produced over the years — was how she owned her persona. The woman onstage was Britney, of course, but an empowered Britney, reborn from the ashes of her own self-destruction into a superstar who has grossed $137.7 million over 248 Vegas shows.
She owns her material in a way she didn't when she was younger. She is stronger than yesterday, mentally and physically. (Have you seen the woman's abs?) But she's also tapped into a modern feminist appetite for strong female performers, who are finally being allowed to have a career beyond the age of 30. Just think of the internet cult of Celine Dion, or our recent reaction to Cher's turn in Mamma Mia 2. We want to see women living their best lives, even past the age they once would traditionally be considered sexually viable. The fact that Spears is currently dating 23-year-old Sam Ashgari totally fits into the narrative of Britney as sexy MILF. We love a diva!
Her performance of 2007 hit "Freakshow," released months after she infamously shaved her head with clippers and threatened a crowd of paparazzi with an umbrella, felt less like a nod to a difficult time and more like an anthem of self-actualisation. After calling on an exceptionally good-looking man to join her onstage ("He looks like the prince from Tangled!") she proceeded to loop a dog leash around his neck and strut around the stage with him in tow, a woman in full control of her sexuality and her fame.
Partly, this persona works because we as an audience have grown with her. Those who saw themselves in her when she was a teenager, see themselves in her now that she's a mother with a booming career. They follow her on Instagram, where she posts videos of her goofing around with her kids alongside this truly amazing catwalk strut, and lovey dovey couple pics with bae. Her songs are used to soundtrack female-geared films ("Work Bitch" is currently fuelling the TV spot of upcoming summer blockbuster The Spy Who Dumped Me, starring Kate McKinnon and Mila Kunis.) Just like the flowers she loves to paint, she's a pop princess who has blossomed into a pop queen. She may still be struggling with bad exes, and the legal conservatorship that still hinders her financial autonomy, but she's in control of the message.
She's no longer just the Britney from the tabloid headlines. That's just a piece of her (can't stop, won't stop). She's a cool mum, she's a hot mama, she's a diva, she's an artist, she's an entrepreneur, she's a woman. She's Britney, bitch.
Travel and accommodations were provided for the author by the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City for the purposes of writing this story.