If there were such a thing as "new-house smell." Britney Spears' Hollywood Hills home would reek of it. At the top of a steep driveway, evidence of recent construction — two-by-fours, bits of concrete — sits in a refuse pile next to the garbage pails. The three-story structure that the singer bought in January for a reported $3 million seems almost like a hotel — it's got that just-cleaned, not-lived-in feeling. In the kitchen, full sets of plates are topped by rolled-up linen napkins, as if they haven't been used since they came out of their boxes.
Neither flashy nor cute nor particularly fashionable, Britney's house is awash in neutral colors and deep, rich maroons that Martha Stewart would approve of. The living room is crowded with two overstuffed beige couches; on a bookshelf sits a solitary photo: a shot of our hostess smiling prettily next to actress Susan Sarandon, one of her favorites. Framed pictures of game birds decorate the walls, and candles are liberally strewn around each room. The Southern-gothic décor is cozy without being dowdy, but mostly it's just very grown-up.
Britney's bedroom has its own set of sofas forming a sitting area adjacent to the regal-looking four-poster bed. A glass door leads out to a modest patio where Britney says she does most of her entertaining. "We just hang out," she says, relishing her role as tour guide. "You know, listen to music. Party. Just have a fun time. I don't like to go to clubs out here because everybody's always looking you up and down." As she heads back toward the kitchen, her footfalls muted by cushy white slippers, she seems to trail off into a daydream. "I love showing off my house," she says. "I can't wait to start having dinner parties here." For most of this summer, she had her cousin (and best friend) Laura Lynne staying with her at the house. "We never imagined that she'd be living in something like that or that we'd even get to stay somewhere like that," Laura Lynne says, amazed. "It's weird, her having her own place in the world."
Much as she might seem like she's playing house, Britney is no longer a little girl. As the nineteen-year-old prepares to release the first single from her new album in early September, exit her teens in December and make her film debut in February, adulthood is as new and strange to her as this house, 2,000 miles away from her childhood home in Kentwood, Louisiana.
Ever since she first graced TV screens looking like a naughty Catholic-school girl in her "... Baby One More Time" video, Britney has alternated between doe-eyed ingénue and midriff-baring sexpot. She's the quintessential girl-next-door — the one with the bashful "Who, me?" smile who never lets on that she knows you think she's hot. She has looked at adolescence from both sides now, and as she becomes a bona fide grown-up in the coming years, that provocative image won't be available to her anymore. For now, though, Britney and her image are one and the same — she is as much of a delightful contradiction as she seems. She's old enough to own real estate (she's also got a loft in New York City, currently occupied by her twenty-four-year-old brother, Bryan) and to have sold more than 37 million records worldwide, but she retains a goofy sense of humor and a childlike gracelessness. When she walks, her swaying hips reveal her potent sexiness, her shuffling feet recall a kid wearing her mother's heels. She may not be that innocent, but she's no devil in disguise, either.
"Lately, I feel wiser and more centered and more settled with myself," she says, sitting at her kitchen table with a bowl of edamame in front of her. "I'm from the South, so I'm a very open person, and I've had to teach myself to not open up to too many people."
It's a typically hot and hazy July afternoon in Los Angeles, and even though it's a Saturday, Britney has to go to work. Tomorrow, she'll fly on a private jet to catch the kickoff of Madonna's U.S. tour in Philadelphia, but today she's in the midst of recording her new album, and her mountainous bodyguard Rob is getting impatient to drive her to the studio. She goes into her bedroom to freshen up, which means changing from her slippers into a pair of platform flip-flops and putting on a smear of pale lipstick.
Unlike the almost Amazonian stature she seems to have onstage, in real life Britney is itty-bitty — a pint-size gal with a waist Scarlett O'Hara could envy. She has a natural beauty that even the best photographs of her don't reveal. Today, she has her lashes clumped with mascara, her eyelids rimmed in gray eye shadow and her honey-blond hair sprouting into a messy ponytail suspended in a state of perfect disarray on top of her head. She's wearing inky-blue jeans that ride low enough on her hips that her aquamarine thong peeks out teasingly in the back. Her green ringer T-shirt stretches tightly across the chest whose endowment has caused such controversy. From where I stand, they look real.
"Real" is very important to Britney. Her upcoming movie, tentatively titled Not a Girl, is, in her estimation, "really real." Sarandon is one of Britney's favorite actresses because she "has a realness about her." And one of her biggest pet peeves, she says after a moment's thought, is "fake people." Being "real" gives Britney the kind of self-assurance that most young women struggle for years to acquire. "Honestly," she says, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "I know this may sound really silly, but when I was younger, I was never really insecure. At all. Never. Now I get insecure sometimes when I go places because people expect celebrities to look a certain way. And there are mornings I wake up and my butt feels fat. But I've learned that it doesn't matter what other people think of you. You just...be. All I can do is be who I am and hope people like that."
After making a quick coffee run with Rob and her assistant Felicia, Britney enters Westlake Audio ready for business. Today, she's working on a song called "Before the Goodbye," one of the many new tunes she has helped to write. Her collaborator on this number is California techno artist Brian "BT" Transeau, whose most notable previous foray into the pop world was producing and co-writing 'NSync's "Pop," the first single from the new Celebrity.
BT, a gregarious surfer dude with a self-described "Nick Rhodes circa 1982" haircut, is seated at the sound-board with his sandals off and his chubby pug dog, Presley, sprawled on his lap. He instructs the engineer to play back different versions of the song's first verse as Britney sits quietly behind him, listening. "Though you're near/Still, I want to make it clear/Love, I will always be around," go the lyrics to the section under scrutiny. Britney's sultry vocals sound near perfect in every version played, and her voice is stronger and more confident than you might expect. "It's so hard to do vocal comps with Britney," BT says with a laugh. "Every take is so good. It's easier to do this with a bad singer." Cocking her head to the side, Britney appreciatively coos, "Aw, thanks, BT."
Britney recruited BT to help her make a record that would be edgier than her previous two, funky and danceable. "I wanted this album to be more hip-hop and R&B-influenced," she says. Swedish producers Max Martin and Rami, as well as R&B mainstay Rodney Jerkins, still contribute their share of tracks. But, in addition to BT, song-writing credits will go to hip-hop production duo the Neptunes, Dido and Britney's boyfriend, Justin Timberlake.
"It's pop music, but it's definitely different," Britney says. "I've changed, and it reflects how my tastes in music have changed. I think if you keep challenging yourself to do something different, people will see that and like that. But it's up to me to change. And I can't sing the same kind of thing all the time. That would bore me."
In the future, Britney says, she'd love to learn to produce her songs as well as write them. "Being in the studio a lot, I've been really inspired about beats. You get on the little machine," she says, searching her brain for the technical term for BT's G4 laptop, which is outfitted with a sophisticated drumbeat program. "I got on the machine the other day. When you first get on it, you think everything you do sounds good. And I was playing around, and I was feeling it, and I look around and everybody's like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's good, Britney.' And I started thinking, 'Oh, Britney, this probably sounds like such shit.'"
For now, she's left the beats in the hands of the experts. The Neptunes-produced "I'm a Slave 4 U" is equal parts Michael Jackson and Technotronic, the characteristic dirty funk the duo has perfected on hits by Jay-Z and Mystikal. "In the past her records have been very squeaky-clean and crisp," says the Neptunes' Pharrell Williams. "I want her fans to rediscover her all over again. I want them to say, 'That's Britney Spears?'"
Britney says the song is about being a slave to music, but, like Jackson's "Rock With You," the lyrics are soaked with double-entendre. Panting and whispering seductively, Britney delivers lines like, "I'm a slave for you....I really wanna do what you want me to." The music backs her up with a woozy-sounding thicket of bump-and-grind beats. ("We're not in Kansas anymore," says David Stamm, one of Britney's reps at Jive Records.)
"Before the Goodbye" combines bristling electronica with an explosive disco chorus, and BT describes his other contribution, "'Till I Say So," as an "upper-midtempo new-school break-beat track, with guitars and live drums and some of my crazyass stutter edits." BT has been making his own underground techno records for eight years, and he says that working with Britney has been a welcome challenge. "My concern was giving her something that was comfortable to sing, but at the same time I wanted to do a really banging and experimental track," he says. "So while we're thinking about what it is that we're trying to say in the song, I'm thinking about, 'Oh, man, I'm going to go between these dopeass Timbaland beats and progressive house, and it's going to be the shit.'"
"It's Madonna with 'Vogue,' and it's 'NSync with the two-step stuff," says Barry Weiss, president of Jive. "In the same way those things were a positive reinvention, that's what we think will happen with Britney."
Reinvention wasn't Britney's goal when she started working on the album. After she finished filming Not a Girl in May, she found herself with more free time than she'd had in years. "I didn't know what to do with myself," she says. "Sometimes when I get really down like that, I just sing and get the guitar out and go with it." Justin has been teaching Britney to play an acoustic guitar, and she hopes to be able to use her guitar on at least one song during her live HBO performance on November 18th. "My fingers are too small!" she hollers, bursting into a fit of giggles. "I'm very impatient. I want to be able to learn now. I hear Justin play something and I'm like, 'Grrr.'"
Writing lyrics has come more naturally. "Usually I'll be in the tub and I'll just sit there until I come up with something," she says. "Or I'll be out with my girlfriends and an idea will just hit me, like, in a club. Or me and my boyfriend get in a fight and I get off the phone and I'm just pissed. It's good for me to sit there and write stuff out. If you want to know how I feel, you look at this album. It's like a whole diary for me."
So what's in Britney's diary? "Before the Goodbye" addresses the pain of missing someone who hasn't even left yet. It's a problem this perpetually road-bound girl has encountered constantly during the past few years. She admits that being apart from Justin — who lives at her house with her when he's in L.A. — is one of the biggest bummers she deals with.
In "Overprotected," a funky mid-tempo number co-written with pop guru Max Martin and his partner, Rami, Britney talks about feeling smothered and babied. "Say hello to the girl that I am," she croons. "You're gonna have to see through my perspective/I'm gonna have to make mistakes just to learn who I am/And I don't want to be so damn protected." It's not her mother, Lynne, whose apron strings are too taut. Rather, Britney says, it's the handlers watching over her career who occasionally treat her condescendingly. "People are always wanting to know every detail about where I go, and I always have to have bodyguards with me," she says. "It's sometimes like they're insinuating that I can't do things on my own, and it's like, I can! I know they mean well, but I don't like people treating me like a little girl."
In real life, Britney says, she cries pretty easily, and she admits to being "too sensitive." But when Britney had to cry on cue for Not a Girl, she found it wasn't easy to manufacture tears. "I really had to be sad all day," she says, hugging her knees to her chest as she shrinks into her chair. "There was one scene where I could not cry. And it was really bad because the cameras are on you and they're wanting you to cry, and everybody's depending on you and it's the end of the day, and you're just like, 'Man, I can't get sad! What's with me?'"
The movie is about three teenage girls who take a trip to Los Angeles to rekindle their friendship and do some soul-searching. Britney plays Lucy, a straight-A student rebelling against her father (played by Dan Aykroyd). "On her trip, she falls in love with this guy and goes through a wild stage," Britney rhapsodizes. "But then she comes back to herself and realizes what she wants to do."
Britney had received offers from other film companies, but Weiss says Jive wanted to "put [its] money where [its] mouth was" and decided to finance Not a Girl on its own. The film's soundtrack will feature a ballad called "Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," which will also appear on Britney's album. Weiss predicts the song, written by Martin, Rami and Dido, will become a megahit on par with Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" or Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You."
Britney, meanwhile, just hopes she doesn't look goofy on the big screen. "I watched it for the first time the other day," she bubbles. "And I was like, 'Oh, my gaaahd.' It was weird! I saw myself freakin' cry on a big screen and I was like, 'Oh, gosh.' But then I got so wrapped up in the movie that I saw myself as a character and not as myself. In a lot of ways she's similar to me — she's very to herself and writes in her journal a lot. But when I watched it, I was like, 'She's kind of mean sometimes. And boring.' I was like, 'Am I like that in real life? Ew!'"
There are at least two topics Britney does not enjoy being asked about: her boyfriend and her wardrobe. She reflexively tenses up when either subject is mentioned, and, though she continues to be polite and attentive, she becomes visibly nervous and guarded. It's not that she doesn't have opinions to offer or feelings to reveal; rather, she seems to worry that she'll be misunderstood or that she won't be able to articulate her point quite the way she intends to.
Does it bother you that people are fascinated by your relationship with Justin?
When people get too personal, it bothers me. But I'm not ashamed at all to say that I love him from the bottom of my heart. As far as love is concerned, with him, too much is not enough. He's everything.
How is love different for you now than when you were younger?
It kind of feels the same with him. Like, it's so weird; we've been going out for two years, and I still feel the same. [Laughs] Oh! I don't want to say this! I'm so embarrassed! But, like, I still want to look cute, and I get nervous.
Yes! With him, it's still the same as I felt two years ago. But it is a deeper love now than when I was younger. Like, we've gone through so much together and we've known each other since we were twelve years old. We know each other inside and out.
Following her performance at last year's MTV Video Music Awards, it could be said that anyone with cable television is pretty familiar with Britney's outside. Her skimpy, flesh-colored costume landed her on the front page of the New York Post (which ran her picture with the headline Bra-Haha Over Teen Heartthrob's Skimpy Outfit — Britney Speared) and subjected her to dogged criticism about her appropriateness as a role model for young girls. The argument goes like this: By baring her navel with aplomb, Britney is encouraging little girls to become underage vamps. "I think it's not that deep," she says, exasperated. "I like wearing those clothes. I like, when I'm onstage, to be an entertainer. When kids are younger and have a recital once a year, that's their time to go onstage and put on their little costume and do their thing. And that's what it's like for me. I put on my cute clothes, and I go onstage and I do it. If the song calls for me to wear something a little voluptuous or sexy, I like to go there."
I tell her that since she's an adult, I think she should be allowed to dress however she likes. That if she were male, no one would be getting up in her grill about her clothes. That girls should be encouraged to be comfortable with their bodies. And, moreover, I say, what's wrong with being sexy? "Yeah!" she exclaims, her voice returning to its more jovial pitch. "I don't understand it. What's the big deal? Honestly, I walk around my house naked, so I'm not very modest or whatever. I think the body's a beautiful thing, and you should not hide yourself. If you feel like wearing something that makes you feel good about you, and you want to wear a push-up bra, I say, 'Go for it.'" And, with some seriousness, she adds, "You should be proud of your sexuality. Just because I'm young doesn't mean I can't be sexy. It is so flattering that kids look up to me. But at the end of the day, I don't like being a role model. I'm not perfect, I'm human, just like everybody else. Everybody's got an opinion about you, but the only one that matters is your own."
Call it mundane, call it Zen, you could even call it compulsive: Britney says one of her favorite ways to spend her rare moments of free time is "freakin' organizing my rubber bands." No shit? "I get the big ones in one little stash and the little ones in one little stash," she says, gesturing like she's making separate piles and then bursting into embarrassed laughter. "I love it. It makes me happy."
Keeping things in order, though, is something she's very serious about. Disorganization, she says, makes her mad quicker than anything else. "I don't stand for stupidity," she says. "If I think something's not done right with my schedule, I call my manager and freak out. That's the one person I do lose my temper to. Bless his heart! I feel bad."
There are no Svengalis pulling Britney's strings, she insists, and she's the first one to protest if she thinks she's being taken advantage of. "She calls the shots," observes Laura Lynne. "At first, when you're starting out, you have to do what the record label tells you to do. Now she's very much take-charge."
If she's a diva, she's certainly the world's politest one. Despite all the pressures she's enduring — the unrelenting public scrutiny of her relationship with Justin, dire predictions that teen pop is a fad whose end is near, the process of recording an album that will be considered a failure if it is anything less than a blockbuster — Britney seems unflappable. And, however much she's in control, in the studio she is as docile and compliant as a kid trying to impress her chorus teacher. "Do you feel like singing today?" BT asks her. "Sure," she says, lifting her eyes from the chipped nail polish on her toes. "I'm ready." She picks herself up from her chair and shuffles out the thick, soundproof door. Moments later, she's in the recording booth, barely visible amid the shadows.