Two pairs of lips, a little tongue. Nothing odd for cable television, even if it was two women. Still, when Britney Spears kissed Madonna on the MTV Video Music Awards — a lip lock that seemed designed to prove that both women were still capable of causing a sensation — it became head line news. "Tonsil hockey," leered the New York Daily News. "Booty bouncing," seconded the New York Post. "Sorry," said the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which had to apologize after outraged readers objected to a Page One photo of the kiss.
Even CNN's Crossfire got into the act, featuring Spears one-on-one with Tucker Carlson — a bow-tie-wearing conservative better known for sparring 'with the likes of Hillary Clinton. Spears said that, no, she'd never kissed a woman before, and, yes, maybe she would again, if it was Madonna. She also revealed that the kiss had been rehearsed, and all involved had agreed to see how it felt in the moment. Though she denies it, even more was rehearsed: Madonna playfully slapping Spears' ass — a moment that didn't make it on the air.
"I flew to London from New York, and I couldn't believe it was all over the papers there," says Spears. "It's crazy and it's bizarre, but it's also kind of amazing." And it's the first step in launching Spears' return after a year's layoff, a prelude to an appearance on the football-season pre-show NFL Kickoff Live, just a week later, and the upcoming release of a new single and video. The question that remains for Spears is, do people still care about the music? Or is she becoming more famous for stunts like this?
"I'm not gonna come out on this record and show my crotch or anything," she says. "That's not me. I would never do anything like that. It's all in the way you do stuff, all in the way you carry things. The music is most important to me."
Still, it's undeniable that, as the former Mouseketeer has inched past the age of consent, she's had a much bumpier career ride. Her last album, Britney, sold 4 million copies — not a flop, by any means, but considered a disappointment when compared with her previous two albums, which sold a combined 22 million copies. Then came her feature-film debut, Crossroads, which was mostly ignored by her fans and widely reviled by critics. In August 2002, Spears announced a hiatus.
"Why the hell did I say that?" she asks today. "That was so fucking stupid. But honestly? I thought I could chill out for a while and be a normal person."
Unfortunately for Spears, her break proved neither normal nor especially chill. She suffered the highest-profile of breakups with her longtime boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, who implied she cheated on him, cast a Britney look-alike in his "Cry Me a River" video and crudely spoke about their sex life in a radio interview. Spears' New York restaurant, Nyla, closed after seven months, in the wake of a slew of bad press and health-code violations. Meanwhile, stories circulated about Spears the party girl. Star magazine alleged that she snorted cocaine in a nightclub. Spears denied the story through a representative, though she later told Star, "Let's just say you reach a point in your life when you are curious." Perhaps the low point came when Fred Durst appeared on the Howard Stern Show to share an extremely graphic kiss-and-tell, including descriptions of Spears' pubic hair. The mental image of the balding, goateed Limp Bizkit singer getting it on with America's jailbait sweetheart was, with the possible exception of those death photos of Uday and Qusay Hussein, easily the year's most disturbing.
Much rides, then, on the reception of the new album, which all those involved seem to be positioning as a more adult affair. "I'd describe it as trance-y," Spears says, "kind of a vibe record — something you could listen to that's not so song-structured." Though Spears cites Gwen Stefani as a major influence, a closer template would be Madonna's Erotica, with Spears' vocal style having evolved into what might be best described as "slowly approaching orgasm." The techno and hip-hop beats are provided by Moby, Red-Zone and R Kelly.
There's also a track by the Matrix, "Shadow," that sounds like a mid-Nineties Aerosmith ballad, but the Kelly track, "Outrageous," typifies the formula: beat-heavy, melodic, with Spears whisper-singing things such as "my sex drive" and "my shopping spree." Here are some other sample lyrics:
"Oh, it's so hot, and I need some air/And, boy, don't stop, 'cause I'm halfway there...."
"Would you undo my zipper, please?...
"I see your body rise, rise...."
"I find myself flirting with the verge of obscene."
"Of course, I'm not doing '... Baby One More Time' and those big, massive hits anymore," Spears says. "I think this record is where I'm at right now in my life. It's sensual, it's sexual." She laughs. "I'm probably writing about that subconsciously because I don't have that right now."
Weeks before the kiss, Spears and I meet at the Chateau Marmont, in West Hollywood. It's a gorgeous summer morning, and Spears pulls up in a white convertible. Though the hotel is one of Los Angeles' most exclusive and secluded, she has a protective entourage in tow, including a California publicist, a girlfriend, her personal assistant and an enormous bodyguard.
Spears is wearing a white blouse with pink trim and no bra, jeans and white coral-looking earrings, and she's sipping a can of Mountain Dew. She looks as if she's barely slept. It's refreshing, in a way: For once, Spears appears more like a living, breathing twenty-one-year-old than a plastic sculpture, with pimples and loosely barretted hair and no makeup save for some black eyeliner that appears slept in. We sit at a wicker table in a lush, hidden patio area, where she immediately orders coffee. I mention that she looks tired. She smiles and says a girlfriend from out of town was visiting and that they stayed up late talking.
Aside from her appearance, one of the first things I notice about Spears is that she has a verbal tic, at least when she's being interviewed: She says "honest" or "honestly" far more often than most people — at least sixteen times during our hour-long chat. Which naturally leads one to wonder if the lady doth protest too much. For instance, at one point in the conversation, she tells me, straight-faced, "I think every photo shoot I've done has been tasteful. I'll never be a vamp-vixen-sex-goddess." When I mention the Star cocaine allegations, she stares at me blankly and says she's never heard about them -even though when the story first appeared, she publicly responded.
Though she mostly smiles, Spears is also extremely guarded, cutting off unwelcome questions with abrupt answers and occasionally becoming testy. When I ask about her restaurant, she says, "I don't know what the hell that was. I don't know why we ever did that, to be honest with you. It was just something a business manager wanted to do, or something like that." I start to ask a follow-up, and she snaps, "It's a restaurant. I really don't give a shit." Then she clears her throat and asks peevishly, "Can we talk about my music instead of my restaurant?"
This seems fair enough. To make up for the prodding, an enormous Softball is tossed her way: Talk about one of your favorite songs on the new album.
"I like the Moby song," Spears says.
What's that one called?
There is a long pause. "Um." Pause. "Morning'? 'Morning,' I think it's called. No, 'All Morning.' Yeah. [Actually, the song is, at present, titled "Early Mornin'."] It's about going out at night and feeling like shit the next day."
This past year, you seemed to get more press than ever, but you didn't have any new music out. Do you worry at all about the music becoming secondary, and you just sort of becoming famous for being famous?
Well, I think you're always remembered by what you first came out with. That's always dead set in everyone's brain. I think when I first came out, it was my music, and I think, hopefully, that'll never happen, because I'll always come out showing my-showing myself. And showing my music.
What about the interview with W magazine, where you talked about losing your virginity to Justin Timberlake. And do you think you should have to talk about that?
Well, he asked me the question. I think it's a stupid question to ask.
So it wasn't a calculated thing, where you went into the interview planning to reveal this part of your personal life?
No! I wasn't thinking that at all. Actually, I was appalled he even asked the question.
Did you consider saying, "Fuck off, it's none of your business"?
Well, I mean, yeah. I felt like saying that. But, um, I didn't. I just told him the truth, and, I mean [pause], oooh! [Laughs] You know? Oooh. Big deal.
Spears divides her time between New York and Los Angeles, with the occasional mom's-cooking R&R in her hometown of Kentwood, Louisiana, though, she says, after more than a few days back she gets stir-crazy. She spent much of the past year in New York, working on the new album and living in a downtown apartment. If she has downtime, she likes to shop: She read a psychotherapy book that discussed how a single outfit can change a person's mood. "I can be in the dumps of dumpsters and go put on a pair of new shoes, and then it's OK," she says. "Even if it is just for the time being, for that moment, it's what I need."
She also says she likes to be alone. She had the day off before our interview, and she says she spent much of it cleaning her house. "I dusted," she says. "I vacuumed that stuff on the carpet, to make it smell good. I just like doing normal things like that." She says she never expected to have such a "gypsy" lifestyle, because she cherishes routine.
She says that, really, her break only lasted for about three weeks before she went back to work on her new album. "I'd been on the road for a while promoting the last album," she says, "and I needed to completely let go of that — that whole pace, and the energy of those songs. I needed to — what's the word?"
Shed myself of it. And try something from a fresh, new start.
When you were working on the songs on this album, did you write much about what happened to you this past year?
Honestly? No. I just think once you start being so self-serving with your music ... I did a little bit of that with my last record, and I really didn't want to put myself out there that much.
Do you think writing about your life is self-serving? A lot of musicians write about personal things.
I understand what you're saying. But when everything is about you, I just think... Like, on this record, some of the songs, like "Brave New Girl," I can relate to that song, but it's how personal you go. This record is definitely personal to me, but it's not shockingly personal — put it that way.
So you had two songs written about you recently.
Well, Justin Timberlake did "Cry Me a River," and then Fred Durst came out with "Just Drop Dead." Is there something about you that makes guys want to write nasty songs about you?
I think guys have egos, and when their egos get hurt and their pride's messed up, they deal in weird ways. And, um, I don't know, man. I really don't know. It's made me really weary of guys, I'll put it that way.
I don't want to talk about this at length, but when Justin Timberlake put out his song and video, and then later started talking publicly about your relationship, how did you react? Were you pissed off? Were you hurt?
I think I was in shock, to be honest. I didn't know what to say, what to do. That was the last thing I ever thought somebody might do. I was really shocked shitless. But you live and you learn.
Did you call him up or say anything to him?
Well, actually, [laughs] he called [laughs]. I'm gonna break it down right now, OK? You want the scoop, you want the truth? Here it is. He called me up and asked me if it was OK. I can't believe I'm telling you this right now. But who cares. He called me up and wanted to supposedly get back together or whatever, but behind it was, "And by the way, you're in a video that's coming out." That kind of got slipped in. "Don't worry about it. It's not a big deal." So the record label called and said, "If you want to change this, you can." I had the power to say no to the video. But I didn't, because I thought, "Hey, it's your video."
Had you seen it?
I hadn't seen it. Then it came out, and I said, "I should've freakin' said no to this shit!" I was so like, "Whoa. What is going on right now?" But, hey. And I said, "Why did you do this?" He goes, 'Well, I got a controversial video." And I was like, "You did. [Claps her hands, as if for a dog that just performed a trick.] Yay for you." So he got what he wanted. [Clears throat] I think it looks like such a desperate attempt, personally. But that was a great way to sell the record. He's smart [laughs]. Smart guy.
What about the Fred Durst stuff?
That's my bad for just associating myself with people like that.
I think that was the general reaction of most people. Like, "God, what was she thinking?"
Yeah. We had two days of working together. We went out one night somewhere. And I'm dating the guy now. It was news to me. So [sighs], I don't know [laughs]. I'm not doing so good with the relationships.
Was that a surprise, when he started talking about you on "Howard Stern"?
I'm really embarrassed, like I said, for associating myself with him. Honestly, I believe everyone at their core has a good heart. But something must be going on for someone to be that desperate to go on a show and talk about a girl, about someone you don't really know that well. That is, like, morally... . I'm really surprised at people. Like, holy shit, man.
A few weeks later, I see Spears once again, at her performing-arts camp, a ten-day program for children ages eleven to fifteen on Cape Cod. The camp is in its fourth year. Spears arrives on the last day to watch the kids' recital. She flew in from Los Angeles that morning, arriving at the camp at three and meeting briefly with a few of the campers. Someone whispers that she's tired, but she looks fresh-faced and extremely young. She's wearing an outfit similar to the other morning's: a flowery tank top and jeans, this time with a floppy Gilligan hat shading her round face and her long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. After crouching next to one of the camp's instructors as he demonstrates a sort of hip-hop fiddling technique, she retreats to a private cabin with her entourage. After a few moments, though, she decides there are too many people around and moves to a more secluded cabin so she can eat her Subway sandwich.
At five o'clock, when the recital begins, she appears and sits in the front row to watch the performances. She laughs during a skit in which a little boy plays Spears by miming a girl tossing her hair. When the recital is finished, she poses for photographs with groups of campers, who are quickly rushed offstage by the counselors. After answering questions from the kids for about five minutes, she heads back to her secluded cabin.
Earlier I'd asked her what she'd be doing if she wasn't at all involved in the entertainment business.
"Do you want me to be totally honest?"
I'd probably be a schoolteacher. I love kids.
But, of course, she is in the entertainment business, so that's a moot question. As for all of the problems that go along with her chosen career path, she seems to be trying to take a positive view. "It's funny, I hate to say it, but I love reading Us Weekly, I love reading Star magazine. It's entertaining to me, because the stuff is so not true. It's, like, the other day, they had this huge article about me finding a hair in my sandwich. We were sitting there laughing for eight hours about that shit."
During her breaks this year, she says, "I did party a little bit. But what the hell else am I gonna do? I'm a teenager. Of course, I experimented in that I partied and stuff. But that's not me. I know that. But, you know, I'd never been out that much before, and so it was kind of, like, a big deal for me to be at this club or that club. And then, all of a sudden, other people were so interested in it." She sighs, and her accent turns more Southern. "Ah don't know," she continues and chuckles. "I'm sick of talking about me now." She does not say "honestly," but she seems to mean it.