Some nights, Spears spends time in the dancers' room, but usually she is alone. During the summer, her mother plans to come on tour. And hopefully Laura Lynne, Spears' cousin and best friend.
"I miss her," says Spears of her cousin. "Her mom has cancer. I'm going to fly her out and have her join me, to get her mind off things."
Spears' voice trails off, something it does often when she speaks of Laura Lynne. Or her mom. Or any of her longtime girlfriends.
"We've known each other since we were babies," says Spears of her group. "And I'm sure that when we get older, we'll all have kids at the same time." She pauses. "Well, that probably won't happen, but I would love that. That would be so nice."
"I guess it's easier not to think about it," she says. "I mean, it could happen... right?"
These days, Britney Spears has been thinking a lot about sex. This is probably because, these days, a lot of people have been thinking about Britney Spears in a sexual way.
Perhaps it is the perpetually bare midriff. Or the cleavage-baring gown she wore to the American Music Awards. Or maybe the cleavage-baring jumpsuit she performed in at the Grammys. Maybe fans have caught the skintight number Spears wears in her new video for "Oops!... I Did it Again." Whatever the reason, a trend has developed.
"I've been finding that there are a lot of older guys in the audience lately," she says. "The other night we had a show, and I was walking around before I go off, and this guy jumps up on the stage, takes his shirt off and comes running. I think the crowd thought it was supposed to happen, but security jumped on the stage and got him off."
Spears claims that she never meant her public persona to be sexual. You don't believe her. As evidence, you offer her first Rolling Stone cover, when she was seventeen, on which she wore hot pants and a push-up bra.
"It was about being in a magazine and playing a part for that magazine," says Spears. "It's like on TV, if you see Jennifer Love Hewitt or Sarah Michelle Gellar kill someone, do you think that means they go out and do that? Of course not. You know, I've taken millions of pictures. That's not me."
The struggle to separate public and private selves is a difficult one for any celebrity; it is all the more difficult if you happen to be a teenager with considerable sexual power. On her own time, Britney is still a jeans and T-shirt girl. In public, however, there are the revealing outfits, which help to sell a product, which happens to be herself.
"When I look at Britney, I see both a woman and a girl," says Lynne Spears. "When she's home, at night she sleeps with me. She has her own bedroom, but she wants to sleep with me. She's a little girl. But then I hear her on the phone with her business, and she is such a taskmaster."
So you ask Spears, the girl, what she thinks of older men who respond to her more sexual image.
"I don't like to think about that," says Spears. There is a long pause. "I don't think about that. I don't want to be part of someone's Lolita thing. It kind of freaks me out."
Makeup takes at least an hour. Part of the reason is that much of the work time is taken up by girl talk (tonight's topic: Who is gay and who is anorexic), but mostly it is because transforming a fresh-faced eighteen-year-old into a full-blown object of desire is not a paint-by-numbers process.
"OK, sit still a minute, I'm doing your eyes," the makeup artist says. "Good. So, check out this picture."
She holds up a celebrity magazine.
"How in the world can they tell us they don't think she has an eating disorder?"
"It's so sad," says Spears.
And with that, they go back to applying heavy mascara.
The stage show that Spears is being primped for plays equally on her innocence and her sexuality. It begins with Spears' dancers emerging from school lockers and cavorting in the halls until a homeroom bell rings. They sit at desks. Roll is taken. And when the teacher calls, "Britney Spears?... Britney Spears?" she emerges, in a cloud of smoke, dressed in white stretch pants and a fringe top, her midriff bare, ready for school.
As the music starts and Spears begins to sing, however, the enormous video projection of her is out of sync with the music.
"There's a delay in the screen above me, so if you listen to the music and watch the screen, they don't sync up," says Spears. "I think that confuses people. But I'm singing every song. I'm singing my ass off."
Spears is right. She is singing (her ass off) every song. Once in a while, however, she has some assistance.
"There are times during the show, when I'm dancing so much, where I get out of breath, and we have a signal where I'm dying and they'll help me out," says Spears. "Believe me, I'd give anything to do a show where I just sit there and sing."
The question of lip-syncing is just one of the rumors that has swelled around Spears (for the record, she calls talk of breast implants "ridiculous"), but it is symptomatic of a larger issue. She is, in many ways, a child, and it is difficult for the public to view her as anything but a puppet of professional teen-idol makers. The depiction leaves Spears frustrated.
"I wish stories were more about my music instead of the personal questions," says Spears. "It's not about that, it's about the music."
You tell Spears the problem: that beyond generic adolescent longing and turbulence, the songs on...Baby One More Time do not offer much insight into her psyche; that to analyze them is to delve into the minds of the primarily Swedish writer-producers who wrote and masterminded the album, and this is a trip that neither you nor many others are willing to make.
"I see what you're saying," says Spears. "But with the first album, I was sixteen, and I think anybody that was first signed would have left it up to the record company. But as I'm getting older, I totally have control over everything that goes on the album. Because I was clueless at first. But I am the one in the studio singing."
Spears has been writing a great deal lately and has been surprised to find that her songs turn out more like those of Macy Gray or Sheryl Crow than the work of her dance-pop peers.
"I always have melodies in my head," says Spears. "Usually in the bathtub, I'll be playing around with melodies and ideas."
She flips through a folder of CDs and pulls out Gray's album, On How Life Is. It is Spears' favorite disc of the moment, and she listens to it almost every night in her dressing room.
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