A decade has passed since Britney Spears nearly lost it all.
In the summer of 2007, the world watched — with a mixture of horror and fascination — as the pop star’s personal life threatened to reduce her career to ashes.
These were the days of drug rehab in Antigua, shaving her head, striking cars with umbrellas and divorcing the infamous Kevin Federline. All of this sturm und drang culminated with the October 2007 release of Blackout, arguably Spears’ most satisfying record, a collection of songs charged with catharsis.
A track from that record, Piece of Me, serves as the title for Spears’ residency at the Axis, the 4,200-capacity theater tucked inside the neon-lit chaos of Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino, itself a distillation of the sensory assault that is the Las Vegas Strip. (Given the location of the whole enterprise, perhaps Circus, the title track of her 2008 LP, would have been a bit too on-the-nose.)
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Spears has been ensconced at the Axis for more than three years, and extended her contract through this year. As evidenced during a recent performance, the 35-year-old has found an ideal place to cement her legacy — strange as it may seem to be speaking of legacy for someone still in her 30s — and do so in a safe space, free from any distraction or judgment.
Those piling into the Axis are, by and large, full-stop fans, eagerly clad in outfits from Britney videos of yore and clambering up to the merch booth to plunk down $45 for a hat or T-shirt.
In a city built on the concept of surface pleasures, such residencies abound — the prospect of staying in one place and letting fans make the trek is undoubtedly appealing for musicians tired of tours routed around the world — and Spears effectively scales down her flashy arena concerts to fit within the (relatively) more intimate confines of the Axis. (Spears’ last major tour was in 2011, which stopped at Dallas’ American Airlines Center.)
Old hits, new style
Backed by more than a dozen dancers and pre-recorded tracks augmented with a live four-piece band, Spears moves easily through the 90 minutes of “Piece of Me,” more often than not lip-syncing — noticeable only when she speaks, as her voice is significantly lower than when she’s singing — and dancing with economical confidence.
All the hits are here, but often reworked — Oops! … I Did It Again, Toxic and … Baby One More Time are shaken up to varying degrees of success — and Spears is unafraid to keep the set list fluid, incorporating recent hits (such as her G-Eazy collaboration, Make Me, from her latest LP, Glory).
The acknowledgment of her continued career helps stave off the hermetic feeling of a greatest-hits performance, which is an inherent danger in such settings.
Still, Piece of Me does help frame Spears as one of modern pop music’s foundational talents.
The long-ago days of the late 1990s, when a teenaged Spears was scandalizing the country with her “provocative” video for … Baby One More Time, seem positively quaint in 2017, with its up-to-the-second digital shenanigans and the public’s boundless appetite for controversy.
Even her proto-reality TV career — who could forget the short-lived and much-maligned Britney and Kevin: Chaotic? — and subsequent meltdown presaged a culture where such behavior would become disconcertingly commodified.
Redemption through determination
Standing there in the Axis, watching Spears cavort with her dancers and change outfits a half-dozen times, amid the lasers, pyro and billowing confetti, was to feel something akin to gratitude.
She weathered a succession of professional and personal setbacks, but made it through intact, holding onto her career through sheer determination, stamina and luck — along with a willingness to sell just about anything: The concert was preceded by a tortuous loop of advertisements for Spears’ latest perfume.
In that sense, there was a profound hope to be felt, filing out of the theater and back into the full-tilt madness of the casino, as playing cards hit felt, bored-looking and barely dressed women gyrated to ’80s rock, and yardlong margaritas were drained with avidity.
Redemption, it seems, is not the exclusive province of card tables and slot machines in Las Vegas.
Britney Spears made it through the worst, and came out the other side — battered but still herself, a paragon of pop culture still attending the faithful who flock eagerly to her side.