If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, Britney Spears is the exception to the rule. Her Piece of Me tour, a show she’s already played 248 times during her four-year Las Vegas residency brims with all the old hits, allowing the new songs to double as toilet breaks. On paper, that doesn't sound great, but in person she was wonderful - even if the concept of legacy tour at the age of 36 seems quite sad. After all, Beyoncé, who is the same age, continues to forges new gold standards in music while polishing the older trophies, and Madonna, who Spears once said she: ‘would really, really like to be like’ hadn’t even made Ray of Light by her 37th year.
It's not that Britney can’t deliver new music; 2016’s Glory was critically lauded, and reached number 2 in the UK charts. However, its only UK-released single, Make Me featuring G-Eazy, didn’t scrape the Top 40. It's not just that she didn’t bother promoting it, it’s just that, as the Piece of Me tour - where she performs 9 new tracks and 15 of the oldies - attests, we, her fans, want her suspended in our nostalgia. She barely speaks - save for a cockney accent, encouraging different sections of London's O2 to battle it out in a cheering contest - and she mimes over pre-recorded vocals. But we don’t mind, because all of this - especially the magnificent high-energy dance routines which could outdo someone even half her age - maintains the spell that she’s coming at us from more innocent times. She appeases us, over and over, but could our selfish desire for a grown woman to be so sweet and pure holding her back?
From the beginning of her solo career, away from the Mickey Mouse Club, Spears could offer Southern Belle bubblegum innocence, or at least the pretence of it. Contrast with Christina Aguilera, whose vocal delivery was far more precocious, or Justin Timberlake, who never really had to perform innocence, and certainly never did (more on that later).
Spears’ UK number ones are a lesson in innocence …Baby One More Time has Spears admitting her butter-wouldn’t-melt ignorance: “Oh baby baby, how was I supposed to know/That something wasn't right?” - and in the video, she’s dressed as a schoolgirl, looking puppy dog-eyed, chin-tilted down, into the camera, pleadingly. Born To Make You Happy, Spears’ first ballad, is a break-up song histrionic in its tragically apologetic lines: ‘I don’t know how to live without your love/I was born to make you happy’. The video sees her pillow fight - a gentle way of showing bed-adjacent thrills - with her presumed ex.
By 2000, Oops! I Did It Again Spears confessed to her own sexualised guile, ‘Oops I did it again/I made you believe/We’re more than just friends’. The refrain ‘I’m not so innocent’ appears to undo Spears’ pretence, but perhaps it wasn’t her fault after all, she just ‘Got lost in this game, oh baby’. In the video, she plays up to her sweetness, pretending to be charmed by an astronaut who retrieved the sunken ring from the 1997 film Titanic, before flouncing off, leaving him heartbroken and alone.
Later, Everytime, a country-tinged ballad released after Spears had begun her head-first tumult into adulthood - and paparazzi reported she’d allegedly cheated on Justin Timberlake - contains the self-effacing lyrics, almost whispered over gentle piano: ‘Every time I try to fly I fall/Without my wings/I feel so small/ I guess I need you baby’. In the video, she dies at the hands of paparazzi and an abusive boyfriend, while watching over herself as a white-shirted angel.
Later, 2004’s Toxic sounds liberating, and Spears acts the seductress in the video, but lyrically, it’s three minutes 18 seconds of Eve, the original innocent, falling from paradise. Spears was tempted by the wrong guy, and now she must suffer: 'I’m addicted to you/Don’t you know that you’re toxic’
Of course, it’s not the sum of her output, but it’s how the Great British public sees her: a weak lamb, who can barely stand without love, but barely understands the punishment coming her way if she can’t acquiesce to monogamous male lust. And a lot of the time she gets it wrong. While that works inside the songs, it didn’t in Spears’ real life. After publicly announcing she’d remain a virgin until she was married, it was only a matter of time before Justin Timberlake would brag about the sex they had (his Cry Me A River, said to have inspired Everytime, only fuelled the speculation that she had cheated on him).
He also boosted his career off of being hurt by her feigned innocence. Though Spears had long been sexualised as the willful naif, by the time Spears released the video for Slave 4 U, where she marked her new-found adulthood in sub-pubic line leather trousers and wet-look grinding, her sexuality seemed provocative, rather than passive, and threatening. So threatening that even Eminem, who’s hardly been a saint in his lyrics, once saw fit to allege that Spears would have a negative influence on his daughter, because: 'all these girls start looking up to her like she’s this cute little teeny bopper then all of a sudden…what happened!’
Spears soon became shorthand not only for a fallen woman, but a blinkered idiot. In Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, a polemic against George W Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, an interview clip of Britney is juxtaposed with footage of an Iraqi woman in tears. Britney chews gum, tilts her head to the side and says: “I think we should just trust our president in everything he does”. Though pop stars in politically binary 2018 are more strident than their forebears, she was 22 during the filming, and had just seen what happened to the Dixie Chicks after they protested President Bush. It didn’t matter, though. By this point, Spears had become a by-word for innocence lost, in all the wrong ways.
There were some good faith arguments about Spears innocence to be had: was it really her decision, aged 16, to dress up as a pornified school girl? And if it was, was she fully aware of who would be titillated and why? Is it her fault if she wasn’t? Perhaps if she’d never set herself up so high, the tumble down wouldn’t have been so steep, but who put her on that lofty pedestal in the first place?
In the time since, elements of played-up innocence have done wonders for other pop stars, such as Katy Perry, Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift, because infantilisation of women really does sell. But the expectation for them, as people, to match their musical output, has shifted. Spears might be a better actress than all three, but crucially, they’re allowed to play parts outside that of role model. Most of the time.
Perhaps, we’ve seen the damage that forced innocence did to Spears, and have learned not to expect so much ideological purity of our stars. Or maybe, the rise of the smart phones, and with them, constant access to social media and free online porn, has taught us, concurrently, that celebrities are real people with real lives, and that an exposed midriff is, sadly, not the most salacious thing a child’s going to see on a screen. It could be, also, that at a time of increased conversations about feminism, and indeed some action towards equality, women who hold back by playing the kid are celebrated to sinister effect.
Right now, though, Spears’ very existence, as an innocent, after all her troubles, presents as something quite subversive, though. Her most sustained interaction with her fans is via social media. Along with the earnest tweets and inspirational quotes and the throwbacks on her Instagram, she is constantly doing - whether it’s working out with her boyfriend, painting with her kids, singing and dancing, go-karting or doing some yoga so she doesn’t go ‘stir crazy’ in her hotel rooms on tour.
Yes, these are all pretty innocent endeavours - she’s cute with her boyfriend, not sexy, in the photos she posts. And note how she sings Aretha Franklin’s You Make Me Feel (Like A Natural Woman), a song laced with sexuality, with a voice filter making her sound chipmunk-cute. Her handlers, those looking after her conservatorship, who definitely have money in their sights, have also kept her distanced enough from the press to provide no opportunity to question that veneer. But she is active, not passive, doing, not being done-to. Her innocence still thrives, but it’s not about objectifying her, until we reconsider her tour, where she plays all the old hits, for our pleasure.
Perhaps, though pretending to be so innocent used to be her downfall, it’s now Spears’ saving grace? In an age of so much knowledge and conflict, just over a year after hundreds of innocents were targeted at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester by a man set on destroying the carefree joy of girls and gays feeling safe in their schmaltz, innocence is more precious, and powerful, than ever before.
We all know that Spears is more than the saccharine shell she inhabits, we all know she’s a woman who felt so imprisoned by her femininity, that requirement to fulfil other people’s fantasies that she shaved her hair off in full view of paparazzi. We all know that our struggles, as girls and gays, some shared with Spears, are more visible than ever. To maintain a Spears-level disregard for the badness in the world, though, even just for the length of her show, is to grab back some power. To remain so peppy, so open to the wonders of having a great time, to play all the hits at a effervescent pop concert, after everything Spears has been through? Her innocence is not soft, weak, or lacking, it’s tough, it’s strong, it’s defiant. It’s Britney, bitch!