I was quite hungover when I ran into Britney Spears’ manager in line for an Auntie Anne’s pretzel at a rest stop in New Jersey.
I couldn’t tell if he, Larry Rudolph, her manager through most of her career, was as well. Or if he could tell that I was staring, following him to his car, and peering in the window to see if Ms. Spears was there, too. After all, we were traveling from and to the same places: from the Borgata Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, where the pop star just performed three shows in her Piece of Me tour, to New York City, where she is performing two nights at Radio City Music Hall.
I am sure she will be great there, but not as great as she was in Atlantic City. Because, you see, I have come to the decision that the perfect place to see Britney Spears in the year 2018 is Atlantic City.
It’s a perfect match of aesthetics, of place, of star, and of fans. Silly and kitsch, but impassioned and joyous. Once regal, but still a gem of a good time. Sexy and risqué, but performatively so. An ambitious night out, but on a manageable scale. Not so glam as Las Vegas, but still glitzy. And, most importantly, close to me but without the outrageous ticket prices of Radio City. Plus, more alcohol.
I deeply feel much of what the Piece of Me Tour is and represents: a survey of one’s greatest hits, a celebration of the highs and lows of a life, performed while both clinging to that youth and relishing that those days are behind you—the world is gonna get and have to love the version of you that you give them. With Spears, that version is still pretty great! That body! That smile! That endearing goofiness!
This was my second time seeing Spears perform Piece of Me, having seen her do it near the end of her four-year Las Vegas residency. Before that, I had last seen her in 2001 as a 14-year-old at the Dream Within a Dream tour—her best, according to Spears scholars (and my friend Joe).
I was there with my twin brother, who was the appropriate amount of embarrassed to be at a Britney Spears concert as a straight teenage boy, but also excited because it was a freaking Britney Spears concert. We sat behind two “really old men” and thought it was “so weird” that they were at a Britney Spears show. In hindsight, I realize that they were about the same age I am now and a gay couple, thus it was totally understandable that they were at a concert for a pop star on the cusp of becoming a gay icon.
At the Borgata on Saturday night, Joe and I sat behind a mom and her two middle school-aged girls. She said “it was a hoot” to be near us during the show while her daughters looked on and giggled. We were those really old men. I became an Old Gay at the Britney Spears concert in Atlantic City. It couldn’t have happened in a better place.
Spears seemed to love being in Atlantic City. She pushed through a 102-degree fever on her opening night. (I hear it didn’t affect her voice much, wink, wink.) She posted a video on Instagram go-karting with her sons, and one concert-goer said she saw Spears on the boardwalk, where she was more than happy to stop and chat.
There was a Britney Spears lookalike contest at Borgata’s Gypsy Bar—one woman flew in from New Orleans to compete; she did not win—and go-go dancers dressed in indelible Spears looks (the “Toxic” bodysuit, the red “Oops!... I Did It Again” catsuit) showed up in the roughly 400 photos I took whilst too drunk at the Premier Nightclub. Shows for performers with massive fan bases are always more fun at destination casinos because the entire night doubles as a fan convention.
In a video that went viral from Instagram user @zacharygordon95, the Britney fan screamed “WHO IS IT!??” right before Spears recited her iconic “It’s Britney, bitch” line. She visibly laughed and nodded at him, before delivering the line to the raucous screams of the crowd.
The question I get asked most after I see any concert is, “Did they talk to the audience at all?” which is in itself an indictment of how overly produced concert tours have become. Britney Spears did, once.
“What’s up, Atlantic City?!” she said. “This place reminds me of Louisiana. Are you ready to break the ice?”
I now know what it sounds like to hear 2,000 gays say “Huh?” at the exact same time.
Does it make any sense? No! Was it iconic? Yes! Did we all forget about it and start screaming again in support of our queen right away? I will never forget, but I did start dancing again immediately.
The show itself was a breezy, occasionally chaotic 100 minutes. It’s basically a dance show—are you really going to ask if she lip-synched?—and Spears energetically makes her way through relentless choreography that is at once needlessly busy and yet pales in comparison to the moves she used to churn out.
It’s a lot of raising of the arms and lowering of the arms and then snapping and maybe a half-spin to be fancy. She did this thing where her background dancers lift her in the air while she lays like Jesus on the cross approximately 13 times. At one point she literally did a box step.
On the rare occasions when she performed original choreography, like in “Slave 4 U,” she kind of marked it, as if every gay in the audience didn’t know every move by heart and wouldn’t be able to tell. In “Boys” she mimed a choo-choo train and then did jumping jacks.
Still, it’s heartening to see how, well, lucid she is, making each number, particularly “Gimme More,” 11 years later, a triumph. While in recent years she’s tended toward over-earnestness in selling a number, here she was cheeky, sassy, and even had a sense of humor, as evidenced in that “Britney, bitch” video.
There were certain numbers she was clearly more confident in than others—which is confusing, considering how long she’s been doing this tour—and really came alive, breaking out her best dance moves in “Breathe on Me” and “Make Me (Ooh)” and having the most fun in “Clumsy.” There was a weird Missy Elliott dance party before the final act which, aside from being entirely random, showed off Spears, for all her barely there costumes and the incessant innuendo of her songs, to be a big ole goofball.
“Stronger” into “Crazy” at the end of the show was, for a Spears fan, a religious experience.
It’s all robotic, but in the Westworld-era definition of the word. Every nano-second of the show is orchestrated, down to even when Spears tilts her head to the side, glances at a background dancer, or winks at the audience. She put her hair up in a ponytail early in the show and fiddled with it so often, we felt shades of Bernard glitching. And, with all of the legal drama surrounding her life and autonomy, who knows how much a career decision like a national tour is made of her own free will.
But Spears isn’t just going through the motions; she seems to be genuinely enjoying herself. Sure, the blinding star-power that made Spears such a captivating, often surprising entertainer a decade or so ago has dimmed into a sort of workmanlike execution of a nightly greatest hits medley. Considering how things were going for Spears for a while, it could be a lot worse, and, as we experienced watching Piece of Me at the Borgata, a lot less fun.
More, the show is far better suited to these smaller casino venues, which foster an intimacy on the scale of Spears’s late-career potential, than the massive stadiums she once played in her heyday and which other pop stars are filling now. (Taylor Swift, for what it’s worth, played three nights at MetLife Stadium an hour or two up the road at the same time Spears was in Atlantic City.)
Spears fans don’t have the vocal strength of pre-teen shrieks needed to keep the energy of an arena alive. But what our thirty-something selves lack in that department, we make up for in encyclopedic knowledge of a career and a person whom we have followed obsessively for more than 20 years. We’ve seen her break down and rebuild herself, retreating back to her hits to re-establish a foundation. And foundations don’t come more solid than those hits.
It’s that shared history that Spears and the Piece of Me Tour honor as her career ages alongside her fans, serving as a pop culture class reunion, of sorts, with fans reminiscing about the role Spears’ music played at a formative time in their lives. You feel old, but you also never felt younger. And, in the case of at least one rest stop encounter, you run into people you never imagined you’d see.