Monday, August 8 2011. There are riots across London but in one small bit of it, at 10.30pm, Popjustice is on the phone being put through to Britney Spears. She is getting ready for a show and has agreed to talk to us for a few minutes.
During the course of organising the interview we have requested that, when she comes on the line, the first thing Britney says is “it’s Britney bitch”.
Here is what happens.
Britney, are you there?
Great. What most drives you to be brilliant — fear of failure or thirst for success?
Thirst for success. I constantly want to outdo the last thing I’ve done.
Have you learned that over the years or was that always there?
Over the years. I’ve always worked hard for whatever I’ve got but as time goes by I tend to want to outdo myself which I guess is a good thing.
How do you define success now? Is it album sales or ticket sales, or whether you personally like something?
Just by feeling accomplished in what I’ve done, you know? In the art that we’ve done. At this point in my career I am making the music that I enjoy and the music I know my fans will love.
Even if you’re saying “I am being totally honest with you” do you still think it’s important for popstars to keep something back from their fans?
I think your personal life is your personal life, and that should stay private, but in the line of talking about my craft and what I do I’m willing to talk about those things.
That bit where it overlaps is complicated. What is it that keeps people on the outside from going over the line… I don’t know what it is, is it respect?
It doesn’t seem like those outside have too much trouble crossing the line…
And how much of the real you do you think we know? None, everything, half? 45%?
I would say half. I can be pretty guarded with my personal life and I’ve learned that’s okay.
That’s quite a lot to know.
But it’s also quite a lot not to know.
Yes! Sometimes it’s our secrets that define us.
So now I’m wondering what the half I don’t know is.
Yes. That’s the point.
And it’s your job to make sure I don’t find out.
There’s a question I’ve got written down here, which I’ll explain properly once you’ve supplied me with an answer, and the question is: if you were locked in a room with only a saucepan, what would you do?
I’d knock on the door with it.
The thing is, I remember reading something about some sort of behavioural study and during the course of the study they did a test where people were locked, on their own, in a room with only a saucepan. And apparently within five minutes of being in the room, more than half of the men had put the saucepan on their head.
What do you think that says about the difference between men and women?
How different we are!
I suppose so. Do you have any grey hairs?
If you’d never released a second single — so if ‘…Baby One More Time’ had been one massive hit with nothing else — what would you be doing now?
Raising my family. Being a mom.
You’re kind of doing that anyway, if obviously in quite different circumstances… But what else would be different about your life, what else would you have done?
It would probably pretty much be the same because I’m very strong in the way I raise my kids and stuff, so it would probably be pretty much the same but career-wise I’d probably be a teacher. I love kids and even in what I do now one of my favorite parts of my day is getting to meet my fans before the show. Especially the little ones. They are always so cute.
Is that something you were thinking of doing when you were younger?
Yes. My mom was a teacher.
What would be your specialist subject?
I’d specialise in reading and history.
What’s your favourite historical period?
Which fits in quite well with the Art Deco styling of your current artwork.
Would you let either of your kids become a popstar? Would the fact that you’ve been one yourself change how likely you’d be to say ‘yes that’s a great idea’ or ‘no that’s not such a good idea’?
I’d definitely keep an eye on them, but if that’s what they wanted to do then I’d let them go after it. I’d just be very protective.
You’ve been on the receiving end of quite a lot over the years — what would you warn your kids about?
Well, I wouldn’t want them to go into it feeling fearful, and also nobody can really prepare you for this industry and what you experience, so I’d just have to trust that they have the instincts to know what’s right and wrong and help guide them along the way. I think I have the experience.
The idea of following instincts is quite interesting… In the same way that you can give someone vocal lessons or dance lessons or whatever without them ever really being equipped to be a popstar, you’re saying that you can’t teach someone how to react to what happens when you do become one?
Exactly. Every path is different.
Do you think you’ve ever recorded a perfect song?
Do I think there’s any such thing as a perfect song?
Well that as well I suppose, but I was wondering if you think you’ve recorded one…
Um… I don’t know if there’s such thing as a perfect song. There are songs that I’m completely in love with, but songs are creative and they can be anything So I don’t think there’s any such thing as a perfect song.
You see if someone were to say to me, ‘what’s the perfect song?’, I might have a few examples but one of them is ‘…Baby One More Time’.
Well thank you for the music Britney.
Well, thank you for listening Peter!
What do you look back on and go, ‘well that was a bit rubbish’?
Um… (Miniature pause) Well I think that everything happens for a reason so I don’t really think anything… Well, I think you learn from everything that happens, good or bad. But you’re talking about songs?
Songs, anything really. I just think it’s really helpful if you want to get a sense of what an artist thinks about themselves, if you know how they actually rank their own work.
Making music is a creative process. I don’t think you can rank that process.
So going at it from a different angle, you say that you learn a lesson when something’s good or when something’s bad — what lessons have you learned from things that haven’t gone quite according to plan?
Um… [Get] everybody in check! (Laughs) And make sure that everybody’s on top of what they’re doing. And if it doesn’t happen the way you want it to happen, just don’t take yourself too seriously, and move on.
Do you lead or follow?
I definitely lead.
Is it hard work doing all that leading? It must be a lot easier to just sit around copying people.
No, it’s not hard work, it’s part of who I am. I love to strive to do things differently. That’s part of why I love what I do — being in this industry because you can, you know, do so many different things, and that makes you who you are.
How do you feel you’re leading at the moment? So for example with the dubstep breakdown in ‘Hold It Against Me’ it felt like something that a global pop performer hadn’t yet done, and it felt like an instance of you pushing things a bit… But I wasn’t sure if that was you who was doing that pushing. And I’m wondering if there are any examples of things you’ve done where you’ve thought, ‘yes, I’m really proud to have done this first’.
I had a definite idea in my head for the sound and direction of this album when we set out to make it and I think we nailed it. I’m really proud of this album. Also, in performances and stuff and in videos and in every craft that I do I always think up the storylines and just think about how to make it different and do stuff that’s never been done before. And, um, so it stands out, and so people are inspired by that and then you inspire each other. And that’s what we’re here to do.
You say, ‘that’s what we’re here to do’, but there are plenty of people who work in and around the industry you’re in and they don’t think that’s what they’re there to do. A lot of the time they’re in the business to get as far as they can by keeping their head down and not getting rumbled. Do you think you operate in a different world from those people?
I think there’s a lot of us who lead and there’s a lot of us who follow and our worlds are different. I feel my world is different, even from other people who lead.
But everyone ends up in the same chart at the end of the day, even if they’ve come at pop music from quite different angles.
Which is quite exciting.
Yes. But I can only worry about me!.
What time do you go to bed?
How do you like your day to run?
On tour, I usually get up in the morning and I work out, and I spend time with my kids, and then it’ll be time to go to the venue, and I have catering, eat dinner then get ready for the show!
Do you enjoy having structure to your day?
I really do. I love routine and I love structure.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?
The biggest mistake I’ve ever made? (Thinks) To not trust my instincts.
So is it now your first instinct to, er, trust your instincts?
When did you learn that lesson?
It’s just about listening to your gut in different situations. I’ve learned to trust my instincts over the years but it definitely took time.
You’re singing about The Club a lot these days. Perhaps this is part of the 50% of your life I know nothing about but it seems like you’re not actually going out to clubs. So this club you sing about — do you actually go there?
Actually no I don’t. (Laughs) I never go to The Club. But I think it’s fun to sing about it. And I have my own mini club at my house.
Yes. And I play a lot of music there!
Does the club at your house have a name?
Does it have a glitterball?
Yes, it has a glitterball. And we have catering and lights. It’s the whole setup.
Do you like being looked at?
I don’t like being judged. But I, you know, I think it’s flattering when people make comments that are nice. Particularly when it’s something that inspires me to do better.
There’s a fine line, especially these days when people can directly talk to you on Twitter or wherever, between taking what people say seriously enough because they’re fans and of course you want to take what they’re saying on board, and then separating that from the people who just hurl abuse. How do you divide the constructive advice from the shouting?
Well when people are screaming at shows and stuff it’s the most flattering thing there is and it just inspires and motivates me to do a better show.
But these people are fans.
What about the people on messageboards or on social media. How do you ignore the bad stuff? A lot of people say they don’t go online, but…
No, I don’t. I never have. I’m not interested in the negative. Only the positive.
If you were 14 again now, and you were starting off in 2011, how would you get things moving?
Make good contacts.
I know what you mean by that and you know what you mean by that but let’s say this 14-year-old kid doesn’t find it as obvious as to just ‘make good contacts’ — how would you even start?
You know I think it’s all about who your connections are with and the people you surround yourself with, so I think if I was doing it all again now I’d do that but I’d also take advantage of social media.
When a lot of artists hit a certain age — Usher, Justin Timberlake, whoever — they start bringing through protogees and launching label imprints and so on. So Usher had Justin Bieber, which panned out reasonably well. If you were to start your own label and a protogee of your own, what sort of popstar would you look for?
I think there’s a lot of people out there who can sing and dance but I’d look for that somebody out there who has that something to stand out from everyone else. Someone who people are magnetised towards. I’m always looking for that person with that special quality. It’s hard to find.…
And this goes back to what we were talking about earlier — it’s not something you could teach someone.
Is there a style of voice or a type of music you’d be looking to work with?
Well, someone who loves music. Not just wants to be famous, you know?
People think that fame is always a good thing when, in fact, it’s usually a bad thing.
What sort of demands are put on artists now that weren’t there in the 90s? What’s changed?
I don’t really have that many demands on me. I genuinely do love what I do but I think albums are judged on sales, which is not good.
When you came out you were presented as the sort of popstar who’d be judged by sales, though. The sort of popstar you were was someone who just sold records. And then maybe you became something else, but do you think you’ve moved so far away from your 17-year-old self that record sales aren’t important?
You know what, I make the music that I love and that’s what matters really. And I hope everyone else likes it.
When do you think the world will end, and what will the end of the world sound like?
(Laughing) That is one of the strangest questions I have ever been asked, apart from the saucepan one! I’m a positive person so I’m going to say never!
Do you think it would make a noise?
Of course! It would go snap, crackle and pop.
Britney’s current album is Femme Fatale and here it is on iTunes; she’ll be in the UK during October for some no-doubt-quite-exciting tour dates.