Louise Bruton chronicles her time in The Zone, an immersive Britney Spears-themed experience in LA, moving through denim-wallpapered bathrooms to examine fan culture and celebrity mental health.
Waiting behind the velvet rope, I am grinding my teeth and my skull is vibrating at a dangerously high frequency. It feels like brain freeze, except it doesn’t hurt; it’s daring me to be bold. Surrounded by pinks and blues in a kitted out warehouse, the lyrics “Dear diary, today I saw a boy and I wondered if he noticed me…” boom through the speakers. I’m alone but surrounded by other groups of best friends and I’m about to enter The Zone, the newly-opened immersive Britney Spears experience in central Los Angeles.[restrict]
For those not in the know – and I realise that that’s the vast majority of you – The Zone is a pop-up that allows fans, superfans and regular humans to step inside interactive rooms dedicated to the living legend where you can recreate her most iconic videos and live performances. As the singer appears to be on an infinite career hiatus – she cancelled her second Las Vegas residency Britney: Domination in January 2019 when her father was unwell – and she spends her days posting yoga workouts on Instagram, this is what we’ve been reduced to.
On the scale of one to ten in Britney fandom, I am a solid eight. I’ve seen her in concert five times, traveling abroad only once to see her headline Brighton Pride in 2018. I have four of her nine albums on vinyl, one of which, 2018’s Glory, I paid an undisclosed amount of money for my name to be included among thousands in the thank you credits. I dismiss all suggestions that Toxic is her best single, tutting that it’s “the straight man’s favourite Britney song”. One of my tattoos was done by the same artist who tattooed a pair of dice on her wrist in Bray in 2004 so, technically, Britney and I have had skin-on-skin contact.
These might read like the actions of a ten, but I’ve seen tens in the flesh and I know that I am an eight. And that’s fine. Being an eight is enough. Attending this experience alone, not by choice but out of duty, I fear that I won’t reach full state of rapture without the company of friends but my chattering brain tells me that this is where I am supposed to be. The staff are particularly attentive to me, the Irish girl on her tobler, and cheerfully inform me that they are available to take videos and photos. They know their demographic.
The experience begins in a classroom. The same classroom that the then pigtailed 17-year-old waited in for the school bell to strike three so that she could shimmy down the hallway in a tied-up shirt, asking her beau how was she “supposed to know that something wasn’t right here?” Just as it did for her in 1998, our own school bell rings and we are given permission to enter a candy-coloured version of the basketball court where she cried death by loneliness.
Adrenaline courses through my body like it’s the Friday night of a music festival. Under the balmy glow of the Slave 4 U jungle and the dizzying lights of the Circus tent, I am overstimulated and it is possible that I’m ascending from an eight to a nine. From the Oops!… I Did It Again Mars-red realm, where we get to strike a pose on a white tarpaulin, to the black mirrored Stronger cube that has chairs fixed at wonky angles to the floor and on the ceiling, I and 14 other Britney stans are running riot.
This is a pop playground that’s based on Britney but it feeds on ego and Instagram likes. The music is so loud that it seeps into your bloodstream, morphing you into the very synth squawks from Piece of Me or Madonna’s cane in Me Against the Music video. Even the unisex bathrooms are themed. One is wallpapered in every shade of denim imaginable.
With a $60 price tag, this isn’t a casual expedition. The Zone is for people who know that the albino Burmese python she draped around her shoulders at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards was called Banana and for those who know the significance of her fall during the shoot for the never released Outrageous video. Let me elaborate. On June 8th, 2004, halfway through her Onyx Hotel Tour, Britney fell over on shoot and required knee surgery. The rest of the tour was cancelled, with the last gig happening in the RDS in Dublin. During her recovery period, she “retired” and became engaged and then married to Kevin Federline. Yes, that rat bag. 2004 is a precursor – not just chronologically but narratively – to the year 2007, which is famously the year where It All Went Wrong For Britney.
Praying at the altar in the Church of Blackout, a shrine to her album that was recorded and released during that turbulent period, I give thanks to the Holy Spearit for surviving and thriving in such a grotesque industry. For all she’s been through, I sometimes feel complicit as a fan. For every inch of her success that I have contributed to, she was pushed further into a dangerously dark corner and it’s hard to shake the blame
When it comes to celebrities with mental health issues, we seem to take the low road and when Britney was going through the mill, we didn’t hold back. We saw photos of her being strapped to a gurney as she was being taken away in an ambulance to be sectioned against her will. We saw the glint in her eye when she shaved all of her hair off in a hair salon under the flash of paparazzi lights. How many times have you seen people post belittling memes that read “If Britney survived 2007, I can survive today”?
The conversations we have around mental health now are so wildly different to ones we had in throughout 2007, 2008 and 2011, when Britney supposedly had another setback. Long before Twitter became our collective water cooler for pop culture chat and dissections, in the same treatment given to Amy Winehouse in the years leading up to her death, every moment of her life was splashed across tabloids and gossip websites without any genuine consideration given to her wellbeing. Britney was just another child star losing the plot – a damaging stereotype that needs to be done away with – rather than an adult who was feeling catastrophically lost in front of a rapt audience.
While fan culture can manically demand the best of our stars, media feeds on their failings, meaning that you only have klout when you’re on top of the word or barely getting by. If you only exist in these two states, it numbs the ways of everyday life and you may feel like you have to play a role rather than be yourself.
It’s hard to know how much of Britney’s career was her choice. Famous since the age of 12 and a global phenomena at the age of 17, Britney has tried to dip out of the limelight numerous times but she has always met resistance. Now with the focus shining on pop-up playgrounds instead of her personal life, she seems to have finally achieved her wish. Not only that but when she checked herself into a treatment facility for some “me time” in April 2019, the response online proves that the conversation around mental health is finally on her side. If not a little bit later than what she deserved.
I own a t-shirt that says “Britney’s Instagram is art” but her Instagram is more than that. Still under a conservatorship since 2008, Britney has no control over her finances but as she posts videos of her painting in her garden with Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca on blast or of impromptu fashion shows in her bedroom, you know that she’s the one hitting send.
Although it may seem limited, at the age of 38, Britney is relinquishing control. And knowing that that’s what she really needs, this might be what finally makes me a ten.