What was the craziest thing to happen to Britney Spears last week?
She went to Target. Twice. She bought a CD. That was it. Sounds pretty boring for an international pop icon, but it's a great relief to those working to keep Britney Inc. in business.
For much of 2007 and 2008, Spears was an unhinged superstar unraveling daily in front of a captivated global audience and voracious media scrum. There were hours of aimless driving, underwear-free outings with Paris Hilton, a bizarre romance with a paparazzo, an involuntary psychiatric hold. But after more than a year of belching putrid black smoke, the Britney machine is humming along quite nicely, thank you, and these days it's about the music, not the antics. Did she really shave her head or was that just a bad dream?
"For me, the silence is golden," a Spears insider tells TIME. The pop star's latest single, "3," hit airwaves on Sept. 29 to tremendous buzz (Rolling Stone called it a "surefire dance-floor stomper"), and will be part of her upcoming box set The Singles Collection, due out Nov. 24, which commemorates her 10 years in the record industry. Other milestones have passed quietly. Spears just completed the European and U.S. legs of a grueling concert tour with a performance in Las Vegas, the same spot where two years ago she crashed and burned at the MTV Video Music Awards. After a brief rest, she will tour Australia in November.
So the only Spears circus that folks are seeing these days is onstage at sold-out auditoriums. "The good news is, she's been able to re-create herself and finish the U.S. tour," says the insider. "While people in Hollywood love seeing a downfall, they are all about seeing people pull themselves together. And it seems, for now, Britney's doing it."
Her rebirth is no surprise to Joseph Kahn, who directed Spears in her greatest video triumphs over the years (including "Toxic" and "Stronger"). He knew there had been projects that just plain fell through during what he calls "the blackout period," but still, Kahn jumped at the chance to direct the singer in her comeback video "Womanizer" in late 2008.
"It was a big question for me to find out if she could actually accomplish this," Kahn tells TIME. "I didn't know which Britney was going to show up because of how crazy the previous year had been." His worries were quickly erased. "There she was on set, watching the choreographer, bobbing her head to the music. Baby steps. She was getting her head back into it." He says Spears was noticeably "quieter" on set and worked on a tightly structured schedule. "This wasn't your typical 30-hour video workday," says Kahn. "They gave me eight hours a day for two days. She was getting her legs back."
The force behind the structure: Britney's controversial father Jamie Spears, who has served as her court-appointed conservator since her emotional breakdown in early 2008, assuming near total control over her business and personal life. His continuation of that role has been key for insuring her tour and maintaining her custody agreement with ex-husband Kevin Federline. Proponents of this arrangement believe it has helped Britney stay on track. "The reason for the miracle comeback, the reason she has not been in the news, is so due to Jamie," says the source. "He had a bad rap in the past. I don't know how much of the show he's running, but he's making sure she stays out of trouble. He was the only one capable of doing that in her life."
The strong arm of the conservatorship is felt in everything from Spears' curtailed spending to the weeding out of people who are considered bad influences. Even her downtime on the tour was carefully choreographed. When Spears' tour bus pulled into Pittsburgh, Pa., in March, the manager of the local Mad Mex restaurant didn't think twice about Spears' advance team's request: no flash photography, and her tables were not to be offered Red Bull or alcohol. Hard to argue with the results: a low-key meal devoid of drama. The most exciting thing the manager had to say was that Spears really liked the guac.
The conservatorship has its critics. Onetime Spears confidant Sam Lutfi, who is appealing a long-standing restraining order brought by Jamie to keep him away from Britney, insists that he knows the pop star "is desperate to end the conservatorship." His take on the current scenario: "She's not entitled to her freedom yet able to make hundreds of millions of dollars for them by performing a world tour." And former Britney BFF Alli Sims believes the Britney machine doesn't stop the drama from happening but is simply more effective in squelching the tabloid stories. "She has so many people controlling her every move, so who knows what's real and what's not?" Sims tells TIME in an e-mail. "The people around her are keeping the stories out. I hope and pray she is at a good place."
The Spears insider says the pop star can "resent" the controls and that it gets worse when she's not touring, like now. "If you are on summer vacation, you are going to resent your parents," says the source, who hopes that we've seen "the end of the bad parts of this amazing story."
But if another bad part does unfold, it's a safe bet the pent-up media will not leave Spears alone. "There are countless journalists bemoaning the fact that Britney is so well behaved these days," says Steve Dennis, author of the new biography Britney Spears: Inside the Dream. That said, he adds, if she can hold it together, Spears will have achieved her greatest success. "If this redemption has some longevity to it, then it will be one of show business's all- time comebacks," Dennis says. "She was staring into the abyss. But right now she's showing the world" to paraphrase her hit song "Gimme More" "Britney's back, bitch."