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At the Britney Spears pop-up museum (yes, museum), a vacant Kmart becomes a selfie shrine

Britney Spears: The Zone
The pop-up experience and retail shop that celebrates Britney Spears runs in L.A. from Jan. 31 to April 26.
(The Zone)

The Zone: Britney Spears, an interactive pop-up museum dedicated to the 38-year-old pop star emeritus, is housed in a large building on West 3rd Street in the Fairfax district that until recently was a Kmart. Like Halloween stores, pop-up museums tend to swoop into spots destroyed by financial collapse — formerly dominant chain-store outlets that become vacant buildings known as “husks.” Despite the addition of a Whole Foods and a citadel of theme-park capitalism, the Grove, across the street, this mini-mall remains largely untouched by time. The Zone is surrounded by a dead Payless shoe store, a newsstand and a wig store named Wigs Today. It has been spray-painted hot pink, with large frescoes of Britney — in close up and with the albino python with which she wriggled at the 2001 Video Music Awards — but it is still recognizably a former Kmart, much like the Britney Spears of 2020, glimpsed upon occasion through Instagram posts and TMZ videos, is still recognizably Britney Spears from the snake dance.

The Zone, which runs from Jan. 31 through April 26, reanimates the commercial peak of Britney’s career. Inside the 30,000-square-foot space, 10 rooms have been constructed, each themed after a different Britney video or era. There are omissions from Britney’s discography and life story — there’s little evidence of her childhood, and no mention of the darkness that subsumed much of her adulthood. But that’s not the point here. Celebrating Britney’s youth, and your own, that’s the point.

Britney Spears, holding an albino python, performs at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards.
(Chris Polk / FilmMagic)

It’s been two years since New York’s Museum of Ice Cream popularized the concept of the pop-up promotional space as a mecca for the selfie generation. That pop-up museum created some of the major conventions of the genre — lots of neon signs, a pit filled with something (in that case, sprinkles) and zero pretensions that spaces like it and the Zone are anything other than a place in which to take like-worthy selfies. Similar to theme parks or Las Vegas, the point of the selfie museum is to sell you the experience of taking pictures of yourself in a place where access is limited by your ability to pay. (A ticket to the Zone costs $59.50, with surge pricing for “peak hours.”) Unlike art museums, where the idea of selfie-ing is, theoretically, to commemorate the experience of viewing the art, the purpose of selfie museums is to commemorate the experience of taking a selfie.

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When artists who make selfie-friendly experiential art, like James Turrell and Yayoi Kusama, have hit shows that encourage photography, the line blurs to a point where “is it art?” hardly seems to matter. The real question seems to be, “Did it move you?” The Britney museum moved me. So I guess it’s art?

The classroom from the "... Baby One More Time" video, as recast at the Zone.
The classroom from the "... Baby One More Time” video, as recast at the Zone: Britney Spears.
(Donn Delson / The Zone Los Angeles)

The Museum of Jurassic Britnology begins, appropriately, in two rooms riffing on “... Baby One More Time,” her bubblegum-porn breakthrough from 1998. As per the iconic video, Room 1 resembles a high school classroom; a second room features a bank of lockers, including one in which you’re encouraged to write and leave a message to Britney. The high school mise-en-scène closes out with a pastel gym whose banners highlight Britney’s commercial achievements: “OVER 25 MILLION ALBUMS SOLD WORLDWIDE.”

Then comes “Oops! ... I Did It Again,” the first of several black-light rooms. Here, Britney’s 2000 video alternates with outer-space footage on porthole screens as an astronaut mannequin holds out a necklace in a jewelry box. A large white supernova backdrop is the first of the video activations; scanning your Zone bracelet triggers a video monitor that records you reenacting one of the dance breaks from “Oops!” These videos are emailed to patrons at the end of the Zone experience.

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A room themed after Spears’ “Stronger” video is a black box with fog, strobes and metal chairs, as if LACMA’s “Rain Room” art installation from a few years ago featured Britney’s banger on loop. There is a “Me Against the Music” room that is just a re-creation of the music video set, with a swing set and fake autumn leaves. There’s the airplane cabin from the “Toxic” video, and a giant space themed around Britney’s “Circus” era.

The Zone: Britney Spears re-creates the airplane interior from Spears' "Toxic" video.
(Donn Delson / The Zone Los Angeles)

My favorite area, though, was “The Temple of Blackout.” Britney’s “Blackout” era, circa 2008, was seen by many as her musical apex and personal nadir, when she shaved her head at a West Valley barbershop and was placed under the involuntary mental health hold known as a 5150. The Zone has chosen to interpret the Blackout era via a romantic chapel ordained to Britney, with stained glass windows imprinted with BLACKOUT, LED candles and neon hearts and flowers floating everywhere. I found myself behaving as if I were in an actual church, sending my positive wishes to Britney and asking for her protection.

The Zone, I came to realize, is Britney’s Graceland. It allows fans to pay worship to her image and idea, or just indulge in their own nostalgia for what now seems like simpler, more innocent times. Jeff Delson, one of the Zone’s producers, says that’s the point of the Zone — “you can be kids again” for a brief, Britney-sanctioned hour and a half. It allows for the idea of fandom as its own kind of wholesomely secular worship — Delson says they’ve “already had half a dozen wedding requests for the Blackout chapel.”

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The final room is “Piece of Me,” another “Blackout” song, and it’s dominated by a fake newsstand stocked entirely with wooden issues of David LaChappelle’s famed Britney Spears cover for Rolling Stone. The cover depicted the then-17-year-old Spears as a sexualized Lolita, and even now seeing that image reproduced in bulk remains a bit shocking. There are no images in this museum of the modern-day Britney, no video message from Britney herself. This is a museum dedicated to Britney the idol, which is something separate from the mother of two who lives in the West Valley and paints watercolors.

Britney Spears attends the GLAAD Media Awards in 2018.
(Chris Pizzello / Invision)

Spears herself has been the subject of much speculation lately. A fan-led “Free Britney” campaign demanded transparency about details of Britney’s conservatorship, a legal arrangement that keeps Britney unable to fully make her own decisions. She ended her Vegas residency in 2017, supposedly due to the health issues of her father, Jamie Spears. And her 2016 album, “Glory,” was her last musical release. For now, “Free Britney” followers and several Britney-centric podcasts pore over her Instagram photos, searching for hidden clues about the inner life of one of the world’s most famous women. The posts typically feature inspirational memes, photos of flowers and animals and high-contrast angelic selfies of current-day Britney. Spears is rarely pictured outside her compound and is never pictured with anyone other than her boyfriend, Sam Asghari, and occasionally her sons. Some have questioned whether Britney even runs the account herself, although the inspirational memes and pictures of flowers seem decidedly Brit-like.

Delson says Spears receives a cut of proceeds from the Zone, although he wouldn’t say how much. In a way, the Zone feels like a compromise that works in her favor. It burnishes Britney’s legend without Spears having to clock in and appear live, benefiting both parties. She contributed costumes and outfits from her archive, which appear in the gift store lobby area. Delson says that Spears plans to visit the space at some point, and the producers have further “activations” planned, including possibly opening up more rooms sometime during the run. For now, the Zone is an L.A.-specific destination, but, says Delson, “we’ll see what the future holds.”

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The biggest pop star in the world right now is an 18-year-old girl named Billie Eilish, who was born when Britney was debuting on “Total Request Live” (and who reportedly wears her uniform of oversized clothes to stop adult men from sexualizing her). If Britney doesn’t want to or can’t perform or record anymore, this museum reminds us that she has given us so much already, and as long as there are faithful, there will be space to gather and praise her. Most Britney fans just want this woman who gave her everything to the public and suffered greatly despite all her success to be happy. If that means leaving Britney alone, as they say, so be it.

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The Zone: Britney Spears
Where: 6310 W. 3rd St., L.A.
When: Wednesdays-Mondays, through Apr. 26
Tickets: $59.50-$64.50
Info: Britneythezone.com


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