katstevens: (bettyboo)
posted by [personal profile] katstevens at 02:37pm on 09/09/2009 under , , ,
[Posted here instead of over on FT, as it's a bit out of date now - this was written in June.]

A 27-year-old mother-of-two is suspended in the air above a fiery chasm, kept only from plummeting to a grisly death by the grip of a muscle-bound man's thighs. Thunderous drumbeats ring out around the arena, where 20,000 people look on, all holding their breath...

The Britney Spears Circus tour is midway through its 8-date London run at the O2 arena (it's hard to think of a more appropriate setting for a circus-themed tour than a large tent in Greenwich). Each night an army of dancers, musicians, acrobats and stage hands has created a spectacle of impeccable choreography and stunning imagery, all centred around one comparatively unremarkable young woman.

For it's apparent that Britney is the least technically able person on the stage. Although she pulls off dance moves over 90 minutes that would leave you or I with a nasty stitch after 90 seconds, next to the gymnasts and break-dancers she looks... ordinary. Not in the sense of the innocent girl-next-door image that she portrayed as a teenager (ironically at that point she probably had the least typical life of any teenager on the planet) but average - like a reality TV show contestant plucked out of the audience and given a few hours' instruction before being asked to emulate the celebrity expert. A mere mortal, who needs to be wheeled from one side of the stage to the other on the back of a sequinned tricycle.

It does make one wonder if Britney's passive ringmaster role is all a massive joke - an extended metaphor for the way the media are increasingly captivated by the drama surrounding her personal life, as opposed to her creative output. Everyone has come here to look at the car crash, but it appears that at the eye of the storm there's nothing to see here: move along. Though the joke would be funnier if Britney herself was in on it.

Her movements are strictly controlled and her conversation scripted: "Hello London! How are y'all doing?" is the best she manages, and looking her recent form the reason for this becomes clear - earlier this year at a gig in Florida, Spears was rumoured to utter to all present: "Is my pussy hanging out?" Whether she actually said this or not, the promoters couldn't afford any more 'mishaps', and except for pre-approved dialogue her microphone has been muted. Heaven forbid the woman might say what she's actually thinking.

Lately, Britney's best outlet for expression has been her music (the fact that this is surprising is a telling summation of her career to date). Although written by Swedish producers Bloodshy & Avant, her 2008 single 'Piece Of Me' was a powerful channel through which to make a jibe at the media's expense:

I'm Mrs. "You want a piece of me?"
Tryin' and pissin' me off
Well get in line with the paparazzi
Who's flippin' me off
Hopin' I'll resort to some havoc
End up settlin' in court
Now are you sure you want a piece of me?
No wonder there's panic in the industry - I mean, please.

Britney certainly seems to relish her rendition of the above words tonight. She's not just talking to the tabloid editors but to us, the people at the end of the gossip chain. The public seem to want to know everything about Britney Spears - whether she takes drugs, whether she's allowed to see her children, how she is trying to get her life back on track after a messy divorce and stressful environment sparked some mental health problems. As her ability to do her job has waned, the focus has shifted from her now sub-standard singing and dancing talents on to her personal life, to make up the shortfall. While Britney may have a sympathetic audience here at the O2, it is an audience none the less and nothing will escape its scrutiny, for better or worse.

As such, all eyes in the arena are glued to the vulnerable young girl hanging awkwardly from a lighting rig, watching her every move and waiting for something terrible or wonderful to happen. But the stage direction tonight has left nothing to chance, and though the audience gasps as she slips out of the acrobat's grip, it becomes apparent that while everyone's attention was misdirected the rig has been subtly lowered, leaving a mere 4ft drop onto a cushioned sofa (risen up out of the now-extinguished pit). Britney disappears for another costume change and the show continues without her - this time it's samurai swordsmen doing back-flips.

Britney's current technical limitations are clear, yet her work ethic (two albums and an 88-date world tour) looks impressive next to the list of traumas that have beset her in the last 18 months: she has undergone compulsory psychiatric evaluation, lost custody of her children, filed a restraining order against her former manager, finalised her divorce proceedings, lost control of her finances to her ex-alcoholic father and appeared in court over minor driving misdemeanours (from which she was acquitted) - all whilst under constant surveillance by the paparazzi. How many other normal, average 27-year-olds could cope with all of the above without letting it affect their work just a little?

No-one in the crowd is expecting a great vocal performance or drastic re-interpretations of the recorded songs (the live band hidden to one side are so tight they are barely noticeable until the guitarist leaps up for some axe-wielding action), but they've all paid upwards of £50 to be here.

So what does Britney's audience really want from her? If it's an all-conquering mega-performer who can do aerial somersaults whilst belting out operatic melodies, Beyonce is playing here in a couple of days and will do the job nicely. If they want to see the fighting spirit of an underdog overcoming her demons, then unfortunately the sight of a glassy-eyed Britney going through the motions will probably not be enough.

Luckily for Britney, she has a brilliantly rich back catalogue to fall back on - in fact, just prior to the encore the screens display a rapid montage of her best videos over the last ten years, almost as if to say "remember why you fell in love with her". There's something special about hearing a much-beloved pop song at 100 decibels (especially when brought to life by the world's best version of Legs & co.), and although Britney herself is clearly under-par the gig experience tonight still manages to be amazingly good. Her only live vocal performance of the evening (on the ballad 'Everytime') is just heart-breaking to listen to: whispering and cracked, but perfectly suited to the song. Just imagine how good this could be when she gets back on form?

Sadly the question may well be 'if' rather than 'when'. Her fans know they might not get another chance to experience the full all-singing, all-dancing Britney Spears, but still hope that one day she will finally manage to descend back down to earth from her lighting rig - with a snake around her shoulders and a gleam in her eye - and give them a show to remember.


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