“I’m Britney, bitch.” Yeah, but is that enough?
After a very full evening of entertainment, including a fantastic set by Nicki Minaj, I find myself wondering if a grand spectacle is reason enough to go see someone live in concert.
The evening began with two cute blonde Australian girls who together make up the duo Nervo. They spent twenty minutes behind a mixing deck, playing extremely well mixed songs. The simplicity of the duo was a stark contrast to the absolute spectacle which would ultimately follow. It seemed odd to have a DJ duo open for such a major tour, but the two were so infectiously cute and happy that it was a delight to watch them as they spun.
The same unfortunately couldn’t be said for Jessie and The Toy Boys, who thankfully only played for fifteen minutes. Jessie and The Toy Boys is a group of one blonde gal and two awkward dancers who painfully lip-synched to absolutely un-original and completely derivative music, with songs like “We Own The Night”, “Money Makes The Girl Go” and “Push It”. The set was a little bit of a train wreck that had nothing to really anchor it.
The evening really got going with Nicki Minaj, who took the stage and treated it like she was the headliner. Minaj’s hour-long set traversed the wide range of musical styles that Nicki Minaj is capable of. From the sharp rap in “Did It On’em” to the more lyrical and ballady “Save Me”, Minaj showed her immense versatility. This versatility makes her a frequent collaborator of many of the top pop acts recording now (including Britney Spears, but we’ll get to that later). While Minaj is extremely strong on stage, there often feels like there’s something missing. On the song “Fly,” we hear more of Rihanna pre-recorded than we do of Minaj, and the same is true for the Flo Rida / David Guetta song “Where Them Girls At”. But Nicki Minaj seems unfazed singing along to these tracks and manages to transition from these sing-alongs to songs where she is the main focus with ease.
On stage Nicki Minaj is absolutely dynamic. Her playful manner and bright smile permeate throughout all she does. With her set she creates a futuristic world with an arch rival named Nemesis. This theme is the glue between her songs and elevates her set to an ‘experience’ and not just a performance. One of the things that is so impressive about Nicki Minaj is that she manages to throw down some serious raps without being so damn serious. There’s a quiet confidence that she seems to have that elevates her rap and makes it much more fun and approachable. This was most palpable with her performance of “Moment 4 Life” which really showcases her absolute raw talent. She closed her set with “Super Bass”, her current hit, which was extremely well received and showed her massive crossover potential. I doubt we’ll see Nicki Minaj be an opener again – she’s clearly destined to be a feature performer and destined for great success.
After Nicki Minaj’s set there was a sizable break (a whopping 45 minute intermission), which ended up being a good thing as Minaj’s set was so full that it would have been too much to then roll right into Britney Spears’ set.
Britney Spears Femme Fatale set started with a bang. Huge video screens showed high definition clips of Britney breaking out of prison and being chased by cops. The production values of the clips were top notch and it built to a grand entrance by Britney who flew in on a platform (one of many times she’d be flown, wheeled, carted and pushed around the stage). Her opening number “Hold it Against Me” was a full-on assault of lights, smoke and sound. This level of high octane staging and lighting would continue the entire set, and so would Britney Spears’ lip-synching.
From a staging point of view, this song, like many which followed it, was outstanding. With fifteen or so dancers, huge video screens which moved and shifted and more props than you could imagine being crammed into an evening of music, Britney’s set was nothing short of a grand spectacle. The only problem was that Britney wasn’t much more than a prop herself.
Britney established herself over twelve years ago with a very specific ‘jail bait’ sexual brand that she has tried to maintain over the years. She managed to maintain this image through about 2003 (which came to an apex with her legendary kiss with Madonna at the 2003 Video Music Awards). In 2004 she got married (a couple of times), messed up her knee, and settled down to have a family. Now in 2011, the person who used to be that young, sexy teen idol is gone, and what’s in her place is a thirty year old mom who has been through a lot of personal trials and come out the other side. Unfortunately Britney doesn’t seem to quite embrace who she has become, and the result is difficult to watch.
From jailbait, Britney has transitioned into MILF, but onstage she tries very hard to look, dance and move like she is still that younger version of herself. Her outfits are nothing short of unflattering and only enhance the womanly changes that time and having children will bring. Britney is extremely stiff and stilted through many of her dance numbers, all of which seem to want to suggest something that’s no longer there. The toughest aspect of Britney’s performance, though, is the pervasive lip synching that permeates almost every number of the show. The lip synching is so bad, at one point Britney mistakenly synchs the chorus of a song rather than the lead vocal.
Britney does actually sing for one song during her set, as she grabs a microphone and tries to belt out “Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know.” It’s an absolute train wreck of a song with Britney being slightly off key.
At this point you’d think the entire purpose of this review was to criticize Britney, but that’s not so. Rather than rooting against her, I found myself rooting for her, hoping that in the next number somehow she’d find her rhythm, or embrace who she now is, but in many ways that seems to be out of her hands. Britney spends most of the concert being carted around, lifted in the air or even carried. She seems like a prop because she’s treated like one. The producers of this spectacular show always seem to want to have Britney sit, perch or strap in to some sort of contraption.
As many issues as Britney has, the show itself somehow almost manages to transcend them. Each song is supported by a stage show that is so wonderfully over the top, you can’t help but be entranced. From lifting and spinning sections of the stage, to driving cars and motorcycles in for songs, the stakes for what could happen on stage kept getting bigger and bigger. This was alway accompanied with lighting and video screens that were absolutely top notch.
With the song “Big Fat Bass,” the integration between Britney and Will.I.Am (who appears and sings on high def video screens) was one of the best solutions to the common problem of songs that feature artists who simply can’t be live in concert to sing along. “Big Fat Bass” was an absolute high point of the show and hinted at what’s possible when you artfully marry live performance with pre-recorded video.
Also the ‘encore’ performance of “Till the World Ends” was a clear indication that Britney still has the capacity to produce clear hits and both captivate and engage an audience. The performance of “Till the World Ends” also showed everything that was wrong with the Femme Fatale Tour. The staging of “Till the World Ends” is so focused on flash and pyrotechnics that it completely misses the point of the song and the opportunity to really engage the audience. The song has a clear call to pull the live audience in and capture the magic of what live performance is about, but it so clearly misses it. Then, what happens towards the end of the song is almost beyond belief. About three quarters through the song, Britney yells, “Remix, Nicki Minaj” and appropriately the crowd goes wild. Nicki Minaj then appears on the video screens behind Britney singing a pre-recorded video. What?! Huh?! Did we miss something? Wasn’t Nicki Minaj just the opening act? How in the world can she not be brought on stage to sing the very thing that they are showing as pre-recorded?
And then it all becomes clear. The Britney Spears Femme Fatale Tour is not live music. It’s not even really a concert. It’s a very tightly controlled and highly scripted spectacle, starring Britney Spears (sort of). It’s lots of lights, sounds and dancing to the pre-recorded track of Britney’s music. And for some that may be enough. But it shouldn’t be enough for Britney, who is clearly better than this. With “Till the World Ends” and to some extent “Hold It Against Me,” Britney has shown that she still has more to offer musically, that she could embrace the fact that she’s pushing thirty, been through hell and keeps on fighting. Instead, she allows herself to become a fairly stiff prop in a spectacle where she is nothing more than a bit player.
(photos courtesy of BritneySpears.com)