As the original Queen of Pop, the specter of Madonna looms large over everything Britney Spears does, whether the younger star is courting controversy with saucy lyrics, writhing her way through a salacious video or importing nuggets of Eastern cultures. Last night in Uniondale, Long Island, at Spears' fifth show on her Circus tour, Madonna wasn't just hovering figuratively: just before the final song, a spotlight beamed into the audience and lighted the way as Madonna herself was whisked from her seat to the door.
Over the prior 90 minutes, Spears danced her way through her own interpretation of an art form Madonna has birthed and perfected over her 25-year career — the pop concert as ultimate spectacle. The tour, directed by longtime Madonna collaborator Jamie King, featured several hallmarks of the Material Girl's recent road trips, from Britney's arrival (a dramatic drop from the ceiling) and opening number, "Circus" (Spears grasped a riding crop as dancers in bondage gear toted her around the stage) to a brief sojourn to South Asia (for a Bollywood-inspired remix of "Me Against the Music") and elaborate video interludes that passed time as Spears repeatedly exchanged one sparkly, skimpy outfit for another. (Check out photos from Britney's Circus here.)
What Britney didn't do was sing live, actively engage the audience or tightly hit most of her choreography. But these flaws were of little concern to the crowd of 17,000 screeching fans clutching cameras and bags of Circus-branded popcorn. Ten minutes before Spears took the three-ringed stage in the center of the arena, chants of "Britney" echoed around Nassau Coliseum, and when the singer emerged the crowd of tweens, teens and twentysomething females seemed simply thrilled to see her. When Circus was released in December 2008, the album's title could have referred to the media frenzy surrounding Spears' life, or the fog of instability that landed her in the hospital and rehab during a two-year breakdown. Today, Spears' Circus is a place where acrobats dangle from the ceiling. It's a remarkable turnaround in a short period of time, and one that highlights the debate over just how much of the Britney Spears show is an illusion. But considering where she's been over the past few years, Britney was back.
Spears wasn't interested in gazing at the past, focusing the majority of her set on her most recent two albums, Circus and Blackout. "Circus" was spectacle to the point of distraction, with so many aerialists, jets of steam, flashing lights and moving hoops that it was hard to spot Spears dancing in the fray. One song later, she was trapped in a cage for "Piece of Me," freeing herself in the end. Nearly half the numbers featured the star being dragged around the stage on some wheeled prop, and a variety of poles made their way into the set, aptly illustrating the split demographic Spears has long struggled to reconcile: were they meant to be interpreted as stripper poles or kitschy Big Top tent poles? Was Britney more comfortable wiggling under a male dancer during "Touch of My Hand" or curled in the nook of a giant fantastical umbrella for emotional ballad "Everytime"?
Some of the show's most bizarre moments seemed to have little connection to the set's flow. Spears lip synched to Marilyn Manson's ghoulish cover of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" in a video recalling Eyes Wide Shut; a lone guitarist mounted the stage and wailed for several minutes before kicking into a rocked-out version of "Do Something"; backup dancers grooved to current hits like T.I. and Jay-Z's "Swagga Like Us," Rihanna's "Don't Stop the Music" and Ne-Yo's "Closer" just before the anxiously awaited "Toxic." Some scenes seemed stacked with meaning, like when Spears was caught in a frame — a giant picture frame, rather than a photographers' lens — for "Breathe on Me", while others seemed whimsical, like at the end of "Boys," when Spears playfully bopped her male dancers on the head with a giant pink mallet.
The room turned truly electric just twice after the opening number — for a relatively chaste version of "Slave 4 U" that featured some of the night's best choreography, and the penultimate song, a spare remix of "... Baby One More Time" that yanked almost everything but Spears' vocal and a booming beat. For all the clothes she stripped off onstage, "Baby" left Spears the most bare and served as another strong reminder of how her entire career has been built on conflicting messages of desire and naiveté. America hasn't been able to let Spears fly her freak flag because her sexuality and freedom have always been at odds and under others' control. So when the Princess of Pop emerged for her final number, "Womanizer," dressed up in a policewoman's guise, she seemed eager to grab some power back for herself. But by then the most powerful woman in the room, the one she'd been so inspired by, had already made her exit.
"Piece of Me"
"Ooh Ooh Baby"
"Hot as Ice"
"If U Seek Amy"
"Me Against the Music"
"Breathe on Me"
"Touch of My Hand"
"Slave 4 U"
" ... Baby One More Time"