Britney Spears' Circus Maximus at the Garden, March 16, 2009
"Oh my God, this is going to be so fucking crazy!" screams a teenage girl behind me. We currently aren't looking at much more than several swirling Virgin Mobile logos on an empty stage-in-the-round, but the fever-pitch anticipation has crossed from exhilarating into almost disturbing.
RINGLEADER Britney may be an unremarkable performer, but her significance as a
pop-psych phenomenon transcends "talent."
The size of the Garden means that the buzz of chatter is continually punctuated by terrifying banshee screams as the capacity crowd waits for the star of the show to appear. Finally, the lights go out, the curtain rises, and Britney Spears emerges to a deafening reception.
Let's get the negatives out of the way, for those who want to know how this show compares with those of more "talented" performers. First off, given the CD-identical vocal performances, with never an out-of-breath moment or stray "hey" during songs, I saw nothing to dissuade reports that Ms. Spears lip-synch'd the entire show. The only evidence that the headset she wore was even powered on didn't come till the two-thirds point, when she gave a "How you doing Boston?!" shout-out. The ornate proceedings did not include a jumbotron close-up of any of the action on stage; depending on your vantage point, half the show could have been performed by a look-alike. Her dancing was unspectacular; she was frequently upstaged by her large posse of back-up dancers. The choreography forced her to spend the majority of the set racing in stiletto thigh-highs from one mark to another. If you'd come to this show looking for spontaneity, you would have been sorely disappointed.
Of course, if you cared about any of that, you wouldn't have been at the Garden in the first place. For those who were there, it was about something else, and also about something more than just seeing in the flesh a body and a face you had glimpsed only on the cover of a glossy rag in the supermarket checkout line. Britney's story arc as a ringleader of this era in popular culture has now moved past her first act, wherein the young ingénue is thrust in the spotlight only to discover that all that glitters is not gold. Now that she's been through the ringer of celebrity humiliation, she has what she so wished for, and what her fans wanted for her: an emotional gravitas in her music. When she was a teenager singing of love's desperation in "Hit Me Baby One More Time," the world cackled. Now, in "Womanizer" and "Circus," the story of her life is mined for dramatic depth in a way that everyone can understand.
In the end, the show brought out how unremarkable Britney Spears the superstar performer is and yet how crucial she is as a cultural force and the signifier of a post–Gen X crowd beginning to claim this world as their own. Taking elements of Disney, Bollywood (in a drastic reworking of the Madonna collaboration "Me Against the Music"), goth (in the Marilyn Mansony "Freakshow"), crunk, and burlesque, Spears & Co. have fashioned the kind of pop concert where a carefully manufactured backstory coupled with a fastidiously manicured image can explode into a pop-psych phenomenon that transcends "talent" and "chops." Or to put it another way, the chorus of her current single took on another dimension when "sung" before such a shriekingly enthusiastic crowd: "All of the girls/And all of the boys/Are begging to F-U-C-K me."
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