What's it like to see a childhood pop hero perform live when rumours of their lacklustre stage presence risk overriding their show? That's what columnist Douglas Greenwood tries to make sense of in this week's 'Pop is Not a Dirty Word', after seeing Britney Spears' spectacular 'Piece of Me' tour in London.
By now, the rumours of what Britney Spears is like live have spread far and wide – but they’re scattered and often conflicting ones.
We’ve heard the stories: her dancing is static; she’s lost all energy; she lip-syncs. But recently, there have been whispers from her die-hard fans that suggested she’s the best she’s been in years: captivating, relentless, ready to give it all she’s got.
Ever since she returned to music after her heartbreaking and all-too-public breakdown – with what I consider to be the best record of her career, ‘Blackout’ – performing live, or her aversion to it, has become her defining characteristic.
But regardless of what her critics think, Britney Jean Spears is one of the few pop stars who could sell out an arena at the drop of a hat – and this week (August 24 to 26) she played three nights at London’s O2 arena that sold out in a matter of days.
So when she appeared at the first date of said ‘Piece of Me’ residency every inch the star, it was like witnessing the enigma of my childhood pop obsession come to life in the most surreal way. This was the first time I’d seen her live, and suddenly, I was reminiscing on the woman I’d crushed on as a kid after seeing the ‘Toxic’ video. I was recalling how much I felt the words to ‘Everytime’ the first time I heard it. My fickle heart filled with nostalgia when I heard her sing ‘… Baby One More Time’. ‘Piece of Me’ is a pop package, almost flawless in its structure, that has the power to make people feel things.
There’s truth to the hearsay, though: Britney swerves any opportunity to sing live and ploughs her way through dance numbers, sometimes a little off beat. Every moment, even the crowd interaction, feels choreographed. But does any of that matter when you’re watching one of modern history’s most iconic musicians on stage, seeming happy, and doing everything she can to make a crowd of loyal fans feel the same?
In order to understand her on-stage demeanour you have to consider the life she’s lived before now. After losing grip of her own identity during the whirlwind of 2007, left out like bait for scrutiny by tabloid-y TV shows and gossip blogs, it’s no surprise that she’s someone who favours safety nets in the gaze of the public.
Still, she’s a greater entertainer than she is a run-of-the-mill traditional pop singer: few artists have a catalogue as gleaming as hers, and she’s willing to do anything in her power to prove that. Instead of flitting from high octane anthems to recent album cuts nobody has heard of, stuffing a medley of ballads in between, Britney turns the iconic pop song dial up to a thousand and refuses to turn it down for 100 straight minutes. This is all killer, no filler.
Britney’s success as a live artist is fascinating, and proof that dismissing pop stars based on their traditional talents is the most boring argument to make right now. Sure, Sam Smith has a gorgeous voice, but would he tie a BDSM leash round an unsuspecting audience member’s neck and get him to crawl across the stage? Hell no. Adele’s a bloody scream, but would she stop halfway through her show to dance to three Missy Elliot songs apropos of nothing? Probs not. Not everybody can do everything – but Britney does both of these.
Nowadays, the parameters of pop excellence are shifting, and dismissing someone’s star power based on their ability to sing live is reductive – especially when you can still pull a 60,000 strong crowd in one city like Britney does. Believe the rumours from both sides, but know that doesn’t make this iconic pop star any less startling to see on stage.