There was one particularly special moment for me as Britney Spears returned to London’s O2 Arena last night.
But before I get to it, a bit of context.
The superstar has of course spent much of the summer in Europe on her hit-packed Britney: Piece of Me Tour, with much-discussed dates in Scarborough, Blackpool, and last month for Pride, Brighton.
But there’s nowhere quite like the 20,000-person capacity O2, packed to the rafters last night with feverish fans. I saw literally hundreds of boys and girls dressed as Britney the schoolgirl, Britney the air hostess and so on. It was adorable.
I caught The Circus Starring Britney Spears here in 2009. Musically, it’s one of my favorite eras of hers. But even in the nosebleed section, I could see the she wasn’t really there.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved it anyway. But I couldn’t deny Britney lacked energy and didn’t connect. She wasn’t enjoying herself, and it was saddening.
‘I had moderate hopes’
Since then, complaints of miming and robotic dancing have colored all conversation of the star’s performing abilities. This includes the Brighton show (which I didn’t see), depending on who you spoke to.
Thus, I had moderate hopes this time around, especially as I was sat close enough to the stage this time to really scrutinize what was on offer.
The biggest hot take of the evening? She was having an absolute ball. In fact, her energy and enthusiasm amazed me, given she’s performed variations of this show 250 times in Vegas already!
Her spirit was clear during that aforementioned moment: one of relative intimacy and privacy as she stopped to catch her breath during the interlude between Toxic and Stronger.
Standing alone on a raised platform, shrouded in darkness, she could’ve zoned out. Instead, she didn’t stop moving.
As Stronger’s arresting horns teased the audience, Britney jumped up and down and clapped her hands – even though nobody could really see her. Put simply, she was SO into it. What’s more, her dancing was on point.
‘She didn’t put a foot wrong’
Keep in mind, every track has its own highly specific routine. I saw no missteps. In fact, during one frankly death-defying stretch of choreo – involving chairs assembled and reassembled by Britney’s tireless backing dancers, forming plinths and staircases for her to conquer – she literally didn’t put a foot wrong. As such, I really struggle to believe recent tabloid reports of memory loss.
As for her vocals, I don’t have a lot to say other than this: I am sick to the back teeth of reports of miming ‘controversies’. I can remember a whole segment on morning TV about it and The Onyx Hotel Tour in 2004. Are we seriously having the same conversation?
Britney’s a performer before she’s a singer. Now, for some people, live vocals are nonnegotiable, and I understand that. But if that applies to you, this show simply isn’t for you.
(That said, I am an optimist. There were times I was sure I could hear a bit of timbre to the lyrics, suggesting, if you only listened hard enough… A friend was convinced otherwise.)
‘One of the fittest bodies in the business’
Whether singing or not, Britney’s a consummate entertainer. You can’t take your eyes off her. Even when she’s tightening her ponytail – and this must have happened 10,000 times last night – it’s fascinating.
She first emerged to Work Bitch in a green top hat and matching feathery cape. Ridiculous. It looked like something from the year 2000, but wide-eyed and exuding personality, she rocked it.
For the most part, though, she of course favoured barely-there ensembles, all the better for dancing and showing off what is quite literally one of the fittest and most impressive bodies in the business.
The show was furthermore full of sexuality, and there were more than a few moments of homoeroticism, such as when Britney got tactile with her female backing dancers on the charged Breathe On Me from In the Zone.
On Freakshow (another classic non-single, from Blackout), Britney was joined by Nicholas, a game member of the audience who she walked around on all fours like a pup at Pride.
‘Moments like this are inclusive’
It’s a pretty harmless, effective gimmick, and one that’s been tried-and-tested. (Recently, in NYC, it was Andy Cohen, or ‘him!’ being manhandled). But I would’ve loved to see a woman in the man’s place.
That said, during a blink-or-you’ll miss-it moment, I saw one of Britney’s ridiculously hot male backing dancers lightly spank the guy in question. As much as it pains me to focus in on something so hilariously throwaway, moments like this are inclusive.
My biggest compliment, though, goes to the setlist, which was all-encompassing. It really was one iconic hit after another, and those around me popped to the bar/checked their phones only during Do You Want To Come Over and Clumsy. I really hate the latter song, but it’s necessary that Britney’s underwhelming last album Glory gets showcased.
Luckily, the inclusion of such songs doesn’t come at the expense of better ones. (3 notwithstanding). Indeed Baby, Oops, Slave, Toxic and Womanizer all get an airing; Pretty Girls, thankfully, does not. Ultimately the crowd went home more than happy, singing all the way to the Tube.
My highlights though, were Do Somethin’, a hidden gem from her back catalogue intensified by a backing band, and the grand finale: (You Drive Me) Crazy, which takes me straight back to being 12, and Till the World Ends, which takes me straight back to being 25. Britney IS pop culture, and brings both nostalgia and still-evolving story to the stage. Amazing.