"I'm not a little girl anymore," she explains earnestly, sitting down for a solemn "Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman." This is the only ballad on the album, so it's time to reflect on the heroism of New York. The little girls chorus along, swaying with their arms around each other. I almost envy them.

I find it utterly charmless, even alarmingly desperate. Britney Spears is past her peak. I want to appreciate the camp, the unabashed spectacle, but instead I feel personally bruised by the excess. Songs like "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," delivered writhing from a suspended cage, lose their power when they're disembodied and decentralized. The dark edginess she's trying to introduce not only rings false, it seems macabre and inappropriate. I want cheer, maybe some prettiness.

Smoke and mirrors at Madison Square Garden, last Wednesday night
photo: David Atlas
Smoke and mirrors at Madison Square Garden, last Wednesday night

We get a little during what is my favorite sequence, though its reactionary fairy-tale message makes me gag. Britney rises slowly out of a giant Freudian music box, spinning like a ballerina and singing "Born to Make You Happy." Confetti rains on the audience, Britney rips off her tutu, and moves into brilliant renditions of "Lucky" and "Sometimes I Run." She sinks back into the box; her dancers close the gilded top. "When the moment comes," the narrator intones, "he will wake her up. And he will love her until the day she dies." They roll the box away.

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