The Hesitant Triumph of Britney Spears


Someday, a brave, stunningly complex young actress—so complex she can simultaneously evoke naive sweetness and garish self-destruction, so young she probably hasn’t even been born yet—will win an Oscar for her portrayal of Britney Spears. Whether the film itself is comedy or tragedy, farce or melodrama, has yet to be determined, but hers is unquestionably the great personal narrative of our age: “I’m Miss American Dream since I was 17,” as B.S. herself put it on 2007’s rather aptly titled Blackout. But to dwell on the televised catastrophes, the paparazzi debacles, the inadvertent nudity, the rehab drive-bys, the crap parenting . . . it all seems redundant and, mercifully, pretty irrelevant just at the moment, a Wednesday night at picturesque Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, our volatile heroine descending from the ceiling, borne by the joyous maelstrom generated by thousands upon thousands of screaming teenage girls—screaming teenage girls all over the Goddamn place, commandeering the men’s bathroom en masse even, the lines for the ladies’ just unconscionable. All night, I am plagued by the nagging fear that I’m about to be arrested.

We are here for the first NYC stop along her s/m-tinged, erratically erotic, stupendously excessive Circus tour, celebrating the titular album bequeathed to us late last year and best summarized by an inadvertent bit of stage banter Brit muttered into a hot mic during a Tampa wardrobe malfunction: “My pussy is hanging out!” Nothing nearly so Twitter-worthy transpires this evening, but the paucity of train-wreck trauma is refreshing, actually, the crowd’s adulation genuine, her devout fans unconcerned with embattled-celebrity meta-narrative (“Piece of Me” is still great, though) as we soak in a dizzying 90-minute spectacle replete with clowns, magicians, jugglers, acrobats, square-dancing martial artists, curtain-riding Mexican wrestlers, etc.

We got metaphors if you want ’em: Britney in a cage, Britney trapped in a picture frame, Britney wielding a giant pink hammer and playing Whac-a-Mole with backup dancers’ heads peeking out of random holes at her feet. Wardrobe changes are legion: She plays a sexy cop, a sexy drill instructor, a sexy magician’s assistant, a sexy metal-shop enthusiast, and a sexy amateur trapeze artist, although that part—in which she is plucked from the three-ring, wraparound video-screened stage and lifted skyward by more professionally gravity-defying cohorts—looks less like aerial ballet and more like she’s being rescued by the Coast Guard. There are generally 10,000 things happening onstage at once, and she is rarely the hardest working or even most interesting performer on view (and it wouldn’t shock me to learn that even her very sparse stage banter is lip-synched), but the cumulative effect is mesmerizing. Her opening lines are, “There’s only two types of people in the world/The ones that entertain/And the ones that observe”—and we are privileged to observe. Even Madonna is here, soaking in the glorious absurdity and making a hilariously conspicuous exit before the encore, commanding a sizable tough-guy entourage of her own as she floats regally through the awestruck crowd and out the door usually reserved for the zamboni.

Britney’s hedonistic, electro-soaked dance-pop sounds better the more nonsensical it gets, the less her lyrics sound like actual English—the triumphant choruses to “Womanizer” and “Radar” are repeated so often they dissolve into blissful nonsense. “Boys,” the sexy drill-instructor one, is nowhere near as glorious as Ms. Janet’s “Nasty Boys,” but hearing Brit bark, “I don’t know what you been told/This mama is in control” is both great fun and a tremendous relief. She reclines in a giant levitating umbrella for the treacly power-ballad “Everytime”—not exactly a barn-burner, but a fine, calm, quasi-human respite from all the calamity. We get most of the hits: “Toxic,” “Slave 4 U,” “Me Against the Music,” a toughened-up “. . . Baby One More Time” as a send-off. There are bewildering moments aplenty—a near-orgiastic video interlude set to Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” in its entirety—but overall, the night is a bravura display of shocking competence, considering.

Still, though, the whole thing makes me profoundly glad I don’t have teenage girls—that I don’t have to grapple parentally with whether a song called “If U Seek Amy” is a triumphant celebration of healthy, empowering sexual liberation or—not. (This goes doubly so in the case of our opening act, the Pussycat Dolls, who each get their own pole and do to Slumdog Millionaire‘s “Jai Ho” what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds.) But given the precedent that Brit set in Tampa, this is a relatively chaste affair, and the unflagging devotion and support provided by the teeming hordes of screaming teenage girls—both current and former; a few inebriated, all intoxicated—is tremendously heartening, offered without an iota of sarcasm or rubbernecking derision. If this is indeed a healthy, empowering event (and why the hell not?), that empowerment is mutual. Britney needs all the help she can get. It’s nice to sit and watch her get it.

Britney Spears plays the Nassau Coliseum again March 23

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