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Britney Spears w/Nicki Minaj
Tuesday, August 2
Better than: Being trailed by party photographers.
I spent a lot of last night’s Britney Spears set stressing out. That was partially by design, I suppose; the “plot” of the show had Britney being chased by a man who wanted to possess her, a vague K-Fed lookalike who would intone things like “Bring your best game, because tonight you and I are dancing a vicious dance” and “What is it with women? Since the beginning of time they’ve been looking to rule” while sitting behind a Soviet-era surveillance bank. If only he’d had a longer moustache; he could have twirled it for maximum Evil Guy Effect.
But I was also stressed out over the disconnects that were everywhere. The star of last night’s main event was Britney, sure, but what of the supercharged, success-at-any-price songcraft that went into Femme Fatale—a fine, if slightly in need of editing, dance-pop album that’s miles ahead of the aggressively bland Circus while falling slightly short of the bleary-eyed hellhole that was Blackout? How about the guilt from liking that 2007 low-period chronicle so much, or from the idea of her being under a conservatorship while making declarations of sexual agency during songs like “3” and the wearying “S&M”? And then there were the nagging questions regarding just how invested the star was in her live performance, especially when so much of her stage set seemed designed to have places for her to take a load off while her backup dancers did the work?
The only unifying theme of her hour and change on stage, really, was that Britney was once again bringing her trials with the people who wanted to watch her obsessively, who wanted her to exist in some sort of panoptic universe where she spends every second on camera and never ages out of her “…Baby One More Time” schoolgirl outfit, into her art. Her relationship with the public has resulted in her most inspired work of recent years—the glitchy “Piece Of Me,” the surrounded-by-her-past clip for “Hold It Against Me”—to the point where it’s hard not to think that a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Leave Me Alone” would invigorate her anew. Although who can blame her, really? She’s a mom of two who’s been turned into a symbol for so many things—teenage sexualization, “raunch pop,” the digital-era gossipsphere explosion—by an ever-expanding and ever-encroaching (if not always comprehending what exactly it’s talking about) media and a public that can’t seem to stop saying “gimme more” to its wares, even as it denounces them. Yet she can’t get off the treadmill, because where’s she going to go? How can a pop star, especially one whose name has become such a symbol for so much, age gracefully and still stay solvent?
It was with these questions in mind that I watched Britney strut (and sometimes walk) through her later-period hits while being chased by Evil K-Fed. (“…Baby One More Time” was one of only two tracks that predated 2001; the Oops!… I I Did It Again track “Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know—co-written by Mutt Lange and Shania Twain!—served as the night’s lone ballad.) There were a couple of curious reworks; “…Baby” had its syncopation excised, while the mix of “Toxic” was all-low-end, making the James Bond-like string flourishes a bit hard to hear. “How I Roll” sounded great, thanks in part to its lighter-than-air flirtation being given extra heft by the sound system and the anime cats bubbling across the video display behind her, and the rework of “Gimme More” worked well too.
Eventually Britney vanquished her enemy (something to do with her dressing up in a kimono and her female backup dancers having parasols, I think?) and brought out Nicki Minaj for the show-closing “Till The World Ends.” The crowd went ballistic; Britney, off to the side of the big screen’s vantage point while Minaj tore through her verse with brio, seemed pretty happy, too, which at least made me breathe a little bit more easily. She ascended after Minaj’s verse to the rafters, wearing wings while the crowd cheered, and you kind of got the feeling that this was her favorite part of the night.
Minaj opened, and her set was similarly high-concept—her various personae were being sent to Earth to fight Nemesis, and there was indeed a throwdown that seemed to involve Nicki winning a lazer tag match-slash-danceoff—and high-energy. She’s a fantastic performer, all movement and preening, spitting her verses rapidfire and reacting with delight when the audience tries to keep up and shouting out each of New York’s boroughs as a gift for the reaction she got when she namechecked South Jamaica. When the opening blast of “Monster” sounded the crowd went nuts, and they somehow doubled that reaction when she brought out Kanye West, who did his verse—although Nicki’s tour de force on that track seemed somehow shorter than it should have been as a result. (The trials of being an opening act. Something tells me, though, that she’ll be headlining her own tour soon enough.)
Critical bias: Vehemently of the opinion that a) “Stronger” is Britney’s best song (“Toxic” is a super-close second); b) “How I Roll” should be the next single from Femme Fatale; c) “S&M” and “If U Seek Amy” are terrible; and d) “Super Bass” should really be the song of the summer of ’11. Also, kind of scared of the white-knighting from her stans that my mild questioning is going to provoke.
Overheard: “25 seconds. Sabi came out for 25 seconds.”
Random notebook dump I: Second show in a week where “hot policing” has been a key element.
Random notebook dump II: Are you the guy in the Book Of Mormon white shirt and suspenders getup who was auditioning for a job as a Britney backup dancer when you were brought up onstage during “I Wanna Go”? Because if you are, I just want to say that you made my night.
Hold It Against Me
Up N’ Down
Piece Of Me
Big Fat Bass
How I Roll
Lace And Leather
If U Seek Amy
(Drop Dead) Beautiful (feat. Sabi)
Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know
… Baby One More Time / S&M / Trouble For Me
I’m A Slave 4 U
I Wanna Go
Till The World Ends