Even those people going into a Britney Spears show cold, like some Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer-type who had been put into the deep freeze sometime before 1996, would know that she was a symbol. Last Tuesday at Nassau Coliseum she was painted as a wanted woman; the interstitials between her performances of the tracks from her most recent album Femme Fatale (Jive) focused on a shady-looking, Spears-obsessed character who watched her every move from a bunker, looking like a distant cousin of her ex-husband Kevin Federline while uttering cants like “Bring your best game, because tonight, you and I are dancing a vicious dance.”
The irony there, of course, was that Spears’ dancing barely reached “possibly rabid” status, let alone anything worthy of being described as mildly vicious. The biggest characteristic of the promotional campaign for Femme Fatale, from the leaks of snippets to the tour that’s currently winding its way around America, has been the hyping of the void at its center by its supporting cast: Britney Spears (the brand) might need Britney Spears (the person) most, but the assists from her producers and her social media team were just as crucial to its existence. The interviews she gave in the run-up to the album’s release were often appended with (conducted via email) apologia, and her producers were more verbose about her artistic contributions than she was; even Carson Daly, who rose to fame lobbing softballs at Spears and her teenpop peers on TRL, bristled at how little access he was actually allowed to have.
Tuesday night’s show further revealed Spears’s seeming disinterest in her own career. Sure, she addressed the audience with hi-love-you patter a couple of times, but she sat down more often than that—on risers and fake motorcycles as her dancers busted (very impressive) moves, on a swing that sailed into the rafters as an aerialist attempted to distract attention from her by hovering between her butt and the ground. She didn’t look happier all night until the moment when Nicki Minaj, who had opened the show, returned to turn in her blistering verse on the apocalypse-now barnburner “Till The World Ends,” which served as the night’s finale.
On Sunday afternoon, her taking a load off made even more sense. Big Boi—the Atlanta hip-hop star whose Sir Lucious Left Foot… The Son Of Chico Dusty (LaFace) was a top-10 Pazz and Jop finisher, someone whose musical output would likely never get denigrated the way Spears’s can be by the more snobbish musical commentators out there—was, after being busted for drug possession in Miami on Sunday afternoon, reduced by the shock factory TMZ to being “rapper for the popular group OutKast.” His bust for possession of unprescribed Viagra and Ecstasy launched him into Twitter’s trending topics, and it wasn’t too much of a stretch to think that much of the peanut gallery had never spent time bickering over whether Speakerboxxx or The Love Below was the better half of OutKast’s 2003 Pazz and Jop-winning double LP.
People can spend hours in comment-section purgatory debating whether Boi needs to reunite with Andre 3000 and put out an OutKast record lickety-split, or whether Femme Fatale holds a gas-station lighter to the blissfully ruined night that was Spears’s 2007 chronicle of her lowest point Blackout. But the facts put forth by police reports and paparazzi photos—a drug charge here, an umbrella-whacked paparazzo’s vehicle there—are incontrovertible, and serve as watercooler flashpoints in the discussions of people whose name recognition might send up a flare of search-engine optimization or a “oh yeah, that guy.” Controversy outweighs product; Googleability outranks listenability. In this light, then, Spears both leaving the heavy artistic living to her cadre of pop Svengalis and becoming most comfortable when the spotlight was off her makes sadly perfect sense. That her show ended with her ascending toward the rafters, strapped into a swing so that it looked like we were all watching an angel gain admission to what was surely a paparazzo-free heaven, was probably no accident.