Last week, Britney Spears made the headlines. Not for having a public meltdown - those days are long behind her - but for laughing during her Piece of Me Tour.
Before uttering her famous catchphrase, “It’s Britney, Bitch” in Gimme More, a fan shouted “WHO IS IT?” Spears’ polished shell was cracked. The same thing happened in Brighton on Saturday, the opening leg of Spears’ first UK tour in seven years. It was a lone moment of personality, a chink in Spears’ showbiz armour.
Footage of the Las Vegas residency that inspired this tour - and completed the resuscitation of her career since its head-shaving nadir in 2007 - has been posted online for years, along with the setlist. There were no surprises in this Pride Festival headliner. Instead, Spears delivered an oil-slick rampage through her career.
While her microphone headset has become a Spears trademark - fans in the crowd had made their own from pipe cleaners - the focus was not on singing. Rather, Spears’ famously overproduced vocals drifted into the air, competing with the crowd’s frenzied screams, as she gyrated in a seemingly endless variety of spangled bodysuits.
Twenty-five songs were crammed into less than two hours, broken up with fades-to-black flashes that, for the briefest moment, left the whites of Spears’ eyes and perfect smile gleaming in the dark. Her dance moves felt somehow too fast for the juddering beats they accompanied. A fan came on stage; Spears walked him on a lead like a dog, then magically signed a T-shirt and sent him packing within the space of 30 seconds.
Watching her perform is like witnessing a remarkable feat of athleticism - it telescopes time and leaves one feeling vaguely exhausted. The fact she doesn’t sing it all is well-known. As one of her managers said when her residency opened: “There’s no way you can dance and sing the entire time.” We won’t know what actually came out of Spears’ mouth that evening - the cameras never panned to her face, but kept her pulsating frame perfectly framed for the entire show. And while this felt like a simulacrum of a pop concert, it was also undeniably fun.
Spears usually performs to 2,400 people in a theatre in Nevada; on Saturday she played to 57,000 devoted fans who had been drinking all day. What was lost in the subtleties of her ribbon dance was compensated for in sheer, giddy adulation. I can imagine watching giant video projections of Will.i.am singing Scream and Shout - Spears didn’t appear on stage for this song - must be hollow anywhere other than in Preston Park, where it was just another number to dance to.
Inventive twists were given to well-loved songs to keep the crowd hanging on through yet another dance break. Toxic was prized out into a tantalising glockenspiel build up, ...Baby One More Time was updated with heavier guitar licks and stadium drums.
In this context, it’s easy to see how much of her production-heavy, personality-lite pop has filtered into the work of more recent artists. Spears’ fingerprints are all over the stadium-sized bombast of Taylor Swift’s Reputation tour, for instance, and in the heft of Lady Gaga’s club hits.
The process of seeing Spears live remains a more bewildering experience than an enchanting one. We’ll probably never be allowed to see her soul on stage, nor the vulnerabilities that can transform pop into an addictive art form. But who can blame her? After 20 turbulent years in the spotlight, it’s amazing that there are any pieces of Britney left to give.