Tuesday 1 November 2011

Britney Spears at Wembley Arena - 31 October 2011

It's Britney, bitch

It’s Halloween and I’m surrounded by zombie schoolgirls.

I’m here at Wembley Arena for Britney Spears on her ‘Femme Fatale’ tour.

I had expected spectacle, but what follows over the next ninety minutes is just astonishing, both in terms of excess and quality. The tickets weren’t cheap, but you can see where the money went.

There is a theme that runs through the show, something about surveillance and persecution and the role of the Femme Fatale in history. It doesn’t make a jot of sense, and I almost feel that someone designed a brilliant stage set based around the industrial bleakness and spikiness of the ‘Saw’ franchise and that the supposed story that runs through the song list was a bit of an afterthought.

Once the wheels are set in motion, there is no let up. Indeed, unlike many mainstream performers, Britney pretty well eschews ballads and anything else that might slow down this juggernaut for a second. Instead, Brit and her dancers and acrobats gyrate and pound their way through a series of ever more lavish set pieces.

At the beginning our heroine and the female dancers are imprisoned in a series of cages, menaced by the guys in police uniforms. They soon escape and a short time later are dancing on top of a pink mini convertible that has appeared on stage. In the back of the vehicle support act Joe Jonas is manacled to a seat and lap danced to within an inch of his life.

The dance routines are punctuated by video footage of an apparently menacing evil mastermind who somewhat laboriously introduces the theme of each new extravaganza.

At one point Britney appears on a gigantic Egyptian barge to a backdrop of towering neon pyramids; later, she’s dancing her way through an endless procession of picture frames, or singing the only slow song of the evening in a swing high above the auditorium, with an acrobat dangling beneath her.

The volume is deafening and is produced by two guys playing on banks of equipment up in a gantry. They are never introduced or thanked. It is unclear how much of the vocal track is actually live – certainly all the guest raps on particular tracks are performed via film on the giant video screens.

However, the strength or authenticity of Britney’s voice is not really an issue. On all her recent albums, her voice has been distorted and digitally mashed about and just becomes one component of the overall song. A typical Britney track could be performed by the ‘robots’ of Daft Punk – and no one worries if they are miming.

What Britney has is the tunes and the unswerving love of the crowd – even before the concert has started it is noticeable that everyone you see milling about the Wembley concourses is just ecstatically happy to be here.

The great show stopper is ‘Piece of Me’, Brit’s thumping riposte to the then tabloid scandal surrounding the break up of her marriage, her weight, her shaved head. Tonight, the song is played out to a backdrop of golden Armalite rifles and exploding hand grenades. It’s a Bond film credit sequence come to life. It’s fabulous.

The show never slackens its pace and just gets ever more way out. ‘Toxic’ sees Britney in a kimono, with various ninjas propelling themselves around her ears.

By the time of the encore, the baddie has been defeated and the entire cast are clinging to two life size electricity pylons while nuclear bombs detonate behind them. By this stage this seems entirely logical and appropriate.

Some critics have been a bit sniffy about this show, but I think that they miss the point. This is a grand spectacle designed to ensure that everyone has a great, inclusive time, and to make your jaw drop, even as you dance your ass off. Britney may be playing to her core audience, but there are very few acts that don’t.

The previous evening, I had seen P J Harvey at the Royal Albert Hall. It was another superb show (but not one that was sufficiently different from the last time that I saw her to justify a separate review). It was meticulously staged and orchestrated and perfectly presented to a fan base that hung on every note and loved every moment of it. I see no distinction between this and Britney Spears playing to an arena full of zombie school girls.

The show ends and we pour off into the night. Everyone is happy, even the undead.

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