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Live Review: Britney Spears - Apple Music Festival, 2016

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Aaron Butterfield reviews Britney Spears' first UK performance in five years.

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Britney Spears returns to London with a bang.



There’s no denying that there was tension in the air before Britney Spears’ kicked off her first UK performance in five years at The Roundhouse in Camden last night. In an audience primarily comprised of superfans swapping stories about their pilgrimages to Vegas to see Britney: Piece of Me and how many copies of ‘Glory’ they gifted on iTunes, you couldn’t help but feel that everyone was very aware of how much rested on what they were about to watch.

It’s likely fair to say that no performer who’s currently working has faced as much scrutiny and criticism as Britney Spears has in the past 18 years. The press and media have torn her down so many times that a list of their attacks against the now-34 year old mother of two would be almost impossible to compile. There’s certainly been a recent, dramatic shift in tone regarding Britney in the press (a product of good PR or guilt? You decide) but no one is more aware than her fans that the media’s newfound positivity towards Spears could change in a heartbeat.

No one, perhaps, except Britney Spears herself, based on how hard she worked last night to put on a spectacular show.

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Re-imagining her current Vegas residency for the far more intimate space provided by The Roundhouse, Spears performed for almost an hour and a half, moving astutely through twenty two of her biggest hits, offering humour, grace, sensuality, sexuality and charm.

There’s no denying that Britney: Piece of Me is a fantastic show, and her London audience seemed to respond to it every bit as enthusiastically as the hoards of people who come to see her in Vegas every year. Her team of dancers excelled themselves, and impressively, Spears did not stop moving for 85 minutes, handling a couple of technical issues with the speed of resolve of a seasoned professional.

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The show’s slight modifications for a smaller stage (including the absence of “Everytime” and “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”) did very little to dampen its impact, and, in fact, seeing the performance in such confined quarters emphasised how entertaining Britney is when she’s not even trying. It was arguably not the moments when the show excelled choreographically or when Britney was dancing the hardest which shone the brightest, but the quirks of her character that peaked out in her brief interactions with the crowd, complaining about being too hot and being glad that her performance of new single “Make Me…” was over (?!).

Britney is still an extremely competent dancer but she performs best with her face, not her body. The songs that she injected her personality into, greatest hits cut “Do Somethin’” and signature track “Piece of Me” being the best examples, were among the greatest moments of the show. The Roundhouse holds 3,000 fewer people than The AXIS at Planet Hollywood and it felt like Britney enjoyed being in closer proximity to the crowd than she is at home, frequently engaging with her audience in a way that isn’t typical for the sometimes detached superstar.

The show’s opening and closing segments were likely its most successful, although the crowd appeared to stay with the performance, even during the middle of the set when it felt like the energy on stage was dipping. What’s interesting is that the aspects of the show we may have expected to be undeniable highlights (“...Baby One More Time”, “I’m a Slave 4 U”) paled in comparison to the more expressive and less rigidly choreographed performances. It has to be said, though, that the show works not only as a collection of individual performances, but as a whole body of work, hitting the high notes of Spears’ tenure as a popstar whilst including enough album tracks (as well known as they may be) to keep it from feeling overly predictable.

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Ultimately, however, there are two main criticisms to be made of what was a fundamentally fantastic pop event.

First and foremost, the vocals, or more specifically lack-thereof. We have all long since accepted that Britney Spears does not sing live and frankly, her performance has regained a finesse which makes that an easy sacrifice to swallow for the sake of maintaining her confidence and comfort. However, the act of lipsyncing is essentially an act of illusion - we, as an audience, are being asked to suspend our disbelief and buy into the myth that she might be singing live. That is incredibly difficult when we are still listening to vocal parts recorded in 1998. Pre-recording the entire performance would admittedly not be a small job, but the show we saw last night has, for all intents and purposes, now been running for three years, and as such a week in the studio feels like a small price to pay for a touch that would undoubtedly make the performance feel infinitely more polished.

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The second key issue is that much of the old material no longer seems to excite Britney. By and far the weakest moment of the show was the second section, featuring “...Baby One More Time” and “Oops!... I Did it Again”. Whether it was the styling issues that affected her enthusiasm (she rearranged her hair no fewer than 7,412 times in 90 minutes) we may never know, but the star of the show did not seem engaged or interested in her classic material.

And all things considered, that’s okay. One of the undeniable highlights of the show was ‘Blackout’ deep cut, “Freakshow”, and in fact many of the strongest, most entertaining moments came in the form of tracks which weren’t hit singles but Spears appeared to enjoy more than her most iconic moments (see also: “Breathe On Me”). Moreover, the points at which the crowd and Britney felt most connected were during her new material. Promotional single “Do You Wanna Come Over?” received arguably the warmest reception from the audience (with the possible exception of “Toxic” and “Gimme More”) and makes a strong case for her abandoning some of the classics in favour of a setlist which more heavily relies on her exceptional ninth studio album, ‘Glory’.

There’s something uncomfortable about an artist who clearly has little love left for her older material performing ad nauseum what is essentially a greatest hits show, and it’s indicative of the habit that Team Spears have of misguidedly positioning her as a throwback artist, rather than a heavyweight who can still go toe-to-toe with the talent of the day. In her pre-show interview with Beats1, Britney revealed that one of her inspirations in creating ‘Glory’ was Selena Gomez’s ‘Revival’ - a fair enough comment since ‘Revival’ is a great album, but ‘Glory’ is by far the superior record. Yet most of the general public wouldn’t perceive the comparison that way simply because they haven’t listened to ‘Glory’, and after last night they have no reason to. The Apple Music Festival is far more likely to boost the sales of Spears’ numerous greatest hits collections than it is her most recent studio album, and given the quality of her output this year, that feels like a damn shame.

However, all in all, last night was a triumph for Britney Spears. There may have been tension in the air before the show started but as everyone was leaving, there was a sense of jubilation. Her return to London after five years marked her best show in the city since 2004, and that’s not something that can go uncelebrated. Is there still room for improvement? Yes, certainly. But the changes that need to be made to elevate the show from very good to excellent are reasonably minor in the grand scheme of things.

When it comes to Britney there’s always a temptation to grade on a curve. We compare her not to her peers but to the past iterations of herself. Was the show better than The Onyx Hotel Tour? (No.) Was it better than Circus? (Yes.) Or Femme Fatale? (Emphatically yes.) But perhaps those aren’t the pertinent questions to ask anymore. If we want Britney Spears to truly be considered a force in the music industry, it’s time to start thinking of her as independant of her previous reinventions. If her latest role is that of Vegas showgirl, the Apple Music Festival proved that it’s a role she fulfills marvelously.

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She needs to watch herself perform... I´m pretty sure she doesn´t do that anymore :brityeah:

We all know that she doesn´t care that much, her passion comes and goes and she doesn´t have the pressure of her label like the old days so she is free to be less "into it" if you will

But she´s better than a couple of years ago and that´s very appreciated :soyeah:

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First and most importantly, the choreography is trash. She (and the dancers, but they're second) repeats the same movements three o more times, and some of them are just hair flips or hand swings. It looks like a kindergartner show in that sense. 

And even if it's the choreographer's fault for creating such thing, Britney's the one who should demand the best and only the best.

Oh, also, I think the show was enhanced by Apple's great production. The filming was spectacular, and the lightning was stunning, although at a certain point she was only visible waist up because of the smoke.

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So all in all this article praises her for the courage to perform and put herself out there and critizises the lack of everything else?

Seems about right to me, but putting oneself out there does not cut it anymore especially when it is a playback show that relies on imaginery and clothes more than on the artist. In that sense what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, no need to show that to non stans because they will laugh at this instead of just cringe, like I did, the entire show.

Replace britney with someone who can really dance to her stuff and mime it, I mean it can´t get worse than this and would probably be more of a "piece of me (britney)" show than it is now.

I am questioning for how long Team B will be able to cash her cow like this, her reputation as an artist is somewhere fading into non-existency which is outrageous to everyone here who has seen her peaking and falling and accomplishing things we would not have guessed were ever possible again especially with an album that finally feels consistent in a long gone way for britney.

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46 minutes ago, Melissa Mckean Atkinson said:

First and most importantly, the choreography is trash. She (and the dancers, but they're second) repeats the same movements three o more times, and some of them are just hair flips or hand swings. It looks like a kindergartner show in that sense. 

And even if it's the choreographer's fault for creating such thing, Britney's the one who should demand the best and only the best.

Oh, also, I think the show was enhanced by Apple's great production. The filming was spectacular, and the lightning was stunning, although at a certain point she was only visible waist up because of the smoke.

IA. Even my boyfriend (so not britney fan) was enjoying it at the beginning, said she looks amazing and all. 

But then towards half the show he said it started to be a bit boring simply because every song choreo looked the same (same hand gestures, spins and whatnot). His favourite performance was Toxic just because the visuals and acoustic part were great!

He said it was a good show but the silly choreo, almost robotic, doesn't leave any space for creativity (see: some DWAD  performances when she didn't have much choreo but just walking around the stage with that passion the crowd went crazy!). It looks like she's counting steps and she's lacking in passion. He also said she should spend more time practicing because she doesn't look like a real dancer who breathes in the art of dancing and live for performing.

Reporting what he said cause he's more objective than me :tbh:

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25 minutes ago, pieceof15yearold*loveyall said:

So all in all this article praises her for the courage to perform and put herself out there and critizises the lack of everything else?

Seems about right to me, but putting oneself out there does not cut it anymore especially when it is a playback show that relies on imaginery and clothes more than on the artist. In that sense what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, no need to show that to non stans because they will laugh at this instead of just cringe, like I did, the entire show.

Replace britney with someone who can really dance to her stuff and mime it, I mean it can´t get worse than this and would probably be more of a "piece of me (britney)" show than it is now.

I am questioning for how long Team B will be able to cash her cow like this, her reputation as an artist is somewhere fading into non-existency which is outrageous to everyone here who has seen her peaking and falling and accomplishing things we would not have guessed were ever possible again especially with an album that finally feels consistent in a long gone way for britney.

I think you need to either re-read the article or work on your reading comprehension, because it praises her for far more than 'the courage to perform', which I completely agree isn't enough on its own. I outline that her movement was at times strong, her engagement with the audience was the best we've seen since TOHT and that she was genuinely funny and entertaining. Not to mention the fantastic production.

I also think you're woefully misinformed to the point of willfully ignorant if you believe her reputation is fading. Her most recent album is her best critically received record since Oops. The show last night got extremely positive reviews in the UK press - in fact, frankly, I think my article is the most negative assessment of the performance I've seen. Whether you think what she's doing is good enough and whether the critics and general public think what she's doing is good enough are two dramatically different things, and conflating them feels nonsensical.

Look, do I agree with some of what you're saying? Yes, in a way. But do I think that this kind of melodrama is necessary? Absolutely not. There comes a point where you have to accept that this is what it is now, and make a decision as to whether she's still the kind of artist you want to support or not.

Apologies if this reply seems overly combative, but this kind of endlessly negative thinking from Britney's fanbase is tiring, and when every single thread about her gets clogged up with hand wringing and complaining I'm left wondering what you're gaining from being in this fandom? Because messages like yours don't strike me as enjoyable to write.

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That is a excellent review. I couldn't agree more with the part in which you say her tem showcases her as a throwback artist instead as an artist who can put out new, exciting material that can compete with all the new stars out there. I grew bored with how they always show a video of her old videos and performances before she does a show, as if people won't know who she is otherwise. She's Britney Spears, people know.
It's such a shame that she isn't promoting Glory. There are so many great songs in that record that the GP deserves to listen to.

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really excellent, objective, fair review. i hope team britney (or miraculously britney herself) read it.

bravo aaron.

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31 minutes ago, Aaron Butterfield said:

I think you need to either re-read the article or work on your reading comprehension, because it praises her for far more than 'the courage to perform', which I completely agree isn't enough on its own. I outline that her movement was at times strong, her engagement with the audience was the best we've seen since TOHT and that she was genuinely funny and entertaining. Not to mention the fantastic production.

I also think you're woefully misinformed to the point of willfully ignorant if you believe her reputation is fading. Her most recent album is her best critically received record since Oops. The show last night got extremely positive reviews in the UK press - in fact, frankly, I think my article is the most negative assessment of the performance I've seen. Whether you think what she's doing is good enough and whether the critics and general public think what she's doing is good enough are two dramatically different things, and conflating them feels nonsensical.

Look, do I agree with some of what you're saying? Yes, in a way. But do I think that this kind of melodrama is necessary? Absolutely not. There comes a point where you have to accept that this is what it is now, and make a decision as to whether she's still the kind of artist you want to support or not.

Apologies if this reply seems overly combative, but this kind of endlessly negative thinking from Britney's fanbase is tiring, and when every single thread about her gets clogged up with hand wringing and complaining I'm left wondering what you're gaining from being in this fandom? Because messages like yours don't strike me as enjoyable to write.

I love how well spoken you are. How do you even read half the crap on this site? :orangu:

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I agree with that review. It's not better than onyx. But better than femme Fatale. And yes she better perform more new material for which they might need more time to prepare. So the safe decision was to go with smth they already have. About not singing part too. She should at least record her old songs in the studio  not mime for a old remix version. She also could sing some parts or say even to prerecorded track at least we would hear that she cares about. Instead of saying lies in the interviews like she is singing. I mean in her head may be. But don't make us fool dumb people. We aware u r not. BUT at least make more effort to not show it so obvious 

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Great review. I also believe she shouldn't be showcased as a nostalgia act just yet. But on the other hand it's hard cause she does have such a monster catalogue That spans that golden age of pop music - ppl are gonna wanna hear so many of her old tunes. But yes, leave the Vegas marketing in Vegas plz. Very well said, thanks for putting it out there 

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5 hours ago, David Rose said:

really excellent, objective, fair review. i hope team britney (or miraculously britney herself) read it.

bravo aaron.

 

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12 hours ago, Shadow. said:

I love how well spoken you are. How do you even read half the crap on this site? :orangu:

:gloria:

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