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