Friday night’s Britney Spears show at the New Orleans Arena was weird in the way only famous people can be weird. Someone had the idea that the show should have a “plot”—and though I think scare quotes are used far too often these days, they certainly belong in this case—so the show was framed by a series of black and white videos of a guy who needed a shave seated in front of a manual typewriter in what looks like a basement storeroom talking into an RCA mic that’s jacked into a reel-to-reel tape deck. The only way he could create a more antique sense of menace is if he planned to take her down with a scimitar, or the eye of a basilisk.
Then, for the rest of the show Britney and her female dancers seemed to be pursued by the male dancers (except when they weren’t), and though they had ninja moves and one executed a series of front and back flips down a runway to a stage in the middle of the audience, they were unable to subdue her despite her half-hearted dancing. That was one of the great surprises of the show—not that the ninjas couldn’t catch her, but that she danced timidly, not extending herself or committing to moves. I left wondering if the recent years had diminished her skills, or if they were always a product of camera angles and only having to be good on MTV’s video award shows for five or so minutes at a time.
That doesn’t mean the show wasn’t entertaining. Actually, it was very entertaining, and it was never simply car-wreck entertaining. Most songs/scenes had some sort of elaborate staging, and I wonder if Britney’s stiffness as a dancer would have been as noticeable if the other dancers hadn’t been as good as they were. There were also lasers, props including an Egyptian dance barge escorted by dancing priests with B’s on the end of their staffs, and a stage filled with hydraulic lifts and trap doors. The finale included an electrical tower, a shower of sparks, a swing that flew over the audience and angelic wings studded with Christmas lights.
As silly as the whole chase motif was, it suggested that she may have moved past her very public breakdown, but she can’t move beyond the feeling of being pursued and persecuted. She’s not singing about it anymore, but the show suggests it’s never far from her mind as she nightly enacts her flight from and revenge on the paparazzi who have her under constant surveillance. Unfortunately, any contemplation of the show’s subtext ended with a thud when, after ending the unshaven guy’s threat in a video, a title card dull-wittedly read, “Sexy Assassin,” in case there were any prenatal fans at the show who might be confused.
Britney still has star charisma, and she held the show by making it all about her, so much so that it was easy to miss the powerful, techno thump arrangements of songs from her catalog, helping a few of the younger songs grow up and keep a decade of material sounding contemporary. Everyone I talked to assumed she was lip-synching, but there are so many vocal tracks on studio albums that even those aren’t really about her voice.
The best argument for the endurance of Britney, though, was the audience, most of whom used the show as an occasion to dress up. A lot of little black dresses, a lot of heels too high to walk in, and a lot of costumes based on Britney’s more famous wardrobes. Costumed women tended to travel in teams, while others joined forces spontaneously. When an “Oops” Britney and a “Hit Me” Britney were posing for photos, a stray “Slave for You” Britney hustled over to flesh out the act. The only other time I’ve seen a similar scene was at the book release party for one of the Twilight books that I took a cousin to, and in both cases, the few straight men in the building were more than irrelevant; they didn’t exist. Britney doesn’t draw the kids like she once did—though using the dads across Loyola as a guide, I suspect there were more in attendance than I saw—but there were many women who once considered Britney a guilty pleasure but stopped feeling guilty about her. The show as a show may have been average, but Britney was the catalyst for a great night for most of the crowd, and that counts too.