Ah, the mystery of Britney Spears’ stardom. She can’t sing. Can’t dance. Has nothing to say. As the center of the massive, elaborate spectacle of her Femme Fatale tour, which thrashed through the AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday, she was a weirdly unengaged, charisma-challenged figure.
And yet she sent the worshipful, sold out crowd into squealing hysteria. There were women in platinum wigs and bleached Britney hair, in bustiers and mild suburban bondage, even a woman with a fuzzy yellow toy snake and a guy in Britney drag. Maybe after all those years of music videos, all her audience needs is the sight of their goddess, still shiny and strutting (sort of – Spears’ hips don’t really roll anymore) despite all the wear and tear on her gleamy teen, then sex queen image, the tabloid-powered meltdowns and mechanical music.
The Femme Fatale tour surrounds Spears with a massive spectacle, a lurching series of elaborate set pieces vaguely (and sometimes not even that much) organized around the notion (concept is too grand a word), shown on video, of Spears as a fleeing femme fatale spy/criminal pursued by sexy dancer cops (how they work those thrusting clubs) with an obsessed, handsomely unshaven guy masterminding the chase. Piled on top of that are numbers with cages (Up N’ Down), a silver contraption that carries Spears high into the air (Piece of Me), a car which she and her dancers mount for a brief lap dance on a lucky audience volunteer (Lace and Leather), Egyptian barges (Gimme More), roaring motorcycles (Baby One More Time), flipping ninja-costumed dancers (Toxic), sparkling bustiers, bikinis, etc., etc. There’s no band, just a nearly invisible guy on an elaborate synthesizer set-up. This is not a music concert, it’s a series of live music videos.
But the steamy intensity Spears can generate on video is absent onstage. She seemed disengaged for much of the show, as if she was just going through the motions – no energy, no dynamism. She’s become a startlingly stiff and awkward dancer for a purveyor of sexy dance music, her torso barely moves, there’s no sensuality, no energy. Most of the women from the audience that she brought onstage to dance for I Wanna Go were more animated than the star.
Her vocal style is either Betty Boop breathless or nasal baby chipmunk (and on the ballad He’s About to Lose Me, terribly off-key); either way, her voice is overwhelmed by the thundering wall of sound. Part of the controversy over whether or not Spears actually sings in concert could be because she can seem so unengaged that she could be singing off a teleprompter, while her voice – even if it is live – is so technologically processed that it doesn’t seem to come from her. She had nothing to say to the audience but an occasional “Miami, how you doing? Miami, do you want some more?” Incredibly, they did.
Opener Nicki Minaj, pop hiphop’s current It girl, had ten times Spears’ energy and drive, and held the stage with a cadre of spunky dancers and almost no production value. Wearing flat boots and a black jumpsuit overlaid by a glittery sort of corset construction that emphasized her astonishingly hourglass shaped figure, Minaj skipped and stalked through booming, bad girl attitude songs like Did It On Em and Where Dem Girls At. Minaj has a rare sense of (sometimes obscene) humor, assurance, and gift for wordplay (she works Sri Lanka and Willy Wonka into a rhyme), and a girl-power attitude that’s very welcome in hip-hop. “Where my GIRLS at?!” she called out, to thunderous response. She was briefly joined by Miami homegirl Trina, and by Miami rapper Sean Kingston, who was badly injured in a boating accident this spring, and joined Minaj in a powerhouse duet to roars from the audience.
Minaj could have done without the demi-ironic sci-fi fantasy storyline, which included some silly musical and theatrical passages more worthy of middle school than an arena pop show. And the sound also often overwhelmed her voice; she sometimes seemed to be lip-syncing, spent as much time dancing as rapping or singing, and the show never focused enough on just Minaj on the mic to reveal whether she could hold an entire concert on her own. Minaj’ talent deserves that chance.