Michael Jackson isn’t the only singer we should be surprised to see at the O2 this summer. Britney Spears has risen from a shocking descent of her own to arrive in London for her first concerts in five years. Her Circus Tour has already passed through America for two months without incident, before pitching its tent here for eight nights.
The head-shaving, crotch-flashing, umbrella-assaulting and husband-divorcing of the world’s most public breakdown have been so microscopically detailed that the first reaction upon hearing she was to confront the crowds again was to feel embarrassed for her. She’s still going, still showing her face? I’d change my name, move to Bolivia.
But then she floated from the ceiling in a shiny red ringmaster’s costume, looking nerveless and brandishing a whip, and we finally remembered that this is what she does.
Over the next 90 minutes she spun and dangled, writhed and stamped but probably didn’t sing in a frantically entertaining set that abandoned any pretence at musicality in favour of pure spectacle. Performing in the round with no band on stage, the music came from a backing tape. There was no reason to believe her vocals didn’t too.
It left her free to move her barely clad body, ably keeping up with a dozen dancers plus acrobats and clowns. She prowled around a cage during Piece Of Me, its self-referential lyrics depicting life as a tabloid target. She was transported on trolleys and tricycles, dancing inside a giant picture frame during Breathe On Me, occupying a hot air balloon basket above a circle of fire during I’m A Slave 4 U.
She was a policewoman in hotpants, a disappearing magician’s assistant and a stripper in silver bra and knickers, complete with nipple tassles and large purple bow on her behind. Hits such as Womanizer, Toxic and a modernised Baby One More Time were well suited to such an extravaganza – all surface, but how they shone.
Her face was never seen in video close-up. It was hard to tell whether this was pop’s ultimate Barbie back to her best or whether she’s now a shellshocked war veteran, still smiling but with a blown fuse behind each eye.
The show concealed her as much as possible behind stunts, explosions and magic tricks, searing lights and computerised vocals. She might be the ringmaster of this dazzling circus, but with her grim recent past impossible to disregard, she could just as easily be its bearded lady.