x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Britney Spears's show is an unrelenting affair

Based on the pop star's recent Manchester performance, Abu Dhabi is in for a fast-paced evening.

Britney Spears will perform in Abu Dhabi on Friday night as part of her Femme Fatale tour after the first Formula One race day.
Britney Spears will perform in Abu Dhabi on Friday night as part of her Femme Fatale tour after the first Formula One race day.

At the very start of Britney Spears's current show, there is a short film in which she runs from shadowy assailants, CCTV cameras covering her every step. Later, during Up 'N' Down - a bonus track on her seventh album Femme Fatale - she sings from behind bars. It doesn't take a degree in pop psychology to understand the symbolism - poor old Spears still feels under surveillance, her every move photographed and dissected by the world's media. But then, she knows we like watching her too: for fans of pure pop, her date in Abu Dhabi on Friday night is perhaps the most eagerly awaited of all the Formula 1 Grand Prix after-race concerts.

And that's the paradox surrounding Spears in 2011. As much as it must be impossible to live a life so obviously in the public eye - a state of affairs which she explored most successfully in the 2007 track Piece of Me - she does cultivate such attention. So when she played Piece of Me in Manchester last weekend - a song, remember, written post-rehab, post-divorce and in the year she, er, shaved her head with electric clippers - it was a joyful rather than mournful experience. It's less a call for understanding than a celebration that people do indeed still want a piece of her.

For all the nods to celebrity and pop stardom, it pays not to take the theatrics of the Femme Fatale show too seriously. Presumably the second set change, from the Marilyn Monroe-style act to a hilariously over-the-top Pharoahs theme, is meant to refer to Cleopatra, the original femme fatale. Or maybe it's just an excuse for Spears to climb aboard a brightly coloured Nile boat rather than cavort around the stage. Whatever the intention, Britney appears to be literally one step away from doing the dance to The Bangles' Walk Like an Egyptian.

Of course, it's easy to sneer at Spears and some of the past criticisms of her shows do bear scrutiny. There appears to be very little live singing occurring - in fact, the notion of a live concert is stretched to its very limits here: there are two blokes in the heavens prodding at keyboards and, well, that's it. Too often, in fact, it feels like Britney karaoke, which isn't helped by the fact that she doesn't involve herself with writing the songs in the first place.

Meanwhile, the choreographed routines are what you'd expect to see at a big arena show - all writhing dancers prostrating themselves at Spears's feet. And yet in Manchester last weekend, it really didn't seem to matter. Her fans loved it. And it's not difficult to see why. The (relatively) innocent pop thrill of her earlier work, such as Oops I Did It Again, has been completely passed over in favour of pounding Euro-disco, which, in an arena setting, sounds absolutely massive. The thumping Big Fat Bass is reminiscent of the kind of tune that characterised all-night raves back in the 1990s. Except with Spears prancing around stage wearing very little, rather than a slightly menacing MC.

Almost half of the show, indeed, is taken from the decidedly dance floor-centric new album - and it lends proceedings a night-clubby, party atmosphere. The arena pop show is usually padded out by dull ballads from the over-emoting star, and inconsequential solos from the hired musical hands. Not here: Spears does just one slower song all night, Don't Let Me Be The Last To Know. Otherwise, the pace is relentless.

So unremitting, in fact, that there's not even time for a full rendition of her breakthrough song, Baby One More Time. Although perhaps it's not so surprising that Spears subsumes it into a medley, as that debut single is now more than 13 years old. Some of the Abu Dhabi audience won't even have been born when Spears was first hitting the top of the charts, fresh out of The Mickey Mouse Club.

But perhaps more interesting is that this section is played out with Spears dressed as a biker girl. It won't have escaped the dedicated pop fan's notice that the cover of Lady Gaga's new album has her not just dressed as a biker girl but as the front of the motorbike itself. Everyone is playing catch-up with Lady Gaga, but Spears, from the rave-pop timbre of her songs to her stage show, appears to feel the pressure more than most. Still, will Gaga be filling arenas in 10 years time? Spears's real achievement is that she's still here, still intriguing audiences - despite what the critics might say.