Cops, convertibles, pyramids, boats, giant guitars, motorcycles, ninjas, snake charmers, and loads of fireworks, lasers, flashpots, smoke machines, and sexy, acrobatic dancers. What didn't Britney Spears trot out for her formidable Femme Fatale Tour?
Did I mention S&M?
For 95 minutes in Los Angeles Monday night - the third stop of a grueling 35-date U.S. tour - the idol America loves to hate went all out. Her body perpetually moved, she sang steadfastly into her headset (okay, she's got plenty of digital support, but she doesn't merely lip-sync), and she shimmied through an endless parade of outfits. Sure, her voice still wanted for iron, but her band - that is, two keyboardists/programmers - brought plenty of techno pop noise. Having been knocked down by the tabloid press and the public repeatedly in recent years, Spears is now desperately seeking our attention. And she earns it. Haters go home.
Lavish in scope and scale, Spears' first trek since 2009's The Circus Tour has a James Bond theme, with a storyline about our heroine busting out of prison, wearing the requisite jail uniform of sequined bathing suit and heels, to the tune of her recent single, "Hold It Against Me." The erstwhile naughty school girl has gone from jail bait to jail break.
If genius is 99 percent perspiration, Spears is pretty smart. She made agile use of accessories to turn each set of bra and panties into multiple costumes, shaking off a somewhat scary Day-Glo yellow Swiss Maid dress to reveal a sexy French corset, for instance. (Generally, Britney doesn't wear a lot of clothes.) It was exhausting just to watch her. And while the ancient Egyptian barge was a nice touch, none of Femme Fatale's set pieces will win prizes for originality.
Instead, the emphasis was on the dance grooves. Spears played a career-spanning 22 song set, from her first hit "Baby One More Time" up through her current smash "Till the World Ends." You don't go to a Spears concert to hear her sing; you go to watch, but that isn't to deny the power of the beats.
When she and her dancers popped out of speaker cabinets and proceeded to rave on the Will.i.am co-written techno-funk number "Big Fat Bass," then frolicked like surfers in a convertible that drove nervewrackingly close to the end of the runway on the slick "How I Roll," it was hard not to want to join the party. Some of the dancers, by the way, could do things with their bodies that seem unlikely even for Cirque du Soleil acrobats.
Of course, Spears paid tribute to the star who set the bar for these kinds of spectacles - Madonna - with a cover of her disco classic "Burning Up," but Femme Fatale still has plenty of Spears' own personality. Or, as she sings during the cover, "I have no shame."
Spears' set wasn't all mindless fun. At times, she came on like a bitchin' party girl, which made some of her constant sexual display unnerving, especially given her troubled past. And there were incongruous moments, such as when she strutted like a biker pinup on "I'm a Slave 4 U" as fetishistic shots of naked, bound men played on the big screen behind her. Up front: a heterosexual fantasy for Playboy readers; in the background: gay porn.
Opener Nicki Minaj proved to have the fresh musical spark and avant garde fashion sense that Spears lacks. She took the stage in a platinum wig and white party frock, spitting rhymes over the grinding bass beat of "Roman's Revenge." Throughout the evening, she worked a Jean Paul Gaultier-esque theme of black-and-white bustiers and rubber tights with deconstructed dresses,showing off her bootylicious body. With an art-deco stage set and artful video graphics, Minaj's show stunned visually. When she rapped, she roared.
But Minaj doesn't have Spears's workhorse ethic. She disappeared for long costume changes or just held the mike like a prop while she and her troupe of fierce female dancers got busy. It was as if she was out to prove that old saying: "Little girls should be seen and not heard."
Minaj's set also had a tenuous story line, which concerned her coming from another planet to save the earth from a nemesis called, um, Nemesis. Apparently life is a battlefield these days for women pop stars, judging by both acts' repeated references to gunplay. Minaj was most shocking and graphic; during "Did It on 'Em," she aimed her fingers like a pistol shooting through the sights of a dancer's spread-eagle legs. She also mimed being masturbated from behind by one woman onto the prone body of another.
Sure, many macho guys would love that girl-on-girl action, but the show drew mostly women and gay men, who observed the pop stars act as sexy and in control as they wanted to be. Spears will never let a guy touch her without her consent. Minaj would rather kill a guy than kiss him.
But empowerment isn't just about representation; it's about how you represent. Femme fatales may seem like objects of desire, but in most movies, they just end up dead. Not for Spears. For her closing number, "Till the World Ends," she sprouted wings and flew over the crowd - an angel of the apocalypse.