Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Forays into the world of teen pop, part three: in December 2001, I went to a Britney Spears concert. Why I did this remains something of a mystery, as I really don’t much care for her music. But it’s not the first time I went to a show for reasons vaguely unknown.
Back in June 1998, I took in a Spice Girls concert. Since I first heard of them roughly a year prior, I loathed them and felt bizarrely fascinated by them. That’s what compelled me to attend a show. However, to my everlasting surprise, the performance was really very good. They greatly outdid what I expected, and they quickly turned me from foe into fan.
The following spring, I went to an ‘N Sync concert. This one made a little more sense, I suppose. The then-10-year-old daughter of a co-worker thought it was cool that an old fogey like me liked some younger music - meaning Spice Girls, as I had no interest in any other teen pop - and thought it’d be fun if she, her mom, and I went to a show together. I agreed to this as long as my friend paid for the ticket; call me a mercenary, but I felt no urge to drop $50 to go to a show I didn’t much want to see. ‘N Sync ended up as the act of choice, so along with another young friend of the daughter’s, we all schlepped to the March 1999 concert.
On a positive note, I enjoyed temporary hero status from the girls, as I landed excellent seats for the sold-out show. They had a great time, of course. As for me, I thought the concert was a disaster. The Spice Girls won me over with a well-paced show that never condescended to their young audience, but ‘N Sync were different. Their performance was absurdly pandering and obnoxious, with much gratuitous flash that had nothing to do with anything. If there’d been any danger that the concert would turn me into an ‘N Sync fan, that possibility quickly evaporated.
I probably should have accomplished the teen pop trifecta the following fall when Backstreet Boys toured. The co-worker’s daughter wanted a repeat trip, and I was game as long as my friend again paid for my ticket. Alas, other events intruded. I already planned to hit some Springsteen shows on the nights BB would be in town, so I’m afraid the show went on without me. Somehow my life progressed nonetheless.
So I went almost three full years without any live exposure to modern teen pop. What prompted me to hit the recent Britney show? I remain unsure. I never much cared for her music, but my opinions lacked the passionate negativity of my pre-conversion Spice-hating, so there wasn’t that same level of perverse curiosity. Like most heterosexual males, I appreciate Britney’s physical charms, but unlike another co-worker, I’m not all that enamored of her; if I just wanted to see a good-looking young woman up close, I’d save some bucks and head to a strip joint instead.
Anyway, I decided to hit the concert nonetheless. While I hate to admit it, I do like shows with big production values, and Brit promised to be heavy on the glitz. Indeed, the performance featured scads of costume changes, visual effects, dancers, video montages, pyrotechnics and just about anything else you could imagine; all it lacked was an inflatable pig.
As it happened, Britney went too far with the various elements. Though she attempted to hold it together with a theme - highlighted by the “Dream Within a Dream” name for the tour, she went with a vague fantasy concept - the concert lacked cohesion and appropriate pacing. To my surprise, even the teenyboppers in attendance appeared bored after a while; fading rapper P. Diddy got a better response with his short opening act.
Granted, the kids still seemed to like the show, but I could sense their enthusiasm waning as it progressed. Despite a brief running time of less than 90 minutes, most appeared more than ready to split after the extravaganza concluded. That’s unusual.
When I departed the arena, I can’t say I felt disappointed since I’d not really expected much anyway. Still, the show was surprisingly muddled and uncompelling. It seemed superior to the 1999 ‘N Sync performance but definitely didn’t approach the heights reached by the Spices back in 1998.
Despite my lackluster attitude toward the “Dream Within a Dream” show, I decided to give it another go when the Britney Spears Live From Las Vegas DVD hit the streets. This disc provides the November 18, 2001 HBO broadcast. Ironically, I was in Vegas on that day; I attended a U2 show there that night.
As such, I didn’t see the broadcast as it happened. (The fact I don’t have HBO also made a viewing difficult.) I kind of wish I’d taken in the HBO show before I went to the later concert; it might have made the show more interesting. Or maybe not, for I actually think the performance works better on the small screen than in person.
Normally I feel differently. Most of my favorite concert films come from shows I never saw, such as Prince’s Sign O the Times, McCartney’s Rock Show and Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. While I enjoy programs from concerts I did witness, they usually seem somewhat unsatisfying; since I know the performances, I often disagree with the director’s choices and want to see something different than what’s on the screen.
That didn’t happen for Vegas. Partly that’s because I thought it was a well-orchestrated piece. Director Marty Callner kept things moving nicely and covered all the appropriate bases. I felt that he captured the important action and also gave a good sense of the event. His work didn’t seem revelatory or exceptional, but he managed to provide an effective look at the concert, something that can be difficult to do, especially for such a busy performance.
And make no mistake: Britney put on an exceptionally busy performance. The 16-song concert covered a mix of tunes from all three of Spears’ albums. Her newest - 2001’s Britney - dominated the proceedings, as fully half the show came from that album: “Overprotected”, “Boys”, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”, “What It’s Like to Be Me”, “Lonely”, “Anticipating”, and “I’m a Slave 4 U”. 2000’s Oops!…I Did It Again provided four tunes: the title track as well as “Stronger”, “Don’t Let Me Be the Last to Know”, and “Lucky”. Logically, 1999’s breakthrough debut - …Baby, One More Time featured the other four tunes: the title number, “(You Drive Me) Crazy”, “Born to Make You Happy” and “Sometimes”. I regard this as a good balance of semi-old and new.
However, the rest of the show exhibited little balance, as most of it seemed totally over the top. On the positive side, Britney has grown a lot as a performer since earlier shows. As noted, 2001 offered my first in-person encounter with Her Britness, but I saw the 2001 Live and More! DVD that included parts of a live show. Though not a weak presence, she showed little personality or flair during that concert, as she seemed unable to take control of the stage.
Those concerns almost totally vanished during Vegas. Britney circa 2001 showed substantially stronger stage presence. She deferred less to her dancers and made sure the spotlight remained on her. Perhaps this occurred due to egotism, but it was an appropriate move nonetheless. During her first couple of tours, Janet Jackson gave too much attention to her dancers; apparently she didn’t realize we paid to see her, not some anonymous schmoes.
Britney appeared a bit too deferential and tentative during Live and More!, so it was good to see her become more powerful and assertive. She’s also clearly gotten in touch with herself, evident because she frequently touches herself. Boy, does she grab her chest a lot! Not that this is a complaint, of course.
To be sure, those with a fondness for Britney’s physical charms will definitely enjoy Vegas. She models a wide variety of skimpy outfits and maintains a consistently sexy presence. Actually, that part of the show improves as the concert progresses. The tiny ensemble she almost wears during “Slave” might give Bob Dole a heart attack. During the encore performance of “One More Time”, we see an onstage rainstorm that thoroughly drenches Brit. I have no comment about this segment other than oops! I did it again!
While I still have yet to become an actual fan, I can’t deny that Britney produces some catchy pop tunes. A fair amount of them seem somewhat generic and they tend to blend together at times, but tracks like “Oops!”, “Stronger” and “One More Time” really offer solid pop pieces. I don’t think any stand as the best of the genre, but although I don’t care for a lot of her work, I feel Britney’s music seems better than that of peers like Backstreet, ‘N Sync and Christina Aguilera. Most of their work appears nearly unlistenable, while I don’t mind Britney’s stuff.
So much for the positive aspects of Vegas. Most of my negative opinions revolve around areas already cited: pacing and showiness. Probably the worst-paced show I ever saw came in 1988 when I took in Michael Jackson during his (so far) only solo American tour. Jacko would play two or three songs and start to heat up the stage. However, he’d then take a break to change outfits. No problem there, as many performers do that. However, those artists find a painless way to fill the time, such as through a dance number. Not Mike; he set up a changing tent onstage and basically let the action go dead while we watched his silhouette.
That absolutely killed any potential momentum and made the concert much less effective. Britney didn’t let the show collapse like that, but she spent far too much time off-stage. The concert was short enough anyway, but substantial portions of it pass without any sight of our heroine. Some of these are handled with traditional methods; we get extended dance numbers as well as a fairly long jam from the band.
Those are dull, but the most deadly occurred via some video pieces. Worst of the bunch was the allegedly comic program that popped up between “Not a Girl” and “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”. We see Brit and some of her dancers as they pretend to be in a rock band. This clip falls totally flat, and some of the other bits aren’t much better.
Weirdest of the bunch is the only major difference between Vegas and the concert I saw. Before “Born to Make You Happy”, Jon Voight (!) sits on stage and reads a fairy tale to a little girl. Actually, this material still appeared in the other “Dream Within a Dream” shows, but the segment featured taped work from some anonymous narrator; we saw no glimpse of Voight, live or not. I have no idea who thought it would be a good idea to trot Voight out for the HBO broadcast, but it comes across as odd, pointless, and somewhat creepy. I mean, Voight’s not exactly the guy who comes to mind when I think of paternal warmth; hey, this is the dude who bit Kramer!
The other excessive element - the over the top production values - actually intersects with the pacing to a degree. I think “Dream Within a Dream” was Britney’s first tour as a major icon; the prior albums were huge hits, but this outing seemed more like a cultural touchstone than the others. As such, Brit appeared to feel like a kid in a candy store. With her enormous popularity and clout, she went nuts and stuffed the concert full of any and every production concept that ever occurred to her.
It’s too much. Concerts need to have a certain give and take. The best performers - like Springsteen - fully understand the ebb and flow of a good show, and they construct their concerts accordingly. Britney treats most of the songs as though they were the climactic parts of the evening. As such, there’s nowhere for her to go. She keeps trying to surge up and the pace becomes tiring, frankly. Every number tries to be bigger and more impressive than the last, so it ultimately feels anti-climactic, which clearly wasn’t what she wanted.
And as for the nature of Britney’s vocals, yes, it seems clear that she lip-synched the majority of the show. Frankly, it’s hard to find songs that obviously weren’t mimed. Personally, I don’t regard this as a huge problem. No one goes to see Britney to hear her stunning vocals, so while it does remain a cheap tactic, it doesn’t detract from the performance.
In the end, Live From Las Vegas offers the strongest performance work Britney Spears has yet committed to tape, but it still isn’t a terribly good show. I’m not a fan and doubt I ever will be - though stranger things have happened - but I will admit that Britney shows some potential for growth; Vegas improved measurably upon its predecessor. The video replicates the concert well and has some good moments, but Britney needs to learn moderation and pacing. Perhaps she’ll get it right next time.