There was a touching moment when Britney Spears picked up an acoustic guitar and sang her favourite Joni Mitchell song, her voice soaring to the highest rafters of the O2 Arena like a Louisiana songbird …
OK, that’s not strictly true. There are no acoustic guitars and no Joni Mitchell covers on Britney’s Femme Fatale tour. There doesn’t appear to be much singing either. You had to strain to hear the shrill cadences of Spears’s real voice at the O2. Most of the vocals were pre-recorded; during “Toxic”, the “singer” grinned as her heavily processed voice made a computerised swoop – vocal virtuosity, Britney-style.
Serious music fans dismiss Spears as the ultimate pop mannequin. Yet her songs have a surprising amount of personality. True, the personality can be that of a pole dancer grimly going through the motions of sexual desire – but there are other, less lurid characteristics too: humour, edginess and, detectable beneath the robotic beats, an inarticulate sense of sadness. She may not write her songs but she inhabits them.
Her show, in support of her latest album Femme Fatale, was initially underwhelming. I found myself jarred by the disconnect between the digitally treated Britney of her videos and albums and the “real” Britney on stage, dancing inelegantly and looking like it was all a bit of an effort. A framing story about her escaping from prison and being menaced by a stalker was barely decipherable. The tiny outfits had a desperate, look-at-me quality. Perhaps it was indeed time for the 29-year-old to let a little Joni in her life.
The thing is: her songs are just too good. The show came to life with a regal “Gimme More”, from the defiant album Blackout made at the height of her personal woes a few years ago. Spears seemed to relax, and looked more comfortable with the choreography. Her debut 1998 hit “ … Baby One More Time” had a tongue-in-cheek Hell’s Angel-themed routine; the sci-fi sleaze-pop of “Womanizer” sounded like Barbarella in Ibiza.
It ended with “Til the World Ends”, a decadent, apocalyptic, strangely melancholy number that climaxed with the singer ascending to heaven in angel wings as mushroom clouds exploded on screens behind her. It was a remarkable finale: a supremely catchy, Dr Strangelovian mix of death, sex and technology. Who says Britney’s music doesn’t have personality?