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Live review: Britney Spears at Staples Center

June 21, 2011 |  1:51 pm


   Spears 1
In the video interludes between songs on Britney Spears’ Femme Fatale tour, which landed at Staples Center on Monday night, she’s under surveillance by a creepy Bond-villain type with a curious habit. He’s constantly sucking on bright red lollipops.

The candy quirk was a weird and funny flashback to a more innocent time in Spears’ career, back when she wore pigtails and cardigans and dominated the teen-pop spectrum of the late ‘90s and early 2000s.

There was something Freudian to it as well: Pop culture had made a safari sport of Britney-hunting, and spent most of 2007 watching a beloved young female pop star’s life and family (and, as some speculated, her health) unravel in spectacularly public fashion.

In another twist to the video, she eventually slinks in, binds and gags the villain in a way that he might not have been wholly displeased with.

Monday night’s show, the third of the tour, suggested that Britney Is neither an avenging angel nor undergoing a personal redemption. It implied that she’s too slippery a character to ever really get to know, always one step ahead of dark forces pursuing her essential, ephemeral sweetness. And, strangely, it’s making for some of the best music of her career.

Her most recent album, “Femme Fatale,” has been widely regarded as one of the strongest of her career, and for good reason. The record’s ambitious producers took advantage of her mega-stardom to send seriously weird sonics up the charts. The album’s ostensible star is treated less as a singer than as source material for vocal-manipulation tricks, and as a way to pH-balance the record’s hard techno with a kittenish coo.

On her mid-breakdown 2007 album “Blackout,” this phoned-in quality felt more intriguingly accidental. With “Femme Fatale,” though, she may have invented a new kind of postmodern pop star –- the charismatic absentee.

But how do you make a live show out of that? Spears has access to all the choreography and costume changes and building-sized sets that a decade of going platinum can buy you. But how can she stay compelling in person when her best trick of late is to practically disappear?

Well over a decade into her career, Spears has a deep catalog of durable hits that hold up for their songwriting and not just Clinton-era nostalgia. But fittingly, the Femme Fatale tour gets its drama by largely erasing –- or at least tweaking -- the past.

The show drew heavily from her progressive newer material, singles like the dubstep-driven “Hold It Against Me” and the sonic-frequency-as-phallic-metaphor “Big Fat Bass” found her flitting over and under the stage, re-emerging in different corners surrounded by dancers that she alternately handcuffed in cages and then beckoned to join her in a pink convertible.

Her takes on “I’m a Slave 4 U” and her Rihanna collaboration “S&M” were PG-13 explorations of seedier sex-and-power terrain (the bondage community must be a little bummed that leather face masks are now fair game for teen-pop imagery).

But Spears always made sure to put herself in the “S” half of that equation.

Spears manipulates pop’s virgin-whore complex better than just about anyone, and her seamless sweep from lasciviously grinding on an awestruck dude from the audience to the earnest balladry of “Don’t Let Me Be the Last to Know” (accompanied by a very adept dancer on an aerial swing) felt true to the sweep of her career –- she learned that she can control the narrative by vanishing into a club’s heat or into literal thin air.

The set’s only weak spots were sonic revisions of catalog staples –- the Bollywood spy-flick vamp of “Toxic” remains utterly groundbreaking and didn’t need an Ibiza-inspired revision. But when her encore closed with the excellent, Ke$ha co-penned house anthem “Till the World Ends,” Spears slipped away during the crowd’s ecstatic chants in a hail of confetti. The mood was powerfully sweet, and yet once again she’d vanished.

RELATED:

Album review: Britney Spears' 'Femme Fatale'

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Acrobats, magicians and a bit of erotica: Britney Spears' 'Circus' tour opens in New Orleans

-- August Brown

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