So when Britney Spears came to town last month, I couldn’t help but think of Barnum and his bogus saying. If the title and packaging of her latest album, Circus, don’t make the line of descent from Barnum to Britney clear, then surely the stage production of her accompanying concert tour, The Circus Starring Britney Spears, does. Her concert was every bit the spectacle it was meant to be:
Let me first discuss the show, then the compunctions. Britney’s Circus was actually something like a cross between a Cirque du Soleil show and an arena concert. It opened with several genuine circus acts, including a guy who twirled big glowy things above his head, a female acrobat jumping off of and landing back on an elastic beam, and a seriously disturbing legless(!) woman being bounced up and down a trampoline by a strongman:
Oh, there was also a concert wedged in there:
Britney looked shockingly great, and this is coming from someone who never liked the way she looked, even before she went cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. She sounded . . . well, she sounded like Britney, that is to say, the recorded, reverse osmosis purified Brit, this being an obviously lip-synched show.
Sadly, my favorite Britney song was the one that sounded the worst – “Baby, One More Time,” apparently in a remixed format. It was tediously militaristic, lacking the sparkle and flirtatiousness of the original. They didn’t bother to treat us to my other two favorites, “Oops, I Did It Again” and “(You Drive Me) Crazy.” Alas, alack, etc. New songs dominated the evening. After all, this was The Circus Starring Britney Spears, not the The Circus Starring the Barely Pubescent Sex Object Nostalgia Britney.
The songs were punctuated by the occasional martial arts display, a street dancing interlude (including a brief, obligatory Michael Jackson imitator), and most interestingly, a magic act featuring Britney as the magician’s assistant/victim, in a variation of the “sawing a woman in half” staple, followed by a take on "the transported man":
It was an extravaganza, but in the aftermath of the concert, I wondered to myself: was I a sucker for paying a big head of lettuce to see what was essentially a dancing blond girl lip-synching to a catalog of mediocre songs? I wondered if Britney were the latest in a long line of hucksters, charlatans, and flim-flam artists, a girl after fake Barnum’s own heart.
I’m sure my compunction has more than a little to do with my having to endure the scornful ire of my rock snob acquaintances for having gone to a Britney concert, and on my own dime at that. But if she were at least singing live, the critics might have relented. I guess in my youth, I would have seen this episode in similar terms. You don’t go to a live show to hear pre-recorded music. That’s what CDs (and yes, mp3s, sigh) are for. But as I’ve grown older and gone to more concerts, there’s been a sea change in my views.
I used to think that a concert was the definitive rendering of an artist’s music. An artist who could “bring it” on stage was not just legit, but was sharing his or her music in the most intimate, honest way, naked even. And it was one of a kind because they could never reproduce that exact performance. However, as I saw more and more of my favorite artists on stage, I started to feel that a lot of them sounded a lot better on a recording than they did live. And they weren’t even bad live; they just weren’t quite what I knew them as from the CDs. To be sure, some artists were even better live, but I realized that it wasn’t necessarily because of the music. The best live performers were just that – performers, and they could overcome a bad sound system or shabby acoustics. Passion and charisma made up for the jumbled mess of noise that concerts often became. The greatest concerts inject the feeling of the music into the audience, no matter what the actual aural quality is.
This new paradigm reaches its apotheosis with Britney’s Circus, which carries on Barnum’s spirit of showmanship. At this point in my life, I want to see the spectacle, I want to be blown away. I don’t really care to just see someone strumming a guitar and yodeling into a mic. Hey, her songs aren’t that great anyway, but they generate a manic energy that suits the big top perfectly. And if Britney has to lip-synch so that she’ll have enough energy to dance for two hours, then I say, let the girl dance! I’d rather see her moves anyway.
No, I don’t think I’m a sucker for wanting that, and I don’t mind ruffling some purists’ feathers by saying that a concert can (should?) be about more than just the music. I can listen to the music at home or in my car and be just as happy. John Lennon himself said that he “wasn’t that upset that Elvis never came to England.” He liked listening to the records. I think he was on to something. Whether fake Barnum was onto something, well, that’s another story entirely.