Last Night: Britney Spears and Nicki Minaj at the American Airlines Center

Britney Spears, Nicki Ninaj
American Airlines Center
July 12, 2011

Better than: most shows by folks who actually sing, dance and write their own music.

Here's the thing about Britney: She's a mediocre singer and dancer who got very, very lucky and very, very famous by singing songs that she contributed very little, if anything, to.

As such, analyzing Britney as a singer -- as a singular human being, even -- is completely missing the point. Last night's show at American Airlines Center was the result of combined efforts by the best producers, songwriters, choreographers, set designers, videographers and lighting designers in the business. It was a performance by Britney, Inc. -- the corporate entity that makes up 99 percent of this show.

Sure, these people are, in theory, around to support Britney herself. But if one only considers Britney when analyzing her performance, that means missing 99 percent of what's going on.

Twin girl DJ duo Nervo got onstage first, to a completely unresponsive crowd. The AAC similarly remained at minimum capacity throughout the second opener, Jessie and the Toy Boys. It would be easy to feel bad for these acts if one forgets that they're playing AAC, which isn't a bad gig at all.

The crowd immediately started packing it in once Nicki Minaj began, and was at capacity for the rest of the show. Nicki showed no signs of the fat lip she reportedly received during a fight at the Hotel Palomar the previous night. Either her makeup artists were very good, or she wasn't hurt very badly.

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Although it seems like Nicki's been around for a while, she released her debut full-length album a mere eight months ago; most of her hits have been collaborations with other artists, and this proved to be an obstacle that Minaj was not able to successfully overcome during her set. Even though the entire AAC was on their feet during "Bottoms Up," Nicki was relegated to the status of dancer for much of the song, as she only contributes one verse. Her skill as a rapper was lost in the video screens, backup dancers, guest vocalists and strange theatrical plotline. Many of these huge pop shows have some sort of theme, and Nicki's was no exception. There was narration during the costume changes, and we were supposed to be following some sort of plot that pitted Nicki, as some sort of sci-fi/fantasy heroine, against a dancer in a Saw mask. Although Minaj's live singing voice was better than expected, it's difficult to discern how much, if any, of her vocals were flown in.

There's no guessing on that front when it comes to Britney. We know it's lip-synced.

Brit's show also had a sort of theme: During costume changes, the gigantic video screens showed a nefarious-looking fellow who was apparently stalking Britney, the sexy lady criminal. Britney appeared onstage on a metal throne to the opening chords of "Hold It Against Me," surrounded by backup dancers dressed as sexy cops. The sexy cops were a running theme -- apparently, Britney the Femme Fatale is wanted by legions of officers in tight shorts doing backflips.

Go figure.

This is where Britney the singular human being gets drowned out by Britney, Inc. The show's choreographers and set designers are well aware of Britney's flaws. She can dance a little, so the backup dancers would mimic her moves and embellish upon them to make it look like she was dancing with them, and dancing better than she is able. Britney moved around more than anticipated -- anyone looking for the catatonic VMA-era Brit can look elsewhere because she ran up and down the runway in front of the stage, was hoisted above the crowd on a small platform during "Piece of Me" and flipped her extensions back and forth (for the record, her real hair appears to be chin-length) enough for one to believe that she was seriously working up there. And it appears that she actually sang live on "Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know"; her voice was shaking and went off-key enough during this plaintive ballad for one to believe that Britney, Inc. is trying to offset everyone's assumptions about lip-syncing by allowing her to sing one song unaided.

After playing 19 songs, Brit came back out for a two-song encore. The final tune, "Til The World Ends," saw Britney, Inc. pulling out all the stops: pyro, huge mobile art-deco set pieces, confetti, 16 backup dancers in LED-laced light-up clothing, Nicki Minaj coming back out to do a guest verse and Britney flying above the audience with angel wings strapped to her little podium.

And you know what? It worked. The entire AAC screamed along, hands outstretched, as Britney flew above them.

The giant corporate engine that is Britney, Inc., did its job at AAC last night. It put on an amazing show. It was a bit like a toy commercial at Christmastime, a colorful cacophony of festive fun that makes the toy look way cooler than it really is.

But unwrapping the sparkly gift that is a Britney show is completely unnecessary. It's really the thought that counts.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
I've always liked Britney -- and when she went crazy and started hitting the paparazzi with her umbrella, I liked her even more. Britney is great because she is one of us, a normal girl with normal problems. If I were thrust into the limelight at 16, I would've done far worse than her.

Random Note: During Britney's cover of Madonna's "Burnin' Up," the guy sitting next to us (who happens to be a certain music critic for The Dallas Morning News), got super excited and sang along to every word.

By The Way: I kept a running count of pink Nicki Minaj-style bob-with-bangs wigs in the audience. Final tally? Eleven. 

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