By Ed Power
Nobody else has had a pop career quite like that of Britney Spears. She invented a new sort of teen stardom cavorting in pig-tails and a school uniform in the …Baby One More Time video and then, at the zenith of her fame, had a meltdown for the ages when she burst into an LA hairdressers demanding all her hair be chopped.
But amid the personal ups, downs and in-betweens the former Mouseketeer never stopped releasing interesting, ambitious music and even as she became a byword for celebrity burnout was still pushing chart pop to its outer limits (particularly with her astonishing 2007 album The Blackout).
She now returns to the touring circuit following a four-year Las Vegas residency, during which she played 50 gigs a year, for a reported $450,000 a night. The aura of Sin City lingers over her new show, an adaptation of her Piece of Me residency at Planet Hollywood.
As pop revue, her return to Dublin after a seven years absence pulled in two directions at once. As a performer, Spears has never quite learned how to warm to an audience and here a distance hung between star and an adoring crowd. It wasn't aloofness – more an understandable determination on the part of a singer who has felt the full unforgiving glare of the spotlight to keep a little of herself back.
Yet even as she seemed to withhold emotionally, as spectacle the evening was often breathtaking. Flanked by dancers, Britney jumped, twirled and adjusted her hair. A “Circus” segment honoured the show’s Vegas roots; during …Baby One More Time, Britney pretend-fought hunky monks in vampire capes. Perhaps the former was a metaphor for the travails of fame – or maybe Spears just fancied pretend-fighting hunky monks in vampire capes.
What the show wasn’t, really, was the kind of greatest hits victory lap artists typically deliver 20 years into their career. Rather, Spears proceeded through mega-smashes …One More Time and Oops!... I Did It Again early in the set, the better to devote her attention to later standouts such as I’m A Slave 4 U and Do Somethin. It was a gutsy departure from convention.
Though her stoic expression made Britney difficult to read, she knows the worth of these songs – complicated bangers which prioritise glittering beats over diva poses. If that means that Spears sometimes resembled a featured guest on her own track…clearly that is sacrifice she was willing to make.
There wasn't much fun amid the frowning. The closest the evening came to throwaway was when a punter was dragged up to be pretend-whipped by Britney and led around on hands and knees by a dog-lead. He may have regretted putting his hand up when she asked for a volunteer.
As a star with a well-documented ambivalence towards stardom Spears has always been a bit of an enigma and Piece of Me does not shed light on the woman behind the mask. Here she twinkled darkly and by final curtain, she was just as unknowable as when making her entrance.