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Review: Britney Spears, all grown up and acting out in Dallas

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Posted 12:09am on Wednesday, Jul. 13, 2011

Remarkably, there are still those among us who revere Britney Spears.

They made their pilgrimage -- clad in startlingly elaborate costumes or lovingly homemade T-shirts, sweating profusely in the wilting summer heat -- to the American Airlines Center Tuesday night, eager for a glimpse of their patron saint, a battered pop star continuing along the road back from a precipitous decline. Although the head shaving, paparazzi-attacking, semi-public meltdown days are safely in the rear view and, well, Spears appears to be plugged into her life and work again, there's much less of an unsettled feeling sitting down to watch her oversee a raucous dance party.

And make no mistake: It's foolish to approach any Britney Spears concert as something resembling a straightforward pop music show. No, this is a piece of musical theater (indeed, there was scarcely a trace of live singing to be found; Spears was merrily lip-synching from first track to last) timed out like a Tag Heuer and larded with enough acrobatics, hydraulics and special effects (a few pyro bursts, but no repeats of the incident that led to the abrupt end of Rihanna's set in the same building last week) to make Michael Bay blush.

Spears is touring in support of her latest LP, Femme Fatale, and from that title, the nearly two-hour evening took its (loose) theme. Through a flurry of costume changes, backed by a small army of dancers and in front of a man cave's-worth of giant video screens, Spears pretended to be a woman on the run, as well as any number of make-believe archetypes (the Marilyn Monroe clone; the biker chick; the exotic harem girl). She pulled heavily from the disc, but also took care to at least touch upon all phases of her output to date.

It was fantasy mixed with, strangely, an undercurrent of abasement, most readily evident in the often lurid imagery playing out behind Spears during her songs. (But let's be honest: Hasn't much of Spears's career to date been built upon exactly those things, to varying degrees -- fantasy and abasement?) For (Drop Dead) Beautiful, Spears twirled about before loops of borderline soft-core porn; a riff on a remix of Rihanna's S&M provided startling glimpses of hardcore bondage gear, which I'm sure thrilled the parents in the room.

It was an aggressive stance, one which dissipated the perky, fun, clubbing-with-my-girls atmosphere Spears worked overtime to maintain elsewhere. If even Spears, the grande dame of gyrating, blond-haired pop stars, is resorting to the kind of skeevy sexual displays you'd associate with the wrong back alley in the red light district, perhaps the Lady Gagas of the world really have won. It's a far cry from naughty schoolgirl, that's for sure.

Spears appeared far more present on this trip through North Texas, and less spaced out than during her "Circus" tour two years ago. For that, we should all be grateful, if only because it means she's truly walked herself back from a potentially ugly end to an otherwise wildly successful career. "Britney Spears" isn't really a person any more, if she ever really was. She's just gotten better at packaging the product, a good-time girl who may not dance quite as crisply as before or dominate the pop cultural conversation as thoroughly as she once did, but the faithful keep coming and cheering, as they did at a packed AAC Tuesday night. They will never abandon her.

In a 45-minute set that felt more like a co-headlining appearance and less like an opening act, hip-hop sensation Nicki Minaj (who was involved in a minor altercation at Dallas' Palomar Hotel, prior to the show) blew the doors off the AAC. Minaj, who cut her teeth on the competitive Young Money roster (Lil' Wayne was an early mentor), has a few R&B hits under her belt, but it's her rapping that really dazzled Tuesday.

Moving easily from highlight to highlight (for my money, there are few that can touch her work on Kanye West's grimly compelling Monster), Minaj pulled out all the stops, with an elaborate backdrop, a predilection for Enya, plenty of dancers and charisma to burn. She's in the middle of the bill this trip, but that's not going to last much longer.

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