As her Circus Tour pulled into the Allstate Arena Tuesday night for the first of two sold-out shows, troubled dance-pop superstar Britney Spears seemed to be saying, "Don't gawk at me, gawk with me." But she never succeeded.
To be sure, Spears offered a spectacle-laden 90-minute orgy of eye candy divided into four acts: "Circus," "House of Fun (Anything Goes)," "Freakshow/Peepshow" and "Electro Circ," plus the inevitable encore of "Womanizer," the big hit from her sixth album, "Circus."
There was a state of the art three-ring stage set in the center of the arena. There were clowns, jugglers, acrobats, magicians, martial artists and a dwarf. There were costume changes and videos and fire and undulating dancers in bondage gear.
And, of course, there was more bumping, grinding, strip-teasing and pole dancing than during a busy night at the Admiral Theatre.
So yes, there was plenty to look at--and I say "look at" rather than "listen to" because it's long since become a ho-hum matter of fact that Spears hardly troubles herself to actually sing onstage, instead relying on pre-recorded, electronically-sweetened digital backing tracks. (The fans know it's not about the music, the argument goes, so why should the lip-syncing bother anyone else?)
Yet for all of the flashy distractions, people ultimately paid $150 a ticket ($350 for the "In the Zone" package and $550 for the "Toxic VIP Experience"--in these difficult economic times!) to gape at Generation Y's most infamous train wreck, a woman who, at the still tender age of 27, has weathered two marriages and two divorces, lost custody of her two children and made two trips to the psychiatric ward, in between 2,000 other public embarrassments.
Now here she was in the flesh in Rosemont in the midst of her second comeback attempt, once again staggering zombie-like through a carefully planned, rigidly controlled and relentlessly marketed show based on the familiar commodity she's been peddling throughout her career.
The set list only reached back once to Spears' pre-2000, post-Mickey Mouse Club days, for a funked-up remake of "... Baby One More Time." Otherwise, it was all about heavy breathing and Hustler magazine-like subtlety: "I'm a Slave 4 U," "Boys," "Toxic," "If U Seek Amy," "Get Naked (I Got A Plan)."
And all of it espoused the same message: Slutty is sexy.
Me, I've never bought that--not as a husband, not as a father and not as a red-blooded but feminist American male. But then I'm not Spears' target demographic, the core of which still is predominantly young (roughly 15 to 22 on Tuesday) and predominantly female.
The fact that so many of these girls either agree with or are happy to overlook Britney's retrogressive, pandering, joyless and ultimately self-destructive vision of sexuality is much, much more tragic than the star's messed-up personal life. Toxic indeed.