‘Who is it?” screamed the Brighton Pride audience. The early evening sky in Preston Park was rose gold as Britney Spears laughed, swished her ponytail and lip-synced the opening line of her dark dance banger Gimme More, which a few glitter-decked revellers wore emblazoned on T-shirts today: “It’s Britney, bitch.”
It has recently become a trend for fans to shout that question at Spears, as she takes her $138m-grossing, career-stabilising Las Vegas show on the road. It’s a fun in-joke, a meme that both artist and fanbase are in on. But perhaps most importantly, it raises a smile from a performer whose live performances in the past decade have often seemed detached, if you’re being kind, or dead-eyed, if you’re not.
Spears’ shaky live reputation doesn’t seem to matter to the mainly LGBT crowd in Brighton. The park today feels like gay Comic-Con: a drag queen struts in a stitch-perfect “Toxic” flight attendant outfit, complete with jaunty pillbox hat, and one group dresses as Spears incarnations from schoolgirl to majorette. The air seems to fizz with electricity, and when she does appear, in a cloud of dry ice and a promptly discarded top hat, a roar erupts that feels like a Boeing 747 taking off.
She keeps audience banter to a minimum. Instead, she constantly moves, writhing, pointing, skipping across stage, and dramatically throwing her body to the ground. It’s a trade-off that makes her seem a little distanced, and you’re left to wonder if it’s worth it. Spears doesn’t always keep pace with her dancers, which is particularly noticeable in the complex Me Against the Music choreography, but she seems committed to keeping the BPMs high and the routines gymnastic. It’s a shame: you could imagine rousing singalongs to classic ballads such as Everytime and Lucky.
When Spears plays the hits, or even the sort-of hits, the reaction is galvanic. It feels as if a riot is about to break out during her 26-song set’s opening one-two punch of Work Bitch and Womanizer, and for Toxic – one of the 00s’ oddest, most brilliant pop smashes – there is an acre-wide whoop as Spears is flung through the air by dancers. It’s fitting that the show is almost spiritually camp, from the ringmaster jackets of Circus to the hunks in harnesses during Slave 4 U, who would fit in perfectly at the park’s sweaty Brüt men’s dance tent. A 2003 deep cut, Breathe on Me, raises a rapturous cheer for its spoken-word portion during which Spears huskily intones: “Just put your lips together and blow.”
Despite the adoring crowd, Spears sometimes seems on edge, adjusting her ponytail and smiling tightly at the end of songs as if to ask: “Was that OK?” When she loosens up, it’s infectious. Do You Wanna Come Over, a skippable track from Spears’ 2016 Glory album, becomes an unexpected highlight with dancers clad in neon sportswear, while the final song, Till the World Ends, during which confetti rains and Spears brandishes a rainbow flag, feels like the closing party Pride needs.
Spears titled the show Piece of Me after her 2007 song that flips media narratives about her as “Miss bad media karma” and coolly wields them like a mace. Her performance at Pride doesn’t have that song’s bite, but is propelled by Spears’ undeniable hits into a glitzy, crowd-pleasing spectacle. At its heart, Spears is an uncertain presence, but she seems happy to still be at the party.