Britney Spears is a dozen years into her career, and yet the kickoff of her "Femme Fatale" tour at the Power Balance Pavilion in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday night managed to propel her forward. She's wisely focusing on the present — she sang nine songs from her latest album "Femme Fatale" and snagged Nicki Minaj as her opening act — while offering possibly her flashiest, fastest moving, and most entertaining production yet.
Taking her entrance atop a moving platform in the first of many skimpy and sparkling Barbarella-esque outfits, Spears kicked off her performance with "Hold It Against Me." Flipping her massive blonde locks/weave/wig in what the "Glee" kids call "hairography," Spears shook what her hairdresser gave her while dancing hunks in policeman gear suggestively wielded truncheons around her. For "Up n’ Down," she and her female dancers reappeared in several cages made of poles, and were soon to be joined by the cops executing jungle gym acrobatics atop the cages. White satin fedoras and trench coats were donned for "3," and for "Piece of Me" she flew over the stage until the cops ripped off their shirts to reveal S&M bondage harnesses.
It was that kind of show, and the largely female audience sprinkled with some enthusiastic guys liked it that way: Throughout her set, the screaming from the fans rarely relented. Just about every number offered a different visual theme more over-the-top than the one before it. "Big Fat Bass" featured giant speaker cabinets with woofers circled by flashing, color-changing lights. Spears took her entrance during "How I Roll" in a car that resembled a pink Mini Cooper. The hood folded into steps that allowed Spears to walk over and down the car — one of many agile moves Spears executed without twisting an ankle.
Her set was half over before she sang a track older than four years; this was "Boys (Remix)," followed by the sole slowie, "Don’t Let Me Be the Last to Know," which she sang on a swing. Here her mike was clearly turned on, and the results confirmed why Spears typically relies on prerecorded vocals. Her surprise cover of Madonna’s early single "Burning Up" lacked Madge’s authority, but it did feature Spears straddling a giant glittering guitar 10 or so feet high and twice as long. Her encore of "Toxic" featured a booming Dance Dance Revolution-styled remix with Japanese kimonos and dancing ninjas to match while "Till the World Ends" included Minaj rapping via video — an odd choice, since she was likely still backstage.
Minaj’s own set lacked Spears’s budget or sharp choreography. Instead, the rapper tottered around on lime green platform shoes that threatened to tip her balance. Although she’s styled as a dance-pop diva, Minaj did little dancing — or singing, or even live rapping. Like Spears, much of her vocals were clearly prerecorded, which got a little too obvious during "Monster." Obviously she doesn’t have Kanye West with her, but throughout even her part in the song she sat nearly immobile, not bothering to hold a mike or move her lips.
Minaj clearly has stage presence, and the fact that fans cheered through abbreviated versions of her hits means that she’s doing something right by just showing up. But as a showcase for her considerable talents, her Thursday night performance lacked the commitment of her records. Surely the wild woman of "Did It On’em" can do better.
But really, the night belonged to Britney: She managed to prove that she's still progressing as a showgirl. Not only that, she's doing it better than even diehard defenders would’ve predicted. At 29, the pop star whose career seemed in danger of ending just a couple years ago has shown that she's back — hopefully this time to stay.