I’m currently watching Britney Spear’s The Onyx Hotel tour on Youtube. Simultaneously, there is BBC Radio 3 blaring out from the radio in the corner of my parent’s kitchen. I can’t quite bring myself to get up and turn the thudding piano music off that’s competing with Britney’s warbling. She’s singing ‘Everytime,’ one of the rare moments of live singing during the show.
Back in 2004, Alexis Petridis of Guardian fame gave Britney’s tour a 2/5 rating, which seems fair. The set consists of frequent gyrating, pre-recorded vocals, b-roll quality films and a freakish Hotel Host who looks like a blend between Willy Wonka and Matt Lucas.
I really love it. I’m 47 minutes in and can’t quite bring myself to turn it off. There’s something utterly compelling about Britney, especially looking back to this moment 13 years ago with the knowledge of all that’s come since.
When I was 13 my mum took me to go see The Onyx Hotel at Wembley Arena. There aren’t many occasions that we ventured off without the rest of the family, but she’d always been game to take me to a gig, no matter how far the music strayed from her own interest. I lived in a small village on the outskirts of Buckinghamshire and to get there we had to take a train into London. It was the second time my mum had taken me to a gig, the first being Fame Academy. It wasn’t a strong introduction to live music, but I was eager for a second round.
I was a massive Britney fan. We had Sky installed a couple of years prior and I was the first one up in the morning and the first one home from school, racing to slump myself down in front of the T.V watching music videos on repeat on MTV, in the days where they actually played music videos. Her latest single Toxic had its own countdown on MTV and at 5pm, was played for the first time. I don’t think I get excited about things now the same way I was excited for that video clip. Toxic remains one of the more bizarre video clips ever to grace MTV – disastrous CGI, Tyrone, wigs and costume galore and more masks being ripped off faces than Mission Impossible 2. Redhead, Brunette or Blonde, Britney was everything.
She seemed on top form despite growing concerns about her private life. 2004 appeared to mark the beginning of a Britney slump where she fell from grace and very publicly dealt with some personal issues. That year Spears had married her childhood friend Jason Alexander in Vegas; the marriage was annulled 55 hours later. She fell during a video shoot and had to cancel the remainder of The Onyx Hotel. Got engaged to K-Fed in July. Married K-Fed in September that same year. In 2006, Britney had had two children with K-Fed, divorced him, entered rehab and roamed the streets with a freshly shaved head and an umbrella, used to attempt to smash a car window in.
There were hints of sadness in her set back in ’04 and a numerous gags where she referred to her personal life. There are numerous elements to the Britney brand that I’m not entirely on board with: the sexualisation of a sixteen year old when she first emerged is one. She seems to have carried that with her though out her career. About an hour in to the Onyx tour, a clip plays of hotel security staff perving on Brit in her hotel room through CCTV. Several beds appear on stage for what ends up being a good 10 minutes of soft-core porn vibes with Brit rolling around in a flesh coloured, crystal decorated onesie.
“Just put your lips together and blow.”
Britney reappears in fuchsia lingerie. Now she’s joined by a man as she rolls around on satin sheets. I remember that being pretty weird at the time. 13 years on, it’s still pretty weird, and totally out of sync with the sugary sweet Britney who will come back to speak in her best Disney voice about how much she loves her fans, at which point me and the thousand other young women yell out our gratitude.
I can imagine lots of things going through my mum’s mind at this point. Firstly, why the fuck was she there. Secondly, what sorts of things would she need to decode for me on the train ride home; how many questions would I have had about what I’d seen that evening…
I was absolutely enamoured with the theatricality of it all. I remember finding the raunchier stuff a bit confusing, and probably a little funny. She’d made out with Xtina and Madonna on T.V the year prior; you didn’t go watch Britney without expecting some sort of sexual display. I don’t think it landed with me in any particularly weighty way.
The stadium was bustling with the energy of teen fandom and it was thrilling to be a part of. Britney was massive for so many kids during that time and I felt really lucky to have been there that evening at 13 watching someone I thought was utterly brilliant.
I can’t say I ever listen to Britney’s music now, or have done for years but I loved her at that point. She went through a huge amount of negative experience under scrutiny from the general public and it blows my mind that she’s only 35. She was only 22 when I watched her on stage that night. That’s 4 years younger than I am now. I remember thinking how powerful and brave she was and I still have that respect for her.