A losing battle of the buzz

SAN DIEGO -- As hard as Britney Spears worked here Tuesday during the opening night of her new U.S. tour, there was a vague feeling of futility about the whole affair.

In the battle for the young pop crowd's attention, where musical quality is rarely the deciding factor, the prize often goes to the performer who creates the biggest buzz.

And shadowing Spears' every move at the San Diego Sports Arena was the fact that she had already lost this buzz battle.What could she possibly do in 90 minutes to claim even a quarter of the attention that Janet Jackson stirred during one second of that notorious halftime show last month?

For all the outrage the Jackson moment caused among the FCC and the general public, the MTV audience, which includes the young pop crowd, probably found the whole uproar silly and sees Jackson as badder than ever. Imagine the curiosity factor when she hits the road again.

It's almost enough to make you feel sorry for the 22-year-old former Mouseketeer: Not only was she upstaged by someone almost old enough to be her mother, but her ex-beau, Justin Timberlake, was an accomplice.

To make matters worse, Spears had seemed to have done everything necessary to guarantee she'd have the buzz all to herself this year.

The actress-singer set up her latest album, "In the Zone," perfectly by teaming with Madonna, the original buzz girl. First, they kissed on the mouth during the MTV Video Music Awards. Then, Spears got Madonna to join her in a duet on "In the Zone."If that wasn't enough, she, either through shrewd strategy or emotional freakout, took out some buzz insurance by getting married in Las Vegas in January. Even though the marriage was quickly annulled, it was a classic Las Vegas moment, generating almost as much publicity as the tiger attack on Roy.

But what does hard work and planning matter if Jackson is going to simply bare it all?

After sitting through Tuesday's concert (which also featured brief sets by R&B/hip-hop singer Kelis and teen rocker Skye Sweetnam), however, it was hard to feel too sorry for Ms. Spears.

In the past, Spears has had the luxury of having critics try to look at her show through the awe in the eyes of the 8- to 12-year-olds who made up her target audience. And it was easy to be charmed by the teen innocence and action-girl hero stance.

In keeping with Spears' attempt to elevate her target audience from 12 to, say, 22, she has moved to a more torrid mix of sensual imagery and dance-floor heat -- and requires to be judged by adult standards.

"I don't wanna be a tease," she sings in one song. "Will you undo my zipper please."

The new tour, titled "The Onyx Hotel," is certainly ambitious. The impressionistic setting is of a hotel where sensual pleasures are encouraged almost as much as costume changes. (Spears goes through eight, from black latex bodysuit to vintage baby-doll lingerie.)

There's a curious man with a naughty twinkle and a lavish theatrical aura who serves as a sort of concierge, a "Twilight Zone" figure who hints at all sorts of intrigues ahead. He's one of the show's liveliest features, even venturing into the audience to greet fans at one point, and his role should be expanded.

The action starts in the lobby, where Spears arrives on top of a customized hotel bus and soon skips along from one hotel luggage cart to another much as Debbie Reynolds might have done in old MGM musicals.

Eventually, however, things end up in the hotel bedrooms, where security guards spy on Spears and other guests, who act out various voyeuristic or autoerotic desires.

Even if it sounds steamy, it's actually pretty tame, because like so much of the show it feels sterile. Even though Spears is trying to distance herself from her teen image, it's still pretty much the PG-13 level of her last tour. The emphasis is so much on now that 10 of the 16 songs in the set are from "In the Zone."

Spears' five-piece band plays with vigor, but the arrangements, for the most part, suffer from the same lack of personality and distinctiveness of Spears' vocals and dance steps. It's hard to figure out just how much she's carrying the vocal load in the show or relying on electronic support. Either way her voice is thin and whispery.

Much of the new material, too, feels labored and anonymous -- a tone set by the opening, high-energy "Toxic" and maintained until Spears reaches the invigorating "(I Got That) Boom Boom" near the end.

While much of the show feels distant and overly choreographed, Spears does try to take us inside her world during one intimate moment.

Sitting at the piano, she introduces a ballad by referring to all the headlines that have chronicled her emotional ups and downs. Putting an optimistic spin on concerns that she has been overwhelmed by career pressures, she says hard times should make her stronger.

She'd better hope the rough times also make her music stronger because there is lots of competition these days. Two more talented young women, Beyonce and Alicia Keys, will tour together soon and may generate enough sparks to create a more legitimate buzz than Jackson.

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