The Internet and social media have certainly come to mediate our experience of many things, but they have also had the opposite effect: giving rise to new non-virtual happenings. For example, plummeting income from music sales has spurred musicians to do more live shows than before and to extend their concert tours even to far-flung countries in the Levant.
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And yet, instead of the Israeli audience’s first encounter with Britney Spears becoming a genuine, unmediated event, it never transcended the digital and virtual sphere. In fact, it’s hard to say whether an actual Britney Spears show really took place in Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park on Monday night.
Both Spears and the vast audience contributed to the mutual disappointment. Many in the crowd chose to take in the pop star’s show while gazing mainly at their cell phones, composing future posts or rehearsing the next day’s office chatter. And whenever Spears came physically closer to her fans, the phones got whipped out en masse, instantly erecting a huge curtain comprised of tens of thousands of screens that blocked the view of what was happening on stage.
Even though millions of pictures were taken and countless videos were recorded, no actual event ever took place, certainly nothing that was so exceptional that it merited recording. The audience didn’t seem to care that it was essentially busy recording a recording, as if it wasn’t even worth pausing to consider the fact that the live show essentially died before it had even begun.
The Israeli audience, which is so eager for foreign artists to play here, has a reputation for being very warm, welcoming and enthusiastic. A show in Tel Aviv is supposedly nothing like another show in Brussels. But the 55,000 in attendance last night barely sang or danced or cheered, aside from during a few upbeat songs towards the end. They were disquietingly quiet, apparently habituated to viewing Spears not as an actual person but as a hollow television and Internet character with whom there is no need to try to create a dialogue.
She certainly didn’t try to create any kind of dialogue with them. The only sign of humanity was evident to those who took a good, up-close look at the giant screens. Right from the start of the show, visible through her perspiration-soaked hair extensions, the look on Spears’ face was scared and confused. She struggled to lip sync smoothly with the playback, frequently turned her muscular back to viewers, and appeared to be in distress, giving downward sideways glances and small, nervous smiles here and there. The result was an empty, mechanical performance that left viewers cold.
She’s sung these songs so many times already that she may no longer have any idea why, oops, she’s doing it again. So once more she’ll toss her hair and bounce her ass and prance around in tight and degrading undergarments that show off her private parts, and she’ll smile her million-dollar smile that creates an illusion of feeling, and at no point in all of this will she really understand why she’s doing any of it. Why these skimpy costumes? Why the buff, barely-clad dancers? Why the bordello-style set design? Why the clunky choreography? At times it seemed we were watching a nightmare in which Spears, still a girl and already a grown woman, is trapped in one long never-ending show controlled by managers and agents and must go on forever playing the teenage temptress long after she should have outgrown that.
Some things are best experienced from afar. With a Britney concert, the farther away the better. As the stage recedes in the distance, the easier it is to cling to the illusion she creates in our minds. As you get closer, you discover there’s not much there, and you start wondering if Britney Spears really exists at all.