Lip-Synching Residencies: The New Normal?

What does Britney Spears’ lip-synching mean for the future of Strip residencies?

Photo by Denise Truscello

Photo by Denise Truscello

The lip-synching rumors started before the show was officially announced. But it wasn’t until opening week for Britney Spears’ Planet Hollywood residency, Piece of Me, that the murmurs became a dull roar of feigned incredulity and/or weary resignation.

But then, even critics didn’t seem to mind. While John Caramanica of The New York Times noted, “Rarely did the voice booming out over the speakers appear to be coming directly from Ms. Spears’ mouth,” he also fed the show the backhandiest of compliments, saying it was, “a greatest-hits production so winning that it barely needs her at all.”

Courtney Subramanian of Time was more direct: “So who cares if Britney doesn’t actually sing during her show?”

Not Britney’s target audience, apparently. The first leg of her two-year residency sold out, while the second leg started on January 29. As it turns out, we were asking the wrong questions about what Piece of Me would mean for residencies. It isn’t a question of how she’d shift the demographics. It’s a question of how she’d shift reality.

At first, I thought there would be outrage that a singer being paid $30 million for 100 performances couldn’t be bothered to sing the songs she allegedly sings. Then I remembered it’s not the ’90s anymore, and people don’t get up in arms about authenticity. I forget sometimes.

If these things were judged on merit, Christina Aguilera would be the former Mouseketeer with the $30 million deal. (And, if you really want to play alternate history, it would’ve been Cyndi Lauper making out with Aguilera at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards.)

Britney, though, was always about the costumes, the dance moves and the attitude to go along with passable music. She was KISS for teenage girls, with slightly less pyro. This, I realize, isn’t a revelation to anyone who’s owned a radio.

Britney was supposed to be the litmus test for whether Strip residencies could skew younger. If Cirque was for your mom, then Piece of Me was for you (on your last-gasp trip before rapidly evolving into your mom, anyway). The pop star could’ve been the middle step for the under-40 demographic between the Cosmo’s Bruno Mars mini-residency and the Hard Rock’s Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe mini-residencies. Something to do when you couldn’t get a table at Marquee.

But if Piece of Me ignores the implicit promise of live music, where does that leave us?

Exactly where we were five years ago. It used to be Diddy could sell out a club just by showing up. He’d be paid, in real money, to hang out, yell “Cîroc!” and chair-dance to “It’s All About the Benjamins.” Fans would come just to say they partied in the same room. It was, depending on your disposition, either wildly goofy or the greatest idea ever put to paper.

A mostly lip-synched Piece of Me takes the celebrity host idea out of the clubs and puts it onstage at a time the nightlife industry is bringing the stage into the clubs. It’s a kind of equilibrium, a portent of a future where there’s only one kind of pan-entertainment that’s all things to all people.

It’s Branding: The Musical, and it’s either wildly goofy or the greatest idea ever put to paper.

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