Britney Spears / March 11, 2009/ Long Island, NY/ Nassau Coliseum

Britney Spears must make other pop stars angry.

Beyonce, Pink, Justin … none of them would dare use pre-recorded vocals during their live shows, despite the complex choreography of their performances. Madonna and Janet are guilty of using backing tracks to carry some of vocal weight, but certainly not all of it. Hell, even the Pussycat Dolls sing live.

But Britney? She is, and always has been, about blatant, unapologetic lip-syncing. Case in point: at the New York stop of her anticipated comeback tour, Spears used her actual vocal chords only three times – twice to thank the crowd, and once to sing a ballad (though the vocals during that number were questionable, as well). Even the spoken bits in the songs came from a DAT. Somewhere, Ashlee Simpson has a dartboard with Brit's face square in the bull's-eye.

Of course, none of this bothered the 16,000 fans that turned up to cheer the resurrected icon at Nassau Coliseum Wednesday night. Britney merely paid lip service to her songs, but the audience members screamed the words to every hit at the top of their collective lungs – even if it was obvious they were the only ones really singing.

Why does Britney get a pass when so many other pop stars keep it real? Has her audience become more forgiving after watching their heroine publicly wrestle with her personal demons over the last few years? Perhaps, but sympathy alone doesn't fill arenas to the rafters.

The truth is that vocal prowess has never been the fuel that powers the Britney Machine. Singing simply isn't the point. Spears is an entertainer; a put-on-a-show kind of girl. And despite what happens behind the curtain, Britney's Circus tour is indeed quite a show.

Focusing largely on material from her last three albums, Spears' first outing in five years is a dazzling, racy, in-the-round spectacle that's a little Cirque de Soliel, a little Skinemax, but all Britney at its core. Designed to play up her biggest strengths (i.e. her well-honed dance skills) and distract from her shortcomings, the highly choreographed show features an over-the-top array of acrobats, magicians, clowns, and no less 12 dancers on stage at any given time. The scale of the concert is so massive, in fact, it at times threatens to eclipse its star. Still, despite all of the smoke and mirrors, the most alluring aspect of the show remains Britney herself.

Looking more lively (and more fit) than she has in half a decade, Spears donned 12 different costumes as she shimmed and shook her way through a 17-song set that featured some of her biggest hits, including "Piece of Me," "Toxic," "Womanizer," and funky new remixes of "Slave 4 U" and "…Baby One More Time."

After years of studying the playbooks of Madonna and Janet Jackson, Britney has learned a thing or two about showmanship. When not strutting her scantily-clad stuff from one end of the arena to the other, Spears had plenty of other tantalizing ways to keep the crowd captivated. One minute, she was being sawed in half. The next, she was a straddling dancer suspended 20 feet in the air. If she wasn't writhing around in a gilded cage, she was giving a center-stage lap dance to one very lucky audience member.

But entertainment wasn't Britney's only goal. More than anything, she wants this tour to prove to the world that she's stronger than yesterday, and that she's back in control of her own circus. Her assortment of authoritative costumes (Sexy Ringleader! Sexy drill sergeant! Sexy policewoman!) helped to drive the point home, but the biggest evidence of Spears' rebirth was simply the confidence and vigor behind her performance. For the first time in ages, she actually worked for the applause – and, like the Britney we once knew, she seemed to have a great time doing it.

Thanks to her infectious enthusiasm, Spears managed to pull off the biggest magic trick of all – she erased the image of the sad, wayward diva that has been plastered across the tabloids for the last few years. And for many fans, that alone was cause for ovation.

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