Britney Spears, Wembley Arena, London<br></br>The Divine Comedy, Palladium, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Queen of Pop? No way. Princess of Pop? Wrong. Minor Duchess of Pop? Try again. Tonight, Matthew, little Britney Spears - aged 22-and-a-quarter, from tiny Kentwood, Louisiana (pop 1,200), which now advertises itself as "Britney Spears' hometown" as a hopeful tourist lure, raised on the food of a diner which now names menu items in her honour, packed off to be a Disney Mouseketeer when she was 11, sent on the shopping mall PA circuit as a pop wannabe, little white trash Britney, the embodiment of America's peasant aspirations - is no mere royalty. Britney Spears is God.

I've seen them all in the last few years: Beyoncé, Madonna, Xtina, the lot. But on a stage, only Kylie Minogue can eclipse Britney Spears' Onyx Hotel extravaganza.

Opening with a song like "Toxic" is equivalent to dropping the nuclear bomb on the first day of a war, and a surprisingly non-rugrat audience who have grown up with her (the tweenagers who bought her first single are now teenagers) go wild. Stalking the stage like a comic-book heroine in front of an LED edifice, the slightly geeky kid with the too-big tongue now looks untouchable, superhuman.

Away from the choreography and pyrotechnics of an arena concert, however, she has revealed herself to be all too human, breaking down in tears on a US chat show over her break-up with Timberlake, then getting blind drunk and wedding an old schoolmate in Vegas. All of this - the tears, the tantrums - make her a prime candidate to become a true gay icon (well, more than she is already, purely by dint of being a female pop diva), a junior Joan Collins, or even, one shudders to imagine, a Lynn Perrie.

At first, she makes a joke of it. "Are any of you cute guys feeling lucky? If you're really lucky... I might marry you." But the cute guys in the front row are not, it seems safe to surmise, the marrying kind.

If they were, there would be plenty to entertain them. The nude/glitter body stocking from the "Toxic" video makes an appearance at one point, as she dry-humps a dancer (while there's some admirably risqué gayness from the other males in the troupe), and for the jazz medley of "Baby One More Time" and "Oops! I Did It Again" she vamps it up with high-backed steel chairs Fabulous Baker Boys-style (or perhaps Moulin Rouge is a closer comparison) in ankle boots, corset and French knickers in pink and black. In case we've missed the point, the former child star stiletto-stamps the words "I'm not... that... innocent." It's preposterous, of course, that there's still anything shocking about a 22-year-old woman expressing her sexuality (how long, as the conveyor belt rolls along, before we recoil in mock-horror at Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen lezzing it up?), but that's WASP America for you.

Aside from a concierge who is basically The Child Catcher, and some synchronised bus-boy trolleys, the "hotel" theme is loose to say the least but, just as her latest video had me thinking I want to fly Toxic Air on my next hop from Stansted to Glasgow, now I'm thinking I want to stay at the Onyx when I reach the other end.

The Marvel Comic strip-tease cabaret is interrupted by one moment of mawkish sincerity. Sat behind a piano we are supposed to believe she is playing, even though it carries on when she gets up and walks off (the Onyx Hotel, clearly, is haunted), she announces, in a pre-scripted speech reminiscent of one of Jerry Springer's closing homilies: "If you've been following the media, you'll know that my life has been a rollercoaster recently... but at the end of the day, that's what makes you who you are." Well, that's OK then. Thank you for watching, take care of yourselves, and each other. But honestly, Britney. Fred Durst - what were you thinking?

Modesty is not an essential prerequisite for a pop star. It might even be said to be a hindrance. Smugness, however, is utterly suicidal. Glad tidings indeed, then, that Neil Hannon has gained a modicum of the former, but lost any trace of the latter.

Even in terms of body language, you can divine (sorry) a difference. In his unironed suit, the stooped shuffle with which he takes the stage of the London Palladium, looking not unlike a younger, more upper class Shane MacGowan, speaks volumes.

Now 33 years old, and (crucially, it seems, judging by his recent lyrics) a dad, Hannon has abandoned the archness and snideness which sometimes left an unpleasant aftertaste - the glaring example tonight being "National Express" (in which he mocks a coach hostess whose "arse is the size of a small country") - and replaced them with a new emotional sincerity, without losing any of his articulacy and literate wit.

Roughly half of tonight's Divine Comedy show, broken into two parts with a proper theatrical interval, is taken from Absent Friends, the glorious new album. Much of it, particularly the outstanding "Our Mutual Friend" (a tale of an affair that ended before it began, Brief Encounter relocated to twentysomething clubland) is moving, heartbreaking stuff.

At the same time, there are moments when the performance verges on stand-up comedy. Where perhaps in the past, DivCom audiences were too indulgent, having bought into the idea of Neil Hannon so comprehensively that his every utterance drew titters (purely due to his affected Noël-Coward-goes-to-Ulster diction), tonight he is genuinely funny.

The comedy aspect is unconsciously aided by the coincidental facts that his 15-piece Millennia Ensemble includes a percussionist who's a dead ringer for Lee from The Office and a female backing singer who looks like a finalist from the Lovely Girls competition on Craggy Island, and indeed, Hannon's "Songs of Love", better known as the theme from Father Ted, is played tonight.

But the elfin Enniskillen man has the theatre in the palm of his hand, flicking the Vs at an automatic camera, leading a clapalong then cut-throating it dead. (The fact that a football gag falls flat may have more to do with the fact that Divine Comedy audiences don't want to be seen to understand something so lowbrow as sport.) We're all wondering where he's going with a shaggy dog story about a leaf-collecting holiday in Bavaria on which he acquired an old song from 1923 on a 78rpm record, but all becomes clear when it turns out to be an inspired and hilarious Weimar/oompah rendition of Queens Of The Stone Age's "No-One Knows".

Not a single song is taken from Re-Generation, the ill-advised venture into dressed-down indie rock. Instead, we get the full orchestral Divine Comedy experience, with crowdpleasers like "Becoming More Like Alfie", "Tonight We Fly", and "Something For The Weekend" (even though I still maintain that the word "woodshed" should not be allowed within 500 yards of a pop song).

The new, understated Hannon still has his arty show-off moments. During "The Certainty of Chance" he sits down cross-legged and reads a book, during "Don't Look Down" he holds a dialogue with God (something which only Prince, on "The Ladder", has credibly pulled off), and during "The Book Lovers", a song he admits "even I now think was a bit pretentious", he invites Cillian Murphy onstage to read from JP Donleavy.

The show ends with perhaps Hannon's most honest moment, the autobiographical "Sunrise", written about his upbringing in Enniskillen (or Innis Kathleen). "Who cares where national borders lie? Who cares whose laws you're governed by? Who cares what name you call a town? Who'll care when you're six feet underground?" Neil Hannon is a British - or Irish, who cares - pop genius, and should be cherished as such. Even if, nowadays, the man himself may be too modest to say so.

Britney Spears: Wembley Arena, London (0870 739 0739), Mon & Tue; NIA, Birmingham (0870 909 4144), Wed. The Divine Comedy tour the UK in June. See for venue details