It is 33 degrees. The air is so dry that all the grass has turned to a crisp, burnt orange. Tens of thousands of people are sprawled on the ground, or else standing and dancing. The area is littered with nos canisters and crushed chips. A woman is vomiting into her hands. There is a singular pendulum ride spinning round and round, each time looking like it might crash into the makeshift bar tent nearby. Somewhere in the far distance, Britney Spears is stomping up and down a stage wearing a tiny leather thong. She is lip syncing all her smash hits, back to back. People are crying. Everyone is screaming.
This is what Saturday in Brighton’s Preston Park looked like. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear and still don’t feel real, Britney had willingly decided to leave her plush, 20-acre mansion in Thousand Oaks to perform “Work Bitch” and more to a miasma of sweaty, gurning people trapped inside a huge grass pen in south east England for Brighton Pride. Weirder still, tickets to the event had been only £27 – the same price as a Chinese takeaway for two – and had sold out within hours. Halfway through her performance, she had turned to a back-up dancer and gone “...where are we?” and for a moment, standing there beneath the desert-like sun, the whole scene resembling a dystopian carnival-cum-Vegas residency, I knew exactly what she meant.
Growing up, Britney Spears represented the pinnacle of pop stardom and she still does. I was never a mega-fan like a lot of people at school were, but I still knew the words to all her songs in the same way I know every song by Madonna, or Prince, or Michael Jackson. It goes without saying, but she’s the kind of musician with a discography that has been burned onto the brains of everybody who has been alive while she’s released music. So the fact she was performing in Brighton, in 2018, felt more than slightly strange – it felt unbelievable. In the weeks leading up to it, friends kept joking that nobody would survive this because it would be too peak, there would be stampedes, surely, the UK would implode. Even in the hours beforehand, we were looking at each other, skeptical that she would arrive, skeptical that anyone could handle it if she did.
But she did show up – and the performance itself was faultless. She charged through her choreography with the energy of somebody who hadn’t been doing this for twenty years without breaks, and her dance moves and multiple outfit changes were camp, ridiculous, perfect. At one point, during “I’m a Slave 4 U”, she started spinning her pony tail around like a human helicopter while sliding down a pole. There was a moment in which a group of topless men carried her across the stage, each of them holding her thigh high boots while she sang into a portable mic. Most people couldn’t actually see her because the stage was too far away, but it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that she was there, and the music was pumping, and there were big screens to catch it all.
As expected, though, her presence caused complete and literal carnage. Preston Park itself can only hold 60,000 and 57,000 tickets were sold for the event. Usually, that amount of people would be spread across a few acts and throughout the day, but obviously everyone was there to see Britney, so they were all crushed into one space at the same time. The result was a very specific blend of heatwave behavior, steadily rising intoxication and intense overcrowding. At one point, while trying to leave the park, the stench of pure human shit wafted through the crowd. Clearly somebody had shat themselves, but nobody looked surprised?? In fact, that a person might shit themselves during this combination of events seemed like a fairly appropriate response. I started to worry that I might shit myself, too.
This chaos continued into the night, and spread throughout the city. As everyone ploughed towards the train station, the police decided to close the whole place and suspend all services in order to impose “crowd control measures.” This mainly consisted of kettling everyone outside the station without letting them know what was going on, or when they’d be able to get home. Because of this, people understandably started freaking out and getting aggressive or fainting. They finally began letting people on trains at around 3AM, but even those trains weren’t going the whole way, meaning that people were being confusedly shuttled onto other trains, shouting among themselves or else just resigned and asleep on the floor, trying not to panic.
As for me, I managed to get home at 6AM, genuinely unsure as to whether I’d just had the best or worst night of my life. Apparently it can be both. On the one hand, Britney Spears had been there in the literal flesh performing back-to-back bangers like “Womaniser” and “If U Seek Amy” and “Toxic.” But every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction, and as such, the UK simply couldn’t handle her presence. Or at least a specific corner, in Brighton, couldn’t, and went into complete meltdown. It was too much. It was a success, it was a failure, and it was absolutely worth it.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.