Britney Spears, "Circus"

December 2, 2008


Faced with the train wreck of a career that is America's doubly cursed dance-pop diva--the two marriages, the two divorces, lost custody of her two children, two trips to the psychiatric ward and a double-wide list of battles with the paparazzi and other public embarrassments--what is the greedy machine behind Britney Spears, Inc. to do?

Since just letting the woman be is not an option when there's a single dime still to be wrung from her sad spectacle, the answer is to pair the troubled performer with the best hired songwriters and hippest streetwise producers money can buy; attempt to craft a slick mainstream simulacrum of urban club music along with a smattering of ballads to please more sentimental fans; defiantly reference her personal anguish and/or play it for laughs, and most of all rely on what has always been her most potent sales tool: S-E-X.

Wait a minute, you might ask: Didn't we just witness all of this a mere 13 months ago with "Blackout," Spears' fifth album and first alleged worldwide comeback?

Indeed we did, and none of it worked--at least not on the level of her post-Mouseketeers, prime "Slave 4 U" superstardom. Released after a four-year absence from the spotlight, "Blackout" has yet to reach platinum status, with a mere 913,000 copies sold--not bad, but not the big-bucks Britney of the past.

Counting on pop fans' short attention spans and nonexistent cultural memories, B.S., Inc. is working the same gambit again, but this time it's trying much harder. Spears' sixth album "Circus" arrives in stores on Tuesday, her 27th birthday, and it's a much more finely crafted and no doubt more expensive piece of pop product. The hype campaign is more focused this time: Instead of the infamous zombie-like performance at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, we're getting a 90-minute documentary entitled "Britney: For the Record" produced by her record company and airing on MTV on Sunday. And La Brit is gearing up for a massive tour in 2009 with, oddly enough, only one date officially announced so far: March 30th an April 28 date at the Allstate Arena in suburban Rosemont.

So far, everything seems to be working. The first single "Womanizer" is Spears' first No. 1 hit since "...Baby One More Time" a decade ago. And the select media that's been granted access is reporting that she seems relatively sane, sober and content--though at the price of living under the thumb of her father Jamie Spears, who was granted legal control of her finances and personal affairs during her second hospitalization.

"Britney today has about as many legal rights as when she was in the Mickey Mouse Club," Rolling Stone reports in its current cover story. "She is watched over day and night by security guards Jamie hired (and she's paying for); it's also rumored that Britney's phone calls are closely monitored and that she's not allowed to drive her own Mercedes."

Says the woman herself: "I feel like an old person now... I go to bed at, like, 9:30 every night, and I don't go out or anything. I just feel like an old fart."

Needless to say, this is not the life Spears sings about on "Circus." Several tracks reference the swirl of insanity surrounding her: "All eyes on me in the center of the ring," she sings in "Circus," while in "Kill the Lights," she gripes, "All the flashin', tryin' to cash in, hurts my eyes.". But as with "Piece of Me" on "Blackout," these complaints seem tired, trite and disingenuous when much of the rest of the album celebrates the sort of behavior that's always landing her in the gossip columns.

In "Lace and Leather" and "Mannequin," Spears one again proudly boasts of being every man's sexual fantasy ("I like it and I do what I like"). In "Blur," she wakes up in a stupor after a one-night stand ("Hope I didn't but I think I might've/Everything, everything is still a blur"). Produced by her old svengali, that Lolita-lovin' dirty old man Max Martin, "If U Seek Amy" vies to be the crudest come on in a career that's been full of them. (Say the title a few times fast.) And most disturbing of all, given the current relationship with her dad, there are the "Me So Horny"-imitating taboo titillations of "Mmm Papi" ("Grip me tight and don't let go... You will always be there for me/Mmm papa, love you/Mmm papa, love you").

To be sure, the music is slightly more appealing this time around. Vocal quality is never really a consideration with Spears, but at least the treatment of her robotic cooing via auto-tune, pitch correction and vocoder is slightly more subtle and less annoying. Some of the beats and hooks are harder to deny, especially on "Womanizer," the bonus track "Radar" and the shamelessly Madonna-aping "Unusual You." And only the treacly ballads "My Baby" and "Out From Under" are downright abysmal disasters.

This is faint praise for minor pop pleasures, though pleasures they undeniably are. The only obstacle to enjoying them is that they require listeners to be like the men who benefit equally from Spears' downward spirals and upward swings with little human regard or compassion. But why let a little thing like empathy ruin a night at the circus?