Don’t Call It a Comeback: Britney’s “Circus”


Britney Spears
Circus

(Jive/Zomba)
Original release:
December 2, 2008

Hey, is it possible to have two comebacks in as many years? Is that legal? Lessee: last year chucked up Blackout, Britney’s grand pop-chart return after four years of selling breathless pap to supermarket lines. Forget the tabloid kitty-swipes; Britney was back! Unfortunately, its release was tarred by a widely panned performance on the MTV Video Music Awards, brutal coverage of her continuing deterioration, and, most importantly, the fact that the general public wasn’t finished hating her. So bye-bye, Blackout.

Now Circus comes to town, hailed by its ringmasters as the Queen of Pop’s real comeback — they were just kidding with that other stuff, ha ha ha. That was the old new Britney, the loony-loop Britney, the reckless whitetrash baby momma drunkenly flashing her curtains at paparazzi on long, lost weekends Britney. The cover of Circus would have us believe that model’s been usurped by Clean & Sober Brit. Cosmetically removed is the raven-haired clubster, returned is the butter-blonde minx from Kentwood. She cutely regards us from under a feathered Farrah frame, a shoulder rolled coyly toward her cheek. Even font designers are modestly minding her reputation, concealing the curves of her breasts with the “S” and “P” of her family name.

Indeed, Circus seems to have every advantage. Cultural sentiment — that ever-fickle pocket of cheap hypocrites and vile scumbags (i.e., us) — has re-swayed in Britney’s favor after nearly five years of stomping her flat. I’m not a fan at all, but even I thought the near-relentless disparagement got way out of hand. You knew it had reached ridiculous levels of playground hysteria when even South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone became sensitive to her plight, casting her sympathetically in the unsettling “Britney’s New Look.” Oddly enough, the mockery seemed to subside after that episode, and the vultures turned their talons on fresh-meat Miley Cyrus, just as Stone and Parker prophesied. We so want to like Britney again we’re in an especially generous mood.

But herein lies the rub: Stripped from the “trainwreck” clichés and gasp-inducing headlines that nipped at its fuck-me pumps, Blackout is actually a much better, much livelier affair, trapped on the dance floor and loving every sweat-soaked swivel. Circus runs the gamut from meh to bleh (with one instance of full lunch expunge), with occasional flashes of life to keep more hopeful listeners awake. For a disc so redolent in pulse and thump, how could it have absolutely no heart?

Of all the club-bumpers rockin’ ’neath the robo big top, only first single “Womanizer” and “Kill the Lights” pound with hip-slamming fury, though the git-down layers in the latter pack a harder wallop. The title track’s absence of a calliope whirl isn’t its only disappointment; a song meant to summarize the whirlwind of her life is no more introspective than “There’s only two types of people in this world/Ones that entertain and the ones that observe/Well, baby, I’m a put-on-a-show kind of girl.” Fair enough, I suppose, but did you learn anything?

Not really, and her vacuous three-ring extravaganza is alternately frightening and tragic. The ballads are limp and lifeless and best left forgotten. “My Baby” — dedicated to, I would guess, one of her two children — is more needy than sweet, a despairing lullaby echoing down sanitarium halls. But I’m sure it’ll soundtrack many a soccer-mom slide show for years to come. Elsewhere, Brit stumbles half-naked through the warp of “Blur,” plagued by a wicked hangover and no recollection of the previous evening’s events. This is a blackout for real: “I wanna put my eyes out/If you want to mess with my eyesight/Just let me get my head right/Where the hell am I?/Who are you?/What’d we do/last night?”

She’s still playing up the yellowed baby-doll sexiness, even though at 27, with the mileage she’s accrued, its freshness is debatable. Thanks to a steady diet of whatever, her already limited range is rotting into a harsh monotonal bark destined to send most guys, even the desperate ones, screaming for the exits. The embarrassing “Mmm Papi” is the sonic equivalent of waking up on a city bus to a scab-kneed club rat, crack-freak dentures clutched in a dirty fist, sucking on your cock. “Let’s make out!” “Ooo, papi!” Ick!

Dollops of “oh bay-buh, bay-buh” in “If U Seek Amy” (say it fast) are meant to trigger pleasant “…Baby One More Time” nostalgia in an adulthood beyond schoolyard crushes; instead they dribble like vodka-slurp at last call. More wordplay abounds in the bonus track “Phonography,” but anyone looking for a scathing indictment of the recording industry’s effect on impressionable young women should remember that Britney’s incapable of such insight. What you get instead for that pun is a buzzing pant about cell plans and Bluetooth booty calls when your mojo’s blocked by schedules and geography. Ain’t technology grand?

Call it a comeback, if you must persist in kidding yourself. Airbrush out the ugliness and scars, give us the shallow Dr. Phil quickie of a girl who’s overcome her demons and is back on her game. It’s the clean resolution we want, but it’s bullshit. Take away her luster and shine, and the new Britney remains a broken young woman who needs real help. Sales won’t vindicate her, awards and adulation can’t save her, and successful marketing won’t cure her deep-rooted ills. For a circus, this is no fun at all.

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