I root for Britney Spears. It’s there in print. I cringed as the world seemed to exploit her mental and emotional breakdown to garner readership, pointed and made fun of her for her missteps and more pointedly, never left her alone. Her last release, Blackout, was widely seen as smartly self-referential yet how much was it, really? It was recorded during the height of her breakdown and largely written by others (as have many of her other songs), so I don’t know if self-referential is the right word. Instead Blackout was an uncomfortable study of a lost young woman shuttling through different personas: the diva, the girl next door and the hypersexual nymphet.
It’s hard not to give into the allusion her latest album seems to present: Circus – media circus? Her entire career has arguably been made on the media fascination with her every move and though sometimes vicious [see South Park‘s telling episode “Britney’s New Look”], Britney’s success thrives on the very coverage that seemed to be doing her harm. She’s in a precarious position of needing the fame and attention yet possibly being destroyed by it. While the coverage of her breakdown was overblown and intrusive, it did show just how real Britney is.
Or was, actually. On Circus, Britney is yet again the alluring pop puppet that she always was. Nearly devoid of any real indication of what she has gone through, Circus is another pop record of bouncy dance tracks and delicate ballads. Britney is arguably more present here than she was on Blackout, and Circus is hardly self-referential and just a touch self-aware. She’s no auteur and I don’t expect anything akin to Rid of Me to come out of Britney anytime soon, but part of me wishes she could come out with something more jarring and risky, if anything to just hear her voice.
This is not to say that Circus isn’t a perfectly good pop album. If I said that I haven’t been singing along to “Womanizer,” I’d be a liar. Infectious to a tilt, “Womanizer” is filled with surging and pulsing electronic arrangements and Britney coos just as she did in her other great single, “Toxic.” Bonus track “Radar” is classic sensual Britney with sparse synth notes sounding eerily like The Knife. “Shattered Glass” is dancefloor ready and just a little cheesy, like all good pop songs and Britney manages to not say `glass’ but rather, `glah-ee-ass.’
The title track slyly points to the media and her life as a performer as she sings: “there’s two types of people in this world/ the ones that entertain, and the ones that observe/ well, baby I’m a put on a show kind of girl.” Yet as close as it gets to actually being about her media spotlight, it turns out “Circus” is just about her prowess as a sexual ringmaster. Tracks like “Circus” pale in comparison to the songs that actually address her position in the media circus. “If U Seek Amy” and “Kill the Lights” brazenly attack the paparazzi, even coyly asking photographers “is that money in your pocket or are you pleased to see me?” in the latter. The Danja-produced “Blur” mines R&B slow jams as Britney sings about blacking out. Whether or not it was about her state of mind earlier this year or just about a night of partying, “Blur” is still one of Britney’s best slow songs.
Britney Spears’ music is a product of a well-oiled machine of songwriters and producers and she’s really only as good as they are. Circus is in good hands with Timbaland protégé Danja, Dr. Luke, Max Martin, and former Frou Frou producer Guy Sigisworth. The album is guided by a strong hand with few actual missteps (though the inane “Mmm Papi” could have gotten the cut), yet it’s hard to shake this image of Britney being propped up yet again. There’s nothing wrong with being a pop superstar yet perhaps Britney could take a few lessons from Madonna and have a stronger hand in her own music. Right now Britney is still a voice with a lot of production modification with lyrics that barely scratch the surface. For all that we may know of Britney through media coverage, there’s still very little of her in the music. As a performer, she’s back on her game but perhaps it’s time for Britney to unveil a little bit more of herself in the music.
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