Release Date: Dec 2, 2008
Record label: Jive
Genre(s): Rock, Dance, Pop
Britney Spears is making a habit of putting out albums with titles that promise more self-revelation than she’s ultimately able to provide. Last fall, she released Blackout…which turned out not to have anything to do with experiencing blackouts. This year, it’s Circus, with a title track that’s not about the madhouse her life has become but just a brag about her prowess as a whip-cracking sexual ringmaster.
"Kill the Lights" may be exceptional, one of Britney's best-ever singles, but it also doesn't have much competition here: it's one of a handful of tracks that follow through on Blackout, while the rest of Circus plays it safe, never hitting the beats hard enough to alienate a pop audience but perhaps layering on a bit too much saccharine for dance fans. It's careful and considered, right down to the single-entendre "If U Seek Amy," a Katy Perry-styled exercise in crass commercial carnality that is at once the best and worst song here. Best because Max Martin once again works his undeniable pop magic, turning this into a trashy stomper that feels inevitable and eternal, working against any sense of taste or decorum, something that the lyrics work overtime to undercut as they insist that all the boys and all the girls still want to F, U.
The last time Britney Spears released an album, barely 12 months ago, there understandably wasn't much promotional activity: the singer was too busy yo-yoing in and out of rehab units and psychiatric wards to give interviews. Nevertheless, she was still afforded a Rolling Stone cover feature, meticulously detailing what it called "the most public downfall of any star in history". Perhaps the most startling of its revelations was that, in the midst of all the mayhem, Spears appeared to be having fun.
The allusion in the album title is too obvious to ignore: Circus = media circus, or the swarm of photographers, journalists, television producers, music critics (hello!) and Wikipedia editors that have been keeping track of Britney Spears’ every move. It’s no small wonder, then, that her 27-year-old life gives the impression of a diamond-studded roller coaster. We know more about Britney than we do about our second cousins, following her through multi-platinum album sales, video awards ceremonies, high-profile relationships, high-profile breakups, child custody battles, rehab stints, psychological meltdowns, and one very shaved head.
I suppose the question about Britney's career that Circus answers is this: Is it possible for Britney to return to her top "Drive Me Crazy," "Toxic" form as pop's most successful blank slate? The answer is no, probably not. Why? Because it's impossible to listen to Britney Spears without thinking about the personal troubles that have dominated her media coverage since 2006. It's been said of Britney Spears that she exists as an idea, but the flesh-and-blood Britney Spears came bursting through the surface of that idea a few years ago when she shaved her head and attacked a car with an umbrella.
As the album's title so baldly suggests, it seems we're all supposed to have this infinitely lingering fascination with Britney Spears and her ridiculous/depressing spectacle of an existence. But that would involve overlooking the fact that the singer is almost incidental to the music she's famous for. On what should be her redemptive "back from the brink" album, Spears is immersed in an often trite, intensely narcissistic look at her existence, crafted almost entirely by songwriters other than herself.