Before the New York Times documentary about her legal and financial – and by implication, mental and emotional – state blew up two decades of narratives, the Britney Spears story had long been a tale of different guesses or assumptions.
Was it independence cruelled or the machine showing care? Alleged parental malfeasance or safety assured? An artist in control or a puppet of others? Real or fake?
In 2008, when her sixth album was released, we were asking those questions, and judging, and wishing, and believing. And getting things wrong.
This review sat amidst it all, and wondered about the Brand and the person.
Circus (Sony BMG)
Britney Spears is rather remarkable.
Last year's album, Blackout, was made in the midst of a very public meltdown where a kind of wacky madness seemed the most charitable expectation but complete personal and professional disaster looked the most likely. And yet, Blackout had enough straight out successful/attractive bits of electro pop music to justify her place in the (admittedly debased) marketplace.
Yes, those good bits of pop music had it seemed very little direct connection with the woman Britney Spears: her vocals were disembodied and impersonal; the self-referential lyrics were written by others; the music was as ever the product of hired-hand writer/producers.
But the brand Britney Spears was revived. And that's what counts.
Circus builds the brand further. Whether you believe it or not, the Spears it presents is the one in control ("There’s only two types of people in the world/The ones that entertain, and the ones that observe … I’m like the ringleader/I call the shots”).
She’s marginally less bitter about the rigmarole around her ("All the flashing, trying to cash in, hurts my eyes/All the poses, out of focus, I despise/Eff me over, your exposure, not the best/You want me bad, I want you out, release this stress”).
And sexual but less strident than on Blackout (“all the boys and all the girls are begging to f.u.c.k. me,” she quite literally spells out).
I'm not sure that she is any more involved in this album than on Blackout, though she is credited with co-writing the mawkishly sticky/rather awful My Baby (written about one of her children). Once again almost every song has her voice auto tuned up the wazoo, the resulting tone robotic and occasionally like someone singing through a kazoo.
But hey, if it's good enough for Kanye West …
Musically there are fewer of those wildly speculative moves which made Blackout odd but also enjoyable. It’s not without hooky and some spooky moments though, including one good ballad in Unusual You.
Womanizer has some of Christina Aguilera’s half ‘40s swing/half ‘90s club and a chorus which hammers itself into your head, Lace And Leather takes a Chic bass and marries it to schoolgirl trampiness, and the title track is the obligatory Madonna moment.
The oddest turn is the blend of nursery rhyme and ‘60s vamp, Mmm Papi, whose squeals and exclamations suggests a fondness for her father that is, well, worrying if it’s even half serious.
But then that would be the woman Britney. Brand Britney has no qualms.