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. Maybe a more important question is do Spears and the record executives and producers who handle her want to return to that wide-eyed, open-legged ingénue image? Likely answered by the "It's Britney, bitch," that opened Blackout's first single, "Gimme More," the response is a resounding no.
Unfortunately, Circus doesn't tell us how we're supposed to think about Spears. Who cares, you might say. Are the songs any good, isn't that what matters? Ultimately, that is what matters, but ever since Britney Spears sauntered onto the scene in 1998 as a 16-year-old in a school girl's outfit, and in 2003 denied ever considering the sexual aspect of her portrayal, even after she made out with Madonna on live television, image has determined and controlled Spears music. Lack of a cohesive image for Spears means lack of cohesive output, and that's what Circus is.
Blackout seemed like it signaled a more club-orientated path for Spears, like Madonna or Kylie Minogue, but Circus is a hodgepodge of pop themes that never really finds a face. It starts with club-ready "Womanizer," which is probably the best song on the album, then collapses into 12 standard pop songs that seem to have nothing to do with the first. These include two predictably awful ballads, the surprisingly good "Kill the Lights" and "Lace and Leather," some OK filler, and some pretty terrible filler. If anything exposes the incoherence of this album, it's the embarrassing "If You Seek Amy," which relies entirely on a scandalous verbal gimmick that won't scandalize anyone over the age of eight. Exhibit A: "Love me/ Hate me/ Say what you want about me/ But all of the boys and all of the girls are begging to if you seek Amy." You'd think that seeing that written out on paper would've shamed the songwriters so deeply they'd put out their eyes, but maybe they never wrote it down.
What are we supposed to think? Is Britney the man-weary club diva of "Womanzier?" Is she the s&m embracing vixen of "Lace and Leather?" Is she the playdate-arranging, gerber-spooning mama of "My Baby?" Those first two might go together, but the third certainly doesn't. Spears needs to get over her "not a teen pop star, not yet a mature performer" phase and find herself before she succumbs to the same middle-of-the-road limbo as her more talented late-'90s teen-pop compatriot, Christina Aguilera. Christina who, you say? Christina Aguilera, the chick with Lady Gaga's haircut who's in the Target commercials. That Christina Aguilera.
In case you might have been living on that island from Lost, Britney Spears is trying to emerge from a particularly nasty series of career setbacks that would have buried many artists. Blackout proved she wasn't a charity case, but a strong showing from Circus can go a long way to regaining lost ground and putting Ms. Spears back on top of the pop heap. To insure success, Spears has laid down tracks with everyone from Sean Garrett, Lil Jon and Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins to Lady Gaga. The first single from Circus, "Womanizer" was produced by The Outsyders.