Only a year after a cataclysmic meltdown and her subsequent album “Blackout,” Britney Spears has unveiled her next album, “Circus” on her 27th birthday. First off, before I get into details, it’s excellent to see that Britney seems to be making her way back to a healthier life. She seems to be in a much better place this year than she was this time last year. It can’t be easy when you are being constantly attacked by the tabloid “journalists” looking to catch you falling apart. That being said, one would hope such a return from the brink of existential crisis would produce better music. No such luck.
Britney is still a hollow presence. She still is an empty pop shell with nothing on the inside of any sort of redeeming entertaining value. Everything seems so bloodless and cold. This is the worst that our popular culture has to offer. It’s an elaborate example of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Am I the only voice willing to say that we as an audience deserve better? Is this just a sign that we’ve really gone downhill in what we expect of our singers? It would be one thing if she couldn’t really sing but was a dynamic writer. She is neither a great singer nor a compelling songwriter. More than most people, Britney seems propped up by a PR machine. There’s nothing genuine or exciting about what she brings to the table. She’s all about what I like to call “the vacant spectacle.” Naming her album, “Circus” only drives this point home further. Again, this most likely isn’t her fault, because she’s seemingly more of an engineered product than anything else. She’s not famous for her talent. It would be nice if she attempted a full-on sincere artistic statement where all the computerized vocal effects were dropped. Odds are, however, if she attempted such a thing, it would be disastrous. She will never have the sassy spunk, vocal ability or credibility of someone like Pink. Pink never seems like she isn’t in control of everything she’s doing. You look at Britney whether in her performances or her musical output and it’s very robotic.
As the years have passed, Britney’s songs have gotten less melodic and more like digital chants. If you compare her breakout single, “…Baby One More Time” to the “Circus” opener, “Womanizer,” they are completely at different ends of the spectrum. Whether you love it or hate it, you can’t deny that “…Baby One More Time” is insanely catchy. Fountains of Wayne and the band Travis have both recorded covers, proving the song’s versatility. “Womanizer,” on the other hand is a mess which isn’t even worth humming. It plays like a duller answer to her song “Toxic.” It’s a struggle to get through the whole track. It’s a menacing, grating monstrosity. My guess is that it’s only gone anywhere as a single because of its steamy video. Steamy may actually be the wrong word. It’s actually more desperate than anything. In he “director’s cut” found on Britney’s youtube channel, cuts of her lying naked are inter-cut with her dressed in business attire scolding a male model for his “womanizing” ways. Britney and her machine have obviously realized that if we see enough of Britney’s skin, we will be so distracted that we won’t notice that this is a truly horrible song. Sex for sex’s sake is sometimes not all that sexy. Ability and intelligence can be quite sexy and this display shows very little of either. It’s all shock with no quality payoff.
Much to my amazement, there’s a little improvement on the title track. Suddenly there’s a resurgence of melody. Her voice sounds still really treated and it’s got that old sugar-shocked teen-pop feeling. Her lyrics bring to mind her tabloid-target life as she sings “All eyes on me in the center of the ring just like a circus.” The thing is, by singing about this, one could argue that she’s feeding into the madness and adding to the cycle. After her song, “Piece of Me,” it becomes rather tired. She also isn’t a listed among the songwriters on the track, so once again authenticity comes into play. Much like on many of the tracks on “Blackout,” a slowed-down vocal effect becomes a distraction.
“Out From Under” is a surprising stab at a ballad. She’s drenched in so much echo here, she sounds like she’s floating. It’s an argument where her voice ends and the effects begin. If this track sounds good, it’s only because it’s produced by Frou Frou’s Guy Sigsworth. He obviously needs to get back together with Imogen Heap and record another album rather than slum it on tracks like this. He was last behind the boards for Alanis Morissette’s “Flavors of Entanglement.” He’s used to working with real artists. It’s surprising he would work with Spears even considering his past work with Madonna.
After a brief glimmer of hope, everything is once again brought down with the truly terrible “Kill the Lights.” Producer Danja, fills the track with feaux sass and attitude. The way Britney says “Mr. Photographer, I think I’m ready for my close-up” is downright nauseating. The vocal effects are stronger her making her once again sound very robotic. The hook is shouted irritatingly and the whole track disappoints. It takes dance-pop clichés to new irksome levels.
“Shattered Glass” again recalls the robotic electro-sound feel of “Blackout.” Britney’s voice sounds more alive here, but even the dose of melody can’t save this track. It’s obviously from an assembly line of songs.
“If U Seek Amy” is a suggestive language game. “All the boys and all the girls are begging to if you seek Amy.” (Get it? Say it. It’s all a cheeky sexual reference! How droll that Britney is! YAWN!!!) Sure, Britney’s newly awake-again vocal style bests the deadly-droid performance on “Blackout,” but in all it still seems like a rather lack-luster show. These songs all sound the same. She’s back to her old self in many ways, but her old self didn’t quite cut it. Once again, she seems truly artificial. Could she handle these songs with stripped down arrangements and no vocal effects? More importantly, would anyone want to hear her attempt such a performance? Does it matter? No. The focus is still image over substance.
“Usual You” finds Britney backed by a synth wall. The song sounds half decent, but it’s once again an argument where her voice ends and the effects begin. Performed by a better vocalist (like the before mentioned Imogen Heap) this song might be better. The arrangement is slightly intriguing except for the basic pounding dance beat. Once again, Britney sounds too robotic but this song is almost salvageable.
“Blur” takes a trippy pop beat and finds Britney describing a lost night. (Ironically a “Blackout,” if you will.) “Can’t remember what I did last night” she sings backed by some interesting synth-work. If this track works even slightly, it’s not because of Britney. She spends the majority of the track singing in a strangely forced R&B-flavored tone. It doesn’t suit her. She’s never been a strong vocalist and she still can’t pull it off.
Britney finally gets a co-writing credit on “Mmm Papi.” It’s a go-go workout which once again would almost work if Britney didn’t sing in such an annoying, affected manner. As an album, “Circus” seems to be developing a pattern. These songs’ worst enemy seems to be Spears herself. Why is this? It’s either she and her producers don’t know any better or they just don’t care. Maybe somewhere in the Jive offices there’s someone laughing at what has been spoon-fed to the kids. Once again, as listeners we deserve better. This music is not of high quality.
“Mannequin” is a return to the effect-laden sounds of “Blackout.” Like “Womanizer,” this song sounds tuneless and just lost in effects. Someone really must be laughing all the way to the bank on this one. It’s digitally-fueled junk. Britney is a co-writer of this track but it should’ve remained on the B-side pile.
The slap-bass driven, “Lace and Leather” begins interestingly enough and Britney even manages not to botch the verses, but the song takes a cheese-ball turn in the chorus, effectively ruining the song.
Sigsworth returns with “My Baby,” a song he co-wrote with Spears. It’s a rather insipid and bland ballad thanks to Britney’s forced delivery. Again, Sigsworth’s details are interesting, but Britney sinks the track.
For unknown reasons, as a bonus track, we get a re-worked version of the “Blackout” track, “Radar.” I didn’t like it the first time and I definitely don’t like it now. Spears still sounds like she’s saying “Oh My Raida” when she’s actually saying “On My Radar.” It’s still an annoying song.
Yes, “Circus” is an ever-so-slightly better album than “Blackout,” but Spears still is a flimsy performer. It just so happened that this time around she managed to get slightly better material from her writers. It helps that she’s in a better position in her life. “Blackout” was a real downer of a record in multiple ways. This record is brighter and livelier, but it still too often plays to the worst side of pop. Although she’s more alive here than on “Blackout,” she still hasn’t proven herself as a separate entity from her producers. Take away all the effects and the support they give her and she’d be lost. This kind of propped-up pop needs to be put to a stop.
My guess is that this will be an accepted genre and the kids will continue to accept being deceived by vocal effects, backing tracks and other such nifty gadgetry until the next Nirvana comes through and steamrolls it down. Much like Kurt Cobain simultaneously killed hair-metal and teen pop in one blow back in the early nineties, we need to find our next musical savior soon. The way pop music is going with digitized voices and little authentic innovation, time just might be about to run out.