Britney Spears: Circus – pop CD review
Her life has been a 21st century version of greasepaints and spot lights, a three ring media circus in which she has been both beautiful high wire star and tragic clown (but never, one suspects, the ringmaster).
Her very public breakdown made for an unedifying yet compelling spectacle, as the former Mickey Mouse starlet visibly melted under the glare of the lights, while the paparazzi slavered. She put her head in the lion’s mouth and came out bald and deranged.
Yet the old showbusiness axiom that bad news is better than no news seemed to hold horribly true. Psychiatric problems, weight issues, divorce, driving offences, the loss of custody of her children, the loss of control of her own financial affairs (to her father) and a frankly second rate, auto-tuned and dialled in album (last year’s dismal ‘Blackout’) failed to put her in the bargain bin. Indeed, the Britney brand was so strong, the more she put it at risk, the more fascinated the public became, perhaps because we actually got a glimpse of the real person beneath the machine-built pop babe.
‘Circus’ has been touted as the return of the super trouper, as a freshly aerobicised Britney gets her career back on track. With its simplistic yet relentless hookline and borderline pornographic video, lead track ‘Womanizer’ put Spears on the top of the charts. The album should continue the momentum: it’s packed with gimmicky pop, yet somehow sweeter and more subtle than the sexually aggressive ‘Blackout’.
But for all its slick electro grooves (provided by the best production teams her record company can buy), the real Britney remains very tangibly at the centre, and it is not always a pretty sight.
Where Britney’s teen pop was imbued with a kind of candy floss excitement, a hormonal joy in the freedom to dance and flirt, Circus is paranoid, defensive, angry and aggressive, shot through with self-pity. Song titles like ‘Mannequin’ and ‘Shattered Glass’ are explicit in their sense of entrapment, but there is a strong dose of self loathing in her relationship with fame. On paparazzi-baiting ‘Kill The Lights’, she snaps over a glam stomp: “you don’t like me, I don’t like you either, it don’t matter. I think I’m ready for my close-up’.
To the clockwork synth stomp of ‘If U Seek Amy’ (which, sung fast, becomes ‘If you’re sick of me’, or is it ‘Eff, you, see, kay me?’) she presumably deliberately hints at the crash-and-burn image of Amy Winehouse, while singing “love me, hate me” and crafting a hookline out of manic laughter (“ha ha hee hee ha ha ho!”). It’s not something I would want to play as a character reference to a psychological review board.
Spears’s deep ambivalence towards her stardom (which she recently described as “worse than prison”) extends to the packaging. On the front cover, she plays to type as a kitsch, soft-focus, airbrushed blonde princess, but the images of her in various circus roles throughout the CD booklet grow progressively more off-kilter and disturbing. On the back, an over-made up figure reclines in gaudy costume, laughing crazily, while a dwarf clown hands her a gaudy birthday cake. This is David Lynch territory, where Spears is trying to have her cake and eat it.
In the fiercely competitive manufactured pop world, you are only as good as your production team. Established hitmakers including Bloodshy and Avant, Max Martin and Dr Luke create some quite boldly weird electro R’n'B tracks that help distinguish Britney from the guitary power pop that seems to be the prevailing trend amongst US starlets from Avril Lavigne to Katy Perry.
Revealingly, however, they don’t trust her to sing. Her vocals are liberally doused in robotic effects throughout, which make everything slightly mechanical and uniform. Only British producer Guy Sigsworth (sometime Bjork and Madonna collaborator) turns off the Autotune for a tender, sentimental ballad, ‘My Baby’, which reveals Spears to have a fragile, thin tone that is weak yet genuinely human and affecting.
Another Sigsworth production, ‘Out From Under’, is a lovely, understated ballad of escape, while the sweetly bewildered ‘Unusual You’ has Britney expressing her amazement at a lover who is kind to her (“Didn’t anyone tell you / You’re supposed to break my heart?’).
But for every such subdued and touching moment, you get a blast of almost psychotically upbeat plastic pop, such as ‘Mmm Papi’, a bonkers go-go tribute to parental devotion that is so over-the-top it is either sarcastic or borderline incestuous, with a cheerleader chant of ‘Mmm papa, love you!”
‘Circus’ is overlong, and overstuffed with gimmicks, but it is still a much better album than anyone had a right to expect from the persecuted star. The pop grooves are nimble and sleek, the ballads understated and touching, the electro ambience modern and strange, the packaging witty and seductive.
Yet it is the strain between these surface pleasures and Britney’s psychological torment that actually makes it interesting. The overwhelming impression is of a woman incarcerated in an asylum, playing a game to convince onlookers of her sanity. The cracks are clearly visible beneath the forced smile.