Mourning Becomes Britney

Nov 17th, 2008 // 8 Comments

ARTIST: Britney Spears
TITLE: Circus
WEB DEBUT: Nov. 16, 2008
RELEASE DATE: Dec. 3, 2008

ONE-LISTEN VERDICT: Welcome to middle-period Britney. I kind of figured that Circus was never going to be as good as Blackout, and the presence of a ballad in the No. 3 slot here would seem to confirm that. Sure, “Out From Under” is a pretty fantastic ballad, and one of only three on the disc. But Circus is still very different from its predecessor.

Blackout was Britney’s just-don’t-give-a-fuck album, out of time and meaning, celebrating nothing so much as pop itself. Unabashedly shallow, the lead single was “Gimme More,” a nice little summation of pop’s ethos. Now we get “Womanizer” for a lead single, setting a critique of the sexual double standard to music (as the video simultaneously undermines the message–nicely, complexly, etc., etc.). Blackout had a message song in “Piece of Me,” sure, but it felt more like a classical pop move (“Leave Me Alone,” etc.) than something “controversial.” Even the title is clearly meant to have the word “media” in front of it, but when you hear the title track, it’s actually about Britney’s position as ringmaster, controlling things. This is the album where she really takes charge of a dominant persona and tries to unseat the mother. (She even says “I’m Mommy!” in one song.) She famously made the jump from teen ingenue to sexual creature, but it was always as passive object; now she’s owning her status as an object of desire and taking the power that position has accrued. There are songs about men being tortured by her loss (“Shattered Glass”), songs about her ability to control her emotions (“Mannequin”), even a song in which she regrets having sex (“Blur”). That no one seems to have noticed this is key to its effect. We all knew what she was doing on previous albums, so it tended to come off as forced and insincere. Here, she slips into the role so easily that it’s likely we’ll accept it.

(This is all ignoring the track about her baby, “My Baby,” which kills the album’s momentum dead, but luckily it’s the last new track, preceding only a new mix (?) of “Radar.”)

THE BEST TRACK: “Blur” is very good, but the winner here is probably “If U Seek Amy,” a Max Martin track that might at first seem like a sort of cougar “I Kissed a Girl.” Once you figure out the wordplay, it reveals itself as a gender-bender, with the choruses sung from the perspective of someone wanting to eff-you-see-kay Britney, and the choruses back to her POV. The oddly orchestral music (horns, timpani, all fakey-fakey) present Britney as a kind of cabaret MC, teasing the crowd but always walking out with the cheers fully under her control.


  1. Anonymous

    Good review. I also assumed that there was no way this could be as good as Blackout, but after one brief listen-through (skipping the two ballads (I don’t count Blur as a true ballad)), I really do like it. I think it has potential to be better than Blackout in some respects. It is just lacking more bangers by Danja.

  2. CapnCalamity

    I appreciate the thoughtful review, but if you count the bland “Blur” and “If You Seek Amy” as the best tracks, you’ve obviously missed the point. The ethereal “Unusual You” is clearly the next step in Britney’s musical evolution, being immediately mature yet still electro-poppy.

    And apparently you held off listening to two of the three leaked bonus tracks, “Amnesia” and “Phonography,” which are HANDS DOWN the two best non-ballads of this era.

    I’m not sure why anyone thought “My Baby” was a good idea…a beautiful sentiment that she does a decent job of performing, but why would ANYONE besides her family want to listen to this?

    Not as good as Blackout, but half of it is really good.

  3. Mike Barthel

    @CapnCalamity: the bonus tracks are fine, but on first listen I didn’t think they were worth a mention. Maybe I’ll warm to them, though?

    You’re crazy if you think “Unusual You” is anything different, though–same sort of themes she’s been working since forever, same sort of “maturity” as on her past ballads. It’s a nice enough song, I won’t skip it or anything, but I don’t think it represents any particular evolution.

  4. CapnCalamity

    @Mike Barthel: I respectfully disagree.

    If you want to call ‘copycat’ on any Circus track, I suggest you listen — successively — to “Blur” and “Early Mornin’.”

    Regarding ballads, “From The Bottom…,” “Don’t Let Me Be…,” and “I’m Not A Girl…” were pure treacle. While “Everytime” is as complex (and her best ballad), thematically none of them approach the concept of “Unusual You:” “I can’t let myself love you because no one has ever really loved me.”

    While I agree that the theme isn’t particularly mature, I was speaking more of the production. It’s part of the lovely new wave of melancholy pop that’s been quietly spreading since Rachel Steven’s “I Will Be There” (see also: Kylie’s “I Believe In You” and Girls Aloud’s “Call The Shots”/”The Loving Kind”). Her limited vocal range does some nice (and subtle) shifting between normal and falsetto, and Bloodshy & Avant don’t let us down with one of the most perfect middle eight sections of recent memory.

    I confess I’m also partial to producers using her voice this way. She can’t belt out a song like “Out From Under” the way it deserves, and while her trademark sex kitten purr is undeniable on bangers like “Gimme More” and “Do Somethin’,” it’s the icy fragility of “Breathe On Me,” “And Then We Kiss” and “Unusual You” that really do it for me.

  5. dabug

    Hmmmm, I think Britney’s shown more self-awareness in her pre-Blackout days, albeit not as coherently or consistently. I still think her most revealing song about sex is actually “Touch of My Hand,” which, unlike songs about genuinely enjoying sex and not as just a come-on (“Naked”), is a fairly unique take on masturbation — “another night without a lover, the more I come to understand the touch of my hand.” The fact that she’s in her 20′s when she “discovers” it is a little telling, but fact remains that there just aren’t that many songs, esp. with any sort of mainstream profile, that take the subject so seriously.

  6. dabug

    *self-awareness and *control*, specifically.

  7. Anonymous

    @CapnCalamity: Oh yeah, I love Unusual You and totally see what you mean with the whole “fragility” of her voice comment. I also am really starting to love “Shattered Glass” and overall I think working with Benny Blanco was a really inspired choice.

    Oh, and Mannequin is really good, and actually has some pretty interesting (albeit hard to make out) lyrics.

  8. trapper

    anyone have any clue what “Radar” is doing on here anyway? I mean, if they were tyring to resurrect one of the lost gems off of Blackout, why not “Toy Soldier”?

    I also have to concur with the above that the two bonus tracks are standouts. Makes you wonder how they decide to label a given song as the “bonus.”

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