Mourning Becomes Britney

ARTIST: Britney SpearsTITLE: CircusWEB DEBUT: Nov. 16, 2008RELEASE 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.