She's Back, Bitches

By David Michael Conner

Originally published on Advocate.com November 30 2008 1:00 AM ET

Britney Spears is
a perennial favorite of the type that chases ambulances
-- not for the potential lawsuits, but just to get a
glimpse of the tragedy inside. Beginning with her
disgraceful public breakup with Justin Timberlake, the
world has watched Spears's career as she careens through
the Hollywood hills, frapp in one hand, cigarette in the
other, with K-Fed’s baby cooing away in her
lap, unshielded from imminent disaster. She is a
living legend: What starlet before her was so public about
her madness -- flashing her naughty bits for the paps,
shaving her head, losing custody of her children
before regaining visitation rights only to lose them
again -- and on and on.

But what is it
about the troubled star, who has openly spoken in favor of
George Bush, that makes her a darling of gays? Does she
thrive on self-perpetuated scandal alone, or is there
more to her iconic standing?

On her new album,
Circus, Spears begins -- finally -- to justify
some of the idol worship that legions of gay fanboys
have heaped upon her image.

Oops! She Made Good Music (Again)

Circus is a strong follow-up to her first
legitimate album. Released in 2007, that album -- named
Blackout as a bold and unironic statement during
the apex of her self-abusive phase -- collaged together
snippets of Spears’s robotic-sounding vocals
and pasted them over truly great dance tracks. The
Washington Post
named Blackout one of the
best albums of 2006. Circus may prove to be one of
the best of 2008. Certainly, it is the best of Britney
Spears to date.

What makes
Circus a standout is that it succeeds not in
spite of Spears’s weak vocals; contrary to all
reasonable expectations, the fractured starlet on this
album comes across as a rising, not falling, star.

The
album’s first single, “Womanizer,” is
typical Spears. Like “Toxic,” it cuts
and pastes Britney’s nasal performance into a track
so carefully frantic that you don’t think about
it -- you just move to it. It’s
inconsequential, just as you would expect of Britney -- or,
really, of most popular music singles that make it to
the radio.

But
there’s more to Circus. The title track,
which is placed second, really kicks off the album. On it,
Britney is the self-professed ringleader. “I
call the shots,” she sings. Yeah, right,
Britney. Sure you do.


The Superstar Underdog

Even if Britney
is not the mastermind of the album, she maintains a
strong presence on every song, which wasn’t the case
on Blackout and certainly never before that album.
Part of Spears’s allure may be her lack of autonomy.
She has been compared to Madonna, but Madge
is famous mostly for her strength, not her failings or
vulnerability. Both may croon about their love of
dancing, but any control that Britney’s image has
ever involved was granted to her, not owned. How many
of us have felt that way? If Madonna is the self-made
diva some part of my gay psyche aspires to be, then
Britney is the broken doll that makes itself known on to me
on a more regular basis. Britney succeeds in spite of
herself -- the same way I survived high school.

But no.
It’s time to give Britney long-overdue credit. It is
often said that she can’t sing, but attentive
producers have shown time and again that her trademark
nasal whisper is capable of attaining a couple of
sweetly touching notes that trump Madonna’s
consistently capable but never truly evocative voice.

Don’t get
me wrong. On her own, Spears would not be capable of making
beautiful music. But "Out From Under" is a sigh of a song
that makes Spears sound like a vulnerable, passionate
half-robot, half-woman -- a sort of Pixar character
whose highly publicized masochism only proves that she
is in fact real. And the song’s lyrics are intimately
relatable, if not the most unexpected from a young pop star:

And my eyes see it all so clear It was long
ago and far away, but it never disappears Try
to put it in the past Hold onto myself and
not look back I don't want to dream about all
the things that never were And maybe I could
live without when I'm out from under I don't
want to feel the pain What good would it do
me now? I'll get it all figured out
When I'm out from under

Though Spears's
strength is dance-pop, she has issued perhaps her most
effective performance, emotionally and vocally, in the form
of the mid-tempo song "Unusual You." The song, which
opens with "Nothing about you is typical / Nothing
about you's predictable," is urgent, with heavy guitar
and aggressive percussion. Though the sound would be
familiar terrain in the neighborhood of Kylie Minogue,
Britney makes more of it than Kylie would.
Brit’s intonation feels at once apathetic and
dire. And then she reaches the chorus, and it almost breaks
your heart:

Hey baby you're so unusual Didn't anyone tell
you you're supposed to break my heart? I
expect you to So why haven't you?
Baby, you're not even human 'cause Only an
angel could be so unusual A sweet surprise I
could get used to, unusual you


Unusual Britney

What's "unusual"
in the song is that its subject can be counted on not
to exploit, disappoint, or give up on the singer. On the
page, the idea may feel overdone, but all the
disparate elements of the song come together to reveal
what one could imagine as the crux of Spears's real
personal troubles. Implied is the idea that she has had many
experiences with many men but has never made a real
connection based on trust or what others call love.
Manhunt much?

No one likes to
think of the rich, famous, and beautiful as victims,
especially when some of them so seemingly make their own
lives hell for attention. That's one thing that makes
this album such a triumph: Spears doesn't come across
as desperate for anything, least of all your pity. She
is the ringleader here, even if only by virtue of her
one-of-a-kind performance and the baggage of her
persona. Everyone sees her as a flamboyant head case,
an undeservingly successful second-class citizen who
brazenly staggers on a tightrope with no net.

She’s
living the way you are.

Or maybe
I’m just speaking for myself.

While
Circus features great (“Unusual You,”
the disco-’80s “Shattered
Glass”), good (“Blur,” “Out from
Under,” “Circus,” “Kill the
Lights”), puzzling (“If U Seek Amy”
could be about Britney’s second personality --
or possibly even Lindsay Lohan?), and standard fare
(“Womanizer,” “My Baby”),
nothing about it approaches bad. Compare this track
list with anything Spears's name was tagged to before
Blackout, and ... well, there is no comparison.
The album is resistant (with the exception of "My Baby,"
which may be excusable) to self-indulgence.

Britney Spears Is No Christina Aguilera (Thank God)

It is hard to
imagine the vocally superior Christina Aguilera presenting
such mature music, and yet Aguilera gets all the credit.
Why? Ten years ago, it was clear that Aguilera's voice
made her a preternatural star, in league with Whitney,
Mariah, and Céline. But as Aguilera ages, all she
does is try on different costumes; she remains consistently
intoxicated with the expansiveness and volume of her
own voice, and her songs have become sickeningly
self-celebratory.

Could it be that
Britney Spears is emerging as an artist, outperforming
those who had a clear lock on musical superiority ages ago?
To paraphrase Aguilera, even though my mind says hellz
no! my heart says yes. And isn’t that what
music is all about?