How Bad Can It Be?: Britney Spears, “Circus”

Written by How Bad Can It Be?, Music

What’s weird about the discourse surrounding popular culture is how quickly it becomes self-reflexive. That is, it becomes possible to engage in the discussion as an end in itself, without any reference to the work. I’ve read thousands of words about both Bitches Brew and Metal Machine Music, for instance — absorbing and synthesizing the competing points of view — and yet I’ve never heard a note of either record.  (We can help you with the latter, Jack, whenever you’re ready — Ed.)

That’s because I’m a big ol’ music nerd, of course. But the same thing happens, on an even bigger scale, with huge overground pop success; you can’t avoid the press, but you can avoid the product — usually without even trying. I’ve probably read tens of thousands of words about Britney Spears, and I’ve never intentionally listened to a Britney Spears song. Oh, I’ve been near a radio when her hits were playing, I’m sure, and I once sat through the video for “Toxic.” But simply by being an American media consumer, I’ve been exposed to a ridiculous amount of gossip, criticism, and analysis of this woman and her career, all while having only the vaguest idea of how her music sounds.

That’s okay, because Britney is mostly an extramusical phenomenon. In her personal and professional ascent and self-destruction she’s become a flashpoint for ideas about branding, commodification, and exploitation; the music has been largely beside the point. When the songs themselves come up at all, there’s usually some attempt to glean her state of mind from the lyrics — which, of course, she doesn’t write. You can’t blame the culture critics, really. They’re trying to analyze Britney’s music and private life — and the intersection thereof — with the only toolset they’ve got, the same one they’d use for, say, Bob Dylan. But while Britney and Bob are both nominally pop acts, they’re really not doing the same thing at all.

Britney Spears, the person, is the frontwoman for “Britney Spears,” the dance-pop act. It’s a performance role, but also a curatorial one. On the one hand, her various songwriters and producers shape her sound; on the other, she’s taking their work and stamping it with the Britney Brand, for good and for ill.

I have neither the time nor the cultural-studies chops to analyze Britney as a cultural force or a personality; all I want to do today is — for once — just listen to one of her records and talk about the songs.

The disc is her most recent, Circus, which may or may not be her first post-baby, post-crazy record; I can’t be bothered to check. Opens, as is usual, with the first single, an electro-stomper called “Womanizer.” The intro sounds a little like the theme song to “Invader Zim” (download), but it resolves into a competent slice of Euro-style techno. Britney hasn’t got much in the way of pipes; for this kind of music, that shouldn’t matter, but her vocals are pushed needlessly high. A good remix would do wonders for this, I think.

Then there’s a little fillip in the lyrics, red meat for the cult-studs kids: “You say I’m crazy? / I got your crazy.” It’s too obvious to be really revelatory — another self-conscious bit of brand-building. The first half of Circus has a lot of that — songs about media saturation, paparazzi, and declarations of identity in a world without privacy. But you’ll find the same sentiments on the latest Linkin Park record, too; it doesn’t tell us anything about Britney specifically, but a lot about the pop music environment.

It’s hard to assess the songwriting, because tracks like the title cut and “Kill the Lights” that are less “songs” per se than demo reels for all the things ProTools can do to the human voice. Everything is blown out to ridiculous levels, with Britney’s natural breathiness pumped up until it sounds like a whisper in a wind tunnel. It’s absolutely state-of-the-art, which means it already sounded dated the moment the record hit the shops, and within six months it’s going to sound downright embarrassing.

That’s not all down to the production, though. Britney affects a nasal snarl when she wants to project “sexiness” (and also “blackness” — but the racial politics of this record are a whole ‘nother essay), and it quickly becomes off-putting. I’ll admit that I initially missed the “naughty” wordplay of “If U Seek Amy” (download), simply because the song sounds so brutally unsexy. It’s a left-right cadence with a modal melody, somewhere between “Johnny Comes Marching Home” and morning calisthenics in a Turkish military camp; and it’s about as erotic as a boot to the face. If this is what F-U-C-K-ing sounds like it Britney’s world, no wonder the poor girl is screwed up.

Damn it. I said I wasn’t going to go looking for clues to Britney’s personal life in her songs, didn’t I? Man, this is harder than I thought.

The ballads break things up, and they work pretty well. Britney wisely undersings “Out From Under,” turning the fragility of her voice into an asset; pity the song itself is dull and underdeveloped. “Unusual You” is quite a bit better, written in classic torch-song mode with a sharp lyrical conceit: “Didn’t anybody tell you you’re supposed to break my heart?” It’s not exactly Rodgers and Hart, but it’s an interesting feint in the direction of Tin Pan Alley-style writing — and Britney surprised me by selling the hell out of it.

Elsewhere, though, songs are trotted out, spin their wheels for three or four minutes, then end abruptly without ever really going anywhere. Sometimes it’s forgettable, sometimes it’s downright weird—as on “Blur,” (download) which lays out a date-rape scenario and then leaves it hanging there. By refusing to be either regretful or angry, it’s more disturbing than any Tori Amos song.

The disc wraps up with one last ballad, “My Baby.” Britney’s listed as a co-writer, and one level it’s just as cringe-worthy as it sounds — a litany of clichés, a besotted mother singing to her child. But it’s also about the only moving moment on Circus. With a gentle, unaffected vocal, it strips away all the poses of sex and defiance, all the glitz and squalor, and gives us the core of emotional truth at the center of this woman-child so soon thrust into the…

…oops, I did it again. Damn it.