New Spears effort is a gooey, glittery grab bag

critical eye music

November 30, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

There's probably little Britney Spears can do to reverse the damage done to her image. The glorious, teasingly sexy bubble in which she floated a decade ago has long since burst. Her madhouse life, as covered by the ravenous pop press, has all but obliterated Spears' relevance as a recording star.

Last year was especially rough for the former teen-pop phenom. Not long after her fumbling lip-sync performance of "Gimme More" on the MTV Video Music Awards, she was institutionalized and lost custody of her baby boys.

With the near-constant coverage of Spears' very public meltdown, her bleak but interesting 2007 album, Blackout, was pushed way into the background. A year later, she's slimmer and looking less detached. Apparently, she's also ready to jump back in the pop game with Circus, her new album, which is due in stores Tuesday.

The title is a not-so-subtle metaphor for the recent state of her personal life, the perils of which have fueled tabloids and blogs for the better part of three years now.

"If Britney put her own dirt in her own magazine, she'd make a killing," says Shire (pronounced Sha-ray), a Baltimore urban-pop singer whose debut, Pickin Up the Pieces, will be released next summer by Universal Records. The Underdogs, the same producers that contributed to Circus, are also working with Shire. "It's the reality-TV life we're living in now. People are more interested in your personal life. If you're Britney Spears, the music doesn't seem to matter anymore," she says.

Though not a monster seller like Spears' previous releases, Blackout still managed to produce two platinum singles: the undeniably catchy "Gimme More" and "Piece of Me." On Blackout, Spears sounded as if she recorded her vocals via her cell phone, but she seems to have actually been in the studio for Circus. But make no mistake: Like all of Spears' albums, the new one is very much a producer's showcase, driven by the Almighty Beat and layers upon layers of synthesizers. It's all aural Velveeta - gooey, a little salty and heavily processed.

Circus is also an obvious attempt by Spears' handlers to bang out the dents and repair the nicks in her public persona. They're apparently trying to soften her image while retaining some of the manufactured edge that has helped push her worldwide album sales past 80 million.

But it's all quite tacky, starting with the album cover. Wearing puffed-up, cascading hair and what appears to be a cotton candy-pink tutu dress, Spears looks like a '70s porn star shot with a soft-focus lens.

The music is a glittery grab bag of things: super-sleek club-pop (some of the best Spears has done), crass commercial tripe and, for some strange reason, a nauseatingly sappy ballad.

"Her brand and celebrity are far more than just her music," says David Johnson, president of Strategic Vision, a marketing and public relations firm in Atlanta. "If her music is a hit, it will just increase [the public's] fascination and her celebrity."

Spears' image has always been driven by her music, beginning with the naughty Catholic school girl character in the 1999 video for " ...Baby One More Time." Mixing childhood innocence with grown-up sexuality, Spears was a pervert's fantasy come to life as she twirled around in low-cut clothes. But early on, the hits ("Oops I Did It Again" and especially the brilliant "Toxic") nicely bolstered her somewhat disturbing persona.

But now that her coquettish mask has been snatched away, revealing a troubled young woman underneath, the escapist club songs go down differently. A sense of paranoia and defensiveness now permeates the music.

Circus kicks off with the first single, the new-millennium disco thump of "Womanizer." That relentless number is followed by the stuttering, slightly noisy title track and the swaying ballad "Out From Under," which strongly recalls early Madonna. Those cuts (and the ones after it) pale in comparison to "Kill the Lights," an exceptional dance tune on which Spears musters some palpable attitude. Her breathy vocals sashay through the web of swishing and buzzing synths, underpinned by a metallic, palpitating beat.

The sound is a finer extension of Blackout, but with a more convincing vocal from Spears. She unintentionally solicits snickers as she attempts to croon on "My Baby," a drippy ballad that's presumably dedicated to her children. But it's completely devoid of any emotion. Although the production is soft and stripped-down, Spears sounds more robotic and processed here than she does on the heavily synthesized dance numbers.

But Circus takes a nasty nosedive with "If U Seek Amy," whose stomping sound is a blatant rip-off of Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl." Not known for showing any sense of decorum, especially these days, Spears is downright vulgar on the chorus. She actually spells out what the boys and girls want to do to her. Undoubtedly, the cut is a deliberate trashy move to get folks talking about the album. But it's really unnecessary. Given the magnitude of Spears' tabloid life, people are going to talk about every move she makes. A new album just gives the press and bloggers another reason to pick apart one of pop's most fascinating subjects.

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