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Album review: Britney Spears' 'Circus'

Britney SpearsCircusreview

Britney__circus_coverIt's time for the annual declaration: Britney Spears is not going away. Last year she might have seemed like a human Superfund site, oozing bad fumes and impossible to repair -- but in 13 short months, she's churned out a perfectly viable album that telegraphs self-awareness, sexual confidence and her most sought-after commodity, control.

"Circus" already has given her a big hit, the "Cabaret"-meets-"Flashdance"-flavored "Womanizer," and considering the expensive production credits neatly lined up on each track, more seem inevitable. Then there will be the tour, which should be great, if she can keep herself from crying uncontrollably because she misses her kids and the pressure's really getting her down. But hey, there's always Xanax.

As tabloid fodder, Spears remains a New Marilyn, embodying lust and disaster in every swing of her hips. Musically, she turned a corner with 2004's "Toxic," when she fully matured into her role as a vehicle for other people's experiments. Last year's "Blackout" worked well as daring dance-pop, but Spears was too absent for comfort. On many songs, her presence was almost indiscernible, carefully buried within layers of effects and heavy singing support from Keri Hilson and other studio A-listers.

Not so on "Circus," whose up-tempo songs foreground Spears' mildly sultry bark and whose ballads have her hiccuping emotion from deep in the back of her throat.

She's also game for any vocal tricks her producers suggest, squealing and giggling and even trying on a fairly horrific pan-Latin accent in "Mmm Papi." That song recalls nothing so much as Rosemary Clooney's "Come On-a My House," which came from the time when even great jazz singers sometimes made a buck by wearing fruit on their heads.


Clowning around

Obvious jokes fit in well on "Circus": With its dominatrix rhythms and loud, highly compressed mix, it's meant to slap listeners in the face. Spears' favorite producers, including Max Martin, Dr. Luke and Nathaniel "Danja" Hills, have settled on a style that updates vampy show-tune melodies with sharp, metallic effects. The cartoonish sound compensates for Spears' lack of range and lung power by allowing her to ham it up.

She does so with the skill of a lifelong child star. But the overall effect is hardening as one bump-and-grind fades into another.

The lyrics about Britney as mannequin, sex object, paparazzi victim and leather-clad mistress have grown tedious. When the wittiest one is based around an adolescent text-message-style joke, you know it's time to refocus.

That might be why "Unusual You," a ballad from Bloodshy & Avant, stands out. It goes for that shimmering waterfall mood first popularized by Janet Jackson rather than strict Madonna-style workouts.

For her son

The other notable slow song is "Baby," one of only two co-written by Spears. (The other is, forgive her, "Mmm Papi.") It's a clumsily phrased love letter to one -- which one, and why only one? -- of her sons, and though it's nowhere near as sophisticated as anything else on "Circus," it communicates some of the seam-bursting humanity that generates so much interest in Spears as a celebrity.

Hackneyed as it is, "Baby" is a reminder that Spears is still a young woman trying to manage an impossible situation.

But those aren't the thoughts "Circus" is meant to raise, and in general the album does a bang-up job of pushing them into the background.

And really, that tour is going to be great.

--Ann Powers

Britney Spears
* * (2 stars)

Photos: Britney Spears' "Circus," courtesy of Jive Records. Spears performing at the Bambi Awards in Germany, courtesy AFP/Getty Images.

Comments () | Archives (52)

Beautiful Britney does not really need to ' come back ' because
she was never really gone.
She will always be one of the most popular entertainers in history.

I think Britney is even better than before, I wouldn't say she came back cause she has always been here, at least in my heart and soul. I love Britney, since she started, while she lost self-control and of course now. Though the album is already leaked online I'm still gonna buy it to support Britney. IT'S A VERY GOOD ALBUM, GOOD JOB BRITNEY!

Choo Choo.


Two stars? Seriously? I could understand giving Blackout two-stars, but Circus is a great CD. This is, without a doubt, a strong comeback, and I would give the CD 3 1/2 - 4 stars. And the song about her son(s) is titled "My Baby," not "Baby."


Choo Choo.



"But hey, there's always Xanax." I don't have any love for Spears or her music, but you just crossed a major line with that one. Spears has very clearly been diagnosed with at least one serious mental illness, and you don't belittle treatment for it. (Not to mention if she's bipolar, you got the medication wrong.) Shame on you, Ann Powers.

Is this really front page, eye popping news? The puppet masters have a hold on this woman/child and they don't let go very easily. Personally I don't find her or her antics particularly interesting. The review is somewhat tongue in cheek, dancing around the issue of content, and musical importance. How about front page on the National Enquirer?
Or is that too tame. It's sad about her kids, sad that she's had to grow up in the public eye.

I bought the album 2 days ago in Paris, it's insane!!! every track is super hot.
I loved blackout, and this is just as edgy...Just upset she didn't team up with 'the Neptunes' on this one, they sound eargasmic together. But Danja produced some sick tracks!! And the multi-talented lady Gaga has collaborated as well.
I'm not into that much pop, but Britney Spears kicks ass, she's definitely the pop star of our generation. Hope she can show us her full smokin' hot potential in the performances

Gimme a break. How are you not embarrassed not only for yourself, but all of humanity for giving this drivel a platform? This no-talent corporate blow-up doll was the first nail in the coffin for musical integrity back in 1999 or 2000 or whenever it was that she was prancing around in her debut 'jailbait' video (which in case no one noticed, was shot while she was a minor, which means it was pretty much an ode to pedophilia). The attention this kind of garbage gets makes humanity deserving of the overall mess the world is in now. Show me ONE talented musician (not singer, dancer, 'entertainer' or whatever, but ACTUAL MUSICIAN) who gives two cents about ANYTHING this waste of oxygen ever did and I'll eat my socks. Her lyrics are banal, the music unoriginal and insipid, her voice is obviously a computer-programmed fraud, and her success and general existence as an entertainer is depressing to true artists everywhere.

Ann needs to be a hot siut of the day on Dlisted.com for this article!

*waves hi to the Britaloonies*

Sean K,
You're right that Spears is a no-talent creation, but so are many musicians who clog the air with their noodlings. I've lived in Hollywood for many years and have heard many of them practicing. Spears' success may be depressing to "true artists" but there are many, and you sound like one, who are simply jealous of that success. Sure, her music may suck in the eyes of musical cognoscenti such as you, but she sure knows how to strike a chord with a huge section of the populace, as well as keep her face constantly in front of the media. You may disagree with their taste, but Spears seems to be master at playing the game. Would you suggest that she NOT take advantage of her looks and sexuality? That would be foolish. And remember, she's not a musician, she's a pop singer. By definition that means "lightweight." Perhaps YOU should lighten up a bit and give credit where it's due.

Gerry: And I suppose you would say that if Keith Richards, Bo Diddley or Frank Zappa had said the same thing about Spears (which I assume they would, if they were being honest) you would say they were jealous too? There is a huge difference between justified resentment/outrage at what is being done to our musical and artistic culture and puerile jealousy. It makes no sense for you to agree that she has 'no talent' and then insist that I should give her 'credit where credit is due'. As far as your pragmatic argument from her perspective, it doesn't matter to me what is 'prudent' or 'advantageous' to Ms. Spears anymore than I care what is prudent or advantageous to Charles Manson or anyone else who's net impact on society is completely negative. You want to have your cake and eat it too by both bashing her talent and supporting here complete lack thereof at the same time. Complete nonsense.

Thank you, SeanK couldn't have said it better. The sooner these no-talent 'products' disappear, the better it will be for all musicians.

I think Britney is amazing,she ia young still give her a break she went thru 2 major breakups and maybe didnt handle the 2 nd one as well,but she is awesome Britney just keep on keeping on,Everyone in not your Daddy or Larry,so it you need a real friend who is a nurse to work with you and has been a liilte further down the path,just send me A LINE OTHER jUST KEEP ON SUPPORTING HER.

Come on Sean. I'm no Spears fan but to compare her to Charles Manson is just nonsense.

Britney Spears is a human being just like everybody else..it just so happens that her life is out there for everyone to know about, everybody goes through hard, tough times and that's what happened to her....i love britney and i am just happy that shes smiling again!! there will always be people out there who hate just because but as long as you know that you are doing your best then thats all that really matters! I Love You Britney!!!

Who cares!?!
Why do you waste space on someone like Britney when you could be writing about someone with talent who makes good music?

Britney how I loved watching your 90 min special on much music , i have a 14 month old Grand daughter , that just loves your song womanizer ,she is all ready trying to be your competion lol .... she loves dancing so much , the moment your song comes on her little feet are moving she is to funny .. i just love you for what you have talked about this evening , my heart goes out to you and your boy's . and to me my dear you have never left ...........

Britney used to be good. I have listened to her new Cd and it pretty much seems like I'm listening to the same song all the time. Nothing strikes me as original or awe-inspiring like some of her old music does. I have never really been a huge Britney fan but her new stuff is not as good as her songs like "I'm A Slave 4 U", "Me Against The Music" and "Overprotected". Britney needs to take time to actually get over her problems and come to terms with things before diving head first back into this. Britney will NEVER be the same. She has two children and has become a source of mockery for the magazines rather than someone they respect as an artist. Britney could be great again if she took some more time off to sort through her issues. Obviously she will not be the next Madonna who can adapt to a new style of music. Britney needs to work on her image and rebuilding that first before she makes new music. She should go on tour to sing some of her old music if she is going to do anything at all.

Have you heard about a rumor Brad Pitt have a secret daugther 18 years old?

Good on you Harold S. There's NOTHING shameful about using Xanax, but for people who think there is, you're probably mental urself. The rest of the review is great though - that Xanax joke really went too far and no i have never had xanax before.

Are you SERIOUS. With all the actual musical talent to come out of the US and some of you are saying this album is GOOD?!?! This is why all the music award shows suck, and why some artists/bands have to tour for years or evetually sell out. I could even name 2 dozen female vocalists (because let's be real here, she is no artist. she doesn't write, compose, produce, or even coreograph) she is a crazy (and i do mean mentally) meat puppet. This is what's wrong with America. We make crazy hillbilies rich for no apparent reason.

What a great album! Two stars is...harsh. I think three is the least that should be given. Ok, its clear that Britney might not have the BEST most fantastic voice of all people! However, she makes up for that with her songs! The beat, all the combining sounds, etc. The point behind this album is deeper than any, she did a great job. Britney is someone who isn't liked by everybody, nobody ever is! Give her a break! She just happened to fall into the wrong place at the wrong time. So what if shes bipolar?So what if she even has another mental disease. Do we need to go into detail on how there were much more "looney" musicians before?
And her tour will be AWESOME!

Brett: Read the sentence carefully. It says "I don't care what is prudent or advantageous to Ms. Spears any more than I care what is prudent or advantageous to... or anyone WHOSE NET IMPACT ON SOCIETY IS NEGATIVE. I never said she was as morally deranged or criminally responsible as Manson. You are throwing the word "compare" around as if it had a static meaning in every instance, which it clearly does not. The only thing the comparison was meant to convey is that I will not 'give credit' to someone for doing what the person finds advantageous if I don't support the results. I won't give Brittney any credit for sucking for money any more than I'd give credit to Enron execs for ripping people off. Now do you understand?

I really wish I could understand how someone with a voice so puny and underdeveloped can continue to appeal. It was one thing when she was a teenager, you expect it to be thin and whiny. But that was 8 years ago and her voice has grown no better, there's still no maturity, she's still playing the Bratz doll vocals. The wonderous smokescreen of technology continues to cover up what is, at best, a moderate voice.

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