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Britney Spears' comeback: A snap judgment

December 2, 2008 |  1:49 pm

Spears_2 It’s not that Britney Spears isn't trying. It's not that her team, led by her longtime handler Larry Rudolph, hasn't carried out a strict, carefully orchestrated comeback game plan.

You just can’t force the girl, a mother of two who today celebrates her 27th birthday and the launch of her new album, “Circus,” to want a comeback, even while the world seems eager for it (fans sent her single, “Womanizer,” to the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in its second week of release). Being back in the spotlight has worked its magic on her hair, her body and even her personal life.

But the fire in her eyes? And Britney's once consistent ability to turn it on when the curtain rises? That appears to be absent, at least at the moment. In its place we’ve got the former pop princess on autopilot, and it’s as devastating to watch as her 2007 MTV VMA performance of “Gimme More.”

First, there was this year’s VMAs.

MTV would support its onetime golden girl and present her with her first-ever "moonmen," including one for the ceremony’s top honor, video of the year. Spears’ appearance would also be decidedly low-key: no performance, just a taped sketch with Jonah Hill and her thank you speeches. Comedy is usually Spears’ strong suit no matter what insanity has gone on in her personal life -- just watch her past appearances on “SNL” and her more recent role on “How I Met Your Mother” -- but her bit with Hill fell flat.

Viewers stuck around to see what might happen. The awards show was watched by 8.4 million people, an increase of 19% from the year prior. Still, it was the first sign things weren’t quite back to normal.

Rolling Stone and Glamour landed the splashy profiles in which Spears agreed to participate. But the music mag, which in its February feature painted a portrait of an out-of-control starlet, also noted that while Spears was better, she was also flanked by her team at all hours, her time managed down to the minute. Glamour, in a more feel-good, hopeful piece, noted that Spears was “nervous” during the interview and that her energy level at the photo shoot went from “alert to lethargic.”

Sunday’s heavily hyped MTV documentary on the singer, “Britney: For the Record,” also made no attempt to hide the singer’s mood swings, One minute she was joking around, but for most of the program, she seemed lost in her own thoughts. She talked about wishing she could start over -- with, perhaps tellingly, a new life, not with a new career -- and at one point she broke down to her interviewer: “I’m sad,” she said, before letting the tears flow.

But, as usual with Spears, one strong performance could forgive everything. The music video for “Womanizer,” promoted and launched as an event in and of itself on “20/20” in October, made it seem like it could be possible too. There she was, dancing up a storm and rocking her newly reshaped bod.

Unfortunately, the same weekend “Britney: For the Record” aired, videos of Spears performing her single in Germany and on Britain’s "American Idol"-like “The X Factor” circulated online. All the moves were there, but the singer went through them as if she were counting down the seconds until she could run off stage. When the host of “X Factor” attempted to ask a few questions afterward, she gave polite but clipped responses.  Did she have a good time? "Yes, awesome, thank you." Did she have any words of wisdom for the show's contestants? "Good luck and just keep doing it."

To cap the comeback media tour, ABC's "Good Morning America" erected a lavish circus tent with all the accoutrement for Spears’ appearance today (her first stateside performance of material from her new album), got celebrities including Hugh Jackman, Taylor Swift and Reese Witherspoon to tape birthday greetings, and presented her with a birthday cake that took 60 hours to make.

Spears performed two numbers with the same restraint she exercised in the events abroad. And afterward, when confronted with the enthusiasm of Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts, she was politely flummoxed. “Thank you,” was all she kept repeating. Spears watchers were unimpressed.

Maybe things will change should “Circus” sell well. It won’t be tough to beat the disappointing sales for her last album, “Blackout.” Maybe she’ll take comfort in the cautiously optimistic reviews. Maybe when her tour launches in March, she’ll be entirely rehabilitated.

But for now, Spears’ comeback feels like one assigned to her. Should she decide she wants in, perhaps then the fireworks will follow.

-- Denise Martin

Photo credit: Getty Images