Brit­ney’s new al­bum comes up short

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

THE MTV Mu­sic Video Awards is a venue where artists go to sin or to be re­deemed. Justin Bieber be­gan his unof­fi­cial, since-aban­doned Apol­ogy Tour with a teary VMAs per­for­mance last year; in 2013, Mi­ley Cyrus twerked her way into in­famy. It was on the VMAs in 2001 that Brit­ney Spears per­formed “I’m a Slave 4 U” dressed in an in­stantly iconic 7-foot-long al­bino Burmese python. (The snake is still alive, ac­cord­ing to MTV.com, which checked. Her name is Banana.) It was dur­ing this per­for­mance that Spears came into her own, a mo­ment of lib­er­a­tion and self-ex­pres­sion in a ca­reer that has since of­fered her very lit­tle of ei­ther.

At the 2007 VMAs, dur­ing the year of her dif­fi­cul­ties, Spears lip-synced through a list­less ver­sion of “Gimme More”. She hadn’t per­formed live at the VMAs since, un­til this past week­end. She spent the in­ter­ven­ing years un­der a con­tin­u­ing court-or­dered con­ser­va­tor­ship that gives con­trol of her life and ca­reer to her fa­ther, af­ter a pub­lic break­down in 2007. She now has her own Ve­gas res­i­dency.

Spears’s per­for­mance in Madi­son Square Gar­den on Au­gust 28 night was sup­posed to be re­demp­tive, a high-risk/high­re­ward gam­ble (typ­i­cal pre-show head­line: “Brit­ney Spears to stage come­back at site of her most pub­lic fail­ure”) that mostly went bust.

It wasn’t aw­ful – she seemed com­pe­tent and aware, and to hit ev­ery mark – it was just … wrong. Awk­ward. Du­ti­ful. Old-fash­ioned. It was as if Spears’ un­der­stand­ing of pop show­man­ship ended some­time in 2005, which maybe it did, and no one had told her. Spears per­formed her new sin­gle, the lik­able tri­fle “Make Me … ”, with po­lite Bay Area rap­per G-Eazy, who ap­pears on the record. He may have been cho­sen be­cause he was un­likely to ei­ther up­stage or ter­rify her, though he touched her face at one point and she flinched and shook her head.

It was a Ve­gas-y ex­er­cise. Spears played sup­pli­cant, back-up show­girl to G-Eazy, whom she climbed like a pole. That she per­formed im­me­di­ately af­ter Bey­oncé de­liv­ered a world-beat­ing ode to fe­male power that ended with the stage lit­er­ally set on fire hardly seemed fair.

Spears’ VMA per­for­mance was in­tended as the third prong of a suc­cess­ful come­back that in­cluded her hit Ve­gas show and a solid new al­bum, Glory, that dropped on Au­gust 26. Glory ar­rived full of prom­ise, which was un­usual. Every­one knew Spears’s last al­bum, 2013’s Brit­ney Jean, was go­ing to be a dud well be­fore it got here. There were warn­ing signs: The first sin­gle un­der­per­formed; it promised a more “per­sonal” ver­sion of Spears it plainly couldn’t de­liver; Will.i.am was on it. Brit­ney Jean of­fered up a PG-13, generic ideal of Spears as re­lat­able and lovelorn, if dis­tant. Glory, which fairly crack­les with en­ergy in com­par­i­son, is the mu­si­cal ver­sion of a 3am booty call. It’s a cho­co­late sam­pler box of beats and styles, many of them EDMre­lated: There’s wist­ful, wind-down elec­tro pop (the ex­cel­lent “Man on the Moon”), stut­tery and am­bi­tious club pop (“Bet­ter”), vin­tage R&B (“What You Need”). There are peppy homages to the Weeknd (“Do You Wanna Come Over?”) and Se­lena Gomez (“In­vi­ta­tion”).

Glory is fizzy and en­joy­able, but then it didn’t need to do much ex­cept meet ba­sic lev­els of com­pe­tence, and not be Brit­ney Jean. Spears needed only to seem present, which she does – she’s vivid and play­ful and sexy through­out, like a long-fuzzy ra­dio sta­tion fi­nally com­ing in clearly. She’s tart and bur­bly and funny. She sings in French. There aren’t many gen­res that A-game Brit­ney can’t han­dle, and the al­bum’s oc­ca­sional fum­bles aren’t her fault; if she can’t res­cue the er­satz reg­gae of “Love Me Down” (and she can’t, it’s kind of ter­ri­ble), then there was no sav­ing it.

Be­cause Spears’ life is so closely guarded, her al­bums and rare tele­vised live per­for­mances are fans’ only op­por­tu­ni­ties to read be­tween the lines, to de­ter­mine just how much of Brit­ney Spears is left. It was a week­end of mixed mes­sages: At the VMAs, she was a skit­tish show pony; on Glory she’s a cheery, vo­ra­cious woman in charge. But pop al­bums are the last place any­body should look for the truth. There are mo­ments on Glory that are cal­cu­lated to seem franker than other mo­ments, but it’s as im­per­sonal as ever. Brit­ney Spears is never go­ing to make Le­mon­ade. She’s not even go­ing to make a Gwen Ste­fani-style con­fes­sional about what­ever ver­sion of Blake Shel­ton (or what­ever ver­sion of G-Eazy, more likely) she even­tu­ally winds up with. Ev­ery­thing you hear, and ev­ery­thing you see, may be ev­ery­thing there is, ev­ery­thing she’s ca­pa­ble of giving.

The more we come to ex­pect al­bums from pop di­vas to serve as ve­hi­cles for their self-ac­tu­al­i­sa­tion and em­pow­er­ment, the more “woke” we get, the more we don’t know what to do about Brit­ney, the least em­pow­ered pop star there is. By cheer­lead­ing a come­back that may or may not be en­tirely her wish, by some­one who does not even meet the ba­sic le­gal stan­dard of per­sonal agency, it’s un­clear whether we are hurt­ing or help­ing. Even by the le­nient stan­dards of pop star­dom, there’s al­ways been a cot­ton candy-like vague­ness where Brit­ney’s cen­tre should be, an alarm­ing com­pli­ancy. A come­back seems im­pos­si­ble, when she’s never re­ally been here at all.

Brit­ney Spears per­forms dur­ing the 2016 MTV Video Mu­sic Awards on Au­gust 28. Her new al­bum Glory is not quite the per­sonal win­dow the world ex­pected.

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