Britney Spears: Circus

Mike Newmark

Released just 13 months after the pissed-off Blackout, Circus catches Spears on a relative upswing, flush from Blackout's positive critical reception and the release of her MTV documentary, For the Record.

Britney Spears


Label: Jive
US Release Date: 2008-12-02
UK Release Date: 2008-12-01

The allusion in the album title is too obvious to ignore: Circus = media circus, or the swarm of photographers, journalists, television producers, music critics (hello!) and Wikipedia editors that have been keeping track of Britney Spears' every move. It's no small wonder, then, that her 27-year-old life gives the impression of a diamond-studded roller coaster. We know more about Britney than we do about our second cousins, following her through multi-platinum album sales, video awards ceremonies, high-profile relationships, high-profile breakups, child custody battles, rehab stints, psychological meltdowns, and one very shaved head. The media giveth and the media taketh away. Whether they're painting a glamorous or a demoralizing picture of her on any particular day, her career is so inextricably tied to the press that it's difficult to imagine how she would manage if it simply ceased to exist.

Has Spears ever cogitated over this possibility? Hard to say, but I doubt she was thinking so philosophically in the years between 2003's In the Zone and 2007's Blackout. This was an unusually ugly period for Spears, fraught with the kind of sensationalist celebrity comeuppance stories that keep tabloids in business, and culminating in a nationally televised attack on a paparazzo with a folded umbrella. Blackout was really the first time she went toe-to-toe with the popular media in her music: inside the CD booklet was a photograph of pages ripped from tabloids and strewn about the floor like trash, and several tracks spat bald-faced threats to the paparazzi, making me wonder if Blackout was a reference to what she'd give to people if they started barking up the wrong tree. Incredibly, Blackout worked. It was her producers' success more than hers, but they equipped her with effectively icy-hot backdrops that matched her confrontational stance, and because it didn't arrive with the media blitz that typically accompanies a Spears record (perhaps on principle), it wasn't a widely broadcasted temper tantrum but a single silenced shot with a poison dart.

Released just 13 months after Blackout, Circus catches Spears on a relative upswing, still recovering from losing custody of her children to ex-husband Kevin Federline, but flush from Blackout's positive critical reception and the release of her MTV documentary, For the Record. And indeed, we see a side of her here that's more comfortable with being in the limelight. Where Blackout's hater-baiting "Piece of Me" attempted to fend off her audience, Circus's title track and second single courts it: "I feel the adrenaline moving through my veins / Spotlight on me and I'm ready to break / I'm like a performer, the dancefloor is my stage / Better be ready, hope you feel the same." Maybe it's a trap -- what happens when the same lighting operators capture her in an ignominious moment? -- but for now the sentiment seems real, especially given how convincingly she spoke of her passion for performing in For the Record. So Circus comes across as Blackout's de facto sequel, one that allows her to restore order, revel in the privilege of worrying about pettier problems (e.g. partying too hard), and continue scaling her way to the apex of the dance-pop pantheon.

In truth, Spears' output is far too erratic to keep her in the throne for long. But we'd be forgiven for accepting "Kill the Lights" producer Danja's claim that Spears is the queen of pop upon first playing the disc, which busts out of the gate with two singles that rival anything she's done. "Womanizer" is a meaty, high-voltage shuffler helmed by Atlanta duo the Outsyders, who do an admirable job of recreating the chemistry of Spears and Danja on last year's single "Gimme More". Indeed, "Womanizer" sounds quite a bit like "Gimme More" on recreational stimulants. It's a kiss-off, of course; Spears thumbs her nose at the men who walk into a club, entitled, and end up with nothing in the pursuit of everything (maybe you know someone like that?). Then comes the second punch: "Circus" imagines her in the middle of a kind of chiaroscuro laser light show, with thousands of people staring wide-eyed at her in the split second before she kills them with the performance of her life. The music slides, cracks, inhales in anticipation and explodes, and somehow sounds dense and amazingly expansive at once. So, to review: one song dropkicks the dudes (perhaps the same ones who might have kept the single from topping the Hot 100) out the exit door, and the other launches her straight past them to clutch the brass ring. It's brilliant.

Unfortunately, what follows is a very large mid-album slump consisting of waterlogged filler and degraded carbon copies of past achievements. Perhaps to ward off criticism that she only plays a bit part in the creation of her own songs, she's made it known that she wrote much of Circus herself, and judging from the bumper crop of similar-sounding skronk, that's probably accurate. On "Kill the Lights", "Shattered Glass" and the punning "If U Seek Amy" (say it out loud), she reveals her proclivity for the same stomping, unsubtle beefiness of "Womanizer", but there's a notable lapse in quality, as if some of "Womanizer"'s strategists forgot to show up to the planning meeting. Credit Spears for grabbing the reins this time, but without the Outsyders' A-list production values it's a questionable look for her, and she's been much sexier. The nearly-emo "Out from Under" and "Unusual You" try for heartfelt and come off flabby. "Blur" is almost laughable as the album's token "regret" track; the music benefits from a sultry R&B afterglow, but the lyrics, in nuce, are 'Shit, what in the hey did I do last night? / Everything is just a blur'.

Tune out after "Blur", though, and you'll miss the record's unexpected wallop of an ending. If the two kickoff singles are clearly dressed to impress, these late-album stunners demonstrate what Spears is capable of when nobody's watching. "Mannequin" stutters and glides like an ice cube on a hotplate while the lyrics cleverly mirror the motion: "I like it and I do what I like and you do what I like and you like it" in an unbroken downward glissando. The disco throwback "Lace and Leather" actually recalls Kathy Diamond's criminally underrated Miss Diamond to You from 2007, all tactile slap bass, glitter, and clacking heels against the tiled floor.

And then, in an unbelievable twist of fate, the album ends (if you don't count the bonus track "Radar" from Blackout) with the boneless lullaby "My Baby". Her baby in this case isn't a new boo following Kevin Federline, but her actual baby, Jayden, born in 2006 as the second Spears child and the second one handed to Federline in a 2008 custody settlement. "Tiny hands", she sings, "Yes that's you / And all you show / It's simply true / I smell your breath / It makes me cry / I wonder how / I've lived my life". Big jump from "Womanizer", but that's not what makes "My Baby" so surprising. It's the way she sings it: like a seven-year-old child sitting on the floor with her legs splayed outward, playing with the baby underneath the mobile. She lets her naked soubrette -- a vocal part that carries less weight than a typical soprano -- shine, and it's upon hearing it that it dawns on us just how awful she sounds when she's unencumbered and de-sexed. I wasn't sure whether to cringe or cry (did this critic get a little misty? You'll never know for sure), but Spears clearly put herself on the line here, risking critical contempt for the sake of laying her emotions bare.

So it seems she does have them, even on record, but her moments of depth and vulnerability don't hit with the same force as her shallower crowd-pleasers. When I reviewed Blackout for my college paper, I noted that Spears wouldn’t lay claim to an unequivocally successful album until she allowed more of her humanity to peek through the glamour and glitz. Circus gets me closer to realizing that this probably isn't going to happen, but perhaps I'm expecting too much. For Spears, music appears to be an escape -- the reality she wants rather than the one she has -- and even the idea of a circus speaks to a regressive fantasy world where the dangers are staged and the beasts can't hurt you. To that end, I suppose, Spears has won. Not everything hits the target, even with her hands gripped tightly around the controls, but she's offered us something intermittently wonderful that proves she can still black us out even when she's on the up and up.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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