"I feel like I wasn't being seen in the light that I wanted to be seen in. Um, I don't know exactly what that light is," says Britney Spears, curling herself up into a nutshell (emphasis on the nuts!). That quote comes from the MTV documentary on her life, as it were, Britney: For the Record. What touted itself as illuminating ("No topic was off limits. No question went unanswered," read the text at the start of the show) instead served merely as a reminder of how dimwitted Spears is. Poorly spoken (on the "Womanizer" video: "It's like 'Toxic 2' but better!") and unable to articulate the most cliched insight ("Of course you have to believe in God. You know what I mean?"), Spears is one of the few people allowed a public platform for whom playing the puppet is a wise move (mercifully, she gets a mere three co-writing credits on her new album Circus). That she has very little to say is unsurprising, as is the fact that what she does have to say (at least, courtesy of her For the Record edit) generally involves lamenting the trappings of fame on the surface level and her insatiable crave for it that lurks immediately below. It's one thing to listen to a woman tell an invited film crew, "I'm a private person," three quarters of the way into a supposed 60-day expose on her life; it's another far more excruciating affair to listen to someone bemoan the presence of cameras in her life...to a camera.
And it's sad, because this is an addict we're watching. She describes early-career autograph requests as a "high," and then uses words that could describe a bad trip to describe the ensuing fame ("I wanted just for everything to stop. I wanted to shut it off."). She peppers her complaints with assurance that she loves her job and gets to perform in front of millions and millions of people and blah blah blah, but what lingers (at least for me), is her expressed wish to take her kids and a man to a desert island and disappear. Her addiction and enablers will forever ensure that notion's impossibility. It makes me wonder if to cope, she's developed an addiction to daydreaming. Call it Greener Grass Syndrome. It finds Britney wanting people to see her in a different light and using all the old ways (guarded interviews, albums full of non-statements) of achieving it. It finds her yearning for a new life when she'd never let go of her current one. It finds her yearning for the days when she could go out and get shitfaced and fuck a guy (back before the paparazzi became so invasive, when she was in her words "a cool chick"). So much for rehabilitation if she's rhapsodizing that shit! She wants to have her cake and eat it, too, but she's short of a recipe book and she hires someone to chew her food for her, anyway.
This woman is chronically wistful. She's a person who's seen and been through so much real-life shit, yet still processes it on a little-girl level. You hear it even in her music, which has lost some of the frilly cutesiness but has retained all of the frivolous nothingness that helps make it nothing less than essential pop (but never anything more, either). It's expressive, but only because she isn't. Circus isn't the narcotic hit after hit of pop that Blackout was, but it has as little to say, despite pretensions like awful ballads and a decent maturity-aspiring morning-after ode, "Blur." I'd argue that for pure danceability quotient, Circus' highs are higher than Blackout's ("Kill the Lights" and "Shattered Glass" are just perfect examples of how mainstream house is kicking the ass of the just-below-mainstream house of today; it's a marked reversal from the last time house music was actually marketable, in the early '90s). This album breaks no ground, but she could do far worse in bids for continued relevance. It's running in place, set to a score.
Silly little Britney is never far from the center ring -- the bouncy, shuffling "If U Seek Amy," (or not-so-subliminally, "F.U.C.K. Me") does some half-hearted wordplay ("Amy" is a character) to justify its existence, but ultimately, it's not clever enough to create a true double entendre -- the lyrics of the chorus ("All of the boys and all of the girls are begging to if you seek Amy") don't make much sense unless you read them with the "F.U.C.K." in there. It's just marginally wittier than when we'd ask each other to "spell icup" in second grade. And then there's the title track, in which she revels in this fame that she often complains about. She's the ringleader, she calls the shots, she feels adrenaline and then: release because all eyes are on her. In light of that 60+ minute commercial for Circus on MTV, I find it hard to read this track as anything but a glamorizing of addiction.
Britney's fatal flaw, and another symptom of that Greener Grass affliction, is that she wants to be on camera and control it at the same time. Hence this lame-duck excuse for a documentary that when it isn't a less histrionic incarnation of that Matt Lauer interview from 2006, is just boring. It's so taken by its subject that no situation is too dull to spotlight (my eyes glossed over while watching her make over her assistant). It's as though the movie suffers from narcissism by proxy.
Its lack of revelation makes Record a fitting portrait of a guarded superstar, but of course, that's not very satisfying. For its purported incisiveness, so much is swept under the rug. "I totally lost my way. I lost focus. I lost myself," is about as much of an explanation for Britney's wild 2007 as we get. "I had certain people in my life that were just bad people," she explains without naming Sam Lutfi or Adnan Ghalib or elaborating. The doc only serves to emphasize the comeback slant of Circus' marketing that Britney says she hates (it's the reality not a hypothesis, so of course she does), which is so stupid anyway since she released an album a year ago and the angle is actually less "I'm back!" and more "I'm of sound mind!" Even though, uh...yeah.
So many questions remain after seeing it. If I were that stiff British interviewer, I would have asked:
- Were you on drugs and what were they?
- Hey, how 'bout those schizophrenia rumors?
- Remember when you were speaking in a British accent? What was up with that?
- Parazzi-baiting (per Rolling Stone, Blender and The Atlantic): hobby or chore?
- No really, what drugs were you on when you collapsed at PURE?
- Was rehab as fun as it looks like on TV?
- What did you make of Jamie Lynn's pregnancy and were you relieved to be the lesser Spears train wreck for a while?
- For the love of forward-thinking pop, why the fuck did you squander that Timbaland and Justin Timberlake collboration?
- Dog poop on dresses: fad or here to stay?
- It's 60 minutes into your documentary: do you know where your mother is?
- You are aware that you don't get to write your own obituary, right?
- How long do you honestly think you can keep this up?