Britney Spears' 2016 VMAs Performance: An Effective, But Not Entirely Glorious, Bid to Regain Pop Superstardom

Brian Ach/WireImage
Britney Spears and G-Eazy perform onstage during the 2016 MTV Music Video Awards at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 28, 2016 in New York City. 

Congratulations, Ms. Spears, you have advanced to the next round in your auditions to re-enter pop superstardom.

With her MTV Video Music Awards performance on Sunday (Aug. 28), Britney Spears acquitted herself nicely, if not particularly memorably. It marked her return to the awards show that made her turn-of-the-millennium career, the event at which she danced with a python to “I’m a Slave 4 U” and delivered an epic dance break to “Oops … I Did It Again” and kissed Madonna in a blatant-but-iconic play for publicity. It was also her first time on that stage in nearly ten years, since that disastrously dazed walk-through of “Gimme More” punctuated her public breakdown in 2007.

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In other words, a lot was riding on this. And she came through with the TV premiere of her hit “Make Me.” She looked like golden perfection in a yellow, sparkly bodysuit; her distinctive dancing, heavy on slinky burlesque moves, took center stage. The hair choreography was on point. The performance didn’t break the ranks of her truly iconic past appearances at the awards show, but she seemed to be playing the scorecard: Outfit, check. Hair, check. Dancing, check. Face looking like she’s actually into this, check. The rule of the performance seemed to be: First, do no harm. The last time she overreached at the VMAs, we got a literal closeup on her messy hair extensions followed by an all-too-real look at how messed up she still was. Here, she demonstrated she was truly back.

Sunday’s subdued victory for Spears checks off another box on her way to a revived career -- not just as a pop superstar who once was, but as a pop superstar who still is. The MTV appearance doesn’t live up to the album she released on Friday, Glory, which does live up to its title. The record serves as an even better audition piece for Spears’ return: On it, she sings in ways we’ve never heard her do before, employing everything from bluesy vibrato and airy soprano. She tours every currently hot pop genre, as if to tell us, “I can do tropical house like Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. I can do reggae-tinged pop like Ariana Grande or any number of Diplo-produced songs. I can even do Southern Blues like Beyoncé, or at least have fun trying. Oh, I can also speak French and Spanish.”

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Speaking of Beyoncé, she threw Spears a serious challenge at Sunday’s awards: She showed up to steal the night with a medley from her masterpiece Lemonade, with staging that made brilliant artistic use of the awards-show medium. (Camera, meet bat.) And she went on before Britney. Spears also had to contend with rapper G-Eazy sharing her stage to deliver his pointless “Make Me” rap break. Allowing him to take over so much of the performance cheapened her supserstar brand -- I want her to take a page from Beyoncé and shout, “Who the fuck do you think I is?” next time this guy wants a piece of her spotlight. (That said, he gave hosts Key and Peele their best joke of the evening: “G-Eazy’s like Macklemore for white people.”) Nonetheless, Spears’ performance played well for the awards-show audience at Madison Square Garden, many of whom clearly came specifically to see Beyoncé and Britney -- a contingent filed out immediately following Spears’ appearance, even though the show wasn’t over, a sign that her star power still means something.

If Glory does as well as it deserves to, we could see Britney back for next year’s VMAs. If that happens, I hope she takes more chances and reaches for a truly iconic moment. She could stick with what she did at the very beginning of “Make Me” this year: Just her dancing on stage, nothing else, would showcase her best talent and look ballsy. No backup dancers, and definitely no rappers. (If she’d done that this year, it would’ve played in beautiful contrast to Beyoncé’s mega production.) Or perhaps she could get herself a real microphone and just truly sing, proving to naysayers once and for all that she deserves the job title of pop singer. Either way, Britney 2.0 proved Sunday that she has a shot. 

2016 MTV VMAs