Let’s be real: Britney Spears could have disappeared from the pop cultural landscape long ago.
After dominating the turn-of-the-millennium teen pop boom with her albums … Baby One More Time, Oops! I Did It Again, Britney, and In the Zone, she hit a breaking point. Following a spectacular public meltdown, she appeared completely dazed during a performance of her song “Gimme More” at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, forgetting to lip sync and looking like a distracting prop hurled about by her backup dancers. She struggled to maintain custody of her two children with ex-husband Kevin Federline after months of erratic public behavior in 2007. And in an extraordinary development for any adult — much less a famous multi-millionaire — she was placed under the legal guardianship of her father, Jamie Spears, a situation that so far remains.
For a minute, it seemed like her epic unraveling might end up defining her. It was, after all, an iconic meltdown: the image of her publicly shaving her head is as burned in our brains as the more triumphant image of her dancing with a python at the 2001 VMAs. But she has returned, again and again, always in search of that elusive comeback. Nearly a decade later, we’re still watching for a total return to form, wondering if Britney Spears is relevant in the age of Beyoncé and Adele.
We may finally be getting it this week with the release of Spears’ ninth album, titled Glory for good reason. With every released and leaked track, from the breathy falsettos of “Make Me…” to the guttural alto of “Private Show” to the all-French (!) “Coupre Electrique,” we’ve heard a Spears whose confident vocals convey that it doesn’t matter how much music snobs sneer at her voice. She knows she has one of the most recognized voices on the planet, and 33.4 million albums sold in the United States alone (per Nielsen Music) say that we like what we hear.
Perhaps that’s because Spears is as suited to 2016 as she was to the early aughts. Her successful Las Vegas residency Piece of Me — now at three years and counting — made Sin City cool for pop stars with younger fans who appreciate something with a beat. (Since then, Vegas has morphed from Celine Dion territory into the place to be forJennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, and the Backstreet Boys.)
To her credit, the EDM-infused pop Spears helped pioneer with Blackout — a brilliant product of her terrible 2007 — has come to dominate top 40 stations. The era of Instagram has allowed her to finally show off the disparate bits of her personality, with an addictive mix of mom-friendly aphorisms; pictures of her kids; hints at interest in math, painting, and Albert Einstein; drool-worthy fitspiration; and sexy dance moves. After years of making us wonder who she really is, she seems to have finally found an image that feels authentic: the sexiest mom on the block.
It’s all come together after years of struggling to return to pre-2007-meltdown form, with her last album, 2013’s Britney Jean, touted as her “most personal” — but in reality, it was a messy imitation of her previous work (aside from the perfection that is “Work Bitch”). Last year, she teamed up with Iggy Azalea for the lackluster, regressive “Pretty Girls.” (Please, Britney, no more team-ups with rappers. You don’t need them. In fact, what are the chances we could get a G-Eazy-free version of “Make Me”?)
By now, Spears has built more than half of her career on the quintessentially American appeal of the comeback. Not all of them succeeded: That disastrous appearance at the 2007 VMAs came across like an attempt to prove Britney the Pop Star had recovered — but the problem was, Britney the Human wasn’t there yet.
In 2008, her album Circus did mark a return to form in some ways, as did 2011’s Femme Fatale, sort-of. But with every appearance, every song, we were watching: Was she in the spectacular physical shape that made her famous? (The answer was usually: Almost. Then again, she wasn’t 17 anymore.) Could she still dance the way that made her famous? If she could, she wasn’t choosing to, often appearing to just barely go through the motions and let her backup dancers do the heavy lifting. Were the songs good? Mostly. As good as “Baby One More Time,” “Toxic,” and “I’m a Slave 4 U”? Well, that’s a high bar.
We were rooting for her, looking for signs of her return. We had knocked her so far off her pedestal, to such devastatingly obvious results, that all we wanted was to see her come back. And yet, all the while, something was missing. The Britney we first fell in love with, the one with the all-too-knowing eyes in the “… Baby One More Time” video, the one who confidently commanded you to watch her every move on stage, had left us in 2007. Maybe we didn’t deserve her. We had proven we couldn’t be trusted with her.
Now, Spears appears ready to give us her all again. Glory represents something better than a return to form; it is, at long last, a step forward for the 34 year old. She’s using her voice in new ways — on “Make Me,” it actually sounds pretty, a word rarely used to describe her singing, even in her heyday. She has reclaimed her standout talent, a distinctive dance style that combines cheerleader precision with slinky bits of burlesque. (Please see: Her Billboard Music Awards performance this year.) She showcased her appealing goofy side by pranking Jimmy Kimmel on his show earlier this month. She will, presumably, sing live in an upcoming segment of James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke,” giving naysayers a listen to her voice without studio help. She’s returning to the VMAs on Sunday. She’s even getting closer to total autonomy, according to a recent New York Times story: She could soon finally be released from her father’s conservatorship.
That’s all great news for Britney Spears the Human. But how does Britney Spears the Pop Star fit into the Beyoncé Era? She’s markedly apolitical. She doesn’t profess feminism like Taylor Swift, Lorde, or Miley Cyrus. She doesn’t even spout vaguely empowering messages like Katy Perry.
She’s something else. She’s a survivor in a way not even her grand forebear, Madonna, is. She was actually destroyed by the media machine and has come back again and again, and maybe even for good this time. We may not all love her music, but we all want her to triumph. And in 2016, who else unites us so?