Everyone loves a comeback. Britney Spears, some six years after the culmination of a lengthy public breakdown that saw her hospitalized against her will, has just begun a Las Vegas residency and released her eighth studio album. The album is her third since her 2008 placement under 5150 hold following a year of erratic public behavior; the first, 2008's "Circus," was released so shortly after her hospitalization that press coverage tended to be admiring. Spears had come back from the edge, and so quickly that she, or whomever involved, ought to get some praise.
However, as time has gone by and Spears' career has extended far beyond the brief moment after the "Circus" release that indicated she was doing well, it seems barbaric that Spears is still performing. Her press interviews and her recent documentary "I Am Britney Jean" are, generally, composed of banalities, as though both journalist and subject are frightened something will go wrong, except when they're chilling and sad: She recently told InStyle that she wants a daughter so as not to "feel as alone in the world anymore."
Her music, too, is written and performed as though by someone totally uninterested. Since a knee injury midway through her career, her dancing has been slow-paced and diffident. And promises that "Britney Jean," her 2013 album, would be her "most personal ever" gave way to a record full of tepid dance jams unlike her terrific, aggressively experimental previous albums, and drag-world lingo Spears doesn't actually understand. Her season-long stint as a reality show judge revealed a person who seemed ill-at-ease before cameras. She is not interested in performing; she has lost whatever talent she had for it; she is still under the conservatorship of her father, meaning she is not legally entitled to make her own decisions. It seems almost cruel that Britney Spears is still a celebrity.
One doesn't want to be a concern-troll when it comes to Spears. But the signals she has consistently sent, from her infamously uncomfortable meet-and-greets on her last tour to her recent interviews, up to and including the wistful "I Am Britney Jean," indicate a person who's being kept in the spotlight against her will.
In a recent review for New York, Jody Rosen described Spears as perhaps "the most boring person on the planet" and one not really worthy of our attention on the basis of her recent work. Maybe that's true of Spears as a person whose thoughts and utterances have lately been rather dull, but as a symbol, she's one of the world's most interesting: a person groomed for fame from young childhood on the basis of her sexuality who, having obtained that fame, found it a prison she could not escape. No wonder her fans want to probe "Britney Jean" for hints of a personality, or to be in the same room with her in Las Vegas when she descends from the ceiling as an angel (a curious choice).
There are so many vehicles for well-crafted pop music that aren't simply going through the paces, and pop music is moving away from bubblegum, anyway -- Spears feels like a relic or a legacy act, one prized for the nostalgia she's able to provide of a time when she more clearly seemed to be enjoying herself. Spears may be "better now" than she was in 2007 and 2008, but that comparison is fairly uncompelling; if a musical act is only fully enjoyable in light of past trauma, is it enjoyable at all? That Spears, a person with millions of fans who is in front of thousands of people at her Las Vegas show, feels alone in the world is a sign that, perhaps, she ought to be considered more than a symbol or an icon. She's also a person who'd be better off left in the past -- but the combination of money to be made and the American appreciation for a damaged figure made better or one we're told is "better" means that won't happen even after the lights dim in Vegas.