By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
If only we could just talk about "Womanizer." Britney Spears started jacking European electroclash somewhere around 2003's "Toxic," but she's never made a truer distillation of synthy folktronica than this four-minute slice of pure guilty pleasure: From the initial pitch-modulation alarm to the stuttering Rihanna-worthy hook to the futuristically cold and percussive piston effects that surround her, "Womanizer" is a 2046 strip-club classic come calling a few decades early. Until now, we'd barely heard anything from Brit to justify the endless, endless voyeurism of her 27-year-old life and times, though all eras inevitably get the pop stars they deserve.
Great single. But there had to be an album. (The digitized record industry hasn't relearned that particular singles-only 1950s lesson yet.) Circus is as boy-toy bland and Rorschach generic as any other Britney album since her teenybopper . . . Baby One More Time beginning nine years ago. Nobody at this late date thinks we're dealing with Tori Amos here. Britney bares zero about her mental-institution misadventures, or the legal battle over her toddlers, or the K-Fed divorce, or even her (I'm sure) considerable embarrassment at getting caught pantyless over and over. Instead, this one goes mostly to prove that Brand Britney is back on track—she shaved her head, but the hair's grown back, so to speak.
Until she somehow manages her very own Ray of Light, it's all we have. Last year, Madonna told Z100 that she does her Pilates and dance aerobics to Blackout, the 2007 Brit record that has yet to similarly engage even one million gym rats. Circus is just as useful on a NordicTrack stepper; that's uncontestable. "Shattered Glass," "Radar," "Mmm Papi"—they're all as amphetamine-energetic as C + C Music Factory by way of Goldfrapp. But "If U Seek Amy" (bypass the mental exercise: It's "F-U-C-K me") is catchy, but clever in title alone. "Lace and Leather" shocks just for flaunting a live instrument: thrice-removed Rick James–variety bass. Brit offhandedly crowns herself the Queen of Pop on the expected anti-paparazzi number "Kill the Lights," and "Blur" could be read as revealing ("Everything is still a blur/Can't remember what I did last night"), but her Highness never gets much deeper than "Oh, my backless dress is excess." Surprise.
Circus is no better or worse than Janet Jackson's dominatrix-lite Discipline from earlier this year, but she doesn't even have a record deal at the moment, apparently forever penalized for her Nipplegate fiasco. Calling out white privilege is prohibited in the age of President Obama, but can you imagine Beyoncé flashing her privates, landing in the nuthouse, etc., and returning to the open arms of MTV an album later?