Monday 26 September 2016

Bold Britney back from the brink

Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30

One more time: Britney Spears returned to the MTV Video Music Awards this week for the first time since her wretched performance in 2007
One more time: Britney Spears returned to the MTV Video Music Awards this week for the first time since her wretched performance in 2007

It says something about our instant gratification culture that 'reviews' of Britney Spears' latest album appeared a couple of hours after she unveiled it last Thursday. Trigger-happy critics were euphoric in their praise; it was, they breathlessly insisted, one of pop's great comebacks.

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But many of those who lived with Glory for a few days quickly saw it for what it is - a decent album, boasting a handful of cracking songs, several highly polished tunes that are hard to get excited about and at least one track that should have been deemed too weak for inclusion.

And yet, while nobody in their right mind could compare it to Beyoncés towering Lemonade, it does feel like one of the significant pop albums of 2016. And that's not just because there's a reasonably strong quotient of potential global hits, but also because it offers the finger to those who might have been convinced that the Louisiana-raised singer has been a spent force for almost a decade.

After a disastrous 2007, in which she was rarely out of the tabloids, Spears failed to emulate past glories and a new breed of pop star - Rihanna, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift among them - were quick to seize her mantle.

It truly was an annus horribilis for a singer who, at the tender age of 25, was already having to prove that her pop career had longevity in it. With the paparazzi tracking her every move, she had what appeared to be a drawn-out breakdown following the end of her marriage to Kevin Federline, an ex-Justin Timberlake dancer, and the temporary custodial loss of her two sons. And when she was videoed through the windows of a salon shaving off her hair, it appeared as though the wheels had come off completely.

But the tonsorial incident was not quite the nadir. That came a couple of months later during MTV's Video Music Awards when she performed a lip-synched version of 'Gimme More' that was so wretched it prompted Simon Cowell to suggest that it was three minutes to kill off her career. It's been watched millions of times on YouTube and the shocked reaction of P Diddy in the audience says it all.

Spears had been a regular feature at the VMAs since her 1999 breakthrough - she had memorably duetted with Madonna in 2003 - but after 2007, she stayed away. Until last weekend, that is, when she returned to the scene of her most ridiculed moment and proved that she's made of stern stuff.

Not that the performance was great, mind. Once more, she lip-synched - albeit with far greater élan than before - and her dance moves were more pleasing, choreographically speaking. She certainly appeared much more self-confident than she has done in a long time and the thunderous applause at the end seemed to be that of an audience breathing a collective sigh of relief that she had emerged unscathed.

There have been signs of late that Spears was due a rebirth. She's just completed a well-received - and presumably remunerated - residency in Las Vegas, a city where people have long gambled for a better future, and - lest we forget - the five albums she released since her '07 meltdown have all gone Top Five in the US.

One can only hope now that she is in greater control of her career and will not bow to undue pressure. She is, after all, someone who has been in the public glare since the age of 11 - having starred in Disney's Mickey Mouse Club alongside future boyfriend Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera - and has had to play out her entire teen years and early childhood for everyone to see.

Those who sneered about her complaints of exhaustion in her early 20s or who thought the head-shaving was a publicity stunt should ask themselves how they would have coped had they been on national television during their adolescence and then, at 16, to be given a record industry deal that yielded instant global success?

It's an unfathomable situation to comprehend for most of us, especially when one considers how sexualised the material written for her has been from that debut single, '...Baby One More Time' and its similarly titled album. The new album boasts songs that are as carnally fixated as ever as Amanda Petrusich notes in an ­excellent Britney profile in the New Yorker:

"Many of Spears' best songs are about sex, an act she continues to view as purely transactional. I'll take care of your needs, and you'll take care of mine, and why not do this forever is how she repeatedly figures it on Glory."

Petrusich also nails another feature of the singer's oeuvre - how divorced it is from everything around it. "Her work rarely betrays growth, nor does it bend to the zeitgeist... Listening to Glory, it's almost as if the year 2000 were encased in amber and Spears alone figured out how to bust it open." It's a perfect observation, and no bad thing.

n The jewel in Ireland's music festival crown is well under way now, but those with a Sunday-only ticket for Electric Picnic will have plenty to excite them - and the usual First World problem of having to pick between acts.

New Order were universally praised for their stunning Glastonbury set earlier this summer and they'll take to the Main Stage at 8.45pm. They're not headlining, though: that honour goes to Lana Del Rey, who'll be on from 10.45pm to midnight.

The Sunday line-up on the Rankin's Wood stage looks particularly tasty, with Savages on at 6.30pm and the great Animal Collective immediately after at 7.45pm.

The Other Voices Stage, meanwhile, is the place to head to at 9.40pm if you fancy experiencing the mesmerising Dublin trad quartet, Lynched. A great way to round off what's likely to be a weekend to remember.

For those who can't go, 2fm will be providing coverage throughtout the weekend while RTÉ Two has a special programme from 9pm tonight.

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