LAS VEGAS – If anyone has the right to say, “Don’t call it a comeback,” it’s Britney Spears, whose every public appearance since she bottomed out in 2007 has been labeled as the Possible Return to Form With Which She Might Finally Silence All Doubters. But however well or poorly you think she fared in any of those post-2007 appearances, none of them marked a return to the scene of the crime — the MTV Video Music Awards, site of her highest highs and single lowest low — until now.
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On Sunday night, Spears will perform live at the VMAs for the first time since the great debacle of nine years ago. Will it be the definitively redemptive moment she’s been working toward for almost a decade… or just another night in Vegas, uneventfully transplanted to Madison Square Garden?
In recent years, she’s avoided the sacred or cursed ground that is the VMAs for the slightly less glaring spotlight of the Billboard Music Awards. In the spring of 2015, her duet on that show with Iggy Azalea, “Pretty Girls,” was largely seen as a chemistry-free whiff, but she came back to the BBMAs this year with a solo greatest-hits medley thatwent over far better. Clearly, she’d been in training, in the form of a Caesars Palace residency that began in 2013, and a nimble backflip in that performance three years ago made up for a multitude of lip-synching among some grouches who were expecting a lazier Britney.
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But expectations aren’t so low now, and VMAs viewers may be less primed to settle for something that seems snipped right out of her nightly Nevada set.
MTV’s producers have their work cut out for them in coming up with visual production elements that will compare with the snake, or Sapphic Madonna kiss, or schoolgirl outfit of yore. Because Spears goes into Sunday with one inherent handicap already on her scorecard: She’ll be performing “Make Me” — the song she was supposed to do on the Billboard Awards in May, before it was scratched in favor of the hits medley. Since then, it’s been unleashed on the public and already been found wanting, at least if the charts are any indication. “Make Me” currently sits at #51 on the Billboard Hot 100 in its fifth week, down from #43 last week and way down from its peak of #17. She might have a better shot at wowing the crowd if she already had a second single from her new album,Glory, teed up.
By Sunday night, fans will have already had two days to absorb Glory (or longer, if you factor in leaks). Early critical notices for the Aug. 26 have fallen in a middle ground between fabulosity and flop, as they have for most of Spears’s latter-day releases.
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USA Today gave Glory a middling two and a half stars, saying the album “has no intentions of deviating from her safe zone” but calls it “a worthwhile listen… Spears still falls back on old tricks that keep Glory from matching her best ’00s output; her voice is undeniably processed, and her lyrics are still strings of interchangeable come-ons. But refreshingly, Britney herself feels more present.” The Boston Globe wrote that Glory “has an unbridled energy that’s refreshing in late summer 2016, when pop-radio playlists are dominated by a hung-over malaise.” The New York Times was less impressed by “her latest attempt to reclaim her place on the pop charts, which are now crowded with younger performers who have studied her the way Ms. Spears studied Madonna. Her latest strategy is relentless and unambiguous: Stick to sexy.” The Timesechoed USA Today in saying that at least Spears seems like a participant on her own album, unlike 2013’s flop Britney Jean: “She sounds more involved, more present, than she has in a decade… Yet even with her voice upfront, Ms. Spears isn’t singing anything particularly personal. It’s as if Ms. Spears can still only present herself as that most generic pop commodity: a sexpot.”
How much does the public really love a sexy mom? Spears hasn’t shied away from sharing about her kids on social media, but seemed embarrassed on an edition of “Carpool Karaoke” this week when James Corden likened her kids seeing her onstage in lingerie to him having walked in on his naked mum. At 34, Spears may already be facing the split career Madonna now has: a superstar whose old hits and persona will always prove a nostalgic live draw, but whose sexy new records seem a little too age-inappropriate for the young Top 40 audience.
Even with a stronger hit single than “Make Me…” as a teaser, Glory would have its work cut out for it in the current marketplace. Her previous effort, the much-maligned Britney Jean, has still only sold 272,000 copies in the three years it’s been out. Although even the more tepid reviews agree that Glory is more fun than the last album, it’ll take a different single to make that case to a wide radio audience.
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How Spears would do out on the road now remains an open question, since her Vegas residency remains a safe zone. Her record for a single night’s ticket sales there was just eclipsed by Jennifer Lopez earning a million in receipts in one night for her fresh residency, but her sales were doing well enough last year — two years into the intermittent run — that she got a renewal through 2017. The general consensus has been that it’s not a bad show, as long as you don’t expect to hear her sing… and no one does. Just a few weeks ago, Washington Post columnist Julie Bone visited the revamped residency and quoted a patron as saying “I think I paid $600 to hear her lip-sync”… but Bone still loved the show, miming and all. Would arena audiences who haven’t been pumped up from hours of drinking and gambling feel as forgiving?
If you were placing Vegas odds on whether Spears will sing live Sunday night, that might come in as about a 70-1 bet. The good news for Spears is that even registering a complaint about her canned vocals feels very 2005. What the VMAs audience does want, though, is athleticism. Can she still move?