Happy 10th Anniversary to Britney Spears’ sixth studio album Circus, originally released November 28, 2008.
“Toxic,” the second single from Britney Spears’ fourth album In the Zone (2003), made its market landfall on January 13, 2004. The glamorous mélange of bhangra and surf rock aesthetics was written in a four-way split between Cathy Dennis, Henrik Jonback, Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg; Spears made the single a smash and an unequivocal high point in her canon. “Toxic” also politely sidestepped the fact that In the Zone (2003) was perceived to be an underwhelming set of songs that did not make good on the progressive thrust of its forerunner, Britney (2001). Still, In the Zone was a forgivable transitional misstep.
But, in the next few years to follow, Spears’ muse was unseated by a mass of private issues made public. Understandably, her fifth album would undergo several changes before it finally manifested itself as Blackout on October 25, 2007. Constructed by many hands, the most notable staffer on that long player was Timbaland’s protégé Nate “Danja” Hills. Hills’ compositions—“Gimme More,” “Break the Ice,” “Get Naked (I Got a Plan),” “Outta Time,” “Get Back,” “Hot as Ice” and “Perfect Lover”—formed the record’s musical center by rewiring modish dance-pop with classic synth-funk and black pop à la Cherrelle, Vanity 6 and Evelyn “Champagne” King. This sound fit Spears like a veritable hand in glove.
Three months on from its release—notwithstanding two emergency hospitalizations that led to Spears being unceremoniously splashed across the cover of the February 21, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone as its lead feature—Blackout remarkably found its footing with audiences. Yet, Blackout was owed as much to Spears as it was to contributors like Hills. And while Spears had handpicked him and the other personnel lining Blackout, her recently troubled image coupled with the standing opinion that she was a “product” sandbagged her fifth affair with the accusation that it was another manufactured exercise. Given the purposeful maneuvering of Britney and In the Zone, Spears was likely stung by the harsh criticism.
The writing and recording of Spears’ sixth album—soon to be wryly crowned Circus—assisted in sweeping out the self-made fog that some believe had clouded the vocalist’s judgement previously. Spears sought to make Circus the vehicle to put her back onto the path toward the establishment of her own artistic agency.
A wide array of old friends (Nate Hills, Christian Karlsson, Pontus Winnberg, Max Martin) and fresh faces (Savan Kotecha, Rafeal Akinyemi, Nikesha Briscoe, Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald) rallied around Spears to write and produce material for her. Further, the singer took her own tentative steps toward additional songwriting sovereignty with four co-write credits via “Mmm Papi,” “Mannequin,” “My Baby,” and “Rock Me In.”
Much of the sonic overhead of Circus is beholden to the combination of American and European electro-pop and dance music textures that Spears had begun cultivating as early as Britney. Spears reaches an intoxicating peak of power with this formula on Circus’ initiating single and opener “Womanizer.” The heavy, mechanized funk of the track is unrelenting in its assault and daringly confines its melodicism to the addictive hook that Spears wields with her trademark coquettish charm.
Other tracks such as “Circus,” “Shattered Glass” and “Mannequin” are similarly vended from this method and prove that this position is one that Spears is quite comfortable in.
But, as with the best pop records, Spears saves space for other aural avenues to explore.
The R&B-pop vibes courted on previous outings resurface in midtempo-to-balladic form on “Out from Under” and Blur” and showcase a decent bit of vocal range from Spears. Then there is “Lace and Leather,” an entry that returns Spears to the Blackout-esque aim of reworking present-day dance music with throwback electro-funk accents. In this case, she goes for that sleek, Linn LM-1 Minneapolis gusto as the synthesizer and drum programming attests.
Surprisingly, “Mmm Papi” nears the same zenith of spy soundtrack drama that “Toxic” did with its surf rock component in full effect sans any of the Bollywood flourishes that guested handsomely on that anterior jam. Curiously marooned on the expanded deluxe edition of this song cycle is the stylish flex of new wave muscle on “Rock Me In”—it is more than worthy of proper placement on the standard Circus format.
Excluding the eventual double entendre controversy of “If U Seek Amy” and the reappearance of “Radar” from Blackout, Circus forgoes much of the fussy bellicosity of that effort in favor of a looser, more flirtatious atmosphere. However, songs like “Out from Under,” “Unusual You” and “My Baby” lean into a general sense of introspection that only incidentally hint at the emotional storms Spears had weathered up to that point.
Released internationally on November 28, 2008—with a stateside debut on December 2, 2008—Circus lived up to its namesake as a vivid assemblage of assorted genre delights sharing Spears’ persona as their common denominator. The collection racked up strong critical and commercial notices; specifically, three of its four singles—“Womanizer,” “Circus,” “If U Seek Amy”—scaled the charts globally and dressed the stage for another decade of dominance by Spears. Even with the many albums to come, as a complete body of work, the dual intent of Circus to restore inventive self-governance to Spears while maintaining affection for solid pop grooves makes the record very much a seminal triumph within her discography.