I skipped church last Sunday night to watch the highly promoted “tell all” Britney Spears documentary, Britney: For the Record. Sitting in front of my television set, temporarily trapped in her Groundhog Day life of makeup chair, photo shoot, meeting, makeup chair, video shoot, meeting, I felt 15 years old again, giddy and riveted for some assuredly God-forsaken reason by the blond bubble gum-smacking pop star. Britney has always had that effect on me. My teenage years are counted by the hours lost choreographing dances to her songs or tracking her love affair with Justin Timberlake. Let’s just say that, beyond all logic or reason, when Britney’s on, I watch.

And since it’s time for confessions, let’s put it all out on the table. Yes, Britney has been a hot mess for quite some time. In the past few years we’ve seen her hop in and out of failed relationships, lose custody of her two children, battle various spiritual and chemically-induced demons, and ultimately end up strapped to a gurney and admitted to the hospital for her own safety. And for nearly a decade she’s been a thorn in the Christian community’s side, with her “good girl gone bad” shtick. Who could forget her jaw-dropping appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards, wearing little more than glitter and hair extensions? She wanted to be “sparkly.”

Nevertheless, with all faults aside, Britney still possesses that thing, that je ne sais quoi that makes girls from my generation want to buy a hot pink poster board and charge down to MTV’s Time Square studios to shout declarations of love to all things pop. I’ve spent years trying to put into words why I love her, and I think it comes down to this: I know Britney. She was the Mickey Mouse Club girl I watched as a child afterschool on the Disney Channel. Later she emerged as a teenager just as I was dealing with my own adolescent angst. Yes, she was a superstar, but her “girl next door” charm interspersed with the awkwardness of youth mirrored my life.

And I’m not alone in this. Most women my age who love Britney talk about her like she’s a sister. They have this dual disappointment in what she’s become, mixed with a curiosity to see what she’ll do next. We always root for her, the way we root for ourselves to finally figure it out and get it right.

And I think that’s why the calculated documentary to promote the release of her new album Circus (Jive/Zomba Records) left me feeling a little jaded and protective. I genuinely want Britney to win, but it’s clear she’s not ready to go public. In the sunset of her alleged bipolar breakdown, the fire in Britney’s eyes glows, but it flickers. Even shot against gorgeous cinematography by Pedro Castro and bubbling over with humorous moments of goofy abandon in the documentary—she does a priceless impression of her country bumpkin father—there is a skittish quality about her the cameras can’t hide. At one point they linger a moment too long and she loses all composure, sinking into quiet tears. She explains succinctly, “I’m sad.”

Maybe that explains the ill-timed album. It’s a brief escape from her glamorously mundane life. But don’t get too excited, because Circus isn’t anything to call your old high school girlfriends about. It’s the same raunchy dance tunes we’ve come to expect of a post-Oops! I Did It Again Britney. Reviewers are calling it better than Blackout, with standout tracks including the “Womanizer” single, “If You Seek Amy” (don’t say it out loud), and her new ballad “Out From Under.” But since Blackout was phoned in at the height of her breakdown, labeling it “better than” isn’t saying much.

So don’t call it a comeback—the old Britney has not returned. But thank goodness for that, because I don’t think we really want to see a stunted 20-year-old pop star. Her fans want her to continue growing with them, gliding through her quarter-life crisis. It’s better to say she’s undergoing a rebirth. She’s in that fragile phase, trying to find her own way. And I hope she’ll get there, to that place where strength meets passion and peace. We all do. We hope she’ll find a way to live amongst the threat of constant public scrutiny and mend from the past hurts she, for the record, still hasn’t divulged.

Britney already seems to be on the right track, finding healing in unconventional ways. “People think that you go through something in your life and you need to go to therapy,” she says. “For me, art is therapy because it’s like you’re expressing yourself in such a spiritual way.” Later she reflects, “I think back on the last 10 years and what I’ve been through. And it’s a touchy thing, ’cause when I see my babies, of course you have to believe in God. I completely believe in God.”

And there she has me again. I’m eager to see where this new flirtation with faith and optimism takes her. But this time, let’s be kind and give her space, eh? Freshly centered and wobbling, albeit gracefully, on new spiritual ground, she could use it.

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