Pop’s relentless freakshow has turned out more than its fair share of celebrity casualties, but the descent of Britney Spears from bright-eyed Mouseketeer to zit-ridden spring-break wild child sporting chronically lame ‘Virgin (This Is An Old T-shirt)’ slogans must surely be one of the most sad and gory of recent times. If this is a slide, we may not have seen anything yet: Britney’s new single – and indeed the track that lends this, her greatest hits compilations, its name – is a cover of Bobby Brown’s 1988 hit ‘My Prerogative’. “Everybody’s talking all this stuff about me/ Why don’t they just let me live?” it goes. Bobby spent the next decade living those noble sentiments to the hilt, developing a raging addiction to crack, facing allegations of sexual battery, and crashing his wife’s rented Porsche into a street sign in Florida while coked off his tits. If this song is a clue to Britney’s current mindset, we can comfortably say that on her forthcoming hiatus, she could give Pete Doherty a run for his money.
The appeal of Britney Spears, of course, was never an especially tough one to grasp. She’s always been a giver, has Ms Spears. She’s a slave for you. Born to make you happy. Sure, she can sing OK, and she dances good too: a youth spent toiling in Disney’s kiddie-pop gulag The Mouseketeers, alongside the likes of young Justin and Christina, saw to that. But Britney’s major talent is that of self-objectification. The second she shimmied onto MTV dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl and pledged her virginal self to you, forever, she promised that not only did she know exactly how men’s grubby little minds worked, but that she was never, ever going to let on.
Even six years later, ‘…Baby One More Time’ still sounds incredible. Penned with songwriter-producer Max Martin, the Swedish pop powerhouse behind Britney’s early albums, it’s a symphony of teenage lust as fully realised as anything Brian Wilson ever wrote – a truly grand pop song that overwhelms any lingering undercurrent of Lolita paedo-creepiness through the sheer fanatical earnestness of its delivery. And of course, Britney’s got more male fantasies where that came from. Take ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’: a hollow, spacious digital dub number penned with R&B futurist Pharrell Williams of The Neptunes, it’s pop S&M so kinky you can practically hear the clink of handcuffs and the squeak of latex. It may just be the best thing that Britney’s ever done.
Thing is, the music industry demands a lot from a girl. It demands lead singles that feature skimpy clothing and bunk-ups in aeroplane toilets. But it also demands ballads. Passion-wracked, soul-crushing ballads to fill the playlists of commercial radio stations worldwide. Christina Aguilera did it with ‘Beautiful’, a quivering slow-burner that proved there was soul beneath the arseless chaps. But Britney does artifice far better than she does soul, and consequently, she’s bad at ballads. The sentiments of ‘I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman’ and ‘Born To Make You Happy’ are basically just dirty old man fodder, but the increasingly contrived little gal innocence reaches its sticky crescendo with ‘Lucky’. A stab at pity-me autobiography, it’s a tale of a “Hollywood girl” that asks, lip a-tremble, “If there’s nothing missing in my life/Then why do these tears come at night?” And it’s totally gross – cloying, drenched in saccharine, and generally boasting all the heart of a blow-up doll.
Indeed, for all its sparkling pop moments, ‘…My Prerogative’ reveals Britney to be a one-trick pony. Ideally, you feel, she’d like to be a shapeshifter like Madonna, but she lacks Madge’s instincts and self-control: there’s little wonder that a dated cover of Joan Jett’s ‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’ – the aural equivalent of a distressed Mötley Crüe T-shirt fresh off the TopShop rail – is her biggest flop to date. So now, Britney’s backed into a corner, smeared as a pop brat careering off the rails – and judging by the fuck-you sentiments of that ‘My Prerogative’ cover it appears to be a role she’s increasingly happy to play.
Which brings us to the closer, and the final new track here. Ominously entitled ‘I’ve Just Begun (Having My Fun)’, it chimes rather oddly with Britney’s much-vaunted desire to start a family. “I’m just a crazy kind of girl/ I’ll tell it to the world,” she sings, “Don’t want to settle down”. But it finds her sounding exhausted: confused, jaded, and bored. Is this what happens when the girl that made a career out of giving herself away discovers there’s nothing left to give?