The MTV Music Video Awards are a venue where artists go to sin or to be redeemed. Justin Bieber began his unofficial, since-abandoned Apology Tour with a teary VMAs performance last year; in 2013, Miley Cyrus twerked her way into infamy. It was on the VMAs in 2001 that Britney Spears performed “I’m a Slave 4 U” dressed in an instantly iconic seven-foot-long albino Burmese python. (The snake is still alive, according to MTV.com, which checked. Her name is Banana.) It was during this performance that Spears came into her own, a moment of liberation and self-expression in a career that has since offered her very little of either.
At the 2007 VMAs, during the year of her difficulties, Spears lip-synced through a listless version of “Gimme More.” She hadn’t performed live at the VMAs since, until Sunday night. She spent the intervening years under a continuing court-ordered conservatorship that gives control of her life and career to her father, after a public breakdown in 2007. She now has her own Vegas residency.
Spears’s performance in Madison Square Garden on Sunday night was supposed to be redemptive, a high-risk/high-reward gamble (typical pre-show headline: “Britney Spears to stage comeback at site of her most public failure”) that mostly went bust.
It wasn’t awful — she seemed competent and aware, and to hit every mark — it was just . . . wrong. Awkward. Dutiful. Old-fashioned. It was as if the 34-year-old Spears’s understanding of pop showmanship ended sometime in 2005, which maybe it did, and no one had told her. Spears performed her new single, the likable trifle “Make Me . . . ,” with polite Bay Area rapper G-Eazy, who appears on the record. He may have been chosen because he was unlikely to either upstage or terrify her, though he touched her face at one point and she flinched and shook her head.
It was a Vegas-y exercise. Spears played supplicant, backup showgirl to G-Eazy, whom she climbed like a pole. That she performed immediately after Beyoncé delivered a world-beating ode to female power that ended with the stage literally set on fire hardly seemed fair.
Spears’s VMA performance was intended as the third prong of a successful comeback that included her hit Vegas show and a solid new album, “Glory,” that dropped Friday. “Glory” arrived full of promise, which was unusual. Everyone knew Spears’s last album, 2013’s “Britney Jean,” was going to be a dud well before it got here. There were warning signs: The first single underperformed; it promised a more “personal” version of Spears it plainly couldn’t deliver; Will.i.am was on it. “Britney Jean” offered up a PG-13, generic ideal of Spears as relatable and lovelorn, if distant. “Glory,” which fairly crackles with energy in comparison, is the musical version of a 3 a.m. booty call. It’s a chocolate sampler box of beats and styles, many of them EDM-related: There’s wistful, wind-down electro pop (the excellent “Man on the Moon”), stuttery and ambitious club pop (“Better”), vintage R&B (”What You Need”). There are peppy homages to the Weeknd (“Do You Wanna Come Over?”) and Selena Gomez (“Invitation”).
“Glory” is fizzy and enjoyable, but then it didn’t need to do much, except meet basic levels of competence, and not be “Britney Jean.” Spears needed only to seem present, which she does — she’s vivid and playful and sexy throughout, like a long-fuzzy radio station finally coming in clearly. She’s tart and burbly and funny. She sings in French. There aren’t many genres that A-game Britney can’t handle, and the album’s occasional fumbles aren’t her fault; if she can’t rescue the ersatz reggae of “Love Me Down” (and she can’t, it’s kind of terrible), then there was no saving it.
Because Spears’s life is so closely guarded, her albums and rare televised live performances are fans’ only opportunities to read between the lines, to determine just how much of Britney Spears is left. It was a weekend of mixed messages: At the VMAs, she was a skittish show pony; on “Glory” she’s a cheery, voracious woman in charge. But pop albums are the last place anybody should look for the truth. There are moments on “Glory” that are calculated to seem franker than other moments, but it’s as impersonal as ever. Britney Spears is never going to make “Lemonade.” She’s not even going to make a Gwen Stefani-style confessional about whatever version of Blake Shelton (or whatever version of G-Eazy, more likely) she eventually winds up with. Everything you hear, and everything you see, may be everything there is, everything she’s capable of giving.
The more we come to expect albums from pop divas to serve as vehicles for their self-actualization and empowerment, the more “woke” we get, the more we don’t know what to do about Britney, the least empowered pop star there is. By cheerleading a comeback that may or may not be entirely her wish, by someone who does not even meet the basic legal standard of personal agency, it’s unclear whether we are hurting or helping. Even by the lenient standards of pop stardom, there’s always been a cotton candy-like vagueness where Britney’s center should be, an alarming compliancy. A comeback seems impossible, when she’s never really been here at all.