In the past nine years, Britney Spears has released nine Top 20 singles and launched one of history’s most successful Las Vegas residencies. So of course the media billed her MTV Video Music Awards performance as a comeback event.
There was some truth to the hype. Spears hasn’t performed at the VMAs since her disastrous 2007 “Gimme More” spectacle, where she wore her underwear and stringy hair extensions. But she pulled off a successful commercial comeback in November 2008, when Circus, her sixth album, sold over half a million copies in a week only nine months after Spears was committed to psychiatric hospitals twice in one month.
Spears has struggled during live performances since then. Throughout her 2011 Femme Fatale tour, she sat down and/or waved her arms as dancers performed complicated choreography around her. Rumors circulated that a 2004 leg injury prevented her from dancing as she did in the early 2000s (she busted her knee on the set of the music video for “Outrageous,” her duet with Snoop Dogg), but a leg injury couldn’t explain why Spears seemed miserable—and for so many years. During a December 2008 Good Morning America performance, her eyes looked glassy as she lip-synched “Circus,” and on the Femme Fatale tour she squirmed during fan meet and greets.
Women and gay men in their late 20s and early 30s have been salivating for a complete Spears comeback. We grew up with her. She stripped down to a sparkly jumpsuit when we were in elementary school. She kissed Madonna during the conservative Bush years, when we were in middle school. Then, when we were teens, she suffered a massive breakdown, complete with a shaved head and multiple trips to rehabs and psychiatric hospitals.
A full Spears comeback would deliver so much joy, because no celebrity has meant so much and fallen as hard as Britney Spears and pulled off a comeback. Michael Jackson fell harder, thanks to accusations of child molestation and drugs, but he passed before his London comeback dates. Elvis performed an iconic comeback special in 1968, but was obese and abusing drugs only a few years later. Judy Garland made multiple comebacks but could never stay sober.
Nothing could give us more hope than Spears dancing like it was 2002 in the middle of a year when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are running for president. Kim Kardashian displayed this sentiment when she introduced Spears last night with the fervor of a 10-year-old gay boy at a Fifth Harmony concert, by saying, “Making her triumphant return to the VMA’s stage… IT’S BRITNEY, BITCH!”
Spears started dancing in silhouette behind a screen, while shadows of hands tried to touch her—a wink to her personal problems—and then she emerged in a yellow bustier. She sang “Make Me,” slid to the ground, and humped the floor, with her back arched like a twinky gay bottom. When Spears looked up, I expected her to look, at worst, dead in the eyes; or, at best, bored like she did at the this year’s Billboard Music Awards. But this time she looked possessed by a weird sex god, like time had reversed and she was at the 2000 VMAs. She was so good that I barely noticed two background dancers had emerged to assist Spears.
G-Eazy made little impression. Like a low-rent Kevin Federline, he appeared with his hair slicked back and in a leather jacket for his rendition of his unnecessary verse on “Make Me.” Spears reemerged in a boxing jacket—another wink at her personal troubles and comebacks—to lip-synch G-Eazy’s “Me, Myself, and I.” While just lip-synching another man’s song, Spears looked happy. She fixed her face into a similar smirk like one she gave after she kissed Madonna. She had more rhythm and passion as she stomped than she gave during any of the Femme Fatale world tour.
For the rest of the performance, Spears used G-Eazy as a wall. She walked behind him, fell to the ground, slid under his legs, and then bounced on the ground while giving a funny face she often delivers in her Instagram pics. It was her best TV performance since the 2003 promo tour for In the Zone.
G-Eazy could feel her energy. Spears grabbed his crotch, and then he went in to kiss her. Spears demurred. A decade ago, Spears would have accepted his advance. At the 2000 VMAs, she was the complete lack of sexual inhibition. Last night, she wavered between wild and guarded, resulting in a more nuanced performance. Age added depth to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen’s voices, and life has brought more complexity to Spears’ lip-synching and dancing. She has changed. That’s not a bad thing.