A fake newscaster names Britney Spears the Queen of Pop on her sixth studio album, "Circus." She must know what became of the self-anointed King of Pop, Michael Jackson: a globally popular hitmaker now reduced to tabloid fodder.
With "Circus," as on her 2007 album, "Blackout," Spears bets that she can balance stardom and notoriety better than Jackson did: holding attention with peculiar, even self-destructive behavior, while recording and performing to channel that attention toward sales. (If it should all come crashing down, she'll have plenty of catalog to fall back on.) "You say I'm crazy — I got you crazy," she taunts in her current No. 1 single "Womanizer."
The title song of "Circus" splits the world between entertainers and observers, then announces "I'm a put-on-a-show kinda girl." That show takes place onstage and off, lurching between scripted self-promotion and constant paparazzi surveillance. Spears' ups and downs over the last few years have included marriages, divorce, child-custody battles, rehab, head-shaving, psychiatric hospitalization and a flop dance production one year at the MTV Video Music Awards, followed by an armful of awards the next.
She revels in the visibility. Her sequel to "Piece of Me," last year's attack on her co-dependent media coverage, is "Kill the Lights." Amid electronic blips and ominous artificial strings and horns, she alternately invites photographers closer and fends them off. "They all wanna see," she warns prospective stars. "Is life going to get the best of you?"
Not that "Circus" is all about living in the spotlight. "Womanizer" and "Shattered Glass" use their pulsing electro arrangements for teen-pop tales of flirting and betrayal, while "Unusual You" is a backhanded love song about good behavior: "Didn't anyone tell you you're supposed to break my heart?" In "Blur," over dazed, wilting keyboard and guitar tones, Spears sings about a nightmarishly disoriented morning after: "Where am I? Who are you? What did we do last night?"
Spears's publicized private life lends humanity to a musical presence that's largely synthetic. On albums, her shallow, nasal voice is filtered, double-tracked, pitch-shifted and processed into digital stutters and placed in programmed tracks amid airless but hyperactive electronics. Most of her new songs are crisp, cunning dance-pop with a touch of schoolyard singsong. Just before they grow mechanical, they're zapped with new effects or catchy melodic interludes.
For "Circus," Spears kept the two main teams of songwriters and producers she used on "Blackout": one led by Lukasz Gottwald, aka Dr. Luke, a guitarist and teen-pop specialist, and one led by Nathaniel Hills, aka Danja, whose mentor was the hip-hop and R&B innovator Timbaland. "Circus" adds the producer Guy Sigsworth for two ballads that gleam with acoustic guitars: an after-the-breakup song, "Out From Under," and "My Baby," which — after an album about being a party girl — suddenly gets all dewy-eyed about motherhood.
Those two ballads and "Unusual You" are the album's only attempts at warmth. The rest is brittle, crafty and combative, buzzing with studio expertise and celebrity defensiveness. "You don't like me/I don't like you," Spears chants in "Kill the Lights" (written by Danja and others). "Only difference/you still listen." It's creepy, especially because it's true.