Britney Spears: “Circus”

Britney Spears doesn’t like her life.

Now, if you follow the tabloids — heck, if you read the entertainment section of the BBC website, not exactly a trashy news source — you might be chuckling right now. “Oh, Sigrid,” you might be saying. “That’s a little obvious, now, isn’t it?” Yes, yes, fine. But I didn’t base this observation on Spears’ antics. (The woman is hounded day and night; what would be an error in judgment on my part or yours is an international scandal when she does it. I try to cut her some slack when it comes to her press.) No, I came to this realization listening to her single, “Circus.”

There’s the video on YouTube. Give it a listen. Normal pop-dance fare. And there’s Britney, wearing expensive jewelry and slinky clothes and singing about being a star. Except she’s not; not really. She’s not singing about being a star. She’s singing about being trapped. Which might be the same thing. Ms. Spears is not, however, a songwriter. She didn’t compose, write, or produce “Circus.” So how did she end up singing this? How did she end up lip-syncing next to an elephant?

Who wrote this song?

Circus’s Wiki entry gives us the answer. Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco produced “Circus.” Thee writers are Lukasz Gottwald (aka Dr. Luke,) Claude Kelly & Benjamin Levin (aka Benny Blanco.) So, whatever the lyrics are, whatever the music is, Britney can’t really be held . . . accountable, now, can she? It’s not her song, she’s just performing it. The song’s not really about her, not really Britney singing about herself. It’s a song written by these guys. Could be about anybody.

Take a look at Dr. Luke’s credits for a moment. “Since U Been Gone,” performed by Kelly Clarkson. “Girlfriend,” “Runaway,” and “Alone,” performed by Avril Lavigne. Both of Katy Perry’s big hits, “I Kissed a Girl” and “Hot N Cold.” Lady Sovereign’s “Love Me or Hate Me (Fuck You).” “U + Ur Hand,” performed by Pink. Vanessa Hudgens. Kelis. The Veronicas. Marion Raven. Paris Hilton. Kelly Osborne. Leona Lewis. He clearly specializes in that genre of fierce, slightly pissed off, slightly-hurt-and-not-caring-any-more anthems sung by young women. Whether pop ballads, pop-rock hits, or R&B-style dance numbers, this seems to be what Dr. Luke writes. Avril’s “hey hey you you I don’t like your girlfriend.” Clarkson’s “since you been gone I can breathe for the first time.” Pink’s “you really don’t want to mess with me tonight.” Or, simply, “if you love me then thank you, if you hate me then fuck you.”

Dr. Luke writes declarations of autonomy sung by narrators who have come to independence by way of bad choices. He writes the angry young woman who is deciding to not care because she cares very much indeed. He writes the hurt young woman reveling in her freedom because she’s tired of crying over the guy who left. He writes a cinematic, in-your-face, anthemesque assertion of self. Dr. Luke writes the narrator’s decision to be someone she likes more than who she has been. And maybe the narrator won’t completely pull it off, won’t maintain that decision to love herself more and be something new and brighter. But these anthems all declaim that intention, at around 125-140 beats per minute.

“Circus” is different.

For one thing, “Circus” is slower. Around 115 bpm, and I notice that when it plays on KDWB’s Party Zone on Friday night. (Lady Gaga’s depressing party anthem “Just Dance” clocks at 120 bpm, Avril Lavigne’s vibrant “Girlfriend” at 165, and Katy Perry’s sly “I Kissed a Girl” at 135.) For another, look at the central metaphor, the one in the title. Circus. What phrases does the English language have that contain the word circus? It was a real circus, let me tell you. The whole thing was a three-ring circus. It’s like the circus came to town. It’s a media circus. That belongs in a circus.

The circus is disorder, it’s chaos. It’s unlawfulness and a breaking of the rules. The circus comes to town, disrupts everything, and leaves. And, in the cultural metaphor, those in the circus are suspect, untrustworthy — glittering and fascinating but ultimately not wholesome. Circus men are a little dangerous, circus women are a little loose in this paradigm, and the circus also has the hint of the freakshow in our minds. In the grand cultural imagination, the ringleader of the circus gives you spectacle with more than a hint of danger. Not danger to you, no — but danger to the performers in the ring.

Now let’s take a look at the lyrics:

There’s only two types of people in the world
The ones that entertain and the ones that observe
Well baby, I’m a put-on-a-show kind of girl
Don’t like the backseat, gotta be first

I’m a like the ringleader, I call the shots
(Call the shots)
I’m like a firecracker I make it hot
When I put on a show

I feel the adrenaline moving through my veins
Spotlight on me and I’m ready to break
I’m like a performer, the dancefloor is my stage
Better be ready, hope that you feel the same

All eyes on me in the center of the ring just like a circus
When I crack that whip, everybody gon’ trip just like a circus
Don’t stand there watching me, follow me, show me what you can do
Everybody let go, we can make a dancefloor just like a circus

There’s only two types of guys out there
Ones that can hang with me and ones that are scared
So baby, I hope that you came prepared
I run a tight ship so beware

I’m a like the ringleader, I call the shots
(Call the shots)
I’m like a firecracker, I make it hot
When I put on a show

I feel the adrenaline moving through my veins
Spotlight on me and I’m ready to break
I’m like a performer, the dancefloor is my stage
Better be ready, hope that you feel the same

All eyes on me in the center of the ring just like a circus
When I crack that whip, everybody gon’ trip just like a circus
Don’t stand there watching me, follow me, show me what you can do
Everybody let go, we can make a dancefloor just like a circus

Let’s go
Let me see what you can do
I’m runnin’ this like-like-like a circus
Yeah, like a what? Like-like-like a circus

All eyes on me in the center of the ring just like a circus
When I crack that whip, everybody gon’ trip just like a circus
Don’t stand there watching me, follow me, show me what you can do
Everybody let go, we can make a dancefloor just like a circus

All eyes on me in the center of the ring just like a circus
When I crack that whip, everybody gon’ trip just like a circus
Don’t stand there watching me, follow me, show me what you can do
Everybody let go, we can make a dancefloor just like a circus

So in this metaphor, the narrator of the song is the both the ringleader and the main act of the circus. The narrator is the one inviting you to watch, but is also the one watched — the one with “all eyes on me in the center of the ring.” The narrator is the one at risk in the circus metaphor, the performer in danger.

Inside the central metaphor of “Circus” the lyrics make some things a strong a parallel (metaphor) and others a weaker comparison (simile.) “We can make a dancefloor just like a circus,” a simile. Not “We can make the dancefloor a circus,” but “just like a circus.” We can make things into mirrors of other things. Like a ringleader. Like a firecracker. Not these things, but something close to them. Yet in “all eyes on me in the center of the ring just like a circus” we blend the two — the situation is still only “like a circus,” but the narrator places herself in a ring, stared at by the audience in what is either metaphor or mere fact. The narrator is stared at. She is watched, always. And in the song she wishes to become the ringleader of the circus which holds her as the central act, she wishes to invite the audience onto the dancefloor and into the ring with her. “When I crack that whip, everybody gon’ trip just like a circus / Don’t stand there watching me, follow me, show me what you can do.” The narrator doesn’t want to be stared at, alone, the sole spectacle. Not any more.

In the lyrics above I’ve italicized the chorus. But there’s another section, repeated twice, that captures the central ambiguity of the song.

I feel the adrenaline moving through my veins
Spotlight on me and I’m ready to break
I’m like a performer, the dancefloor is my stage
Better be ready, hope that you feel the same

Go back to the video for a second. Or, better yet, if you have an audio copy of the song just listen to it. Go to the 0:57 mark and listen. I feel the adrenaline moving through my veins. Listen to that, to the falling thumping bass line behind it. The narrator is singing about adrenaline, yet the music is descending. This isn’t the adrenaline of power, of being pumped up, of charging forward. This is the adrenaline of fear, of falling, of being chased. At 1:03 in the video, on the word “veins,” Spears throws her head back, showing her throat. Spotlight on me and I’m ready to break. Spotlight on the narrator, who is ready to break. Yes, yes, I know perfectly well that this is being used colloquially to mean “break into dance.” But this is also one of the few times in the song where the narrator does not use the word “like.” She could have said, “spotlight on me like I’m ready to break.” But the narrator doesn’t. I’m like a performer, the dancefloor is my stage. Not she is a performer. No. She’s like one. Something similar to a performer but not quite, and with that bass line falling behind the words. On the word “stage” in this video we briefly see a parasol covering the character at the center of the screen. On stage but hiding. Better be ready, hope that you feel the same. Who had better be ready? The audience, or the narrator herself? And what happens if she’s not?

This is not a confident song. It’s not a happy song. It’s not a slightly-angry-young-woman-is-making-a-decision song, like so many Dr. Luke has written. It’s a song about someone trapped in the middle of a spectacle they don’t control, who hopes that no-one notices how trapped she feels.

Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco work with a lot of performers. They work with a lot of acts. Someone else could have sung this. Someone else could have taken this song and made it theirs. But for reasons entirely outside of my knowledge, this song ended up with Britney Spears. It ended up with that descending bass line behind the part that ought to have been most triumphant, robbing the declaration-of-power of its vitality. It ended up with a young woman spreading her legs in the video on the word “entertainment.” With a mocking “ha, ha, ho ho” trailing downward after the phrase “we can make a dancefloor just like a circus.” And at the 3:15 mark the song has an odd, theremin-like synthesized riff that squeals a descending line until the end.

Theremins. Always a comforting choice of musical instrument. Downright cozy. Um . . . or not.

Why did Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco offer “Circus” to Britney? Why did she take it? What made the guys think she would fit this song? Why did Britney think it would do well for her? Who put in the bass line, who put in the theremin? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But the song was written by a master pop writer to be slightly different from his other work. And it was produced to sound slightly unsettling here, and there, at the edges of the driving dance beat. Britney . . . I want to say that she agreed to these things. But I honestly don’t know. I don’t know that she gets any choice in the songs she sings.

Let’s presume she does have a say. This means she chose to sing “Circus,” chose to sing a song about being caught in a maelstrom beyond her control. I think that shows a certain ambivalence, at best, about her stardom. Now, for a minute, let’s think about the other option — that Britney Spears didn’t decide to record this song. That the selection of numbers on her albums is done by others. That she performs what she’s told to perform. Let’s think that her handlers and bosses and managers told her to sing, and how to sing, and the video director told her how to look, and she didn’t pick her clothes or her makeup or where to stand or how to smile. Let’s think on that for a moment, while listening to the bridge into the chorus.

I feel the adrenaline moving through my veins
Spotlight on me and I’m ready to break

Britney Spears doesn’t like her life.

3 Responses

  1. woooooww very2 thanks to share :Pi always came to visit ur blog

  2. […] I wrote about this one, here. I still say that I think Spears is a damn sight more self-aware than people give her credit for. I […]

  3. […] I’ve written at some length about Britney Spears before. […]

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