[Editor's note: Even though we work for the same company, at press time we honestly do not know whether Britney will be appearing at the VMAs this weekend.]
Should Britney get a do-over?
Last year at this time, people were primed for to make a comeback, which was to be heralded by a Video Music Awards performance to top all others. We all know how that turned out.
All that comeback talk was a bit premature when Britney was still on the edge as far as her mental health was concerned. But now that she appears to be on the mend and is recording a new album, how can she rebuild her career? And should appearing or performing at this year's VMAs play a part in that? Can this year's VMAs signify a true comeback, the one she was meant to have last year? What does she need to do beyond that to remain on track? And will she ever regain the popularity she had when MTV first visited her hometown of Kentwood, Louisiana? We asked a few key Britney-watchers what the pop princess should do to reclaim her throne.
"If you want to make a big splash," Carson Daly said, "what better platform than the VMAs?"
"I think she should definitely show up," Perez Hilton said. "She's been nominated for several awards, and that's what entertainers do. Just her being there is an indication that she's getting back to normalcy."
"I would tell her, 'Get dolled up, look amazing, and just enjoy the show,' " said Jordan Miller, webmaster for Britney fan site BreatheHeavy.com.
"That's what people want," Hilton said. "They want to see her smiling. Even if all she does is smile and wave, I say that's mission accomplished."
Only if Spears is ready to pull off a truly memorable performance should she even think about getting back on the stage. "I don't think it's an option," said Ken Baker, E! executive news editor. "For her to perform doesn't make any sense right now. She doesn't have anything to sell."
Unless the product is herself — but Baker thinks she's doing a better job simply by getting her personal life back in order. "She doesn't need image rehab," he said. "And she's not ready to do a performance. She should wait. No offense to MTV, but she'll have other opportunities. It might be better timing to wait until her album is out, perhaps early next year."
"Don't perform unless you can be as good or better than you were back in the day," Hilton cautioned. "If it's not 110 percent ready and rehearsed, don't do it. You don't want a repeat of mediocrity."
Hilton suggested that once Britney is ready to perform, at the VMAs or otherwise, she ought to redo "Gimme More" with an entirely different routine. "This time, do it right," he said. "Have the hair looking good, wear something that fits, don't be allegedly drunk before you're onstage, know your choreography, don't be lethargic and take it seriously." He doesn't expect her to sing live, but if she can manage an effective lip synch, that would be just enough, he said, to make people think, "This is how it should have been done."
"It doesn't matter what song she does, as long as it's memorable," said TMZ Managing Editor Harvey Levin. "If she does 'Gimme More' and does a good job, that could work. If she does a cameo in someone else's performance, that could work too. Whatever she chooses has to be something she can pull off."
In order to pull it off, however, she needs to figure out something that might take more than a week's worth of rehearsals. "Forget about what dress to wear or her weight, because those things come later," Daly said. "This is more than a makeover."
What if Britney nailed a VMA performance? The whole debate over whether she should appear, not appear, perform, not perform, open the show, not open the show is beside the point. "What does all that really buy her?" he asked. "How long does that last?"
While our memories of VMA performances often outlast our memories of the actual winners, ultimately Britney needs to figure out if she's running a sprint or a marathon.
"Remember the 'Rocky' where Sylvester Stallone had to go to a log cabin in Siberia to find himself again?" Daly asked. "He was chopping down trees and running in the snow to rediscover why he was a fighter. Someone needs to take Britney to a studio in Siberia and ask her, 'What are you doing? What kind of story do you want to tell in song?' And what if she wrote a song that was actually moving?
"She really needs to figure out if she's passionate about music," he continued.
"I don't want a lot of ballads, OK?" Hilton countered. "I don't want it to be too deep. I don't want Britney writing her own songs. I think that's a bad idea."
"You don't want her to evolve too much," Baker said. "That would be a round peg in a square hole. Her voice has a certain range. Her style has a certain range. But lyrically, she should have more depth. And her album is going to have a lot of personal experiences on it, some intense things that reflect her life. But a lot of it will be the traditional Britney escapist bubblegum dance pop that she's known for. She shouldn't venture too far out of that. She can't run around in a schoolgirl outfit, that page has turned, but her art doesn't have to be a mirror. That would be depressing. You don't want songs about Britney being in a mental ward."
Levin thinks Britney's career as an entertainer won't be in music as much as it used to be — she'll still record and put out albums, he predicted, but she'll be more focused on television. "She was pretty funny on 'How I Met Your Mother,' " he said. "If she finds the right vehicle to be funny and charming, the endearing qualities that we're looking for, that could really change her career."
The pop-music scene doesn't hold much of a future for the singer as she gets older and her competitors keep getting younger. "She's not 17 anymore," Levin said. "And there's more longevity in something like television."
"She should branch out with something new," Miller said. "Definitely not a movie. Maybe a clothing line, where it's not so super-huge that it would monopolize her time."
Whichever part of her career she focuses on, she better get ready to promote it, since the marketing plan for Blackout suffered from her lack of involvement. "It's insane for an artist of her caliber to release an album and only grant one interview," Hilton said. "And an interview where she barely speaks at that. She needs to do what's involved — do interviews, do a tour — unless she's not ready to be away from the kids, and then don't do it. Don't release it until you're ready to promote it."
"She needs to take every interview, come with half the people she normally does, show up on time — no, show up early — and start having candid conversations," Daly said. "She doesn't have to answer every question, but she can own what happened to her and shift it to be about where she is now."
"If she does just one big, splashy interview with Oprah or Diane Sawyer or Barbara Walters, it feels calculated, like too much in too little time," Levin said. "People could write books on what she went through. So to just do one interview almost trivializes it. And to do all of them is almost a bloodletting. So maybe don't do the interviews. Keep the mystery. Speak when you want to. Why does she have to say she's back? It would be better if other people are saying it, not her."
Several suggested that she do it symbolically, by using a phoenix motif to signify where she is — she burned out, but she's rising from the ashes. It could be used as an album title or cover art or her eventual Web site redesign.
But whatever she chooses, the important thing is that it will be her choice. With the conservatorship slated to end by the end of the year, Spears is about to get back her own decision-making powers. Unless she has another turn for the worse, she'll get "the keys to the car," as Levin put it. Though her problem before was that she refused to listen to advice, she appears to be listening now, and that's what's getting her back on track.
"This woman had a hugely serious problem, a life-threatening problem," Levin said. "And they've been keeping her busy as a short-term strategy. They're not thinking way into the future. They just want to keep her productive and relevant."
Beyond career goals, everyone agreed that Britney has to put her personal life first — because without improvement on that front, all the plans for her future and possible VMA appearances mean nothing.
"Everything she did before tells me she was looking externally for love, acceptance and approval," Hilton said. "It tells me she was feeling empty. So hopefully she feels now like she has self-worth and life has meaning. But she needs to stay under the guidance of a doctor and have therapy several times a week. Because more important than anything, she really needs to determine for herself who Britney Spears is."