As [artist id="501686"]Britney Spears[/artist] seems poised to make a comeback this week, with the release of Circus on Tuesday and the premiere of her confessional documentary "For the Record," we're not the only ones asking: Could there ever be another Britney?
The answer depends on how you define her. Is she an artist, a pop icon or a universal object of media fascination and concern?
Some still see Spears as she was first presented to us: America's sweetheart, a wholesome, shy girl-next-door type. To others, she's a sexpot who started off as Lolita and moved on to every other male fantasy in the book. Her early success as a pop princess lay in her being a blank slate — nothing and everything at the same time — and it was up to the audience to determine who she really was.
Many have said that given the fractured state of today's media landscape, another Britney-level icon is impossible. Plummeting CD sales have seriously hampered the ability of any recording artist to sustain a long-term career (Britney's has lasted for 10 years). The Internet has atomized attention spans to the point where the arc of a person's newsworthiness is measured in months rather than years. And, of course, there's no longer a "TRL," which played such a huge role in building the careers of Britney's generation of pop stars.
Indeed, it's hard to imagine Taylor Swift, Rihanna or even Miley Cyrus having the kind of profound and long-term impact that Britney has had over the past decade, capturing a zeitgeist that no longer seems to exist.
"I don't know if there ever will be [another Britney]," the singer's manager, Larry Rudolph, told MTV News. "I guess they said that about Madonna, and then Britney came along. I guess someday she'll be the Madonna to that new Britney."
But Britney isn't exactly Madonna. For starters, Madonna emerged on the pop scene as an adult, so she never played up jailbait fantasies and has always had a strong sense of self. Britney, who started as a teenager, grew up in the public eye. And that's another reason to argue that there will never be another Brit: Her path to stardom and the difficult steps contained within it were so well documented that managers, handlers and artists alike are wary of repeating them.
"One of the things we learned during her downfall was that the person we knew and loved wasn't the real Britney Spears," blogger Perez Hilton observed. "I think along the way, she got lost. She was looking externally for love, acceptance and approval to give her life meaning. She's been a lost, confused little girl."
Instead of being a rebellious teenager, Britney was thrust onto the stage as a symbolic good girl — though a recurring theme in her songs and videos was her struggle with being "handled." But it seems that her rebellion was merely delayed: When she finally declared independence, she went overboard in the bad-decision department.
In the end, Britney had to relinquish control to get her life back on track — both with her court-ordered conservatorship and by having Rudolph manage her career again.
"This woman had a hugely serious problem," TMZ managing editor Harvey Levin explained. "They're trying to keep her busy and productive, on a week-to-week basis, with nothing too taxing for her."
Being the next Britney Spears doesn't just mean taking over the pop throne — it means having a breakdown, being a tabloid target and struggling to make a comeback before the age of 27.
"Britney's the princess of pop and the train wreck of pop," Hilton quipped. "Hopefully, she'll just be the princess of pop from here on out."
Maybe we need to see more of how Britney's story plays out before we ask the real question: Does anyone want to be the next Britney Spears?
(Tell us what you thought of Britney's documentary over on the Newsroom blog, or upload a video to YouRHere.MTV.com. "Britney: For the Record" will be re-airing throughout the week and will be available in its entirety on demand on MTV.com beginning Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.)