This time last year, it was as if [artist id="501686"]Britney Spears[/artist] was walking around with a target on her back.
The embattled pop star was the subject of media ridicule following her performance at the 2007 Video Music Awards, and her personal travails were splashed across the pages of the nation's tabloids on an almost weekly basis. She'd just released an album that some had prematurely hailed as her comeback, Blackout, and while the LP was largely considered a commercial hit, to this day, it's yet to eclipse the 1 million-sold mark.
Fast-forward 10 months, and it's a whole new ball game. Spears is still in the spotlight, but rather than attack her, the media has been more sympathetic. Instead of delivering a shaky performance, Brit walked away a winner at the 2008 VMAs, taking home the Moonmen for Best Female Video, Best Pop Video and Video of the Year. She's the most searched topic on Yahoo, and on Sunday, more than 3.7 million viewers tuned in to catch her MTV documentary, "Britney: For the Record." On Tuesday (December 2), she appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America," the same day she released what they're calling her "true comeback" album, Circus.
These days, it seems like everything's coming up Britney. And if early sales estimates are to be believed, Circus will likely outsell Blackout, which opened at #2 with 289,700 sold, behind the Eagles' Long Road Out of Eden.
Roy Trakin, senior editor of Hits magazine, said that his sources inside the industry are predicting Circus will sell more than 300,000 units — and could even reach 400,000 — during its first week in stores, but admitted it could do even more.
"It looks like, at the very minimum, it will hit 300,000, but some people are saying it could do better than that," he said. "But this market, it's not a good market, obviously, and there have already been a couple of real disappointments coming out of the chute, with [artist id="1230523"]Kanye West[/artist] and [artist id="846"]Guns N' Roses[/artist] not performing to what they were supposed to perform even three weeks ago. I still think that's pretty good for her."
While 300,000 records might not sound like a lot for an artist as well-known as Spears, in this economic climate, it's tremendous. People are being more frugal with their cash, which could ultimately hurt sales. Then again, when Spears released Blackout, it dropped in early November — not early December, when people spend more time in stores.
Billboard senior correspondent Ed Christman said Spears' recent television appearances, the MTV special and several favorable reviews will likely help sales of the new album, even though sales are down 15 percent from last year. And while 300,000 sold is a modest number, he predicts Circus will sell more over time than Blackout has.
"The industry is telling me she'll do 300,000," he said. "That's from label sales guys, whose job it is to project sales. It's a big album, and there's a lot of goodwill toward her now. In the history of SoundScan, pop artists generally don't have big first weeks. The pop fan is more casual. They go out and get the album when they get the album. It's fans of either metal bands or rap acts who are frantic for the record — salivating — that run out the first day to get the record. So, there are plenty of big albums that have gone on to sell 6 million records that didn't sell 1 million the first week, and Britney falls into that pop category."
According to Trakin, this year's comeback feels more authentic than last year's supposed return.
"Certainly, it seems she's more prepared to come back," he said. "Given what went down on the documentary, I think there are still questions about her stability, her stamina and her desire, as well. Those are certainly issues that need to be dealt with. But there's still tremendous public interest in her. The media is pulling for her, and the critical reviews and word of mouth are certainly a lot better than last time. That will all help her sell records."
If Circus performs well, so will her upcoming tour, which kicks off in March with the [artist id="1841713"]Pussycat Dolls[/artist] as direct support. According to Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, the fact that Spears didn't tour in support of Breakdown also bodes well for ticket sales.
"My initial reaction [to Spears' tour announcement] was probably negative, but the more I've thought about it and watched things go on around here, I think this one might be a risk that ends up paying off," he said. "The initial buzz around the record seems to be pretty good, so this one might actually be a winner. It's going to be one of the first tours that goes out in the early part of the year, so it will be interesting to see how well it does."
While album sales aren't currently a strong indicator of how well a tour will do, he said that in Britney's case, A could lead to B.
"There used to be a much more direct correlation between album sales and ticket sales, but it can still be a very good indicator," he said. "If the record falls flat, that would be an indication that whatever audience you thought was there is not. If the record does well, the tour will do well."
Still, Bongiovanni continued, America is experiencing one of the most uncertain economic times in decades, "and how that's going to impact any given tour is always an open question. The thing Britney has going for her is that she's been off the scene for a while. No one has seen her recently, and that could help sell tickets."
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.