The strangest thing about Britney Spears' new single "Till the World Ends" is that it doesn't tell us anything new about her, or about how she feels about us. Does that seem narcissistic? Maybe—but Britney's entire pop career to date has been built on discussing her relationship to romance and fame.
Well, the "her" there is a little bit tricky. There's Britney the performer in the vocal booth and in the videos (or maybe not always in the videos), and there's "Britney Spears," the character whose adventures her songs have documented for the past thirteen years. If you listen to her hits in sequence, they actually fall into something like a narrative about the character's saga: the inevitable Britney musical in 25 years, a la Mamma Mia, will be able to construct its plot around her songs in near-chronological order.
"...Baby One More Time" begins the saga in medias res--even in the middle of a phrase!--and most of her hits chart power relations within a relationship, or within successive relationships. "Oops!... I Did It Again" gives way to "Stronger"—a direct sequel to "...Baby One More Time"—then to "I'm a Slave 4 U" and "Toxic," in which she repeats her earlier mistakes. (Between them, we get "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," the pivot point in her bildungsroman.) Finally, she figures out the game in "Womanizer" and grows into her more unapologetic sexual power (e.g. "3" and her appearance on the remix of Rihanna's "S&M"). There's also a subplot about Britney-as-public-figure: "Lucky," "Me Against the Music," "Piece of Me," "Circus." And "Gimme More" basically addresses both threads at once: consensual power-play as a performance for an audience. ("They want more? Well, I'll give them more.")
Does this make Britney some kind of miraculous postmodern creature of the new millennium, a star narrating her own story? Not on your life.
This is far from a new gambit. The Britney Spears of a hundred years ago did precisely the same thing. As this excellent article puts it, Eva Tanguay was "the biggest rock star in the United States... from 1904 until the early 1920s." She was to vaudeville more or less what Britney is to YouTube, although there isn't a lot of documentation of her career on YouTube. Her only extant recording, "I Don't Care," was more or less her theme song; she recorded it in her forties, 17 years after she introduced it. (There's some film footage of her out there, too: she appeared in a couple of silent films, including one called Energetic Eva.)
And, as it turns out, the subject of a lot of her hits was a hellraiser by the name of Eva Tanguay: "Tanguay Tangle" (about her hair), "Tanguay Rag," "Eva Tanguay's Love Song." She was maybe even more hopelessly in love with the public eye than Britney (one of her songs was "I'd Like to Be an Animal in the Zoo"). Her billing on theater marquees ran "Eva Tanguay, performing songs about herself." She was Mrs. oh my God, that Eva's shameless.
The Eva Tanguay of 2011, on the other hand, seems to be getting distracted from her self-presentation. What we heard in "Hold It Against Me" was a hint that she was exhausted by public attention--that she wanted to "escape the crowd somehow... I need a vacation tonight." And "Till the World Ends" barely seems to fit into the Britney saga at all. The apocalyptic setting suggested by the video is well outside her normal orbit (and was also covered by Jay Sean's "2012 (It Ain't the End)" a few months ago, although that particular meme probably won't fall off until 2013). And the "baby let me blow your mind tonight" hook recalls Carly Hennessy's "I'm Gonna Blow Your Mind," a legendary teen-pop flop (which itself quotes "...Baby One More Time")--it can't be intentional that Britney is alluding to the least successful of her acolytes, but it somehow feels symbolic anyway.
If "Till the World Ends" seems off-message, that's not a matter of its writers' unfamiliarity with the Spirit of Spears. Max Martin's been writing for Britney on and off since "...Baby One More Time"; Dr. Luke co-wrote "Circus" and a few other songs on the album of the same name; Alexander Kronlund worked on "Lucky" and "If U Seek Amy"; Ke$ha is... well, Ke$ha. (In some ways, "Till the World Ends" comes off like a PG-rated version of "Blow"--most of it is simply a call to party.) "Keep on dancin' till the world ends," Britney sings again and again. That's meant as a cheer, but it might be the sentence that's been passed upon her.