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Britney Spears Returns: Rolling Stone's 2008 Cover Story

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In mid-September, "Womanizer," the first single from Circus, debuted at Number One on Billboard's Hot 100 chart, and in November, the video was the most-watched clip on YouTube, with more than 16 million views. Due out on Britney's 27th birthday, December 2nd, Circus is classic Britney pop, updated with the kind of electro-tinged dance-floor kitsch she explored on her past two albums. In addition to collaborating with producer Dr. Luke, who wrote pop-rock hits for Kelly Clarkson ("Since U Been Gone") and Katy Perry ("I Kissed a Girl"), she reunited with "... Baby One More Time" producer Max Martin, as well as the core beatsmiths from last year's Blackout: Danja and production duo Bloodshy and Avant. The album's also got an epic, gut-wrenching ballad on par with 2003's "Everytime": "Out From Under" is a cover produced by Guy Sigsworth and previously recorded by another singer for the Bratz soundtrack, but the pathos expressed in lyrics such as "I don't want to feel the pain.... I'll get it all figured out, when I'm out from under" is heavy with significance the way Britney sings them. It is, overall, a very good Britney Spears album. "We listened to, like, 9 million tracks from unknown people," says Britney, describing the recording process. "Sometimes it would take 10 minutes to write a song, like this Spanish twang song called 'Mmm Papi.' So we would just kind of crash-course at that for the first two or three weeks. And then you get a vibe with ­somebody and how you deal with them and how you work together, and then you go to somebody else, and you figure out how they work." "She always goes for the tracks that don't sound like what everybody else has done," says Los Angeles songwriter Nicole Morier, who wrote nine songs with Spears this summer. "She would come in, and right off the bat, she'd have ideas. She's not afraid to speak up or experiment. She's kind of quiet and sweet, but she's willing to jump on stuff." Though Spears' contributions as a writer vary from one track to the next, Morier says one of her favorite things about Britney is that she's not hung up on wanting to prove she can write an album's worth of songs on her own. "She's a pro," Morier continues, "and she knows her limitations."

"We tried to keep the bar as high as possible for these songs," says Britney's A&R woman, Teresa LaBarbera-Whites, who combed through hundreds of demos looking for Circus's tracks. "People ought to hear it on the radio and go, 'Yes, that is Britney Spears! She's done it again!' Whether you want to admit it or not, you have danced around the room in your bra and panties to her songs or you've been driving in your car singing along. We all have. So you want to get it out there and know that it is going to fucking knock people down."

Capitalizing on the public's fascination with Britney's wiggy personal ordeals may be a lucrative strategy for the celebrity magazines, but the Britney Spears brand always does better when she's, well, blond. The vast majority of her millions of young fans around the world just want their Brit to be happy — a sentiment they express with all-caps and lots of exclamation points on message boards and fan sites. Those who stand to prosper if Circus is a hit — the singer included — have a lot to gain from presenting an image of the Britney we once loved. As lawyers for the conservatorship argued in court that the singer is gravely disabled, she showed signs of being highly functional: She filmed two videos, shot the MTV documentary and joined Madonna to perform for 50,000 at Dodger Stadium. In the spring, she's expected to embark on an arena tour planned to look like an actual three-ring circus, complete with contortionists and live animals.

When I meet Jamie Spears backstage at the VMAs, he shakes my hand and says, "Take care of my baby." The "or else" is implied. A bear of a man with piercing blue eyes, Jamie — and the conservatorship lawyers — make it difficult to talk in-depth to his baby, and interviewing Britney was a rigorously micromanaged process. We were never left alone together, and my questions had to be submitted ahead of time for approval. Acceptable topics included her new album, her boys and that's about it. Her team said she wouldn't answer anything about the past year and vetoed a question as straightforward as "Do you have an opinion on the presidential election?"

Jamie declined to be interviewed, and when I sat with Lynne briefly in October, she stuck to platitudes. Asked how it felt to watch her daughter's downward spiral from a distance, when the two were barely speaking, she said, "Needless to say, I was heartbroken and hurting for my child. But that's a chapter that's closed. Dwelling and thinking about that kind of thing too much isn't healthy." With her True Religion jeans and frosted, layered bob, she could have been Sarah Palin on casual Friday, as she spoke in the slow, patronizing tone of a kindergarten teacher: "We're looking forward, and we've got nothing but good and wonderful things ahead."

"I was concerned when I saw a lot of the things she was going through," adds Rudolph, who was also on the sidelines during Britney's downfall. "But I think it's about the journey for Britney, and the journey has taken her to this place now, which is a much, much better place. I mean, she's not there yet, but she's in an infinitely better place, as you can clearly see. She's really getting it together. She's being productive, and she's got an amazing relationship with her boys. She's very happy now."

When the conservatorship was first put in place, in February, Jamie and Lynne issued a statement describing Britney as "an adult child in the throes of a mental-health crisis." The original plan was that it would be a temporary measure until the singer could get back on her feet. But Jamie's lawyers repeatedly returned to court to have the scope and duration of the arrangement extended to grant him greater authority over her ­legal and personal decisions. (It's very rare for a young adult who is not extremely ill to have their rights assigned to a conservator. But the conservatorship system doesn't conform to the same evidentiary standards as the criminal courts require, and many conservatees in California and elsewhere complain that the law unfairly deprives them of their civil liberties.) On October 28th, the lawyers won their bid to have the conservatorship made permanent — meaning that, uncontested, it could remain in effect until Jamie dies.

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