If you believe the whispers, Britney Spears might show up for a non-performing cameo appearance on Thursday night's MTV Video Music Awards. That would certainly count as a return to the scene of the crime, since for Spears, she's had a best of times/worst of times relationship with the VMAs. "Worst" came in 2007, when her jaw-droppingly terrible performance of "Gimme More" was so somnambulistic that she instantly moved up on a lot of viewers' celebrity-death-watch lists.
Five years after that debacle, Spears can walk into this year's VMAs with her extensions held high. Unlike certain other trainwreck celebrities of her generation, Spears has managed to get her career—and seemingly her life, too—back on track. How'd Britney manage to rebound, when troubled contemporaries like Lindsay Lohan are still busy getting banned from nightclubs and playing real-life bumper cars?
You can probably credit it to her reliance on a higher power, or powers. And those powers might include Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and the judge overseeing her conservatorship, among others who've aided her professional or personal recovery.
But first, let's take a look back at the "annus hornbills" that was 2007. Actually, Spears had a run of terrible years, with the legendary umbrella and head-shaving incidents having come in 2007, when she was still terrorizing the streets of West Hollywood as a girl gone wild. But the bad years reached a symbolic nadir when Britney's 2007 VMAs performance proved especially publicly shambolic.
Expectations going into those VMAs were already low, since Spears had done a few club dates in May 2007—her first live appearances in three years—in which she charged fans $125 for what turned out to be a mere 15 minutes of lip-synching and non-dancing. Then she showed up in Las Vegas for the VMAs just two nights before one of the most critical TV appearances of her carer...and proceeded to do more club-hopping than rehearsing in those 48 hours. Not surprisingly, her choreography seemed to mainly consist of being held up and pushed around by other dancers.
The show's host, Sarah Silverman, went for the jugular after Spears's number came to a merciful end, snarking: "Was that incredible? Britney Spears, everyone. Wow. She is amazing. She is 25 years old and she's already accomplished everything she's going to accomplish in her life." Even usually more circumspect fellow musicians expressed disappointment backstage. "I think it didn't seem like she wanted to be there," Common told People magazine after the VMAs. "There wasn't any spark; it didn't feel like life was there." Akon added his two cents: "That could have been better. She needed to focus more." The next day, an Us Weekly writer summed it up on CNN when he said that "she needed about 100 more hours before this thing was ready for prime time."
Had she hit bottom? Not quite; that might have been four months later, when, in January 2008, she was involuntarily committed for a second time for psychiatric evaluation, with reports getting out that she was being diagnosed as "gravely disabled." However that visit to UCLA Medical Center did or didn't go, something about it seemed to "take" this time for Spears, in terms of realizing she needed help.
In February 2008, her father, James Spears, was named her temporary conservator, meaning that he was basically left in charge of her personal and financial affairs. The conservatorship was made permanent in October of that year, and her attorney said that she'd instructed him not to contest it, suggesting that she was down with the whole arrangement. This was a radical and not-often-predecented arrangement for one of the biggest stars in the world, but Britney seemed to have come to believe that it was worth the embarrassment of acknowledging to the world that you weren't a capable steward of your own affairs.
In the time since, Britney has largely been under wraps, as far as not scooting around town on her own or being in situations where she'd likely get herself into trouble. That includes interviews, which have been largely conducted by email and entirely inconsequential when they have. For better or worse, she's been kept from—or kept herself from—just about any opportunities to be spontaneous. But in an age when celebrities have their meltdowns on Twitter as well as in front of the Chateau Marmont, that communicative seclusion seems to have worked in her favor.
Career-wise, things have been on the upswing. In the midst of all that conservatorship business in 2008, she released "Womanizer," and it became her first No. 1 single since "...Baby One More Time" put her on the map a decade earlier. The naughty "3" returned her to the top spot in 2009. And in January 2011, "Hold It Against Me" debuted in Billboard's No. 1 slot. The album it fronted, Femme Fatale, got largely positive reviews, even if many or most of them credited Dr. Luke, Max Martin, and the rest of her team of star producers for its quality more than Britney's own mechanistic contributions. She was in capable hands, professionally, even if the music wasn't infused with personality.
A "Glee" guest spot in late 2010 didn't win her any Emmys, but it did provide a safe, scripted place to reinforce her iconic status (and take a small step toward counterbalancing the embarrassing legacy of her one feature film, Crossroads).
She toured behind the album last year, and while some of the reviews seemed to be damning with faint praise, any praise was a step up after the disastrous live events of 2007 and a lackluster tour in 2009. Ted Casablanca, E!'s gossip columnist, weighed in in June 2011: "Her mic was actually turned on—like, throughout the whole show!" he "raved." "Sure, she still was still singing with some pre-recorded background tracks, but give the gal a break. If you're a Britney fan, you know that some lip-synching comes with the territory. But whereas she sang practically zilch on the Circus Tour, this time, Brits was belting out her ballads and croonin' along to her latest hits...Most importantly though: She danced. A lot. Gone are the days of strutting around the stage for the majority of the show; B knew her choreography and hit it hard."
There were remarks that the mother of two seemed slightly flabby at the beginning of last year's tour...and also that she appeared more toned by the end of it. Whatever desire some people still had for schadenfreude, 2011 just didn't seem the year for it.
Her not-so-"teribilus" year was capped by the December announcement of her engagement to her boyfriend of two years, manager Jason Trawick—at 40, 10 years her elder—a guy whose very visage suggests that, in terms of smarts and stability, he might be the anti-Federline.
This year, Spears has been between album and touring cycles. But she's lately posted bikini and little-black-dress photos on Twitter and Pinterest that suggest she's further getting back to fighting trim.
As paparazzi opportunities go, check out the latest sensationalist headline about her on gossip site TMZ: "Britney Spears: The Shockingly Normal Beach Day."
On August 18, she posted a photo from her photo shoot for Elizabeth Arden to Pinterest, commenting, "Jason says I look like Jean Harlow!"
Now she's about to debut as a high-profile, highly paid judge on "The X Factor," which is a big gamble, given her previously unpredictability and the fact that Spears hasn't really been allowed a chance to be spontaneous in public for years. Will she be erratic? If she's in good mental health, will she just be boring? If she bombs in a big way, will it affect the balance she's apparently been working hard behind the scenes to achieve?
Recent reports suggest that she's not yet out of the psychological woods, if ever she will be. In April, her fiance was approved as a co-conservator of her affairs, sharing that duty with her dad. In August, the judge was asked to seal certain records that were being filed on her behalf, with lawyers maintaining that there would be "irreparable harm and immediate danger" if the "highly sensitive" documents were to see the light of day. The records in question purportedly relate to Spears's mental health and a possible personality disorder.
While few of us can know what's really going on in her well-protected inner circle, Britney seems to be squeezing into a previously almost-unheard-of celebrity paradigm: The Star Who Got Well. Or is at least continuing to get well. While other starlets become wild lone wolves or surround themselves with boyfriends or even stage moms who are enablers, Spears somehow got to the point of singing this tune: "Help Me Baby One More Time."
And if she does step onto the stage at Thursday's VMAs, it may actually be easier to remember it as the scene of her three successive triumphs on the show in 1999-2001, rather than the sad sight of 2007. Whether or not she brings a snake.