Released: 24th November 2008
Writers: Nikesha Briscoe / Rafael Akinyemi
Peak position: #3
Chart run: 4-8-9-7-3-4-10-11-9-17-22-27-33-38-42-51-63-66-74-X-X-X-71
Billboard Hot 100 chart run: 96-1-4-5-6-7-7-12-9-10-6-5-7-8-9-12-15-18-25-28-32-40-45
Womanizer was the song intended to put Britney Spears back at the top of the charts after a tumultuous year. And it did just that…but at what price?
As with anything recorded and released by Britney Spears between 2008 and 2021, Womanizer has to be acknowledged as the product of a 13-year conservatorship under her father, Jamie Spears, that imprisoned her in a life over which she had no control. Thus, enjoying the song does require a degree of dissociation from the broader circumstances surrounding its creation. Yet, if it’s ever possible to conceive that the conservatorship might have served its purpose in a purely professional sense, then Womanizer is probably the most persuasive example. Even then, it comes with some highly dubious moral and ethical caveats.
The events leading up to what was initially a temporary (involuntary) conservatorship are widely photographed, reported and documented. There can be little argument that whatever was happening, the fact so much of it unfolded in public did not help in any respect. Britney Spears’s well-being was certainly not a priority for the media (and it’s probably fair to say the public, broadly speaking, lacked a certain amount of empathy). The way to break the cycle was to remove her from it and get help, which is precisely what the temporary conservatorship purported to do. Admittedly, that was undermined slightly when, several weeks later, Britney Spears was sent to shoot a two-episode stint on How I Met Your Mother. However, besides that, she largely disappeared from the perpetual gaze of the tabloids.
That didn’t last long. An extension to the conservatorship was granted in July 2008, and within months came the announcement of a new album – Circus – scheduled for release in December. It would be preceded by the lead single, Womanizer. Eyebrows were rightly raised; was pushing Britney Spears back into the music industry so soon a good idea? Even if she had wanted to work on new material, the situation removed her ability to make any independent creative decisions. Furthermore, the Circus campaign – which had to have been agreed by Jamie Spears – extended well beyond the end of the temporary conservatorship. So, when the arrangement became indefinite in October 2008, there was already a clear conflict of interest. With Britney Spears having steadily taken more command of her career during the ‘00s, putting Jive Records firmly back in charge seemed more than a little convenient.
Setting aside that baggage, with so much noise surrounding the Circus campaign, the immediate challenge was to put the focus firmly back on the music. That’s precisely what Womanizer did. It’s a really good pop song and everything a Britney Spears lead single should be in terms of setting the tone for the album. A criticism of 2007’s Blackout is that the heavily processed vocals sounded like a patchwork of rushed studio sessions (which is exactly what they were, in most cases). Thus, after an intro of whirring sirens and juddering drum kicks, Womanizer pushes Britney Spears to the fore. Though still resonantly tinged with autotune, her voice is actively engaged with the track. At the same time, the delivery of the verses, in particular: “Superstar, where you from, how’s it goin’, I know you got a clue what you’re doin’, you can play brand new to all the other chicks out here, but I know what you are, what you are, baby” is razor-sharp and filled with a confident drawl.
Nearly everything about Womanizer – musically and thematically – is designed to distance Britney Spears from the ostensible wrongdoings of the previous 12 months. Despite sticking with the electro-pop that Blackout is credited with bringing to mainstream prominence, this is a more refined, radio-friendly take on it. Throbbing synths and a strutting beat provide the backdrop to a withering character assassination: “Daddy-o, you got the swagger of a champion, too bad for you, you just can’t find the right companion, I guess when you have one too many, makes it hard, it could be easy, who you are, that’s just who you are, baby” that is relentless and emphatically uncompromising. Almost.
There’s a flicker of hesitancy during the middle eight: “Maybe if we both lived in a different world (womanizer, womanizer, womanizer, womanizer), yeah, it would be all good and maybe I could be your girl, but I can’t ‘cos we don’t, you…” where she briefly drops her guard to ponder what could have been. It feels different from the rest of the song; there’s a tonal shift (not just melodically), which allows the real Britney Spears – not the one playing a character – to come through. She remains resolute, but there are shades of optimism and idealism where she can contemplate that just maybe it’s the scenario to blame rather than the individuals.
Any pause for rumination is fleeting, however. Womanizer is otherwise emphatic in its aim to be an all-consuming girl power anthem, and a double-chorus ensures that’s precisely what happens. The: “Womanizer, woman-womanizer, you’re a womanizer, oh, womanizer, oh, you’re a womanizer baby, you, you-you are, you, you-you are, womanizer, womanizer, womanizer (womanizer)” section feels immediately (and intentionally) descended from Gimme More in creating a refrain out of the same few chopped words. Meanwhile, the second part (“Boy don’t try to front, I-I know just, just what you are, a-are, boy don’t try to front, I-I know just, just what you are, a-are…”) culminates – somewhat surprisingly – with a moment of self-awareness: “You say I’m crazy (you), I got your crazy (you), you’re nothin’ but a…womanizer”. It’s all in the subtext, but Womanizer isn’t completely oblivious to the broader commentary around Britney Spears and her comeback. Neither, though, does it linger on the point or invite any further speculation.
To further project Womanizer as a return to form, the accompanying music video saw Joseph Kahn direct what is, essentially, a sequel to Toxic. It uses the same idea of Britney Spears playing multiple characters, only now she’s trying to catch out a womanising partner (the not-unattractive Brandon Stoughton). From an aesthetic perspective, it’s the complete antithesis to Gimme More, whose visual treatment epitomised the chaos surrounding Britney Spears’ life at the time. By contrast, Womanizer looks slick and stylish, there’s a cohesive narrative from start to finish, and she appears tangibly engaged in each role: office secretary, waitress and chauffeur. Britney Spears is shown seeking to lead Brandon Stoughton awry as he goes about his day. It never really comes across that he’s actively seeking to cheat; if anything, he frequently seems more bewildered by the forwardness of the ‘different’ women he encounters. Nonetheless, after arriving home, he’s greeted by Britney Spears – who reveals her disguises – and is then aggressively wrestled to the bed (including a swift kick to the crotch) as she takes her revenge.
Joseph Kahn’s rationale for using the same template as Toxic is that he felt elements of the original concept could be improved. And there is an extra layer of flair evident in many aspects throughout. The space where Britney Spears and Brandon Stoughton reside (with ‘Womanizer’ printed across the wall) is stylishly artificial, as evidenced by the square friend egg she serves him for breakfast. There are some noticeable and impressive effects – like Brandon Stoughton’s clothes dressing him when he gets up and turns around – but also more subtle ones. As he flops down into his office chair, the liquid rises out of a glass on his desk and turns into a lollipop along with the line: “Lollipop…must mistake me you’re the sucker”. Womanizer even wryly pokes fun at itself by featuring a Nokia phone and showing a close-up of the calendar on-screen where a product placement meeting is scheduled. A nod to Toxic is also included with a cameo from a passenger on the plane who reappears in the office just after Britney Spears has photocopied her bum (or what is supposed to be it, at least).
It would be so easy for all of this to create a style-over-substance video that attempts to distract from any shortcomings. And there are some. Threaded throughout are shots of Britney Spears writhing around naked in a sauna (heavily censored versions feature more steam), which act as the equivalent of Toxic, where she was encrusted with diamonds. Yet, there’s a distasteful, exploitative edge here where it seems intended to showcase the results of a strict diet and exercise regime on Britney Spears after the body-shaming that accompanied the Blackout era. Similarly, the choreography feels a bit off, like it’s there solely to make a point that she can still dance when the dynamism created through the editing and movements around the sets has a far more natural energy. Nonetheless, overall, there’s much to like about Womanizer, and many of the flourishes complement what is already a solid idea executed – for the most part – incredibly well.
In the UK, Womanizer debuted at #4 on downloads. The track peaked at #3 in its fifth week following a physical release, coinciding with the single and album promotion. It ended up as the 33rd biggest-seller of 2008 (245,660 copies) and the 118th biggest-selling single of 2009, having sold 141,000 copies. Womanizer has since continued to amass digital sales and streams, lifting the overall total to 835,000 copies as of 2022, making it Britney Spears’ fifth-biggest hit in the UK behind Oops!…I Did It Again, Scream & Shout, Toxic and …Baby One More Time. It is – perhaps – the case that Womanizer’s success in the UK came in spight of the release strategy, not because of it, after an ill-received appearance on The X Factor…
To promote Circus, Britney Spears was whisked around the world to perform Womanizer on several high-profile TV shows. That coincided with The X Factor quarter-final, which adopted her music as a theme for the five remaining contestants (I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll…really?). It certainly didn’t help that expectations were set high; Britney Spears’s appearance was massively over-hyped, right down to a minute-long intro (with some questionable statistics: ‘eight number one singles’ is either massaging the UK figures or massively downplaying the international ones) before she took to the stage. The miming wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but doing so on a singing contest – particularly one where the contestants sang her songs beforehand – inevitably drew disdain from critics. That could be deflected, to some extent, if the absence of live vocals had been a trade-off for high-energy choreography, but there wasn’t much of that either.
One of the main issues is the staging. The X Factor occupied a big studio, and the circus-themed background visuals were spread thinly. Other appearances – which included an entrance through a ring of fire and a dancer in a caged ball – worked much better in creating a focal point. But none of that made it to the UK. Instead, Britney Spears was left to walk around (a lot) to cover the space, which didn’t sell what the song could be in that environment. A post-performance interview with Dermot O’Leary didn’t help either. Britney Spears – who clearly hadn’t seen the show – was asked what she thought about the contestants. Her response (‘Amazing. I met so many different people. The place is beautiful, and I love being here in London. It’s awesome’) underlined a sense that The X Factor had over-promised and under-delivered on a night when the show scored its highest-ever ratings at that point, with 12.8 million viewers watching.
In hindsight, none of this is remarkable. But at the time, it came as a complete contradiction to the image Womanizer strived to achieve. That audiences were left underwhelmed by a TV appearance no worse than most others Britney Spears gave for the next decade or so demonstrates how convincingly this single perpetuated the notion of a personal and professional comeback. It proved costly; The X Factor cast a shadow over her career in the UK, from which she never truly recovered. Womanizer was successful, unquestionably, but it also marks a juncture where a Britney Spears single missing the top ten went from being a (very) rare exception to pretty much becoming the rule hereafter.
That change in commercial fortunes is all the more apparent when compared to how Womanizer fared in America. Initial radio airplay earned the track a #96 debut on the Billboard Hot 100 before a digital release the following week saw it set a record for the biggest jump to #1 (that was surpassed several months later when Kelly Clarkson’s My Life Would Suck Without You climbed from #97 to #1). It felt hugely symbolic that this became Britney Spears’s first chart-topping single since …Baby One More Time in the US. There’s no doubt she – like many other pop acts – benefitted from the inclusion of downloads into the Billboard Hot 100. But there was more to it than just that. If anything good came from the events that unfolded around Blackout, they provided an urgent wake-up call that things had gone too far. So now, rather than tear Britney Spears down, the mood shifted to one where she was (over)protected, supported and celebrated. A commercial resurgence – indeed, one of the most successful periods of her career – ensued with Circus and Femme Fatale. It didn’t happen purely for those reasons, but they definitely played a part in Britney Spears earning top ten singles more regularly than at any previous stage of her career.
While there are positives to be drawn from Circus, many are simply by virtue of not being as bad as some of the stuff that followed. There’s no escaping from the fact that this marked the start of something rotten as far as the conservatorship was concerned. Although Britney Spears did, at least, appear to have some agency in the album’s creation (she co-wrote several tracks), accompanying it with a gruelling 97-date world tour quickly exposed where the real priorities lay. In hindsight, much of the campaign now seems like an experiment in testing how far the realms of treating her as a commodity could be pushed.
What’s worse is that it’s at least conceivable Britney Spears might have recorded Womanizer of her own volition. And Circus is – by and large – a product she could feel satisfied with, even if it’s not necessarily the album she would have recorded after Blackout. Yet, as the conservatorship dragged on, far less effort and quality control was invested in maintaining the façade of enabling Britney Spears. It resulted in some diabolical material (Britney Jean) that only exists because she was treated like a caged animal and not a ringleader, however much Circus tried to pretend otherwise.