Against the sadness that hangs over 2016 like the dank, humid tang of feet in a gym locker room, at least we have this: Peak Britney Spears is back. Following her 2007 breakdown and the ensuing years in which her dead eyes and flaccid limbs were contractually bound to the very stages and music videos she needed respite from—we never expected to see this Brit again. And yet, here we are. The release of "Slumber Party," Brit's sensual new single with Tinashe, is all the proof we need that we're witnessing the re-ascension of Ms. Spears.
Consider "Peak Britney" to be the Britney the world adored between the years 2000-3. Of course, in saying that I mean no disrespect to 1998-9 Britney. "…Baby One More Time" was a game-changing pop culture moment, and "(You Drive Me) Crazy" is seared into Britney cannon. But it was those early years of the 00s—from "Oops I Did It Again" and "Stronger" to "Slave 4 U" and "Toxic"—that served us our best ever Britney. This was a Britney that was both groomed and revered and groped by Madonna. A Britney who performed on stage at the MTV VMAs draped in a writhing python. This is our most iconic Britney.
As she moved into the "Gimme More" era, haunted by her public breakdown, there was something missing. "Womanizer" and "Piece Of Me" still stand up, but we're keen to blot out her sluggish dance moves, the twinkle-less eyes, and the lip-synching rumors that plagued her Circus tour from our collective memories.
With the "Slumber Party" those days are fading fast, enveloped by the forgiving fog in the video as we focus on her coquettish joy in front of the camera, her concise, unfaltering choreography (those head snaps though!) are mesmerizing in a way Britney hasn't mesmerized for the best part of the last decade. Maura Johnson sees Britney's new album, Glory, as something of a throwback—but not in an at all uncomfortable way. "If it had been unearthed from a time capsule, Glory would feel more like a credible companion album to Spears's 2003 album, In the Zone, she writes. Elsewhere Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield draws a similar comparison, writing, "She hasn't played around with her vocals so cleverly since the 'Toxic' days."
Visually, "Slumber Party" is not unlike watching a mash-up of all Britney's greatest video hits from between 2000-3. From the moment the video starts—with Britney stepping out of a luxury black car, mouth slightly agape in that I-want-to-have-sex-but-you-can't-have-me kind of way, dressed all in red—you're transported back to 2001. Specifically, to "Boys," one of Britney's Pharrell Williams-assisted numbers, where she does a glamorous slow motion stroll through a party, finally locking eyes with the cutest boy in the room (a boy she is now rumored to be dating, FYI. Go Britney, GO!).
There's Britney as you missed her—with those herky-jerky, choreographed arm flails so sharp and so fierce it seems wholly possible her limbs might dislocate from her body and blast off into space. It's the kind of dancing we saw in the "Oops I Did It Again" routine, and much of that precision is mirrored in "Slumber Party"s group dance sequences. The way she moves her body is so unmistakably her, never to be emulated.
"Slumber Party" is also Britney's most successful return to her sex kitten self. Through the mid-2000s it was difficult to accept Britney as a sex symbol, and this wasn't because of her disfunction, but because her label kept pushing her sexuality despite the fact that she seemed completely disassociated from it. That is to say: someone publicly suffering and dealing with her mental health issues was still being shilled as a willing sex kitten, when we all knew she was just struggling to keep herself together in the middle of a media maelstrom. In "Slumber Party" Britney crawls around like she did over 10 years ago in "I Love Rock 'n' Roll;" she writhes comfortably and seductively in a pile of bodies and—I DON'T CARE WHAT YOU SAY BRITNEY INVENTED THAT—just like in "Slave 4 U." This is a Britney unfettered by that past struggle, and unlike the Britney of yore, she doesn't need to open with "All you people look at me like I'm a little girl," but can instead go straight to "We use our bodies to make our own videos."
And the of course there's the girl-on-girl action with Tinashe which Britney and Madonna (and Xtina) made famous in 2003. Katy Perry might have capitalized on it, but Britney was the original pop fauxbian.
Most importantly, Britney is inhabiting the identity carved out for herself some 16 years, and it doesn't feel regressive or like she's desperately trying to tread old ground. Vested in that is her control over her own body, and of course, the camera's gaze. Her outfit for the dance sequences in "Slumber Party" draws to mind her black ensembles in "Stronger"—breast skimming, embellished crop top, tiny skirt, fishnets and boots—and while the former is slightly more modern, there's no mistaking that this style is distinctly, classic Britney. It screams "I'm stronger than yesterday."
Just like in "Stronger," in "Slumber Party" Britney sings straight into the camera, with those lip quivers and face touches that are a signature of her early days. Haloed by light as she crawls towards the camera, today's Britney recalls a "Toxic" Britney—yet again, she's the sole focus, after so long being obscured by dancers, costumes, and the elaborate editing that was often used to shroud and disguise her through the mid- to late-00s.
"Slumber Party" is an homage to Britney at her finest. It cleverly plays off all the Britney tropes you loved from her glory days: the album title, Glory, suggests the whole shebang is more self-aware than you might think. Re-positioning Britney in a re-imagination of her greatest hits is a poignant reminder of who Britney Spears, the pop icon, is. We might have forgotten this side of Britney during her troubled years, but this a comeback in the truest sense: she's come full circle and there's no denying her power. This world might not deserve to live in the grace of this small relief—of the true return of Peak Britney—and Britney might not deserve to be reborn into a cultural moment that's so ugly and cataclysmic, but while we're here we might as well press play, close our eyes, and pretend it's 2003 again.
Kat George is a writer currently living in Greece. Follow her on Twitter.