What should Britney Spears do next? Brian Hiatt offers career advice for the pop goddess on the eve of her six-month break
Britney Spears
Credit: Britney Spears: Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images/Newscom

What should Britney Spears do next?

Oh Britney, Britney, how were we supposed to know…that something isn’t right? With Spears about to take a six-month break from the spotlight, we’re not nearly ready to echo the New York Times Magazine’s recent claim that the 20-year-old’s ”star has fallen.” But it’s clear that she’s reached an, um, crossroads in her career.

Spears remains one of the world’s biggest stars, but her latest album, ”Britney,” sold 3.8 million copies — an impressive number for most artists, but less than half of what her last release moved. Meanwhile, her new single, the heavy breather ”Boys,” has only reached No. 36 on Radio & Records’ pop radio chart, and you’re more likely to hear Brit’s Pepsi ad on Top 40 radio than her actual music.

Plus, Spears has experienced a wave of negative publicity in recent months, beginning with her high-profile break-up with ‘NSync’s Justin Timberlake, and continuing on to two recent incidents in Mexico (she brandished her middle finger at some photogs and cut short a concert due to bad weather). Even news of her parents’ divorce seems to somehow tarnish that glisteningly perfect image; her sunny sound seems at odds with her suddenly turbulent life.

At the same time, musical trends aren’t moving in Spears’ favor, as fans have embraced the likes of Pink and Avril Lavigne, whose more rock-leaning pop provides a tart alternative to Britney’s sticky-sweet bubblegum. So, once she’s back from her extended vacation, how can Britney Spears re-create herself for a new era? As always, we have some suggestions:

Choose movie projects carefully One of the brightest spots in Spears’ recent career was the $37 million take of her February movie debut, ”Crossroads,” which received mostly respectful reviews. Britney was right to pick a role that allowed her to sing while showing off a jeans-and-T-shirt anti-glamour. But her appearance as a Fembot in ”Goldmember,” complete with glossy performance footage, seems like a misstep, contributing to a sense of overexposure while adding little that’s new to her image (although the closing-credits gag where she asks for Verne ”Tripod” Troyer’s cell phone number was an excellent dirty joke).

Brit’s apparent next cinematic move, a still-untitled project set in the world of stock-car racing, was announced with fanfare as a business deal between NASCAR and Spears’ production company. And indeed, with press-release promises to feature ”the heart and family spirit of NASCAR racing,” the project sounds more like an ad than an artistic venture. Britney should scrap this potential product-placement nightmare before it’s too late, and find a less synergistic movie to star in — preferably one where she can sing, or at least lip-synch.

Lose the Neptunes’ phone number The Neptunes are pop’s most gifted, genre-jumping producers, and Britney’s decision to use them on her new album showed a courageous experimental bent. But their melody-scarce, hip-hop-bred sound is just plain wrong for her. ”I’m a Slave 4 U”’s minimalist thump and overdubbed whispers worked, albeit just barely. But their newer collaboration, ”Boys,” is a disaster, aside from its lush bridge. Who wants to hear Britney Spears rapping with all the panache of Deborah Harry on ”Rapture”?

Instead, Spears would be wise to run back to Max Martin and his crew of Swedish pop-meisters, who wrote all of her greatest songs, from ”…Baby One More Time” to the new album’s standout ”Overprotected.” In the meantime, Spears should seek out new producers, from Glen Ballard to, hell, Pink and Christina Aguilera Svengali Linda Perry. She should also go with her instincts to start writing more herself — unless, of course, her own songs turn out to suck.

Watch that image Spears seems to be in danger of an Elvis Presley/Michael Jackson scenario, where her outsized presence and inaccessible megastardom — from tabloid rumors about weight gains to that middle-finger photo — start to diminish the importance of her recording career. Story after story has Britney disappointing fans waiting outside some personal appearance by running past them, or looking bored at some scripted press event.

Britney should take a cue from the PR-savvy likes of Tom Cruise and learn to meet and greet the hoi polloi, instead of running from them like they’re members of Al Qaeda. She should also give more informal interviews that would help fans begin to relate to her again. Britney could have used the Justin breakup to humanize her image, but instead she had her publicist spend months denying that it ever happened.

Stick to the six-month plan The absolute best thing Britney could do right now is truly disappear for six months, or even longer: no singles, no videos, no ads, no public appearances with new boyfriend Hugh Grant (just kidding). When she does return, Spears should do so quietly: something like an ”MTV Unplugged” with her greatest hits would be perfect, if she can pull off the vocal challenge.

Then, for a true comeback, all Britney needs is one more great song. And contrary to popular opinion, she’s already had a bunch of those. So, believe it or not, the odds are in her favor — especially with Max Martin at her side.

What do you think Britney should do next?