Spears' 'comeback' performance on MTV turned out to be the worst of her life. Who's really to blame — and can the damage be fixed?

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Britney Spears has been called many things throughout her topsy-turvy career: Grammy winner. Teen idol. Pop tart. Trailer trash. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who’s ever referred to her as a comedian. And yet, when the 25-year-old pop star took the stage at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas to kick off her much-touted comeback on the 24th annual MTV Video Music Awards, she left an entire battalion of music insiders and MTV employees in stitches as they watched on the monitors backstage. From the opening shot (a jarring close-up of her poorly manufactured, bleach-blond weave) to the final flourish (a halfhearted ”Thank you” and a speedy dash from the stage), Spears left them gasping for air — and for all the wrong reasons. What was billed as the music world’s biggest, most anticipated performance in months quickly turned into a dismal display of everything that’s gone wrong for Spears in recent years. And it raises numerous questions about whether the embattled singer — who until the VMAs was riding a positive wave of press thanks to ”Gimme More,” the well-received first single from her next album, out Nov. 13 — can ever recover from what’s become a very familiar situation.

The pop star has always commanded a committed (if quixotic) fan base who lap up her every move, and rightfully so: Her singing voice may be reed-thin, but when she’s at the top of her game, Spears is an electrifying performer who oozes a provocative blend of sexuality and silliness. But that Britney — the one who blitzkrieged VMAs past with partners as varied as a python and Madonna — was a distant memory on Sept. 9, as she wobbled on stage and gave what was, by all accounts, the worst public performance of her career. ”Everyone was stunned,” says a music-industry exec who was seated in the audience, where pretty much nobody was laughing. ”We couldn’t believe what was happening right in front of our eyes.” Indeed, if the goal was to grab headlines, Spears succeeded; if the goal was to revive a recording and performing career that’s been pretty dormant since her last studio effort, 2003’s In the Zone, she seems to have failed miserably.

So who’s to blame here? By all accounts, Britney simply didn’t have the desire to pull off a performance that would wow the crowd, and the rumors started flying right after her Vegas crapshoot: Britney stayed out late partying all weekend long; Britney chose that ill-fitting bikini in lieu of a more demure corset; Britney fell out with illusionist Criss Angel because she wasn’t committed to their planned onstage collaboration; Britney arrived two hours late to her rehearsal, frozen margarita in hand. (All true, according to sources close to the ceremony.) Another person who was present for rehearsals said Spears ”seemed sort of lethargic” and that ”there was no energy” in her dance moves. And immediately following her lackluster act, a group of record-label execs and handlers surrounded her dressing-room door backstage, almost as if to shield her from the oncoming onslaught of bad press.

It’s hard to know precisely how Spears was feeling, since she declined to comment for this article. But sources close to the production tell us that MTV may have known it had a potential fiasco on its hands. “I would think [MTV] knew it was going to be a mess,” says one. “They knew she’d been out partying. It seems like it was really meant for attention, like they wanted the publicity.” And in the end, MTV must have known that Spears was going to generate massive coverage no matter how she did. Responds MTV: “Britney Spears has had so many memorable, high-energy performances at the VMAs…and no one wanted to see her succeed more than her fans and MTV.”

The incident fits into a larger sin/contrition cycle that Britney and the media have played out since her quickie first marriage in Vegas in 2004. Spears has become a nonstop content provider whose every move is dissected, chewed up, and spit out ad nauseam. We treat her using the same instructions you’d find on the back of a shampoo bottle: Squeeze her into an impossible situation, lather up a media frenzy, rinse off the residue of the ensuing scandal, and repeat. We root for her comebacks as intensely as we revel in her downfalls. An entire cottage industry has been constructed around this very idea: Two days after the awards show, VH1 aired a presciently planned special that chronicled her “most shocking year ever.” And Chris Crocker, a 19-year-old fan, became an overnight Internet sensation by shedding (crocodile?) tears in a widely circulated video titled “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE!” that he claims made him the No. 1 most watched person on MySpace.

One person who definitely seemed to be gloating was Sarah Silverman, a real comedian who followed Britney with a monologue that quickly unsettled the Palms audience even more; it got downright ugly a minute into her routine when she called Spears’ toddler sons “the most adorable mistakes you will ever see.” Silverman told EW after the show that she thought Spears “did a good job…. I just thought she’d have some sort of animal or fire or something”—but didn’t directly address her more offensive comments. (Her rep tells EW: “Sarah did nothing but react to Britney’s actions in a comical way, which is what she was asked to do.”) Incidentally, one of Silverman’s closest counterparts in ribald, celeb-skewering humor, Kathy Griffin, became embroiled in her own awards-show scandal last weekend when she told Jesus to “suck it” in an acceptance speech after winning an Emmy award for her Bravo reality show. Not surprisingly, she vigorously defends Silverman’s divisive routine: “I loved Sarah. As a comedian, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to walk out and say, ‘Britney sure was great, everybody!’? Your hands are tied. You have to go there.”

But guess what? The debacle hasn’t deflated her new single’s momentum at all. One label exec calls “Gimme More” “a smash” and goes so far as to predict that her album — which is slated to bow opposite stiff competition including Céline Dion — “will sell very well. I don’t think the performance is going to hurt her or the album.” At press time, “More” remained one of the most requested songs at New York’s Z100, which premiered the tune on Aug. 30. “People are still calling in, wanting to comment on the performance,” says program director Sharon Dastur. “But then they say, ‘When’s the next time you guys are playing the song?'” Clearly, many of her fans have shrugged off Spears’ bad night. In fact, comments like Silverman’s and barbs about the star’s bikini-clad figure have already resulted in public sympathy swinging back in her favor. Spears seems as aware of her predicament as anyone, as evidenced by “Piece of Me,” a track on her new album in which she sings about the public’s obsession with her appearance and her parenting skills.

Even leaving aside Britney’s travails, the VMA ceremony itself was a disaster despite promises of a complete overhaul. The newly streamlined event was as wince-inducing as the Britney and Sarah Show: Performances were truncated, seemingly at random. Presenters babbled nonsensically. The awards categories seemed truly arbitrary — really, what is a Monster Single of the Year, and why were there 10 nominees? By the time the show was over, Kanye West — who was shut out from any awards — vowed that he’ll never work with the channel again after being forced to perform in one of the show’s confusing “fantasy suites” instead of in the main theater. (“Kanye chose to perform in the fantasy suite,” responds a source close to the production.) Even Justin Timberlake, the night’s big winner, excoriated the channel from the podium more than once for airing reality pap rather than the actual videos that it was supposedly celebrating. And some inside the network acknowledge the disappointment. “Everybody at MTV hated the show. People are embarrassed,” says one exec. (Counters a spokesperson: “The show was a total reinvention and looked completely different. Ratings and online numbers were way up, demonstrating that viewers loved it.”) Despite the controversy — or perhaps because of it — the telecast drew 7.1 million viewers, a 23 percent jump over last year’s airing. According to the network, that was a “lone airing” in its original form; when MTV announced the details about this year’s ceremony last spring, it said that all future re-airings would be “remixed” versions featuring unseen clips and performances. Yet less than a half hour after the end credits rolled, there was that familiar, dreadful close-up of Britney’s extensions, and there, in its entirety, was the same version of the show that MTV promised we’d never see again. If only.