For a fallen pop princess, the climb back up to the throne will be long and hard.
With her recent activities, Britney Spears has made clear that she's no longer the doe-eyed, pigtailed girl of yore. After multiple flashes of her private parts, countless nights on the town, allegations of drug and alcohol abuse and -- the latest twist in the months-long saga -- a New Year's Eve "collapse," Spears has turned off even her most devoted fans.
Now she -- and her record label, Jive -- want to win them back.
Jive says a new Spears album is a certainty. Today, Spears reached out to her fans through her Web site with a statement saying, "The last couple of years have been quite a ride for me...I am now more mature and feel like I am finally 'free.'...I look forward to coming back this year bigger and better than ever, and to also reaching out to my fans on a more personal level."
But even if her songs sound as catchy as her breakout hits, even if her body gyrates as seductively as it once did, the question remains whether Spears' music career can repair itself in the wake of her shattered image.
Despite persistent rumors that Jive isn't pleased with Spears' latest recording sessions and might want to drop its former golden child, the label asserts it's standing by the pop star.
"Contrary to media reports, Jive's relationship with Britney Spears is fine," a Jive spokesperson said. "She continues to be one of our biggest worldwide artists, and we remain 1000 percent committed to Britney's career. She is currently in the middle of recording a terrific new album that we are very excited about releasing it in the second half of this year."
Clean Up, Belt Out, Be Redeemed
According to music industry experts, Jive's support and the quality of the album may be irrelevant if Spears can't clean up her image.
"With every passing week that there's some kind of embarrassing event with her, the chances she has of reaching the heights she was at gets smaller," said Rolling Stone associate editor Brian Hiatt. "No one thinks of her as some kind of musical genius but she used to be really good at being a pop star. It's hard to see her the same way, it really is."
Hiatt cited the shutting down of Spears' popular fan site WorldofBritney.com as proof that she's lost her appeal.
"She's definitely alienated some of her fan base. Look at the guy who ran the World of Britney site and shut it down saying that Britney's over. It's not clear that she particularly cares, so she may have to try to make new fans or win the old ones back," Hiatt said.
If Spears keeps her skirt down and belts her heart out in the studio, she stands a chance of reviving her career.
"I think the American public loves nothing more than a redemption story and certainly, Britney is poised for one of the great ones of all time," Billboard magazine's deputy editor Bill Werde said.
Werde suggested Spears go back to her Louisiana-bred, girl-next-door roots.
"If I was offering Britney Spears advice, it would be to take two or three steps back in her career and go back to working on a slightly more wholesome image," he said.
With the right team of people backing her songs and her music videos, Spears could reclaim her status as the envy of teenage girls and the fantasy of adolescent boys.
"I have no doubt that Britney can hit the gym, get herself back into shape, hire the right makeup artist, get a good videographer and position herself to make a great video," Werde said. "She needs to sign up with the right producers and make the right videos and keep it together enough to project the right image through all of that."
Take a Cue from Music Scandals Past
Spears joins a long line of singers and bands tasked with staging a comeback after a public scandal. Werde offered the example of Aerosmith.
"Aerosmith was falling-off-the-stage drunk at one point and they ended up back on MTV," he said. "They cleaned up, they stayed sober, they made some good music and they were right back and much bigger than they ever were."
Werde pointed out that Spears' indiscretions pale in comparison to some of the industry's biggest scandals, like the Michael Jackson saga. Accusations of pedophilia trump flashing ten-fold.
"What has Britney really done? She married the wrong guy, she wasn't careful with her skirt, she got a little screwed up at a New Year's Eve party -- who hasn't done those things?" he said.
Mike Errico, editor for Blender.com, said Spears should take a cue from Mariah Carey, who fell out of favor in 2001 after making a string of career mistakes.
"People like Mariah have bottomed out and bounced back hotter than ever. So I think anything that's happening now might not necessarily reflect her sales. I think it will come down to the same old things -- does she have a hit, will the radio play it, and will the country be in the mood to listen to it," Errico said.
Much will depend on when Spears releases her album and what else is on the music industry's plate. Putting out a CD toward the end of the year could be a boon for the pop star's image problems but bad for business.
"Late fall is the fourth quarter and that is the most competitive time of year to put a record out. She has plenty of time to fix everything," Errico said. "But I think a lot of it will also depend on who else is putting stuff out. If Christina [Aguilera] is dormant and her major competitors are dormant, she may just run the table in that world."
The success of Spears' album will also hinge on how she incorporates her recent personal problems into her music. No confessional tale is needed, but she should give a nod to her behavior over the past few months.
"Coming up with the right angle on herself will be a major factor in the success of her next record," Errico said.
Music industry experts agree that it will be tough, if not impossible, for Spears to sell more albums than her record breaking 1999 debut, " ... Baby One More Time." But if she plays her cards right, she could rule the pop music realm again.
"From now until the release of her album she needs to go without any headlines that say she's out of control," Hiatt said. "She can appear, but she needs to keep her underwear on and remain in an upright position."