Brave New Girl, or Same Old Spears?

Britney may be on the verge of a comeback -- if she can keep her act clean.

July 22, 2008 — -- She wants a good time

No need to rewind

She needs to really really find what she wants

She lands on both feet

Won't take a back seat

There's a brave new girl

And she's comin' out tonight

It's no Fiona Apple or Emily Bronte. But the lyrics to Britney Spears' "Brave New Girl," a song she put out in 2003, years before her life spiraled out of control, may finally be coming true now.

Sure, the headlines have been splashed across the Internet and tabloid magazines before ("Britney's New Act!" "Spears Insider: Brit Back on Track!"), only to be replaced the following week by photos of her crying into a cup of Starbucks and flipping off the paparazzi.

And Spears most recently made the papers by getting snapped last Sunday while smoking cigarettes in front of her two-year-old son, who was trying to play with her pack of Marlboros. But that lapse in parental judgement aside, Spears' behavior in the past few months suggests that, finally, she may really be poised to return to her pop star status of yore.

In March, she made her first high-profile, sans-paparazzi appearance in months, guest starring as a dermatologist's receptionist on CBS' "How I Met Your Mother." While her acting abilities, like her lyrics, aren't going to make it into the annals of cultural history, she proved she could show up to a set and get a job done without incident: A far cry from her disastrous 2007 MTV Video Music Awards performance. She followed it up with a second guest stint on the sitcom in May.

Also in May, Spears was granted more time with Sean Preston and Jayden James, her sons with ex-husband Kevin Federline, and praised by the judge hearing her child custody case for trying to get her personal life back under control. On Friday, she gave up her custody fight, but gained more visiting time with the boys, quite possibly the best play she could've made, according to lawyers.

"This is probably the best solution for the kids," Paul Talbert, family law attorney at Chemtob Moss Forman & Talbert, a Manhattan matrimonial law firm, told last week. "For Britney, it allows her to shrink from the spotlight a little bit -- she doesn't have to go to court every month and endure that circus. That circus can't make it easier for her to stay on the straight and narrow."

Instead of the courthouse, Spears is spending her summer in the recording studio.

"She's working with a team of top-notch producers and songwriters and we're very excited about what she's accomplished so far," her manager, Larry Rudolph, and Jive records said in a statement. "No album release date has been confirmed yet."

And instead of club-hopping, she's hitting the charity circuit. Saturday, Spears attended Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey's fundraiser for Generation Rescue, an organization dedicated to researching autism.

So, is this really a brave new girl in the making? Maybe, if she can manage to leave behind the mess of the past year and a half.

"For her to have a true comeback, it means stripping herself of everything that has come before," said E! online gossip columnist Ted Casablanca. "Take a break from the Britney that we know her as, and try something different. If she did a different kind of a tour, put out a different kind of music, that would be great. But if she comes back from the recording studio with the soft porn 'Gimme More' stuff, I don't see it helping her ultimately in the end. It's diving into the quasi whore-saint stuff that she's done for years."

"Look at someone like Madonna, someone who Britney is chasing after," he added. "Look how chameleonic that woman is. I mean, we hated half of her stuff -- the sex book, the bullet proof bras -- but at least she's gutsy and ties things differently."

Indeed, music industry insiders say the measure of Spears' success hinges on what comes out of all those steamy summer days in the recording studio. Her last album, "Blackout," wasn't a bomb: It debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart and, as of last week, sold 879,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But it came out in October 2007, shortly after a judge suspended Spears' child visitation rights and just before two stints in the hospital for psychological evaluations.

"It'll be helpful if she can avoid some of the headlines that we associated with her when the last album came out, the non-album headlines," said Geoff Mayfield, director of charts and senior analyst for Billboard magazine. "The last album didn't sell all that poorly. It was smaller than her biggest albums, but she'd already had a downward cycle from her biggest streak, and that tends to happen when you have a million-selling week on your second album."

Before she was a tabloid fixture and a late-night punch line, Spears was a pop superstar, and she needs to reinvigorate her audience to bounce back. Mayfield agreed that the frothy, bubblegum hits that made her huge in the 90s won't play well now, but she shouldn't reinvent herself into a figure her fans won't recognize, i.e., a bullet-proof bra-wearing diva, or a guitar-strumming ballad-belter.

"Everything depends on whether or not the consumer connects with what she's doing now," he said. "She has to be careful about doing music about her personal life: first off, it's not a personal life most people can relate to, and you run the risk of getting labeled as the 'poor little rich girl.' She should try to continue to evolve, but she can't reinvent herself to be a singer-songwriter type -- that's not her strength."

So, If she keeps her act clean and her music fresh (but not too fresh), maybe Spears can turn this streak of good behavior into a bona fide comeback. Or, she could just take Casablanca's advice:

"I think she should get together with Justin Timberlake and have a kid with him," he said. "That would be the greatest comeback of all."