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.
NEXT PAGE: ''I would think [MTV] knew it was going to be a mess,'' says a source close to the VMAs