Rhetorical Analysis of “Circus”

by Grace Lee 

art by Havi Rojer

I first heard Britney Spears’ 2008 hit “Circus” in Miss Beierle’s fifth-grade classroom. Apparently, it was the song that her younger sister had chosen to play while she walked across the stage at her graduation. Miss Beierle told us that in a sea of “Pomp and Circumstance,” her sister’s selection had stood out, a pop tune in a sea of violins and snare drums. At the time, it seemed like a strange choice. 

First off, if you haven’t heard this song, I highly recommend it. Look it up on YouTube and watch the music video for the full experience. It’s 2000s pop—and nobody does 2000s pop better than Britney Spears. For this particular song, Spears is a ringleader in the center of the circus, powerful and bold. There’s so much to enjoy— a weirdly addictive groove, a dance break that features spliced voiceovers, Spears taming an elephant. Yet in spite of all these admirable qualities, I feel that the lyrical brilliance of the song deserves to be highlighted because, as we all know, mainstream pop music has a reputation for its depth and meaning. Using my knowledge from AP Literature (thanks Mrs. Morris!) and skills built over eighteen years of academic bullshitting, I present to you a completely legitimate and very serious analysis of the lyrics to Britney Spears’ “Circus.” 

At its core, “Circus” is about asserting Spears’ place in the spotlight and her ability to mesmerize a crowd. There are “two types of people in the world: the ones that entertain, and the ones that observe.” Safe to say, Spears doesn’t fall into the second category, as asserted by her statement that she is a “put-on-a-show kinda girl.” This same sort of dichotomy returns in the second verse when Spears asserts that there are “two types of guys out there: ones that can hang with [her] and ones that are scared.” In both quotes, Spears speaks to her capability in front of an audience, a point that is emphasized by the parallelism of the lines. By establishing these categories, Spears also engages us to consider which group we fall into. She compels us to admire her and her performances or run the risk of being an outsider to her appeal. This effect is furthered by Spears’ explicit separation of her male audience as appreciative of her talent or “scared.” The choice of “scared” here highlights a toxic masculinity that presents fear or vulnerability as the worst possible outcome for a man. Although she has regularly been the victim of misogyny, Spears flips these constructs to her momentary benefit by effectively shaming men into enjoying her music. The morality of such a choice may be questioned, but the provocative word choice here highlights larger societal issues. 

The song’s topic and structure is an extended metaphor, one that establishes a circus and places Spears at the center. Why a circus? As explored in this issue of Kitsch, the carnival and the circus have a mythical hold on us, and by using this as the backdrop, Spears advances herself to an inaccessible place of legend. At the same time, the circus perfectly mirrors her profession as an artist, as referenced through the lines “I’m like a performer, the dance floor is my stage.” The usage of a simile in this line is especially thought-provoking when you consider that Spears actually is a performer in her regular life. She does not write “I’m a performer” but “I’m like a performer,” a loaded choice. Is this line simply her commitment to her character of a humble ringleader? Or is it actually commentary on her imposter syndrome, an indication that she still does not feel like a true performer in spite of her accomplishments? Either way, it’s all very meta, an artful incorporation of Spears’ reality into her persona. 

And while the spotlight clearly shines on Spears throughout the song, the usage of second person creates a group experience meant to draw in the audience. For instance, the final line of the song rings, “Everybody let go, we can make a dance floor just like a circus.” Spears is not alone, and the “we” acknowledges the fact that a performer is nothing without an audience. She asks listeners to let loose, relax, and create a space of freedom and adventure. At the same time, circus performers are often victims of society’s other-ing and criticism, and their acts often include animal cruelty and ignorance. Spears links “[letting] go” to making a circus, and her words serve as a warning that activism and protection of the most marginalized groups in society require constant work. 

In a mere three minutes and twelve seconds, Spears addresses several difficult topics, including masculinity and her self-confidence solely through her lyrics. Consider what layers and complexities we would find if we extended this sort of analysis to the song itself, or the music video choices or her performances. Spears is a master at her craft, and it shows. In the fifth grade, I couldn’t possibly have truly understood this song in all its glory, but now I think I might understand at least some of it. This has also given me insight into Ms. Beirele’s sister’s mindset; hopefully we’ll start seeing less “Pomp and Circumstance” and more “Circus.” It’s truly a song that does it all— meaningful lyrics in a perfect pop masterpiece. 

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