But it was little more than an overhyped burlesque show that went splat -- and critics quickly picked over the debris.
Decked out in a black sparkly bra and panty set and flanked by writhing dancers, a bloated Spears gave a mechanical performance of her new single, the clubby "Gimme More." It was a far cry from her previous mouth-dropping appearances on the show.
Comedian Sarah Silverman then launched into stinging jokes on the show, calling Spears' two sons "the most adorable mistakes you will ever see." PerezHilton.com simply asked readers, "How Bad Was Britney Y'all?"
Four years have passed since Spears' last studio album, In the Zone; her fifth release is due in stores in November. In between, tales of erratic behavior have filled tabloids: shaving her head, entering and leaving rehab, attacking a photographer's car with an umbrella, and driving around with an infant on her lap.
Last night was an important but anticlimactic return to the VMA stage, where Spears has given three memorable performances: stripping down to a flesh-colored body suit in 2000; dancing with a python in 2001; and locking lips with Madonna in 2003. The performances cemented her superstar status.
But there was nothing memorable about Spears last night. Lip-syncing the thin, breathy vocals, she seemed bored. At one point, she stopped moving her lips altogether. The performer has been through a lot since the last time she wowed the MTV crowd. Perhaps last night, she still had a lot on her mind.