Apparently, Britney Spears has great timing (that is, of course, when you’re not thinking about this).
When Miss Spears was going through the public breakdown to end all public breakdowns in 2007, she (and her many handlers) still managed to put together a remarkably solid club record in the form of Blackout, a high-energy, ballad-free disc that was focused on nothing but dance tracks, the hooks still accessible to all even as her lyrics got increasingly sexual in nature. What made the album a bit more interesting than her previous discs, however, was the fact that since her tabloid follies were now completely unavoidable, people couldn’t help but read into the lyrics a little bit, especially on the paparazzi-mocking single “Piece of Me”, which was, of course, penned by people other than Spears.
Yet, by all accounts, the album shouldn’t have done that well. Why? Because when an established pop star decides to make a “club” record, it’s not considered a new direction as much as it is considered a one-off, and the artist in question tends to whittle down their audience to just their core fans. Madonna did this (with grace and success) with 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, and Christina Aguilera did this (very, very unsuccessfully) with last year’s Gaga-biting Bionic. So what made Britney retain her pop-star sparkle a whole two albums after she inadvertently helped make TMZ what it is today?
Rolling Stone‘s Rob Sheffield argues that Britney accomplished this by setting off the whole Eurodisco trend that can be heard all over the radio these days, even going as far to say that Blackout is “the most influential pop album of the past five years”. He thinks that people just borrowed her strobe-filled template wholesale, but fails to note the album’s true power: Britney just had catchier songs than anyone else. Her lyrics can be called into question, and her voice was never her strong suit, but at the end of the day, people knew that a Britney Spears song was going to epitomize everything they love (and loathe) about pop music, full stop.
It’s for that very reason that Femme Fatale is simultaneously the most daring album that Britney has ever made and her most boring as well.
If anything, Spears greatest talent is having a hell of an ear for a producer. On 2008’s Circus, Spears opened up a line of credit with Lukasz Gottwald, a former Saturday Night Live Band guitarist who knew how to craft a pop hook better than “Baby One More Time” producer Max Martin—so it’s no wonder the two became friends. Before long, Dr. Luke began building up a small empire based out of his don’t-bore-us-get-to-the-chorus aesthetic (Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”, Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”, pretty much everything Ke$ha has ever done), even going as far as to putting up-and-coming pop producers (Benny Blanco, Billboard) under his wing. So it’s no surprise that the men responsible for virtually every Top 40 hit out there right now would completely dominate Femme Fatale‘s proceedings, with eight of the disc’s 12 tracks being handled by Luke, Martin, and/or one of their protégés (Spears has absolutely no co-writing credits to speak of here). Perhaps it’s even less surprising, then, that much of the album winds up retreading the same territory over and over again.
The disc opens with “Till the World Ends”, which is a stadium-rocking pop anthem co-written by Ke$ha that just so happens to serves as the album’s pace-setter. Single “Hold It Against Me” is equally thumping (dig that Aphex Twin-indebted breakdown in the middle—wait, what?). When we get to the Martin-helmed “I Wanna Go”, however, things stop being fun and start becoming intensely repetitious—didn’t we just hear this song? Let’s see: clipped-vocal phrasings used in the chorus? Check. A nice synth-y, beat-free pre-chorus? Done. An utterly stupid set of syllables repeated ad nauseam for no reason whatsoever? Absolutely (in this case, the “ably” part of “uncontrollably” gets recycled far beyond the point where it just sounds stupid). These are all things we heard in the disc’s first few tracks, except now, we’re hearing them again, and it’s far, far less thrilling than before (this problem repeats with “(Drop Dead) Beautiful [ft. Sabi]”, which features the most pointless guest rap since 3OH!3 appeared on Ke$ha’s “Blah Blah Blah” for all of 10 seconds).
Elsewhere, will.i.am continues down his Randy Newman-esque lyrical path towards simply singing about whatever instrument is currently playing (on “Big Fat Bass”), and the people who write Spears’ lyrics begin to run out of ideas well before they start having her say that “my heart only runs on Supreme” on “Gasoline” (ugh). By the time we get to the closing track “Criminal”—wherein Spears notes that she’s in love with a man who’s “a killer just for fun-fun-fun”—Femme‘s fatal flaw soon becomes obvious: Spears’ worldview is completely self-contained. While parts of Blackout could be read as postcards from within her breakdown, and Circus was somewhat a dissection of the media-blitz aftermath (starting with the title), Femme Fatale is just a big dumb club album. Her lyrics are about dancing and partying and flirting and falling in love (and in one case, about falling in love with a big fat bass… and then a kick-drum)—and that’s it. While Spears’ ardent fans could at least hold up tracks like “Womanizer” to prove that she was capable of at least some lyrical depth, they are given practically no ammunition here. It’s not even that the lyrics are inane: often times, they’re just flat-out boring, which is a remarkable dropoff considering that most of these songs are coming from the team that brought us the controversy-courting chorus of the (admittedly gimmicky) “If You Seek Amy”. Here, Britney sounds positively generic; by contrast, even Ke$ha’s dumbest rhymes at least remain interesting in one way or another.
Good lyrics or no, we still know Femme Fatale will be a blockbuster regardless, which is perhaps why there still remains room for Spears to try a few different things musically, and when Spears’ producers are given room to stretch, they manage to pull of a few pop music miracles. Although Spears’ actual good songs are often overlooked (like how the Bloodshy & Avant-produced “Unusual You” from Circus remains one of the sexiest dance songs to be released this millennium), here she makes them impossible to ignore. We’ve never heard her sing as forward as she does on “Trouble For Me”—which features a pre-chorus made entirely out of melting, wheezing synths—nor achieve the trance-like bliss that she does on the canyon-filling “Trip to Your Heart” (despite its remedial high-school poetry lyrics). Even that aforementioned breakdown on “Hold It Against Me” remains as musically brutal as anything you’ll find on VEVO today, which, coming from a major label pop starlet, is quite the accomplishment.
Yet if you come into Femme Fatale looking for only one genuine takeaway, then look no further: the absolutely bonkers “How I Roll” is here. On this jaw-dropping track, the percussion really rises beyond the persistent sound of rushed handclaps and a fizzy snare hit—drum machines are pretty much dropped from the equation altogether. Then, Bloodshy proceeds to send Spears’ voice through enough distorters, filters, and blenders to make T-Pain’s head spin, going so far as to use nothing but the sound of her breath as the beat one moment, then later stretching out the final syllable of the word “speaker” to the point where it digitizes and threatens to pop right off the track. It’s crazy effect, and, somehow, the resulting song (which features the most minimal of piano chords) sounds like it would fit perfectly on Robyn’s Body Talk. “How I Roll” is so deliciously weird, wild, and totally unexpected that by the time that Spears proclaims that “you can be my fuck tonight” with an understated, casual confidence, it sounds like, for the first time in her entire musical career, she actually means it.
Think about it: it took seven full-length albums and over a decade of dance-pop singles to get Spears to just one moment of genuine, actual humanity. Some would say that kind of wait is absurd, but for Spears to reach her honest side now—much on a “I can’t believe the put this on the record” track following her years of tabloid disasters, her fleeting moments of pop euphoria, and increasing competition from personality-driven singers like Lady Gaga and Ke$ha—well, I hear she’s got great timing…