Music

Britney Spears: Femme Fatale

Leave it to Britney Spears to have her most sonically daring album double-over as her most lyrically boring album at the same time.


Britney Spears

Femme Fatale

Label: Jive
US Release Date: 2011-03-29
UK Release Date: 2011-03-28
Amazon
iTunes

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...

5

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta



19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller



18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr


17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr



16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image