Release Date: December 03, 2013
Early on, I discovered that an inordinate number of fantastic ’90s singles by Army of Lovers, E-Type, Ace of Base, Robyn, Backstreet Boys, and ‘N Sync all involved this Swedish guy, Max Martin. So when his greatest hit of them all — Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” — arrived in 1998, I was more than ready. Primed by the Catholic schoolgirl/minx character that Spears flaunted in the video, I expected the soon-to-be-megastar who’d just turned 17 to explode off the stage when she opened up for ‘N Sync right before the release of her first album.
Instead, a lost little waif in a baggy orange jumpsuit resembling an inmate’s uniform dutifully stumbled through the motions with a face that flashed between utter blankness and barely repressed trauma, foreshadowing her post-fame 2007-2008 meltdown. Since then, Spears typically has reverted to the blankness that allows fans and haters alike to project anything they wish onto her. She’s dance-pop’s tabula rasa.
Whereas most entertainers take on greater stylistic diversity and more challenging material as they mature, Spears has constricted. She’s been singing fewer notes and undergoing more studio processing with every release, to the point that 2011’s Femme Fatale was essentially 12 variations on one Europop-’til-you-drop Dr. Luke jam. It’s the sole album since her first that’s completely devoid of Spears songwriting credits, and it’s arguably her most consistently pleasurable, thanks to its nonstop hooks and sci-fi sound effects. It’s Gravity without the corny backstory.
And now, Britney Jean moves away from that formula and wipes out. Inspired by Spears’ broken engagement with her former agent, the star’s eighth album trades Martin protégé Dr. Luke for will.i.am, with Spears herself earning writing credits on nine of its ten cuts. She’s calling it her most personal album, which is a strange thing to attempt with the guy behind “Boom Boom Pow,” and aside from lead single “Work Bitch,” which recreates the vogueing vibe of gay/trans bitch tracks like Go Bitch Go’s “(Work This) Pussy,” it simply pillages the late-’90s sounds popular when she first skyrocketed — the same stuff that will.i.am’s been reviving since his Black Eyed Peas abandoned backpack hip-hop.
This means that the balladry Femme Fatale suppressed comes roaring back on a disc that most closely recalls a wan version of Madonna’s William Orbit-helmed Ray of Light. Appropriately, we kick off with “Alien,” an Orbit production that, like a lot of this album, begins promisingly, as loopy-Britney yodels mingle with chillwave synths. But her singsong cry can’t support the foggy mood’s weight, and where she should be belting out a killer chorus, she merely chants, “Not alone,” like a needle stuck in a groove. Spears, much like Ray-era Madonna, is mourning how fame alienated her, but unlike her evident role model, she fails to supply any evidence that she’s learned from her estrangement.
Time and time again, Britney has proven that she’s at her most present when she plays hard and dirty: the unapologetic sleaze of “I’m a Slave 4 U,” the spaghetti-Western weirdness of “Toxic,” the resentment of “Piece of Me.” But when she stops tugging at the constraints of teen-pop’s safety net, she simply falls into it. How else can we explain why in “Perfume” she agreed to the ridiculous lyric, “I gotta mark my territory,” particularly when it so badly clashes with the ballad’s soul-searching orchestrations? “Don’t Cry” features her most full-bodied delivery, but the marginal tune doesn’t deliver on the Morricone-esque intro’s promise. “Passenger,” a Diplo-produced outtake from Katy Perry’s Prism, features Perry’s straightforward vocal style (and writing credit) while delivering the album’s only meaty melody, but its lyrics about living without a map aren’t believable coming from Brit’s lips. Unlike Madonna or Janet Jackson (or KP), Spears never seems in control. She wears clothes well, hooks up with the right choreographers, and boasts a singles discography to rival Pink’s and Gaga’s. But through it all, she remains a passenger.
That’s most apparent when will.i.am takes the wheel. Dr. Luke may be single-minded, but at least his sonic palate for Femme Fatale was substantial and fresh. Whereas will.i.am replaces melody with repetition and familiarity: Nearly every uptempo Jean cut could segue into Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee),” but unlike his previous monster productions, there’s nothing memorable here. Reheated Peas leftovers like “Body Ache” will never command your brain, whether you like them or not, the way that “I Gotta Feeling” did.
Only one dance jam besides “Work Bitch” makes an impression, and it’s not a good one. Equating female pleasure with an exploding bomb, “Tick Tick Boom” depicts Brit’s private parts as an errant pet that needs obedience training. “Can you tame these goodies?” she inquires. Not to be outdone, guest-rapper T.I. responds:
While you’re lying on your bed with your feet up
Right there in my wife-beater
She like the way I eat her, beat her, beat her
Treat her like an animal, somebody call PETA
Ponder everyone in the room who lacked the foresight to nix that: will.i.am, his co-producer Anthony Preston, Britney, RCA. That failure better exemplifies the absence at the heart of Spears’ career than even the prickly Blackout did at the peak of her personal troubles. Britney Jean may chart respectably because it leads the most musically uneventful December in years, but it will soon fade like “Perfume,” because there’s zilch in the way of humanity here.
In fact, the record probably will be completely eclipsed by the year’s one masterful Brit moment: the “Everytime” sequence in Spring Breakers, wherein Harmony Korine outfits his female leads with rifles and pink ski masks to gather around James Franco as he croaks out a self-accompanied rendition of Spears’ last hit ballad. Her original then accompanies a slo-mo montage of Franco and the girls mugging and bashing anyone unlucky enough to have stumbled into their blunt-fueled path. As casually violent as the song is melodramatically haunted, that sequence emphasized how malleable Spears can be, and how easily the American teenage dream she’s never stopped embodying can morph into a nightmare.