Let’s first acknowledge how improbable it is that there's a new Britney Spears album for me to review in 2011. Who would have ever guessed Brit Brit, with her countless Sheen-sized public meltdowns, would not only have this kind of longevity, but also end up being the workhorse of the three Grammy-winning alums of the 1990s revival of The Mickey Mouse Club? Justin Timberlake may have impeccable credibility, but it’s beginning to seem like music has become an afterthought for him. After all, Future Sex/Love Sounds was released in 2006, and there’s no new album on the horizon. Christina Aguilera, on the other hand, started with the most promise and has only disappointed ever since. In terms of pure vocal talent, her fellow Mouseketeers pale in comparison. Yet Christina still hasn’t found her voice. Is she the trashy vixen of Stripped, the classy throwback diva of Back to Basics, or the Lady Gaga impersonator of Bionic? The one thing Christina hasn’t been since her debut is herself. Not so with Britney. Somehow she has managed to become the most prolific and successful artist from the late-90s bubblegum explosion. And, perhaps, the best. (For proof, I refer you to her last singles collection.)
Pop music has moved on since Britney first demanded to be hit one more time, but unlike Xtina, she has ignored trends and has comfortably settled into a well-worn groove. Starting with In the Zone, and best exemplified on Blackout, Britney has left FM pop behind and has embraced full-on Euro club music. Her songs are more than ever producer-driven studio affairs, with Brit receding into the role of the generic diva, à la Martha Wash. It’s a good fit for Britney, as she doesn’t have Lady Gaga’s superstar persona, Rihanna’s distinctive and brassy instrument, or Robyn’s (or even Kelis’) talent for being intentionally odd. As long as Britney’s producers keep giving her good material, she doesn’t need to do much more than brush the Cheetos crumbs off her shirt and show up to the studio on time.
On Femme Fatale, her producers often deliver in spades. Max Martin and Dr. Luke, pop music’s most reliable hit makers, do most of the work, with a small crowd of contributors rounding out the credits. The roster of writers and producers is so extensive – Billboard, will.i.am, Fraser T. Smith, Shellback, Henrik Jonback, and Magnus Lidehäll are just a few listed – that the most conspicuous name is the one that’s not included in any of the credits: Ms. Spears’ own. Usually it’s a bad sign if there are these many hands in the same pot, but rather than being an utter mess, Femme Fatale is sturdy, hook-heavy, and focused. Clearly the album’s progenitor is Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor. Like that album, the songs on Femme Fatale come pre-remixed, with the club genre’s signature breakdowns and compressed build-ups included from the get-go. “If you want this good bitch sicker than the remix, baby let me blow your mind tonight,” she purrs on “Till the World Ends,” and at its best Femme Fatale succeeds at doing something like that. Maybe it’s not mind-blowing, but it sure is booty-shaking.
Not to over-praise the record. Yes, a handful of the songs are excellent. The gurgling beats and whoa-oh-oh chorus of “Till the World Ends” are terrific, the plaintive melody on “Criminal” is downright pretty, and “Hold It Against Me” is Britney’s best single since “Toxic,” but many of these songs are standard-issue to the point of being pedestrian. The lyric to “Gasoline” features a painful, drawn-out metaphor (“My heart only runs on Supreme”); “Inside Out” sounds like a Justified throwaway; and the will.i.am-written “Big Fat Bass” is just bad Black Eyed Peas. The rest fall somewhere in between: the loopy and bubbly “How I Roll” is charming, if slight, and “(Drop Dead) Beautiful” is an unintentional Scissor Sisters homage, though in the best possible way.
With all of its flaws duly noted, Femme Fatale is still a coup for Britney. When I stopped thinking about it and allowed the music to play in the background, the album had a Svengali-like control over my body – a little shoulder bop here, some hip sway there. Maybe it’s because expectations have been lowered so thoroughly by her tabloid shenanigans, but that’s all I ask of Britney Spears today: not a repeat of the pop brilliance of “…Baby One More Time”, just some bumping songs to dance to on a Saturday night.
“Till The World Ends”