BRITNEY SPEARS: FEMME FATALE (2011)
1) Till The World Ends; 2) Hold It Against Me; 3) Inside Out; 4) I Wanna Go; 5) How I Roll; 6) (Drop Dead) Beautiful; 7) Seal It With A Kiss; 8) Big Fat Bass; 9) Trouble For Me; 10) Trip To Your Heart; 11) Gasoline; 12) Criminal.
And here comes another change of image — not a radical one, but somewhat appropriately attuned to Britney's 30th birthday (yes, it has been that long, hard as it is to believe). The album title is hardly a reference to The Velvet Underground & Nico, but apparently it was decided that Britney's target audience has its own understanding of what a «femme fatale» is supposed to be: if you ask me, the idea of yesterday's Loli-queen Britney Spears as a «femme fatale» is about as ridiculous as the idea of Britney Spears as an intellectual folk-rock queen from the Village, but who am I, for crying out loud? Am I Max Martin? Ke$ha? Lukasz Gotwald? Alexander Kronlund? Mathieu Jomphe? Bonnie McKee? Jacob Kasher Hindlin? Savan Kotecha? Christian Karlsson? Henrik Jonback? Magnus Lidehäll? Pontus Winnberg? Jeremy or Joshua Coleman? Esther Dean? Benjamin Levin? Henry Walter? Will.i.am? Fraser T. Smith? Heather Bright? Liwi Franc? Sophie Stern? Claude Kelly? Tiffany Amber? All these people know better than me — and they are just the songwriters. For the producers, multiply that by 1.5. So many mouths to feed — Britney could have just as well opened a charity fund or something.
Anyway, the point here is to re-cast Britney as the «queen of the modern groove» — somewhat of a slightly less outrageous, slightly more family-entertainment-compatible version of Lady Gaga, with just as much dance energy, but without all the trash pop culture humor and sarcasm. Sex is still being sold a-plenty, too, but this time, from a more «mature» perspective — we are now out of «the zone», fully aware of all the erogenous capacities of the body and ready to teach rather than to learn. A «Femme Fatale», after all, should be way past losing herself in the heavy drugginess of ʽEarly Morningʼ or the naïve orgy of ʽBreathe On Meʼ. But she is also not supposed to be a post-operational robot à la Blackout, or a confused, vulnerable ex-tramp à la Circus.
So, basically, this sounds like a steady, self-assured, in-command set of high-energy electropop dance tunes, loaded with brand new production gimmicks, dubstep influences, and Auto-Tune going for the kill — they use it with more creativity than on Blackout, though, usually to accentuate certain bits of the choruses, so that there is no overwhelming «robotic» impression from the singing, only from the musical background (which is expected).
As embarrassing as it is to admit it, more than half of the songs here are really catchy — in fact, on a pure song-by-song basis, Femme Fatale might be the most «fun» album in Britney's stash so far. That small army of songwriters and producers assembled for the occasion somehow managed to pull it off in a somewhat less cheap / sleazy / generic way than the previous two records — maybe it's all a matter of hard techno grooving, or echo layering, or whatever, but the idiot hooks on generic dance fodder like ʽTill The World Endsʼ or ʽI Wanna Goʼ are grapply, and it will take all day to get the sticky burr of "I can be your treble (trouble?) baby you can be my bass" out of your system. Silly, manipulative, but it doth work.
Actually, if not for the arrangements — which, want it or not, have to follow the conventions of today the same way Madonna's arrangements of her early classics had to follow the conventions of the mid-1980s — if not for the arrangements, I could easily, just like that, see some of these songs handled by the likes of, say, Blondie in the early 1980s. ʽGasolineʼ, for instance, which is near-perfect in terms of vocal form (the verse melody begins kinda flat and stupid, but the chorus is dark, crisp, sexy, and the transition to falsetto adds a nice extra touch). Or the whoa-whoos of ʽSeal It With A Kissʼ. Or the light cooey fun of ʽHow I Rollʼ (with the naughtiness disguised by making the main verse line go "you can be my THUG tonight" in the official lyrics — hey, these songwriting guys are smart enough to know the phonetic proximity of their fricatives).
Unlike Circus, the album is almost completely devoid of sentimentality or, God forbid, any deliberate throwbacks to Britney's ʽDear Diaryʼ-type songs; the only exception is the last song, ʽCriminalʼ, an acoustic folk ballad (!) with flute (!!) that still rips its verse melody off ABBA's ʽLay All Your Love On Meʼ (!!!). Definitely unusual stuff for Britney, but alas, it does not work — the whole thing, at best, sounds like an unintentional parody on the «stand by your man» genre, and Britney's delivery is as stiff and stuffy here as it is everywhere else. Except that everywhere else it's okay for her to be stiff, because the rest of the album is purely carnal in essence.
So I just pretend to myself that Femme Fatale is really just eleven songs of non-stop dancing, and a bonus cut thrown in for sentimental fools who'd spent half their lives dreaming of hearing Britney backed with a pastoral sound. From that point of view, this here image, style, and packaging is probably the best deal possible for a «mature» Britney — certainly not one bit worse than Madonna's Confessions On A Dance Floor, as the former teacher and student are now pressing their standards closer to each other from the opposite ends.
The best deal isn't much, of course: the synthesizers are sickly, the beats are primitive, the lead singer is «The Return of the Son of Britney Spears and Auto-Tune», the lyrics are uninteresting (if not always atrocious), the guest rap stars are annoying, the sex is artificially staged, the mood is monotonous, and the idea of Britney Spears pushing thirty is a turn-off by itself — predictably, the album sold even less than Circus, which sold less than Blackout, which sold less than In The Zone... you get the tendency, and predictably, her next album will sell even less than that, unless really drastic measures are taken, like a public revelation that Britney and Lady Gaga are really the same person.
But it is still amusing — and instructive, especially for all the current Loli-queens who have enough intellect to think a few years ahead into their career — that on a pure song-by-song basis, ripped out of historic and cultural context, Britney Spears might have produced her best record (or, rather, «have her best record produced») at a time when her visual image, the one thing that sells best of all in this world of ours, got tattered, withered, and irrelevant. Femme Fatale was criticized heavily for not having enough of Britney «herself» — for getting her totally lost in a crowd of corporate mannequins — and I sort of disagree. First, if «Britney herself» means the Britney of ʽDear Diaryʼ or ʽMy Babyʼ or ʽI'm Not A Girlʼ, that is a definite plus; and second, the crowd of corporate mannequins did such a surprisingly good job that, even if there is not a single songwriting credit of Britney's here anywhere in sight, the «femme fatale» in question must have at least acted as an inspirational coalescing agent. Somehow.
Check "Femme Fatale" (MP3) on Amazon