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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Britney Spears: Femme Fatale


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? 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" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Femme Fatale" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. So it's official, on the "Britney vs. Avril" battle, Avril wins.

    Anyway, this album is most definitely Britney's best. It's high-energy dance that will rule any club, or just any speaker with the volume tuned out loud. I don't think it amounts to anything more than a dumb pop record, but it's an irresistibly catchy one.

    I think this album is not without misstep (Drop Dead is horrible; Seal It With A Kiss is boring; Criminal is totally out of place; I Wanna Go is good but doesn't do anything that Til The World Ends hasn't), but take away those songs and the rest is the finest-produced mainstream electropop coming out from the post-Guetta world.

    As a poptimist, this album and Rihanna's "We Found Love" are good reasons enough for me to forgive all the horrid generic techno that pollute the airwave in early 2010s.

  2. I wouldn't say this record in particular was the one who took off more prejudices out of my head...but when I finish to listen to it I remembered more than half of the songs, and is not that what a good pop record is supposed to do? Every song in here has at least a solid hook, wich is enough to make it Britney's best album. Gasoline alone, has like three different hooks!

  3. I just want it documented that "'Til the World Ends" is the best Britney song ever. Hands down.

    1. Complete agreement. I know 'Toxic' has cool arrangement and all, but 'Til the World Ends' just rule on every single second (esp. when Britney's team drops the last chorus like a bomb).

  4. What about Britney also ripping off Supertramp's 'The Logical Song' in the chorus to 'Criminal'? I read that it was an "unintentional nod", but I find that hard to believe. Your ears are clearly more attuned to Abba references, George. Matched against its two predecessors, Britney's song is like their retarded love child.

  5. I don't know this album. But personally I'm very happy that you are giving Britney a total review trip. This is like...true rock journalism? Oh, Starostin you are just every bit as cool as Greil Marcus ever was. Or even Lester Bangs. Could Lester do this? No, he'd be offended. The fact that you can actually look at this crap and report what it is makes you cool. Goodness, I feel like a fanboy. Anyways. Cheers for the reviews. Can't wait till you get to C.

  6. Hey George! What confuses me is that you'd rather review someone like Britney Spears than, say, Scott Walker, or Joan Jett and the Runaways (at least you overlooked them in the old site). Or Adriano Celentano, who was quite a rock & roller in his early days. I hope that you will broaden your outlook a bit more in the future. I'd love to read your opinions on them. Reading your reviews I always learn something new even about the music I'm already familiar with.

  7. >Hey George! What confuses me is that you'd rather review someone like Britney Spears than, say, Scott Walker, or Joan Jett and the Runaways (at least you overlooked them in the old site).

    It's not that he'd rather "review someone like Britney Spears"; it's that he wanted to do an in-depth analysis of the most consummate personification of musical commercialism.

    Besides, he'll probably get around to Joan Jett eventually... in about twenty years or so. :(