2011 / Music

Review: Britney Spears’ ‘Femme Fatale’ Suffers Fatal Injuries

Scandal-Plagued Pop Star Attempts Comeback Effort

Does anyone realize that Britney Spears is five years older than Lady Gaga? It really wasn’t that long ago that only ones younger than the one-time reigning pop princess were either prepubescents or in Pampers. Now, they’re superstar rivals.

Photo: Jive Records

Photo: Jive Records

The previous decade has certainly been a tumultuous ride for the now-30-year-old Spears as she has watched her career/life transform Charlie Sheen-style from sticky-sweet pop jailbait to a hyper-seductive mega-star to a paparazzi-plagued head case. She’s an ex-wife (twice!), a mom of two and now, an almost musical has-been.

Fueled by equal parts of fear and ambition, Spears has now released a new record, “Femme Fatale,” that swings for the fences in an attempt to solidify her shaky hold on the pop audiences and to slide back into the pole position in the ongoing contest with her dance-pop adversaries, young and old. Unfortunately for Spears, these songs will fill a dance floor, but won’t help her take over the world. Such feats now seem only possible for younger, edgier performers unencumbered by a fractured past. There’s less room for a dirty-talking, stripper-esque mom pushing her (gasp!) seventh disc.

In the years since Spears’ well-publicized meltdown, more talented and frankly, less tainted performers have served to supplant Britney’s place in the pop-star galaxy. Katy Perry has nicely slipped into the role as pop’s playfully coquettish sex kitten. Rihanna is the R&B sexpot. Taylor Swift has seized a spot as the Southern singer for the underserved country music market. Beyonce continues to be a multi-talented, cross-platform tour de force better able to galvanize dance, R&B and hip-hop audiences. And even Lady Gaga has proven the craftier pop starlet, demonstrating a brilliant sophistication for marketing her outrageous persona married to an artistic boldness that attracts better producing talent. How can Britney compete?

The answer isn’t an easy one as evident by the current state of Spears’ onetime rivals, Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson. Both have arguably faired far worse than Spears and are now bordering on musical irrelevancy. Simpson has largely given up music for TV and film while Aguilera’s recent album stumbled badly only to be followed by her own feature film that was even worse. Maybe an NBC reality show will put things right for. Regardless, these women offer a powerful reminder for Spears of what could happen if she stumbles again on this precarious balance beam of fame. Instead of seeking resurrection through other media, Spears is intent on not giving up the ghost and wants to make her way back using music.

Spears’ winning recipe for topping the charts again is 12 tracks of club-ready electro-pop furnished by some of the hottest producing talent that money can buy, such as Dr. Luke, Max Martin and will.i.am from Black Eyed Peas. While each studio auteur brings his own tastes to their tracks, there’s a remarkable sense of continuity to these late-night songs. All the producers seem to be drinking from the same futuro-chic Kool-Aid and construct each jam with mechanized beats, washed-out ’80s aural effects and bath Spears’ voice with plenty of Auto Tune. But despite the songs’ intertwining focus on plasticity and dance-ability , no song here is thoroughly memorable and proves truly capable of capturing the zeitgeist as Gaga’s songs have, or as Spears herself was able to do with “Oops … I Did It Again” or “Baby One More Time.”

Opening track “Till The World Ends” is a valiant attempt at resetting our perceptions of Spears so she can transition as the new queen of the rave. Her voice bobs and weaves the synthetic tangle coming from her computer backing track. A drum track slaps down as keyboards squeak and Flock of Seagull synthesizers oscillate. “Keep on dancing till the world ends” she sings like she was Donna Summers reincarnated into a Studio 54 exiled on Saturn. Her otherwordly single is danceable, but not any kind of revelation that Spears’ talents go any deeper than executing her choreography.

To her credit, Spears does work to give these songs a personal relevance. While these wannabe discotheque anthems could have been retrofitted for any other unit-mover in need of a smash hit, Britney does leave her own imprint in the lyrics of some of songs, which were tailored to her pop persona as a dance-floor seductress while also unsubtly referencing her ongoing problems with mental health, rocky relationships and the claustrophobic fame that has hounded her since the heights of her career and her very public tumble.

Listeners can’t help but read into what would ordinarily be melodramatic overstatements you find all the time in song lyrics. “You’re the one who drove me crazy,” she sings matter-of-factly in the meandering, slow-jam “Inside Out.” Cleverly, even her confessions are partnered with double entendres that burnish her onstage image as a sexual wildcat and expert tease. “You might think I’m crazy,” she coos on hard-driving “Hold It Against Me,” but this isn’t said for sympathy. She is feigning vulnerability to lure her dance partner back to the VIP area for prompt ravishing. Her audience likely can’t relate, but they’re certainly titillated and like any scandalous conduct, want to see the performance through to its conclusion.

The songs veer from the pulsating “I Wanna Go,” which might be the record’s best Saturday night jam to the syncopated-funk of “(Drop Dead) Beautiful,” which her ex Justin Timberlake could likely remake into a monster. Will.i.am’s “Big Fat Bass” takes the biggest leap into Dada-esque pop deconstruction, but isn’t anymore remarkable than for boldly using a mixing board like it was a razor blade slashing up song formula.

Only on the quasi-ballad “Criminal,” in which Spears pretends to be an innocent who is begging disapproving parents to accept that she has chosen an unsuitable man, does she put herself in her audience’s shoes and wear the mask of someone other than a man-devouring pop star. Could this be another example of barely-veiled confession? We’d care if this track didn’t smack of a cliched hillbilly version of “West Side Story” set to an awful, robotized folk song. The album ends a song too late.

Too late is certainly the overwhelming aura that hangs over “Femme Fatale.” It’s clear these songs and this dance-focused strategy can’t recapture the ground in the pop mainstream that Spears lost in recent years. While some of these party jams will allow her to stave off the fate of other fading pop stars, she hasn’t learned yet that transformation — and not repetition — is the key to extending a music career. Given her age, we might not fault her. She is still young yet. With age, comes wisdom.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2011 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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