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Album review: ‘Femme Fatale’ by Britney Spears

The pop star’s latest album has plenty of dance hooks, just don’t go searching for anything deeper.


In the annals of radical art, there are “multiple use” names such as Luther Blissett, Monty Cantsin and Karen Eliot that anyone is invited to adopt as noms de plume. They’re meant to assert a communal conception of creativity, as opposed to the Western myth of individual genius, and to let imaginations explore taboo territories under cover of anonymity. The name Britney Spears may be ready to join that anti-pantheon.

On “Femme Fatale,” her seventh studio album and plainly one of her best, the erstwhile teen-pop princess is less the center of sonic attention than the occasion and enabler for a dozen of the age’s most accomplished record producers to show off their wildest moves from behind a plastic Britney mask.The star serves mainly to illuminate their eccentric orbits with her considerable glow.

This team approach is, of course, the norm in 21st century chart pop, and Spears, among a handful of others, pioneered it. But when the name on the cover is, say, Ke$ha, Katy Perry or Pink, the ensemble works to pull the star’s persona into focus, ensuring each element enhances the distinct nose of her perfume, be it “reckless party animal,” “saucy but warm seductress” or “feisty but vulnerable vamp.” Spears has always been elusive and, in fact, dumbfoundingly adept at withholding straight answers about her own feelings or identity.

Britney_femme_fatale_240_ That’s how she sustained the image of virginal sexpot so long in her late teens, wide-eyedly denying that paradox whose fuse led straight to the unstable core of the Puritan-perverse American libido. The resulting explosion made her collateral damage: She became the quarry of the largest pack of paparazzi hounds in history, a 24/7 tabloid media chase beyond anything Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot had to face; the perpetual flashbulbs scorched away Spears’ formidable self-control, as symbolized by her down-home-glamorous blond mane, until her meltdown verged on a deathwatch.

For many starlets and divas, that purgatory becomes a permanent address — Mary J. Blige and Whitney Houston may never again be able to make records that don’t protest too much on how OK they are. But while Spears’ artistic peak may have come with 2007’s “Blackout,” the dysfunctional dance-off perfectly encapsulated by her tagline “it’s Britney, bitch,” such melodrama isn’t really coded into her song-and-dance-gal DNA.

On her last album, “Circus” (2008), the self-reflexive themes were already sounding strained. The genius of “Femme Fatale is to realize that after her public crash, Spears is free to rise above persona games altogether. The record betrays nary a hint of self-pity.

Her producers get the same advantage, emboldened to stretch the boundaries of formula: How fragmented or squelchy can a sound get and still be a hook? No matter how far out, it’s a Britney Spears record, so it remains undeniably mainstream. (The Beatles exploited exactly the same opportunity.) So, for instance, much of “Femme Fatale” is saturated with deep, industrial-vacuum bass wobble and other bits of auditory sparkle plucked from the fringesclub electronica the world over. (Spears dallied with the avant-dance genre of dub-step as early as 2007’s “Freakshow.”)

Swedish writer-producer Max Martin is the most consistent force here, as he was on her earliest successes, and when they’re together it’s always been about one thing: dirty dancing. From top to tail, “Femme Fatale’s” agenda is to hit the club, cherchez les hommes and voulez-vous coucher avec moi. On one level, all this libidinal vitality is survival testimony. But it finds unity of subject, style and sound by imagining scenarios in which vanishing into anonymity can be comfort and liberation: in the darkness of a dance floor, in the whir of a computer network, in the throes of an orgasm, and when you are Britney Spears.

Still, a mega-celebrity can only be so anonymous. Spears’ voice functions as one instrument among many, digitally filtered and manipulated as is standard in today’s cyber-gum-pop, but that is not to discount the raw input. Though Spears has never been a bravura singer, she’s an excellent, flexible vocal dancer, with counter-rhythms and accents for every setting.

On “How I Roll,” she pirouettes from a gulping in-and-out breath effect (which would be praised as African-influenced experiment from an indie darling such as Tune-Yards or Fever Ray) into a clapping-rhyme coo, and back. On “Big Fat Bass,” produced by and featuring will.i.am, she leans in to the domination-submission dynamic of the line, “I can be your treble, baby/ You can be my bass” — this may be an over-obvious gender metaphor (“the bass is getting bigger,” she marvels), but from Britney it’s more of a note on craft.

The momentum flags only on the closing “Criminal,” with its formless Renaissance fair flute line and a tempo awkwardly pitched between rock and ballad, suggesting early Madonna or even ABBA — but joyless. 

The failure of this one attempt to vary the mood exposes “Femme Fatale’s” faults: Though it’s an awesomely efficient machine for fueling a dance floor, a workout or even a vigorous bout of housework, it never invites more intimate listening. Stingy on sentiment, the lyrics rarely even try to be clever, as you may already have guessed from lead single “Would You Hold It Against Me,” built on a pickup line your grandma would have found limp.

This is the melancholy side of the bargain Spears struck to get her groove back on an album in which every sound seizes its moment but, like the succession of one-night stands in its story lines, promises nothing for tomorrow. Where her younger rivals’ party jams clatter with hopefulness, Spears can’t afford any illusion but the magic trick of slipping behind her own hologram. She’s been shamed, stalked, bullied, rehabbed and ruled a bad mother by a court of law. There’s something glorious about answering with a victory dance, but it’s on the grave of any figment of innocence.

Britney Spears
“Femme Fatale” 
Jive Records
Three stars (out of four)

-- Carl Wilson


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Images: Britney Spears performs for ABC's "Good Morning America" (Reuters); Spears' "Femme Fatale" art (Jive Records).

Comments () | Archives (26)

Terrific, fun to read, intelligent review. Keep it up, LA Times!

That was a whole lot of pretentious, verbose mumbo jumbo over a Britney Spears album. It's Britney Spears for God's sake. Did you expect a Shakespearian sonnet?

My real issue with the album is that while it obviously takes advantage of what's current in the music scene right now (autotune, club beats, quirky sound effects), it's the old Britney that I miss and love. The "What You See Is What You Get" Britney. The hot Britney making "Stronger" videos by dancing around on a chair. That's what I miss. I don't take Britney for anything more than face value, but her performances and songs were entertaining and empowering. This new stuff could have any lead vocalist put up against it and it would be all the same. Back in 2000-2001, you KNEW a Britney song when you heard one. Nowadays, it's only her voice that I recognize, not her style.

Things change I guess and nobody is expecting her to bust out a hook using NSync like synthesizers circa 1999, but that doesn't change that that is the music I love from Britney. It required hard dance moves, intense routines and amazing concerts. This other stuff is just club filler. Not a fan. Britney's prime is over. She'll be 30 this year and is a mother of two, so I give her credit for still rocking her appeal. But alas all good things must come to an end some time.

This review is such an "overthink" that it's almost a self-parody. What the heck has happened to the Times' music section? It's like no album can be reviewed unless the artist is followed by TMZ. Revolting.

The problem with the new Britney Spears album is that it sounds like the last two Britney albums. Same synthesized robo-voice, same computer generated dance beats, same anonymous subject matter.
Britney Spears is an icon and marketing genius. Anything put out under the name Britney Spears is guaranteed to sell in large numbers. But does that mean that she gets a free pass to have anything issued pass off as near genius?
Britney doesn't sing. She doesn't write songs. She has almost zero to do with any of her recordings. Yet her new album is acclaimed as "one of her best." Is this what modern music has become?

this review is SPOT ON.

excellent album by brit, great club beats, but there is not denying that there is nothing deep about it. if you need motivation to have a great workout, put this disco on!!

Are you really attributing an 'artistic peak' to Britney Spears? At any rate, this review (and the thought that you put into it) is ridiculous. It is no mistake that the CD cover looks like a perfume ad, because that's all this latest release is - an ad (although I'm not exactly sure what for).

Britney has cemented her place in the pop royalty with this album... she's so relevant!!!

I want to see her collaborate with Kylie, Janet and Justin in the future...

If she was any good, she could sing with her clothes on.

Carl Wilson... you sir are a pretentious boob, this comment will not be accepted but I hope someone reads it and tells you.

I really like Criminal and to the people who think this is an 'deep' album ha! It's meant to pump you up and dance and that's exactly what it does! Keep rockin Brit Brit!!

And that was a low blow about her age!!

great review, and for those complaining about this much depth re: britney spears, what are you doing reading a britney spears review in the first place? pop may be the lowest common denominator but still welcome to analysis.

This review is pretentious and seems to be written for ones own self gratification. Only a slither of the population would have these discrete reactions to the particular songs. A good reviewer represents his audience well and can organize many thoughts with few words and give a good overall big picture. This mambo jumbo is the opposite of that.

"she pirouettes from a gulping in-and-out breath effect (which would be praised as African-influenced experiment from an indie darling such as Tune-Yards or Fever Ray) into a clapping-rhyme coo, and back"

Why do the moderators allow comments that are personal attacks on the writers? Whether you agree or not, it's much harder to put yourself out there by writing a review with your by-line than to hide behind some initials in the comments section.

Britney Spears may have gotten her act together. No more crazy news stories only glowing reviews of her new CD. It sounds as if this new CD will be a big hit. Yea Britney!

Great review! The album's co-creators, the career context and the song-by-song critique is solid writing. I will never take the time to listen to this album. Yet it's nice to get a full education on a piece of work that so many others will appreciate — and with only a couple of minutes of reading time. Though much of pop music is not popular with me, I appreciate being kept informed. Thank you Mr. Wilson for breaking all of this down so well.

While I appreciated and enjoyed this review, aren't you taking Britney just a BIT too seriously here? As long as she can sing and dance at the same time, then it's a success in her case. The bar just isn't as high for her as it is for people like Lady Gaga.

It's hard to take this review serious I know it's your opinion of it but as a fan In his early 20s who grew up listening to her and music like her this album pushes the dance envelope it's production and sounds on it is like nothing u have heard On most other albums. You failed to recognize "inside out" which is a very good song that many people can relate to..and about you saying her album is not deep at all is not true everyone has they're different lives and can relate to many of her songs.even if the lyrics are simple and not so deep. She is Britney Spears the one and only who has outlasted so much and still prevails.

Folks are missing the real story: There is no Britney there.

She is clearly overmedicated to the point of being listless in her movements, unable to do live interviews, no longer has any personality in her music, etc etc.

I had a friend who was bipolar and spent a long time overmedicated because she had a history with violent mood swings. Balance isn't being a zombie, which is what it looks like Britney has become.

Her doctors/people need to reevaluate how they are treating her, because it looks like the life has been sucked out of her.

I do agree that this album is her best, but I strongly disagree that there is no substance or cleverness to the lyrics. The whole album is filled with references to her very long career as a female pop-artist. In Inside Out she sings "hit me one more time it's so amazing, how you shook my world and flipped it upside-down." This is in reference to her first single and her first album "...Baby One More Time." The song tells us how that song changed her world. Other songs include other references to her career, albums and songs; any hard-core Britney fan would know. For example the line "I got nine lives like a kitty cat" from How I Roll is in reference that she has nine released albums, two of which are her Greatest Hits and Singles Collection. Also in Trouble for Me she sings "You drive me crazy everytime" which are two songs from ealier in her career. This album is all about Britney and a tribute to her career. It truly show that this album is about Britney claiming that even though through the hard times as a famous single mother pop artist she is still the queen of pop and no one can take that away from her.

People seem to be getting mad that the reviewer put "too much thought" into this review...

Uh, if you're not going to put some thought into a review, what the hell are you writing a review for?

I was shocked watching Britney on GMA and Jimmy Kimmel last night. She could hardly move or dance, It was sad. Looked very listless and in a daze.. What kind of drugs do they have her on..?? Really concerned for her. Who's controlling her life these days? Get off the meds Britney!

To all those complaining that is review is too intellectual, maybe you should try Teen Beat. It's a review; take it for what it is or don't read it.

"Though Spears has never been a bravura singer, she’s an excellent, flexible vocal dancer, with counter-rhythms and accents for every setting."

"On “Femme Fatale,” her seventh studio album and plainly one of her best, the erstwhile teen-pop princess is less the center of sonic attention than the occasion and enabler for a dozen of the age’s most accomplished record producers to show off their wildest moves from behind a plastic Britney mask.The star serves mainly to illuminate their eccentric orbits with her considerable glow."

brilliant writing here and oh so true

Music is subjective. Like it or not, she's still here. If you don't care about her or her music, why comment? Who is anyone to say what's good or not?

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