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Album review: ‘Femme Fatale’ by Britney Spears

March 28, 2011 |  6:11 pm

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

Britney_reuters_6_

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).

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