By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
By Ray Cummings
By Nicholas Pell
Britney Spears doesn't need to say anything of consequence to be relevant—after all, she hasn't yet and her career is thriving, 13 years in. She doesn't even need to bother with dancing (the closest thing she has to a formidable talent)—her minimal movement in this year's "Hold It Against Me" video has not stopped the clip from grabbing 25 million VEVO views in a month. Even her off-the-clock extra credit has dried up lately. There have been no new men with crotches to grab publicly, no new children to endanger, no new public meltdowns to keep both our hands full (one on our pearls, the other on our trackpads). There's something Zen or minimalist or just plain lazy about Brit's recent public profile, but it matters not, just as long as she periodically shows up. There are people who are famous for being famous; Britney Spears is almost that. She is famous for being a famous singer.
In this respect, her seventh studio album, Femme Fatale, is a perfect snapshot of her current public life. It is expression from the expressionless, and it will do nothing to mar Brit's consistent track record (the first two singles are already hits, and get ready for highlight "I Wanna Go" to score your summer). Britney does very little over the course of Fatale—it's the first album since her debut on which she has not a single writing credit. Even more telling is her frequently blank-eyed delivery: She's never been a great vocal interpreter, but on Fatale she sounds about as present as she did on Blackout. In case you need reminding, that album was recorded and released at the height of her public self-destruction, so that there was a legitimate question as to whether the album title described her overall state of consciousness.
If Femme Fatale were merely an album of innocuous pop, Britney's distance from it might not matter, but it's problematic for an album whose subject matter is hedonism and how being hot facilitates it. The lyrics say, "Id!" while Britney says, "Meh!" And it's amazing the difference a little bit of effort makes—her most spirited vocal turns occur on Femme Fatale's best tracks. The forgoing of her usual derpy bleat for a dramatic upper register nicely complements the camp lyrics of "Trip to Your Heart" ("Spread my wings out into the dark/I'll fly away on a trip to your heart"). She straight-up squeals during the aforementioned and perfect "I Wanna Go," drawing out her e's ("Shame on meeeee!/To need reeeleeeeease!/Uncontrollableeeeey!"). Even better, at one point we hear her chuckle. Suddenly, the joy she sings about is palpable.
But even that track relies heavily on the manipulation of her vocals—Brit's longtime collaborator Max Martin and Shellback stutter out her words ("I-I-I wanna go-go-go") to maximize the chorus's earworm potential. (They succeed: The New Order–esque drum fills and Bob Sinclair–does–Frankie Knuckles whistles don't hurt, either.) Her voice is even further manipulated on another winner, "How I Roll"—it goes high, low, and also drills ("Speakerrrrrrrrrrrrrr!"). It's just one component of Bloodshy, Jonback and Magnus's head-spinning design that includes glitches, pops, claps, heart-beating sub-bass, a Charlie Brown piano, and a lyrical reference to ODB's "Shimmy Shimmy Ya." Maybe Britney didn't even need to show up to this gently frenetic monster, but by the time she purrs, "You could be my fuck tonight," you're happy she did.
"How I Roll" is the rare forward-thinking moment on Femme Fatale, an album that otherwise is content to revel in today's dance sound. Sure, wobbly, dubstep-inflected bass lines pop up occasionally (the underrated first single, "Hold It Against Me," includes an entire half-time breakdown) but they don't do anything that Blackout's "Freakshow" didn't already do years ago. It's tempting to compare the dance-mindedness of Fatale to that of Blackout, but be careful: Blackout came at a time before dance music reclaimed U.S. radio to the degree it has in 2011. As an exploration of all things electro-pop, Blackout played like a gamble a bunch of enthusiastic producers were able to take given their (probably) catatonic conduit. Femme Fatale is, in contrast, an album almost solely reliant on the 4/4 stomp of house music (its second half is particularly monotonous).
Britney's voice doesn't add much to the conversation, but neither does her music. Maybe her enduring relevance says more about us than her. As someone who's never been forced to mature publicly, perhaps she is this generation's Peter Pan, a vicarious fountain of youth. It also could be a rare case of our culture collectively getting it right: We don't expect Britney to unleash great insight because we know that early fame probably arrested her development so much that she is unable. Whatever it is, there is something preternaturally intriguing about Britney Spears, and there always has been. Her team got a decent amount right with Femme Fatale, but nothing more so than its title.