Britney Spears has released a new album, Glory, her ninth, in a tricky climate. It’s not just that she’s been a stilted, shy presence in recent years, locked in a defensive crouch since her public breakdown in 2007. It’s also that she’s had trouble finding her place in a musical landscape that has, in many ways, evolved past her. It didn’t have to end up this way. Though she gets little credit as an innovator, Spears pretty much established the pop formula that’s now foundational almost twenty years later (think Miley, Selena, even Bieber) with her first single and video, 1998’s “Baby One More Time”: a commitment to crunching electronic sounds; a reliance on huge hooks; a winking sexuality; a fluency with Auto-Tune; an instinct for spectacle and choreography. Even in-demand producer Max Martin, the mastermind behind Taylor Swift’s blockbuster 1989, essentially got his start with Spears. Looking at a Billboard chart now dominated by divas, it’s fitting to think of Spears, though only 34, as a spiritual mother to the moment.
And yet, not since 2007 has she made game-changing music: the futuristic masterpiece Blackout, an ambitious album full of icy beats and manipulated cyborg-like vocals that went mostly unnoticed at the time due to the tabloid mania around her. Blackout was weirdly prescient, though, its influence visible in the underground electronica of FKA twigs and the loucheness of Rihanna. It was something of a swan song, too: After Blackout‘s dismal reception, and a stint in a psychiatric hospital, Spears seemingly chose security over innovation, releasing two respectable albums (Femme Fatale and Circus) and one listless one (Britney Jean, made under the misguided stewardship of will.i.am).
Glory doesn’t entirely correct the imbalance or capture the stark charisma of Blackout, but it’s a similarly hedonistic, if much more slow-moving and sensual, collection of songs. Like Blackout, Glory is uninterested in lyrical introspection; most of its tracks document straightforward, if non-monogamous, hookups. The list of collaborators is an under-the-radar bevy of respectable producers, and Spears has largely stayed away from trendy auteurs, a smart nod toward timelessness (minus a guest rap verse by G-Eazy on “Make Me…” that already feels dated). Record highlights “Man on the Moon,” “Slumber Party,” “Hard to Forget Ya,” and the particularly fresh “Better” — a track found on the album’s deluxe version, which snaps, cracks, and then mudslides into a mess of melting synths — are slinky and stuttering, with subtle interpretations of the Caribbean and EDM influences that have been all over radio. And maybe in deference to the demographic that has stuck by her in good times and bad, the album is exceedingly dance-friendly, perfect for drunken singalongs at West Hollywood gay bars.
Glory reminds me of another post-Britney star, Carly Rae Jepsen, who filtered the momentum of her own one-hit-wonder status (2012’s goofy, kitschy “Call Me Maybe”) into a career predicated on the simple pleasures of light, compact pop. Jepsen has earned herself an un-ironic hipster fan base by making earnest, nostalgic music, first on 2015’s Emotion, and now on its epilogue, Emotion: Side B (out the same day as Glory). On Side B she sings classic ballads that remind you of high school love (the opening song, “First Time,” sounds like Phil Collins playing backup for Janet Jackson). This approach has yielded a mixed bag of results: Jepsen has yet to replicate the success of her first hit, but her technical prowess at making crystalline pop and her quasi-corny lyrics, which speak to amorous indecision and starry-eyed, suburban optimism, have made her a favorite among the love-don’t-hate set. On “Fever,” she charmingly sings of riding her bike to her paramour’s home and prays that her heart won’t be broken. There is, to her fans, a romance-dork authenticity to these aerodynamic tracks.
In the end, Emotion: Side B has something that’s sadly missing from Glory: relatability. And whether it’s calculated or the real thing, that’s an important quality to possess in 2016: Take Miley Cyrus, a known Britney acolyte, who has absorbed the titillating tactics she learned from the latter’s playbook into her persona as a pansexual hippie. Or, Meghan Trainor, who mimics Britney’s early synth-pop, but also promotes healthy body image in her lyrics, music videos, and interviews — a far cry from the alienating, aspirational perfection of Britney’s initial image. It explains why Spears floundered at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she was starkly overshadowed on a night that was billed as her comeback. Rihanna made the stage seem like a natural, fashionable West Indian bashment across her four performances throughout the evening, while Britney, once as at home on the VMAs stage as anyone, shook around in a passé sparkly yellow costume and lip-synched her way (badly) through “Make Me…”
That’s okay; Britney gave her entire young adulthood to us, and she can do what she wants. Glory debuted at number three on the Billboard charts, evidence, perhaps, that she maintains goodwill among her loyal fans. In recent interviews, she has sounded entirely content. And, in a rare moment on Glory in which Britney speaks directly to the audience — at the end of the high-speed “What You Need” — she whispers into the mic in that famously coquette-ish, chipmunk-pitched voice, and says something so plain and clear it almost sounds like a mistake: “That was fun.” And she’s right: Glory is fun. The question for us, then, is whether fun is enough.