Half-baked theory: Britney Spears has never been famous. Every time you’ve ever talked about Britney Spears, you weren’t talking about “Britney Spears, self-directed person with agency and individuality,” but rather you were talking about “Britney Spears, avatar for the 21st century canned and manufactured pop sound.” The former you knew and know nothing about, while within the latter you could find the DNA for most of the pop stars of the post-Y2K world (and, for those that you couldn’t, they positioned themselves in direct opposition to the trends Spears started, and were thus equally indebted to it). Which, having said all that, you’d hope would mean that Britney Jean, the now-veteran singer’s eighth record, represents the “real” Britney, that self-directed person. But, it turns out that Britney Jean is as much a construct as Britney Spears ever was.
Britney Spears — the real, actual person — is from Louisiana, and speaks with a southern drawl, and has two boys, and one time she shaved her head on what seemed like a lark-slash-mental-breakdown, and South Park did an episode on her that perfectly predicted Miley Cyrus, and now she’s been under a “conservatorship” for five years, which is a thing that basically questions her mental ability to handle herself, and if you’ve listened to any of Britney Spears the figurehead’s music, you’d have no idea that this was the same person. None of this history has ever shown through into Britney’s previous musical output, and despite Britney Jean ostensibly being Spears’ “most personal” record, it’s nowhere to be found here, either.
But, okay, Britney Jean. The record. The short story is that it’s going to have a few songs on the radio, and you’ll probably forget about them the moment the next Katy Perry song comes on. “Perfume” might stick. It has a timeless little piano progression that immediately demands attention. It has a shimmering little synth and a cavernous bass pulse you can feel in your chest cavity. It’s the best track on the record by a yard because it’s the only one that traffics in the sort of specificity that engenders universal attachment. Raise your hand if you’ve never daydreamed about marking your significant other in some crazy way just because you were insecure, and then put your hands down because you’re lying. “Passenger”, which was actually co-penned by Katy Perry, might make it too. It’s propulsive, driven on a chugging guitar riff, and it shifts into its chorus deftly on the back of a bright, schizophrenic synth line. You can definitely sing along with its break-up anthem chorus. Perry would have crushed this herself, of course, and it’s a little disappointing to hear it in Spears’ very limited vocal range because of that, but it’s still worthy of Hot 100 status.
By contrast, the first single, “Work Bitch”, is only notable because it got the ostensibly adult Spears to admit in an interview regarding the song’s sexed-up video that she only has marginal control over her career, even eight records in. And, the only impression that “Chillin’ With You” (Spears’ duet with her younger sister Jamie Lynn Spears) will leave behind, with its drowned acoustic cheese-tars and its uncomfortably awkward EDM bridge, is that Jamie Lynn is a much better singer than her older sister. She should contact Max Martin. I’d cop Jamie Lynn.
It wasn’t always this way. Hell, Spears released Blackout, In the Zone, and Circus back-to-back-to-back. It used to be that Spears’ production credits were the highest profile laboratory for next-level pop producers. Bloodshy & Avant made a marginal touring career just because they were the guys behind “Toxic”. But, Britney Jean‘s production is basically just will.i.am — who executive produces the record — doing will.i.am things, and promoting will.i.am beats, and generally being everything that Tyler, the Creator accused him of being. It’s not that there’s anything bad on Britney Jean; it’s that it feels tragically committed to offending the smallest number of people. There’s nothing here like the tabloid culture lambasting of “Circus” or the left field psycho-pop of “Toxic”. It’s all stuff that everyone else has proved makes the radio, without ever doing it better than the others that do it. As “Passenger”, serviceable though it may be, apes Katy Perry, “Work Bitch” apes Lady Gaga. Ditto “Tik Tik Boom” and Ke$ha. The entirety of Britney Jean sounds like it’s chasing success instead of demanding it. It functions as little other than a new album cycle to keep paychecks rolling in for Spears and her coworkers.
The artists that Britney Jean apes sell their original songs because their music is reflective of their personalities, or at least the personalities they want to portray to the public. But, Britney Spears, or rather Britney Jean, seems like she’s running down sounds and forcing her attitudes to fit them. Nothing on the record comes across as natural, and it’s not until the album’s iTunes bonus tracks — “Brightest Morning Star” and “Now That I Found You” in particular — that Spears sounds like she’s singing for herself. But, on the album proper, neither the pop figurehead nor the real woman behind it can be found.
Essential Tracks: “Perfume”, “Passenger”