Available on: RCA
Britney’s second consecutive play for the EDM dollar following 2011′s Femme Fatale, Britney Jean is a clutch of drivetime electro-house tracks that deliver the standard Boys Noize formula with more dexterity and flair than most similar material out there.. On top of that, by feeding from the pop genius of ’90s trance the music gains a sherbet-y zing previously lacking from much of mid-period Britney. Alas, the eighth studio album from Mississippi’s premier nut bar fails to breathe life into the career of a gravely moribund pop institution. And it’s in that respect that Britney Jean is palpably depressing.
Put it down to the mechanical flow, the dependably dead-eyed lyrics, the fatigued nature of the album’s exuberance, or the fact that even its production team don’t give enough of a shit about Spears to cook her up something novel or inventive (gone are the days when the star had the sway to attract The Neptunes), but theres an eerie stink permeating Britney Jean – a kind of rotten essence something like the redolence of inevitable tragedy.
It’s like a faint note of submerged desperation, or like a ghosting vision – half-seen in the distances behind the music – of a television playing in an empty room. Or maybe what it is we actually detect is the rancid odour of abuse, of exploitation, finally eating through and oozing from the plastic shell that contained it after 15 years. But it’s definitely there, some sad and secret truth beneath it all: a cruel something-or-other buried deep in Spears’ music that all the obfuscating auto-tune and self-consciously blasé electro-house in the world won’t conceal. You sense that beyond Britney Jean‘s rigor mortis smile is the wilting courage of someone that can’t go on but who must, because Britney Spears is screaming – screaming ‘Help me’ and ‘How does it end?’ over side-chained thrusting, Will.i.am. pressing buttons with a knife to her neck. I mean, it’s just as likely that Britney Jean is merely a little flat, and somewhat hackneyed, and that all pop music is sinister if indeed you’re listening hard enough. But play this album from start to finish and it’s hard not to feel that at the core of its cheaply gratifying genealogy is nothing but misery.
Between her formative years in Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club and the retarding effect early fame seems to have had on her psychological development, there’s always been something bizarre and just a little creepy about Britney’s art. It’s a quality most prominent on Britney Jean‘s more leisurely tracks. On ‘Perfume’, doe-eyed piano balladry meets psychotic jealousy as, in every feminist music fan’s worst nightmares, Britney plays the vengeful mistress in battle with the dreamy bastard’s girlfriend, lathering the man in her titular musk in the hope that her nemesis damn well smells it. Form and content jar like an episode of Teen Mom featuring Aileen Wuornos, the pièce de résistance the lyric “Sometimes I feel like there’s three of us in here, baby.” Didn’t Regan MacNeil say something similar in The Exorcist?
Elsewhere, ‘Tik Tik Boom’ is a dire attempt at a trap song. Complete with 808 snare-rolls and Luger-ian woofer kicks, it’s left for guest-twat-for-hire T.I. to supply the all-important ghetto edge so that flyover state WASP girls with names like Parker and Madison can act slutty on Youtube and twerk for their school’s only black kid. Meanwhile T.I.’s chatting about the beating and the eating he’ll give Britney, Spears spurring him on with suggestive croaky kitten interjections. The cynical production alongside the forced confection that is Spears’ and T.I.’s double-act makes for another of Britney Jean‘s unsettlingly combinations. Besides anything, Britney in red hot bitch mode is about as convincing as Farmer John Mumford and those haystacks of his. If you put lipstick on a dog it’s still a dog.
Matters improve with the the crop of dance tracks. For good or ill, each track mines a different strain of European dance. On ‘Till It’s Gone’, for example, it’s filter-house, while ‘Body Ache’ wouldn’t sound out of place on Ministry of Sound’s turn of the century trance series, Euphoria. On ‘It Should Be Easy’, meanwhile, the chosen touchstone is different again: a style that hairless Majorcan spice-boys might know as house music but which the rest of civilisation know as fuck awful post-Tiesto hell-noise. At other times, in their search for new variations on the euro-rave template Will.i.am and his co-producers venture well beyond the obvious, with sometimes absurd results. ‘Now That I’ve Found You’ takes its cues from happy hardcore – that grassroots genre popular in the ’90s with tab-gobbling casuals and Scottish schemos. It’s a bizarre music-form to have turned up on such a worldwide release, not least because it conjures the surreal image of big time American producers trawling through cassettes of Dundonian chipmunk-gabba. But hey, as a backdrop to Britney’s love declarations, half-crazy techno and hardcore beats the hell out of Mormon mall-pop.
The black sheep of the dance tracks, ‘Work Bitch’ is surprisingly forceful, maybe even a little fearsome, its metallic textures, WUMP-ing French-house kicks and hard trance synths offering a decidedly more abrasive strain of the electro usually populating the charts. Hell, you might even call it a banger. What’s more, equally as bold is the song’s underlying message. Usually groaningly cliched, the track’s ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ female self-sufficiency line gains traction in the context of the song’s wider message: Britney’s quite noble sermon on the importance of working for what you want. “You wanna sip Martinis? / look hot in a bikini? / live fancy? / party in France?…” she asks the Facebook babies. “You better work, bitch”. Keep striving, she says: “They gonna’ try to try ya / but they can’t deny ya – keep it building higher and higher”. It’s easy to forget that Spears came up before the age of instant celebrity. That said, if the song takes aim at generation now, it also works to embody it – there’s something very Springbreakers-esque to its lurid, sugar-dream delirium and the very deliberate use of the word ‘bitch’.
On the one hand, Britney doing two-a-penny electro tracks is preferable to Britney doing most other things. I mean, better this than cheapjack pop’n’b, or worse, fucked up baby girl balladry like ‘Born To Make You Make You Happy': the pop equivalent of an embroidered pillow with kiddie porn for stuffing. Cheap though the thrills offered by electro-house may be, thrills they remain. But on the other hand, yet another album of brittle rave-pop is yet another indictment of a pop landscape where it’s the producers not the songwriters that write the songs, and where the kind of nimble craftsmanship that characterises the likes of ‘Genie In A Bottle’ or ‘The Boy Is Mine’ is largely a thing of the past. At least we can be thankful that Britney Jean sculpts fully realised songs from the rave tropes, which is too often not the case.2