Who is Britney Spears?
It’s been 20 years since the pop supernova first came into our lives as a spunky Mousketeer. It’s been 15 since the pigtailed teen danced through the halls of a high school in a Catholic school uniform. And we still don’t know.
Spears’s latest album, Britney Jean, comes at a peculiar point in her career, when a feverishly anticipated Vegas residency and general “aw-we-love-her” goodwill cements the fact that we have deified her as one of the elite pop goddesses. But as we bow down to worship at the altar of BritBrit, we also recognize that Spears may be the last of those divine divas. We’re in an age now when we want to know our pop stars. We want to relate to their humanity rather than gape at their untouchable infallibility.
Britney Jean wisely winks to that desire, but in the end fails to deliver any meaningful insight into who this Britney Jean person is. But it does give us what we still want from Britney Spears, the Last of Our Pop Goddesses: nonsensical, addicting…and only vaguely revealing pop scripture.
Spears has built a career as the ultimate tease. She’s bared all, sure. At the same time, she’s bared nothing at all.
An emotionally insulated teenager, “Britney Spears” was long just a mouthpiece robotically reciting Jive Record’s idea of “pop star” to the press. She quickly took up permanent residence on tabloid covers—a personal life with all the turbulence of a JetBlue flight through a tornado helped with that—without having to even say anything. I mean she said things, sure. But even when, say, holding a press conference to announce that she intends to remain a virgin until marriage, Spears’s revelations had all the intimacy and emotional honesty as…revelations made during a rehearsed and staged press conference.
By the time Britney Jean ends, the most intimate revelation is that Jean is Britney’s middle name. Because it says so in the title.
Now, Spears is 32 and still releasing music. The landscape has changed from when pop stars were treasured monuments safely separated from gawking public by gatekeepers and security tape, should anyone accidentally tarnish the singing artifacts by catching a glimpse of—and then telling the world about—their imperfections. Baring souls and exposing warts is no longer a cathartic exercise reserved solely for singer songwriters and soul chanteuses. The industry’s most commercial stars now market themselves in 140-character confessions, public displays of vulnerability, and tracks that are as emotionally naked as the women who perform them.
It’s no surprise that, cannily securing relevance decades after the pop movement she helped usher in was dismissed as disposable, Spears is responding to the industry shift by releasing what she calls her “most personal album ever :).” The result, though, is peek-a-boo music, 10 songs that gingerly peel back the curtain justthismuch to give the smallest insight into who Britney Spears is. But, really, by the time Britney Jean ends, the most intimate revelation is that Jean is Britney’s middle name. Because it says so in the title.
It shouldn’t be surprising that an album that counts a song titled “Work Bitch” as its leadoff single isn’t exactly a penetrating musical therapy session. It also doesn’t matter. “Work Bitch” is great! And so is the rest of Britney Jean, a top-to-bottom effortlessly listenable record with no Gaga-esque pretension to reinvent the concept of pop music, Cyrus-esque (foam) middle finger to the idea of pop music, or Perry-esque cartoonification of pop music.
It’s just straightforward pop music, and that’s just fine.
“Work Bitch” was, however, a bit of false advertising for the album that would follow. With its whirring bees nest production, jackhammer driving beat, campy lyrics, and Spears’s gloriously idiotic British accent, the song hinted at something more exciting than what Britney Jean ends up offering: a pop star who gets it, the idea that pop music can, and maybe should, be silly. It’s the way Miley Cyrus—stop clutching your pearls—gets it. It’s the way Lady Gaga practically parades around with a neon sign that flashes, “Hi everyone, I get it! See!!!???”
Weird, sexy, and aggressive as it is, “Work Bitch” is just a quirky one-off treat on Britney Jean. The album’s second single “Perfume,” a moody stalker fantasy, and the appealing folktronica opener “Alien” are far better representations of the tone of Britney Jean. Still, the former, about a love triangle so torturous Spears feels paranoid enough to mark her man with her own scent (presumably one of her own signature fragrances), and the latter, about how she “always felt like a stranger in a crowd,” are more personal in concept more than they are insights into Spears’s psyche.
They do, however, feature Spears—wait for it—singing! Like for real for real singing, not speak-singing into an Auto-Tune machine that distorts her voice into an alarming, digital frog-sounding disaster. You can actually hear her voice and, with it, some actual emotion, particularly on the wistful closing track, “Don’t Cry.”
Britney Jean has more playful, and even skillful, vocal tricks and ticks than any of Spears’s post-meltdown albums, a welcome reminder of what Spears made her name on in the first place: a unique voice. (She really has one!) Thee was the Lolita sultriness in the vocal fry of the “oh bab-ay bab-ay” on “…Baby One More Time;” the growling sweetness of “Sometimes;” and the lilting carnality of her voice on “Oops!…I Did it Again” and “Slave 4 U.” The thinness of her voice on “Everytime” is what gives it its aching emotional resonance.
Spears was never a strong vocalist. But she was always an interesting one.
In fact, Britney Jean is least enjoyable when Spears, on occasion, reverts to the Auto-Tune crutch. The distorted vocals on “It Should Be Easy,” which features Will.i.am, sound about as dated as, well, a song that features Will.i.am. The dance-floor banger is a nondescript cacophony of beats dropping and crescendos and otherwise noisy production that distract from lyrics about why love has to be so complicated.
But “It’s Should Be Easy” does set off a run of three more club tracks that, though they have a tendency to meld together on a casual listen into one mutant megatrack, are all markedly stronger. “Tik Tik Boom” has Spears cooing provocatively—her sweet spot—about getting busy (“Not too slow and not too quick/ Baby make me tik tik”), though the production could use a more aggressive thrust. (Heh.) “Body Ache” continues the sex sprint, this time with a more energetic, stuttering beat and titillating guttural delivery from Spears.
“Til It’s Gone” is sweatier than the album’s other dance tracks, a power surge of raunch that explodes into an EDM-inspired dance-party finale. You’d half expect sparks to rain from the sky by the end of the endorphin-building bridge.
“Til It’s Gone” leads into “Passenger,” segueing into the wind-down portion of the album. Co-written by Katy Perry and Sia, it’s the most vulnerable of Britney Jean’s tracks: “It’s hard to jump with no net, but I’ve jumped and got no regrets.” It’s also the best of the album’s midtempo songs. The less said about “Chillin With You,” a duet with her sister that’s supposedly meant to drive home the “this is personal” message, the better. Britney discusses her preference for red wine. Jamie Lynn is more of a white wine girl. It’s more #confessional than “confessional.”
Let’s make that three things, then, that we now know about Britney Spears. Her middle name is Jean. She likes red wine. And she’s still capable of churning out a great, if not revolutionary, pop record. At 32 and after 20 years in the business, maybe that’s all we need to know about Britney Spears, our Last Goddess. Amen.