The release of a new Britney Spears album tends to be terrifying.
Britney Spears is cherished. She is, goddammit, a survivor. That one popular meme is shameful for the way it mocks and judges mental illness and the way we treat female celebrities…but, yeesh, it’s also so very true. If Britney Spears can survive 2007, then we can make it through this day. Guys, Britney Spears is an inspiration.
Britney Spears is also, and we can say this with certitude now that we’re solidly into the second decade of this millennium and have weathered the garbage noise that has farted its way through the musical zeitgeist these last 16 years, one of her generation’s greatest pop stars.
Is she an auteur? No. But she has croaked, lilted, and auto-tuned her way through some of the most significant and musically sound pop songs of the last 20 years, commanding the stage with a zeal and stage presence that warranted coronations as the next Madonna.
The gee-golly wholesomeness of Britney Jean Spears from Kentwood, Louisiana, contrasting with the Lolita sexpot begging us to hit her, baby, one more time is seared into our minds, as is the red leather catsuit, and the glitter body suit, and the Rolling Stones striptease, the snake, and those later honest-to-god jams: “Piece of Me,” “Circus,” “Work Bitch.”
That’s the Britney we think of. That’s the Britney we root for. Because we really do root for her.
We root for her through her breakdown, her conservatorship, that too-long stretch when she looked kind of dead in the eyes. Through the period when it seemed she hated being a performer altogether. Through that period when the music kind of sucked.
It was 2003 when Spears released In the Zone, widely regarded as her crowning achievement—a cohesive, current, boundary pushing pop album at a time when Spears was at her supernova best, performance-wise.
And it was 2007 when she released Blackout, her musically adventurous club album that was eventually overshadowed by her personal struggles, and defined by that trash heap conflagration of a VMAs performance with “Gimme More.”
So it’s been nearly a decade since Britney unleashed an album of top-to-bottom great music. And 13 years since she’s been able to perform that great music competently. So we get scared.
We get scared every time a new album’s announced. (Circus and Femme Fatale were good. Well, good-ish.) We get scared every time she teases an album using demonic phrases like “my most personal album ever :)” and “produced by Will.I.Am.” (Britney Jean, dear god.) We quiver at the mention of an Iggy Azalea collaboration, and we wonder how, possibly, a new effort could live up to a title like Glory—the release that became available Friday.
The long wait is over. Britney is great again. Glory be to Godney.
What’s striking is how much Glory feels like a Britney Spears album. An old Britney Spears album.
Sure, she appropriates a fair number of current pop trends. That clappy-clappy tribal percussive thing that everyone’s doing these days drives the irresistible “Clumsy.” Those electro-sonic burpy-coo sounds (technical term) that every pop artist is using, supposedly to hint at some sort of EDM influence, creeps up everywhere on Glory, especially on “Better” and the Soul Cycle-ready lead single “Make Me (Ooh..).”
She hops on the reggae-lite bandwagon with “Slumber Party” and “Love Me Down,” and puts her best Selena Gomez/Fifth Harmony whispery repetition skills on display in “Just Luv Me” and “Private Show.”
But while deferential to the current pop landscape, she’s not beholden to it and, for the first time in a while, not pandering to it. There’s no inauthentic courting of an urban sound or overreliance on any sort of EDM cacophony. To cheesily borrow a favorite Brit lyric, she’s no longer a slave to producers pulling her in different directions.
Indeed, the most prevalent sound on Glory is that of Britney. Quite literally: Her vocals return to the forefront in a way they haven’t in over a decade. Sure, they’re still sweetened and processed, but they’re not robotic beyond recognition as in Britney Jean, Femme Fatale, and Circus.
Her vocals in Glory actually have personality, character, and emotion. “What You Need,” with its Motown-evoking brass, has Spears attacking the lyrics with sass, ferocity, and—is that…? could it be…?—actual fun. She belts the chorus to “Liar” like it’s a Katy Perry or Carrie Underwood sing-along (which, really, it very much is).
Listen, we’re not talking Adele or Beyoncé here. But Spears first broke out on the uniqueness of her voice, and the way she would skillfully—and often nasally—contort it to snap along to the bubblegum beat until you either wanted to give her a Sudafed or another Gold record.
She’s more playful than she’s ever been on “Private Show.” By the time her voice kicks in on the chorus, you’re almost joyous. “She did it,” you think. “My girl really did it.” She became a pop star again.
In many ways, Glory is like Blackout and In the Zone had a baby and it was raised by Oops!...I Did It Again.
There’s nothing lofty going on here. There’s no reinvention, evolution, “new sound,” or artistic boldness. These are not things we want from Britney Spears anymore. As evidenced by the popularity of her career-celebrating Vegas residency and the nostalgic orgasm we collectively had over her greatest hits medley performance at the Billboard Awards, we want a Britney that feels familiar.
And so we cut her some breaks.
Sure, her lip-syncing has reached such a parody point that she even lip-synced her “Carpool Karaoke” with James Corden. (She lip-synced karaoke…) But we don’t mind. There’s Britney, our survivor, looking hot as hell and marking her dance moves on stage anyway, and sitting shotgun next to Corden looking actually happy to be there.
We’re cutting her some breaks with Glory, too. Aside from the effective moodiness of the first two tracks, the seductive and aptly titled “Invitation”—on which a lightly cooing Spears sounds almost unrecognizable—and the almost spiritually erotic “Make Me,” Glory is a dance album of the late ’90s, early ’00s pop variety.
It’s not particularly sophisticated or tapped into any underground dancehall sound; in fact, it’s at times rather corny.
“Man on the Moon” is the apex of the album’s cliché-riddled lyrics: “Houston, I know there’s a problem here / Must be a hole in the atmosphere.” She starts speaking French in the middle of a cheesy Disney-like interlude scored by a maudlin orchestral build. “What the hell?” you think, and also: “Hell yes.”
“Clumsy” and “Private Show” are almost unabashedly silly. Were it not for the slight raunch, I’d liken them to “Lucky” from Oops!...I Did It Again. They might not get much play at the clerb. But they will get played out at my 2 a.m. living room dance parties, that’s for damn sure.
The chorus for “Clumsy” is literally, “Whoa oh oh (oh oh) / Oh oh oh (ohhh) / Whoa oh oh (oh oh) / Oh oh oh… / Oops!” Or maybe the chorus is actually just the beat drop afterwards and that’s the pre-chorus. In terms of lyrical content, Glory is mostly just sounds and constantly repeated clichés. And that’s just fine because, for the most part, it’s catchy.
Are any of us popping on a Britney Spears tune because we’re looking for it to say something?
She’s built a career as the ultimate tease. She’s bared all, sure. At the same time, she’s bared nothing at all. That’s what made the purported “personal” goal of Britney Jean so confusing. It failed to deliver any meaningful insight into who this Britney Jean person is…but also, did we really want or expect it to?
That doesn’t mean she lacks substance. Glory masters the ecstasy of sexual freedom, desire, empowerment, and agency, themes made all the more interesting when viewed through the lens of the source—a performer who has in her career been objectified, capitalized on her sexuality, and grappled with both those things as she becomes a mother who is still very much a sexual being.
That’s all great and deep and everything, but Glory is wonderful because it is simple. Spears has made much of late about how she’s just a Caesar salad-loving 34-year-old mom, y’all, and I suspect the reason most of these tracks made the cut for Glory is no more complicated than she just thought they sounded good and made her want to dance.
Hell, if you look at “If I’m Dancing,” the album’s penultimate song, as its rightful final track (“Coupure Électronique” actually concludes the album, and again I can’t figure out WTF with the French), its lyrics sum this up quite accurately.
“If I’m dancing / I know the music’s good,” she sings.
See you on the dance floor, Brit.