Fatale Attraction: Oh, the new Britney!
Summer found its jamz early this year. Always a tricky proposition – the summer dance record. Of all the figures on the horizon, I find great surprise in offering that Britney Spears may have beaten any followers to the punch. Spears has turned in a new album brimming with contemporary dance floor marvels that sound more aimed at the shores of Ibiza than her older demographic, currently reigned by Nicki Minaj. Femme Fatale is a near flawless collection of pop-dance songs, with blinding production and a crafty redirect of Spears’ dubious public image. The new Britney’s as polished as ever, but it’s clear that in her newfound frankness there’s but one thing on her “dirty mind”: sex. Fucking, burning, hit me one more time, baby, turn me “inside out.” And for what feels like the first time, it’s all forefront. No nuance. No shame. Listen to the album’s most impressive moment, the Bloodyshy and Avant produced “How I Roll,” as Spears purrs most casually “I could be your fuck tonight.” It’s a lyric that really makes you track back in your iTunes to make sure you heard right. In part because she’s so matter of fact about the statement. Amidst the whirring digital blips and blops of the song this sex sounds excitingly banal. Where most pop starlets would deliver such a lyric like wasn’t-that-very-bold-of-me? Spears attitude echoes the overall agenda of the album. Which has all the fun in the world, arranging a litany of sex scenarios and drunken encounters, with no error found in such behavior but – more importantly – no real zeal in it, either. It’s, like, just good sex. Ya know? There’s no crazy Rihanna sex as metaphor / isn’t sex a mindfuck songs. Spears’ sex sounds so wonderfully pragmatic, terse in the way that only a truly great pop albums can achieve.
To me, the contemporary benchmark is still Kylie Minogue’s Fever album. Whether it was club thumper (“In Your Eyes”), trance number (“Love Affair”) or ballad-esque (“Fragile”), all the Fever songs were processed with the same tin-y tone, as though the album came out fully articulated, crafted like resin. A friend once described the sound favorably like thanksgiving cranberry sauce that, once served, still shows the ridges of its can. As the video for her smash hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” suggests, the Fever sound was post-disco pop that came from a fictional, futuristic city of filled with dancing hot robots. What’s more it was a modest album, concise. It doesn’t attempt at epic proportions, but maintains a consistency, a genericness, even. Like the CG city in what was likely Minogue’s most expensive video, it all seems a little cheap, but “cheap” like the Euro pop idiom from which the album emerged. Pitchfork Music tried to be all highfalutin when it came out and reviewed it as a new brand of adult pop music, some kind of lite contemporary fodder. Which is bull because that album was the same brand of euro dance music presented every year at Eurovision but, unlike most of those bombastic eye-rollers, these tunes showed commendable restraint or rigor. It’s generic sound was a finely tuned tone. As is the case with Femme Fatale, Fever came on the back of a startlingly successful comeback album, Light Years, in which Kylie shimmied back into the hearts of the British public in skimpy hot pants. That record was camp disco. Recorded and released over a year on the back of those pants, Fever was the expediently honed result of a finely-tuned market product and creative team.
The team behind Britney’s current endeavor is nothing new either. Longstanding heavyweight Max Martin (who fashioned Brit’s first hit, “…Baby One More Time” and recently breathed thrilling trills into Robyn’s “Time Machine”), “Toxic” hitwriters Bloodshy and Avant (who’ve worked with Spears since 2003) and relative newcomer Dr. Luke – who appeared on Spears’ prior album Circus. The only brand-new producer strikes out, the disappointingly ubiquitous will.i.am, whose “Big Fat Bass” continues his malodorous brand, which casts the artist as without a subject space, instead as a mechanical “MegaNigga.”
Like any convention, pop has its systems of logic and structural principles. It can be tricky to work within the idiom, since originality must also conform to certain formulae in order to produce a pleasurable listen for the consumer. What’s delightful about Femme Fatale is how it unpretentiously ropes in underground musical styles and theatrical arena pop to blend perfectly with its lyrics. Those lyrics which have evolved from the youthful follies of teen Britney, given the greater allowance for sexual explicitness from mainstream artists like Ke$ha and Rihanna, so that Britney now brings to the fore what was always subtextual in her music.
Femme Fatale pack inevery relevant variety of dance music available, every de riguer sound. All of the effects and innovations that you’ve heard for months, all funneled into one taut pop gem. Bless Gaga for making the typically Euro-phobic American audiences fine with the trashier depths of this sound. And bless Spears for removing Gaga’s pretense. The most surprising ground broken here is the use of Dubstep, a South London underground club music style brought to the mainstream by La Roux and currently popping up in the sounds of Rihanna and Ke$ha. This grimey DIY genre gives an impressive edge to Spears – the round depths of dubstep’s warbling bass and the emphasis on churning treble seems to flesh out the sultry lyrics. Which is not to say that it’s a dubstep album. No, these producers spear the appealing elements of dubstep and set them loose on otherwise catchy pop tunes. With all of these genres floating about, it’s a testament to those producers that Femme Fatale is startlingly consistent from start to finish. It’s a seamless album that marvels at its own mass produced dexterity. My boyfriend frowned in disappointment when he saw the cover, a really stylized headshot of Britney with her blond hair spilling all over the place. “Safe” was the word he used to dismiss the image, but that’s the rule of the game, the whole reason in the Spears product. Now she can inflect her glossy tunes with hoodwinks as an imperfect diva, but the vehicle must show no signs of breaking, is so obviously beyond “her” at this point.
First breath of the album was breathed in a weighty teaser campaign that featured fourteen 10 second youtube clips for Britney’s lead single, “Hold It Against Me,” a song that bears so many entendres that it nearly spirals out of control, in a reverse movement from the Comet Britney that crashes to earth in its kitchen sink promo video. Of course, the song is a smart appeal to an audience that might have grown weary of this popstar’s pop music in the wake of her VERY public breakdown and marital woes. She peers into the camera, planefaced, imploring her lingering fanbase, “Would you hold it against me?” as clips from her past videos play on a Matrix-y column of Sony monitors. All the Britneys that have come before writhe and remind of more idyllic, devoted Britney. But that thought slips away like a lace nightie once she admits that, “you feel like paradise and I need a vacation tonight.” Brit’s obviously got more carnal thoughts in mind, “so if I said I want your body now, would you hold it against me?” Of course, a dirtier mind could also take a hint from the album’s erogenous tone and question to what she is actually referring with the song’s titular “it.”
The video features 6 outfits and basically there’s an edit on every beat of this high-octane number. There’s a Britney that models her product placement brands in a gesture just as forefront about the consumer demands of a popstar as she is about her sexual rapaciousness. The video serves as a frank cross-promotional ad for her perfume, a cosmetics line and Sony monitors. Then she’s in a two story tall white dress, suggestively spewing neon paint from the tips of her paint-gloves. The dubstep breakdown before the surging final chorus is a moment of rupture in the song’s pulsations. Top loading the tune with remarkably gratifying dance clichés, this breakdown is not merely kitchen sink, it showcases an adept use of style and timing. In the video Britney battles with her inner demons, literally sparring in stilettos with her double. The final chorus delivers pure Brit, a concert video-esque straight-forward powerdance with a crew of ripped black-leather-clad male dancers. Smoke cannons shoot plumes skyward and confetti rains down as Britney works her body triple time in muscularly choreographed undulations.
The second single, “Till The World Ends,” which opens the album, is perhaps a tad more predictable. Ravey with a wordless chant chorus, Brit promises to “get you off with a touch dancing in the dark” and to “blow your mind tonight.” More dubstep bass lines bring thrill to the table in a song strictly about “dancing” (till the world ends, of course). The delicious “Inside Out” is about being unable to break up with your boyfriend because you keep having really good break up sex every time you meet to break it off. “Let’s just give it up and get down. Won’t you give me something to remember? Baby shut your mouth and turn me inside out.” It’s a loose, low-tempo song, obviously penned for Brit, since it features references to two of her earlier hits “Crazy” and “…Baby One More Time.” “I Wanna Go” brings the pulse back up with a buoyant chorus that confesses “I wanna go all the way taking out my freak tonight. I wanna show all the dirt I’ve got running through my mind.” While “How I Roll” features the signature barrage of varied sounds that Bloodshy and Avant pour into their productions. Champagne corks pop and an auto-tune duets with Britney’s tequila (on the rocks!) induced trip “downtown, where my posse’s at. Coz I got nine lives like a kitty cat.” It’s a youthful, breezy song that glitters perhaps more brightly than any other moment on the album.
The dubstep continues on “(Drop Dead) Beautiful,” produced by Benny Blanco and Ammo whose obligatory female rap vocal (provided by Sabi) has a welcomed 90s tinge to it. Like Monie Love’s rap on Whitney Houston’s “My Name Is Not Susan,” it kinda feels more like a box being checked than necessary, thought it doesn’t detract, none. It gives Britney a personality to play off of as the two chuckle and cat call men, “your body looks so sick I think I caught the flu.” "Trip To Your Heart" is a smartly produced album track by Bloodshy and Avant that echoes their song for Kylie Minogue from the X album, “Speakerphone” in its listing of bodyparts (eyes, arms, lips, tongue). Though Britney never names the sex parts obviously on her mind here, the constant tease is fun. The low-fi sound of “Gasoline” is a nice diversion (her heart “only runs on supreme”), though the album ends on a slightly off note. The low-tempo “Criminal” is something of a grower. I’ve taken to the tune, and there’s an obviousness star textual element to the track in which Brit appeals, “Mama, I’m in love with a criminal but this kind of love isn’t rational, it’s physical.”
It’s SUCH an easy listen and a delight. Femme Fatale never shoots for epic stature and because of it Brit’s produced one of her most accomplished records to date. iTunes informs me that I’ve sped through the rounds nearly 40 times now, and I’m sure there’s tons more where that came from. Beach time jams and soundtracks for my tequila on the rocks. This is the most manufactured and professional type of ribaldry I can think of. Can you hold it against me?