When It Comes To the Music, Is There More To Britney Spears Than Meets the Eye?
By John Mitchell Posted Mar 15th 2011 09:01PM
After leaking online a few days ago, reviews are starting to pour in for Britney Spears' latest release, 'Femme Fatale,' and the consensus seems to be that the pop star has delivered "another 'Blackout,'" which in the parlance of Spears' fans means it's good -- real good.
For many critics and especially the singer's fans, 'Blackout,' the 2007 album released at the height of Spears' private struggles, stands as her greatest achievement as an artist. Sure, she's released bigger albums, ones free of the torment that followed 'Blackout' wherever it went -- be it to that disastrous performance at the MTV Video Music Awards or the embarrassingly cheap-looking, trashy 'Gimme More' video. But with its dark undercurrent and heavy beats, no Spears record has ever felt more authentically her.
Left to her own devices, free of the handlers who took a pretty teenage girl, turned her into the biggest pop star in the world, then forgot to care about the human being inside the machine when she buckled under the pressure of perfection, Spears unleashed her best work. Now, as critics compare her latest to 'Blackout,' it's difficult for this particular mega-fan to not wonder if we've written off the artist behind the pop star before she even got started.
Spears is probably breathing a sigh of relief this afternoon. She pushed two well-reviewed singles -- 'Hold It Against Me' (good) and 'Till The World Ends' (infinitely better) -- out ahead of the album, a disconcerting move when it comes to a pop record because they can be notoriously bogged down with filler. But the first reviews of 'Femme Fatale' have been impressive, with Rolling Stone handing the set four stars and Pop Justice proclaiming it "basically brilliant."
According to Digital Spy, "Let's be honest, Britney's last album 'Circus' wasn't bad by your average artist's standards -- 'Womanizer', 'Shattered Glass' and 'Unusual You' anyone? -- but as a follow-up to the near-perfect 'Blackout,' we don't mind telling you that we were left somewhat underwhelmed. ... It may have taken four years to arrive, but 'Femme Fatale' ultimately feels like the post-'Blackout' comeback we were waiting for."
People snicker when anyone tries to evaluate Spears' legitimacy as a musical artist, and there will always be those who shrug off pop music entirely. And that's fine. Mumford and Sons and Arctic Monkeys are fantastic bands, but you will never convince me that their skills on the guitar are any more musically important than Lady Gaga's ability to reduce an entire stadium to tears simply by telling them they were born this way. We're just going to have to agree to disagree because it's all relative; no definitive answer on what constitutes great music exists.
It's just different strokes for different folks.
Now, back to Britney. She's pretty awesome. As a long-time Spears mega-fan, I've always found it interesting that the album considered her best -- The Times of London named it the fifth best pop album of the last decade -- was created at her lowest point, a time when she shrugged off the coterie of advisers, managers, producers, writers, agents and family that had guided her early career with a steel fist and went at it on her own terms. Or at least that's how it seems she went at it -- given the depth and extent of private information we know about celebrities, remarkably little is actually known about Spears during this time.
But a few things are certain of her sessions for 'Blackout.' Without her usual team pulling the strings, she still found her way into the studio with the producers behind her best -- but not biggest (and this is important) -- songs, namely Bloodshy & Avant, the Swedish team behind arguably her best song ever ('Toxic'), who produced four of 'Blackout's' tracks, including 'Piece of Me,' which NY Mag's Vulture calls "the best track on that record and a legitimately dark, twitchy number both lyrically and musically."
She also enlisted Nate "Danja" Hills, then better known for his collaborations with Timbaland than his standalone production work, for the lead single 'Gimme More' and five other tracks, and corralled The Neptunes, the Pharrell Williams-led production outfit that had its first No. 1 worldwide hit in 2001 with Spears' 'I'm a Slave 4 You,' for the telling ballad 'Why Should I Be Sad.'
"The success of a Britney song rests almost entirely on the quality of other people's songwriting and production, and almost every track on 'Femme Fatale' succeeds or fails on that basis," SLANT magazine writes. Having already heard 'Femme Fatale' myself, I couldn't agree more, but that wasn't always the case -- well, at least not entirely.
Before descending into what we can only assume (but again, not really know; we think we know what was up with Britney, but her troubles remain a mystery, lots of conjecture but no verified facts) was at the very least a temporary and total break from reality -- she was placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold at one point and remains under a conservatorship, after all -- Spears' involvement in her own albums was on the rise.
The singer is credited as the executive producer of 'Blackout' and co-wrote a few tracks on the album -- she has no authorial voice whatsoever on 'Femme Fatale' -- which was itself a step in the opposite direction from where she seemed to be heading with her fourth studio album, 'In the Zone,' where she co-wrote eight of the album's 13 tracks. Of 'Zone,' About.com wrote, "None of her previous albums ever managed to produce any kind of sustained emotional response than the pleasure that comes from a good pop record. I miss Max Martin, for sure, but it feels like Ms. S. has been paying attention to La Ciccone [Madonna]. To put it another way, this is Britney's 'True Blue.'"
'True Blue' is the album on which Madonna stepped away from the still-chugging-along pop star model -- i.e. singing songs written and produced by others -- to take control of her career artistically. Madonna wrote and produced, with Patrick Leonard and/or Stephen Bray (both of whom would go on to be longtime collaborators), nearly every song on 'True Blue.'
Spears has often cited Madonna as her primary influence, most recently during a candid interview with OUT Magazine. When asked whose career she has attempted to mold her own after, Spears pointedly responded, "Madonna. No question. She is an amazing entertainer."
Spears may not have written 'Toxic,' but she did co-author two of 'In the Zone's' better songs: the sparse and beautiful ballad 'Everytime' and the sexy jam 'Early Mornin.'' The album felt like a confident first step toward reforming her image and taking control of her career, a la 'True Blue'-era Madonna. Vibe called 'Zone' "a supremely confident dance record that also illustrates Spears's development as a songwriter," while NPR said of Spears at the time of 'Zone's' release, "a decade's history of impeccably crafted pop is written on her body of work."
All of this is to say that maybe Britney Spears really isn't the pop music "cipher with a wisp of a voice" that some (but clearly not all, as illustrated above) critics routinely dismiss her as. The best of Britney seems to come out of the woodwork when Spears herself is calling the shots. The army of pop robots, money managers, PR people, tour personnel and hangers-on that capitalize on her fame would be well advised to not ignore what could be the best asset at their disposal: Britney Spears herself, and not simply the humanoid known as Britney Spears that can jiggle around in tune with the sonic blasts around her. I'm talking about her ability to create music that resonates with her fans because it actually comes from her.
When the biggest compliment critics can give her latest album is that it is "another 'Blackout,'" it makes us real fans curious what would happen if everyone would just let Spears really make another 'Blackout,' maybe one with a side of 'In the Zone.'
While I would of course be devastated to see Spears return to anywhere near the emotional condition she was in when she was at work on 'Blackout,' I do wonder what an in-control, present and at-peace Spears would bring to the table if only her handlers would let her. Give her a chance to call the shots and see what happens. Now that sounds like the recipe for a great pop record to me.
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