As usual, the message is sex. Which is not to say sensuality. The tunes sometimes take a plaintive turn—listen to the brooding "Inside Out," a melodrama about breakup sex—but the emotional stakes are often comically low. In one song, Spears likens her libido to a pot of steaming vegetables. Another conflates the sonic and the phallic, with Britney rap-singing about a "big fat bass" that keeps "getting bigger."
But the silliness is offset by startling musical turns. Spears' smash "Hold It Against Me" has that dopey lyrical conceit borrowed from Groucho Marx via the Bellamy Brothers, but midway through it is disrupted by a furious dub-step breakdown—easily the most assaultive beat ever to bristle its way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Then there's "How I Roll," which builds a gorgeously spooky little symphony from a singsong melody, a tolling bass line, and an array of sampled gasps, coos, and other vocal fillips.
Digital manipulation of vocals isroutine in an era of pitch correction and Auto-Tune. Producers use technology not just to mask the deficiencies of weak singers like Britney but to make an asset of them, transforming a liability into a style. Femme Fatale is an album-length study in the possibilities of the practice. In nearly every song, Spears' voice is treated as a sonic plaything. It is slathered in Auto-Tune and roboticized. It is compressed into aural fuzz, stretched to form new melodies, collapsed into chunks of a rhythm. It is downgraded from a star attraction to a sound effect.
There is a dark strain of submission and exploitation that runs through Spears' work, from "… Baby One More Time" to "I'm a Slave 4 U" to "Trouble for Me." It's a theme that hits uncomfortably close to home for this child star who became an adult train wreck, stalked by the paparazzi and a prurient public. ("You want a piece of me," went the refrain of Spears' 2007 hit about her tabloid infamy.) You can't help thinking about exploitation, listening as Britney's producers ruthlessly transfigure her vocals. In song after song on Femme Fatale, Britney's voice is stripped of its human grain, reduced to "pieces of me"—chopped and screwed into sonic shards.
But if the vocal manipulation dehumanizes Spears, it also superhumanizes her, giving her an unearthly arsenal of tones and timbres. Whatever dark undercurrents we Britneyologists can detect in Femme Fatale, it is self-evidently a musical triumph. "I think Femme Fatale speaks for itself," Spears told V Magazine. "I worked really hard on it and spent almost two years recording it. I think it's the best album I have ever made."
She's not wrong, and that's a no small achievement for a woman who not long ago was the object of a 24/7 pan-media deathwatch. ("I've got nine lives like a kitty cat," she purrs in "How I Roll," sounding rather pleased.) Spears remains the most elusive and unknowable of pop stars—and maybe that's how she wants it. She has certainly learned about the personal costs of overexposure, and in a marketplace more glutted than ever with competing starlets, isn't it strategically sound to separate herself from the field, embracing a classic diva posture, Garbo-esque mysteriousness? Perhaps that's why, on the new album, her voice keeps getting swallowed up by the din. It's a trickster move, a magician's escape act. On Femme Fatale, Britney isn't above the music or, as she once sang, against the music. She is the music.