Britney Spears' Femme Fatale reviewed: an avant-garde pop masterpiece, really.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
March 30 2011 3:38 PM

Ceci N'Est Pas une Pop Star

The avant-garde brilliance of Britney Spears.

Is Femme Fatale Britney Spears' best album yet? Click image to expand.
Is Femme Fatale Britney Spears' best album yet?

Britney Spears' seventh studio album arrives with a title, Femme Fatale, that might be dismissed as innocuous and generic if it weren't absurd.

Sex has always swirled around Spears, from the moment she strutted onto the global stage in a schoolgirl's plaid skirt, winking at sadomasochism in an unforgettable chorus: "Hit me, baby, one more time." Through the years, her records have cast her in various erotic roles, from ingénue ("I'm not a girl/ Not yet a woman") to vixen (the ménage à trois specialist of "3"). But while the lyrics of her big hits are charged with passion—"With a taste of your lips I'm on a ride/ You're toxic, I'm slipping under"—Spears herself almost never generates heat. This has less to do with her modest musical skills—that wisp of a singing voice—than with her near-total emotional remoteness. "Femme fatale"? The fleshly sirens we associate with that term inhabit a different planet than Britney Spears. On her records, Britney is barely even femme: Not a girl, not a woman, not quite a human, she's an eerie blank, a ghost adrift in the mix.

And yet she's recorded some of the most exciting pop songs of the past decade and a half. It's an achievement based on another kind of eroticized exchange: the interplay between a pop star and her songwriter/producers. The most fruitful of these relationships has been with the Swedish pop auteur Max Martin, who set the tone in 1998 with "…Baby One More Time"—those burly keyboard power chords heralding the arrival of a new, tougher, more sonically extravagant brand of bubblegum music.

In the years since, Spears' collaborators have used her records to serve up outrageous and imaginative sounds and song forms. The big voices and forceful personalities of other stars require carefully tailored material. When Martin writes a song for Pink, he has to channel the right moods and flavors—some pop kickiness, some rock power chords, a message that mixes defiance and inspiration. But Spears' blankness gives her songwriter-producers the opportunity to go nuts, taking wild liberties with beats, melodies, and effects. Britney's star power, meanwhile, provides cover for the weirdness—anything she records, no matter how strange, instantly becomes pop. She may be a terrible musician; she's certainly the most awkward performer of any major diva. But she is a great avant-gardist.

Advertisement

Which brings us to Femme Fatale, the most bracing pop record released in 2011 to date. Martin is back, helming seven of the songs. Other contributors include Martin's American protégé, the prolific hit-maker Dr. Luke; the Swedish producer Bloodshy, who's worked with Spears previously with revelatory results; and will.i.am, whose rococo production tastes make him a natural fit here.

These top-flight producers have all delivered excellent songs. Femme Fatale is the rare dance-pop album that never flags, each track preposterously overstuffed with hooks and sensations. The album is powered by the steady 4/4 Eurodisco thump—the default diva sound in 2011—but surprises abound. "Till the World Ends" zooms from clubby synthesizer crescendos into a wordless "tribal" chant. In "Trouble for Me," Spears delivers the chorus over a slurred keyboard figure that sounds like an engine revving down and petering out. "Criminal," a ballad, is doubly cheeky, with a Jethro Tull-like "flute" (probably a synthesizer) playing a melody lifted from Supertramp's "The Logical Song."

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.