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.
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."
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