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."
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.