The Good: Decent production elements, A couple of the lyrics are actually insightful, Deluxe edition has good extra content
The Bad: Almost none of Spears’ natural voice is on the album, Overproduced, Some truly banal lines.
The Basics: Femme Fatale redefines Britney Spears entirely as a dance music performer . . . one who is kind of skanky.
I have a weird intellectual relationship with the music of Britney Spears. Long ago, I bought her first single (“. . .Baby One More Time”) in order to support an emerging artist who I honestly did not see going anywhere significant. Now, almost a decade and a half later, the egg is obviously on my face, but after a slew of listens to the deluxe edition of Femme Fatale, I feel like I can easily live with myself. The reason is simple; on Femme Fatale, Britney Spears is so far from her roots, both musically and in terms of personal style/statement, that the trajectory was almost entirely unpredictable.
Actually, it is entirely predictable if one factors in selling out completely.
With Femme Fatale, Britney Spears burns off the last possible remnants of her “good girl” image in favor of a fully sexual adult woman. And hey, I’m all for that (despite being utterly disappointed by how drastically this incarnation of Britney Spears is from the young artist I actually wanted to support), but one of the fundamental thematic issues with Femme Fatale is that Spears herself does not seem entirely comfortable with it. On an album filled with somewhat dopy love songs about wanting the “bad boy” and advocating infidelity to do what feels good, Spears pleads in offended tones “Shame on me / To need release” (“I Wanna Go”). It’s a perfectly valid feeling and I respected Spears for singing it when I first heard the song on the radio. But after hearing the rest of Femme Fatale, it sounds like a high cost call girl complaining about being objectified.
With fifteen tracks clocking out at 58:43, Femme Fatale is marginally the work of Britney Spears. She did not write any of the songs on the album, though she is credited as one of the album’s composers. As always, she did not perform any of the instrumental accompaniment on the album, nor was she responsible for any of the production. It appears that Femme Fatale is simply an album she showed up to sing on. This means that, at best, Spears is being framed as all of the writers and producers of the album wanted to make her. Unfortunately, she goes along with it and the result is an album that is unsatisfying in many ways . . . but annoyingly addictive.
Femme Fatale is a solid dance pop album. Stripped of any ballads (the Deluxe version comes close with “He About To Lose Me,” but it’s still a sweaty song designed to get people swaying), the whole purpose of Femme Fatale appears to be to get listeners dancing, grinding and pretty much screwing on the dance floor. The bass is heavy on virtually every track (one is even called “Big Fat Bass”) and the synthesized melodies are largely less tunes as they are stepping instructions for dance movements.
Vocally, Femme Fatale is entirely a wash. The album is so massively overproduced that there is not a single distinctive moment where the natural voice of Britney Spears comes through. Even on “Trouble For Me,” where she sings very passionately, she sounds pretty mechanized. To be fair, she supplies many of her own backing vocals, so frequently, she is just singing over herself in addition to the engineers removing her actual voice.
Thematically, Femme Fatale is a huge bowl of problems. First, it seems like Femme Fatale is actually trying to live up to the title, but it too often goes backward. So, a femme fatale tends to be a maneater, a woman who will use a man for sex and/or money and then leave them ruined. Yet, on the album Femme Fatale, Spears seems confused about that role. When she sings, “You know I can make your night / You wanna get it? / You got something that I like / But I might regret it / Me and you were a disaster / And you're only a danger to me / But the party ain't the same without you / That's why you're so good for everybody else / But you're trouble for me” (“Trouble For Me”), it is pretty clear she is not creating a cohesive concept album.
It is hard to deny that Femme Fatale has a concept album feel to it, though. It is so preoccupied with sex and sexuality that the album almost seems monotonous at times. The typical song is fairly mechanical in the way it treats sex and even desire. With lines like “I got all tricked up and came up to this thing / Lookin' so fire hot / A 20 out of 10 / I saw you watching me, watching you on the floor / Hitting me up like, what you waiting for? / It's alright to say you want it / Get inside my dirty mind . . . The beat just dropped and the room got sexy / You're watching me like there's no one else around . . . So keep watching me go down and up and down” (“Up ‘N Down”), Spears and her people are hardly creating a new manifesto of feminism.
Instead, Femme Fatale plays as a combination of yearning and fulfilling at all costs. The Spears persona on the album is eager to get whatever she wants, like declaring “Ooh boy / You so fine / Gotta be the finest thing / That I seen in my life / I will pay whatever / Just to get a better view / And yeah, your body looks so sick / I think I caught the flu” (“(Drop Dead) Beautiful”). But it’s a pretty skanky approach to the whole idea of relationships and the version Spears presents is one who puts on shows, flaunts it and then still complains that people begrudge her her sexual side!
I have no problem with Britney Spears, her sexual side, her cerebral side or her musical persona’s desire to sleep around, commit infidelity and declare romantic commitment to all the wrong people. The problem is the hypocrisy. Femme Fatale tries to blend surprisingly smart emotional statements with inane dance beats and ridiculous notions of sex without any emotional consequences. I suspect that Femme Fatale wore me down and that the repetition of this album greatly enhanced its rating. The message may range from conflicted to deplorable, but the album is danceable and it sounds good, if not terribly human.
For other reviews of Britney Spears music, please check out my reviews of:
. . . Baby One More Time (single)
From The Bottom Of My Broken Heart (single)
Don't Let Me Be The Last To Know (single)
I'm A Slave 4 U (single)
Me Against The Music (single with Madonna)
Gimme More (single)
The Singles Collection
The Singles Collection (2-disc CD/DVD with videos)
The Singles Collection (Deluxe Collector's Edition)
Check out how this album stacks up against other musical works by visiting my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the albums and singles I have reviewed!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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