Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Not As Bad As It Could Be . . . Britney Jean (Deluxe Edition) Is More Familiar Than Horrible.

The Good: Some of the lyrics, Moments of natural voice
The Bad: Musically unimaginative, Some of the lyrics, Could be longer, Vocally overproduced.
The Basics: The deluxe edition of Britney Jean illustrates more that Britney Spears has failed to grow as an artist, as opposed to showing any real degradation of her talent.

If Katy Perry’s album Prism (reviewed here!) was to be any indication, 2013 was a pretty dismal year for pop music. Where I live now, there are no actual pop stations and given how little I leave the house most days, I do not hear much in the way of pop music any more. So, when Britney Spears was set for a late 2013 release with Britney Jean I opened myself to the possibility that she still had something to add to pop music. When Spears began promoting the album with teases about how personal Britney Jean was going to be and how the song “Perfume” was emblematic of her new approach to music, I raised my hopes some. Having now completed eight replays of the deluxe edition of Britney Jean, I find myself sorry that I got my hopes up.

Britney Jean is not bad, but it has the opposite problem of most Britney Spears albums. Outside the few albums of Spears’ that I absolutely hated the from the first listen on, most of Spears’s works wear me down; I start out with a generally unfavorable opinion, but the constant repetition of the songs makes me get to the point where I think “It’s not so bad” by the time I write my review. Britney Jean is just the opposite; most of the songs I liked or found tolerable the first two or three spinnings have become songs I actively despise now. And, at this point, it’s not even the fault of Britney Spears; on Britney Jean, she’s just doing what she’s always done.

Since I first truly listened to “. . .Baby One More Time,” I’ve been of the opinion that Britney Spears does not have any idea how to use what talent she possesses. She sings her songs wrong: songs she makes into dippy dance songs have the lyrics to be wrenching, heartbreaking ballads, for example. She treads for the obvious side of popularity, including pairing with artists who have no sense of compliment for her work (on Britney Jean this is absolutely evident – publicly, she spoke about toning down the video for “Work Bitch” because she is a mother and could not reconcile the continued sexualization associated with her public persona with her trying to raise her children, yet she has T.I. provide guest vocals like “Find me in the club where the girls get busy / With a flask and the fat booty nice shaped titties“ on “Tik Tik Boom”. So, apparently, dominatrix sex with a consenting partner is bad parenting, but inviting guys to sing about slipping loose women date rape drugs at clubs is all right. Go figure.). On Britney Jean, she just does more of the same. Instead of pushing herself to create a truly new and different album for herself, she makes yet another dance album that panders to the hip-hop club audience (with an occasional oblique reference to Christian rock – “Passenger,” “Hold On Tight”). The problem with Britney Jean is not that Britney Spears is any better or worse on the album than she is on any of her other works, the problem is that most of the songs are virtually interchangeable with any number of other Britney Spears songs on almost any of her other albums.

With fourteen tracks (thirteen songs, one remix) clocking out at 50:48, even the deluxe edition of Britney Jean is pretty short. This album represents a very clear sense of Spears exerting creative control over her album. In addition to providing all of the primary vocals on Britney Jean, Spears is a co-writer on all of the songs (only one song has only one other co-writer, though, so even her most personal works apparently take a team of about four people including her to get out) and she is a co-executive producer on Britney Jean with will.i.am (who uses the opportunity to essentially create a Black Eyed Peas reject song with Spears in the form of “It Should Be Easy.” But, despite changing record labels, it is clear Britney Spears still had incredible creative control over her own work with Britney Jean.

Musically, Britney Jean is exactly what one expects from a Britney Spears album: it is produced synth music. There are remarkably few actual instruments listed on the credits for the album; most of the album’s musicians are credited with “programming.” While the single “Perfume” sounds like it has actual pianos, there is only one credited piano player on the album and the string orchestra seems to be used pretty sparingly also. But, again, this is more to be expected than to be considered a departure for Britney Spears. While the dance beat might play well on “Alien,” it is absolutely horrible when it breaks out on “Chillin’ With You.”

Also (unfortunately) expected is how little Britney Spears’s natural voice comes through on Britney Jean. For an album that has so much to do with alienation that comes from being a celebrity, there is so little that sounds like the authentic voice of Britney Spears. While I have surprisingly little problem with the amount of repetition that opens the album with “Alien,” the fact that Spears’s voice is overproduced on the track diminishes the raw humanity of the lines she sings and that is a serious problem for the listener and the artist.

Lyrically, Britney Jean is very much a fractured album. The first single illustrates well the problems with today’s editing. “Work Bitch” in an edited version comes across as one of Britney Spears’ most glib and terrible songs as she sings to young people, “You wanna hot body . . . You wanna Lamborghini / Sip martinis / Look hot in a bikini / You better work [work].” Oh, thanks, Britney! I didn’t know I had to work work for success! The thing is, that second “work” only comes out in the edited version; in the actual song, the word is “bitch” and it entirely changes the tone and nature of the song. Instead of being a brush off (“You, too, could be a pop princess, if only you worked for it! Screw existing opportunities!”), “Work Bitch” is a surprisingly dark song wherein listeners hear the type of self-degradation artists (and athletes) go through to push themselves to produce results. Either way, it is not the most lyrically strong song.

When Spears announced on her Facebook page that “Perfume” was going to be her most personal song yet and was the song she was most proud of on Britney Jean, that piqued my interest. Was Britney Spears going to sing a scathing indictment of how artists become merchandising tools for all manner of things (Spears has so many perfume lines and if she was willing to burn that bridge as part of creating a deeply personal song about how she was overwhelmed as a child star and teenager and . . . but no)? Despite my disappointment in quickly realizing that Spears was just creating a power ballad with “Perfume,” it’s hard not to acknowledge that “Perfume” is easily the best Britney Spears song in years. Seriously, when Spears’s massive library is distilled down to a single “Essentials” album and sold at rock bottom prices, “Perfume” will be one of the tracks. The song is a yearning, wrenching expression of insecurity, fear, and jealousy. In it, Spears creates a musical protagonist who “want[s] to believe / It’s just you and me / Sometimes it feels like there’s three of us in here, baby / So I wait for you to call / And I try to act natural / Have you been thinking ’bout her or about me? / And while I wait I put on my perfume, / Yeah, I want it all over you / I'm gonna mark my territory” (“Perfume”). And Spears gets the song, the emotions, everything absolutely right.

Sadly, it is the exception to the rule on Britney Jean. The songs head more in the direction of safe and dull than probing. Spears and her co-writers use some terrible and overdone imagery and garble their message as a result. There is nothing new, for example, about the lines “I know you feel my fire / Throw you into my flames / Tonight we take it higher” (“Body Ache”).

Ultimately, that’s where Britney Jean falls: it is never quite audacious or interesting enough to justify the listener’s attention for the entire album and that makes it a tougher sell than an album touting to be Spears’s most personal work ought to have been.

The best song is “Perfume,” the worst song is the terrible, misogynistic and stupid “Tik Tik Boom.”

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)
Stronger (single)
Don't Let Me Be The Last To Know (single)
I'm A Slave 4 U (single)
Overprotected (single)
Me Against The Music (single with Madonna)
Toxic (single)
Gimme More (single)
The Singles Collection
The Singles Collection (2-disc CD/DVD with videos)
The Singles Collection (Deluxe Collector's Edition)
Femme Fatale (Deluxe Edition)


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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