By now, almost everyone realizes that there’s not much Britney in a Britney Spears album.
She has always been an empty vessel — a likable, lovely blank onto which fans could project whatever they wished. To trust in any pop star requires a suspension of disbelief: that they really write and sing their own songs, that they are really in charge of their own careers. The in-control pop diva is too often a fiction of female empowerment created and sold mainly by men (see: Rihanna) to fans who want to believe, because the alternative is too depressing.
How much you appreciate “Britney Jean,” Spears’s eighth and most instantly forgettable album, depends partly on your willingness to fill in the blanks where Britney should be. “Britney Jean” sells a variation on the usual myth of Britney as a sassy, sexy, warm-blooded, God-fearing pop star. Because of her problems — including a much-publicized breakdown, an ongoing conservatorship (she is not allowed to oversee her legal or personal affairs) and a worrisome avoidance of unguided public appearances — this seems like wishful thinking.
Spears’s last few albums have been busy, intermittently dark exercises in disembodied club pop, an ideal format in which to hide an unsteady star. One of her best recent releases (“Blackout,” recorded at the height of her troubles) hardly required her participation. But “Britney Jean” is being marketed, as Britney or whoever runs her Twitter account recently tweeted, as her “most personal album ever.” For the first time, Spears, 32, is credited as the lead songwriter on every track. The result isn’t remotely personal, doesn’t venture much beyond the usual Britney themes — fame is confusing, sex is fun, I am a totally normal person with the same worries as you, let’s dance — and will do nothing to reassure anyone that the once familiar, pre-2007 Britney is in there anywhere.
There once was a time when Britney dropping an album was a cultural event. Now, it’s just a potentially nice thing that occasionally happens. And this time, there’s not a great or even a really good song in the batch, which is baffling: Britney has always existed as a vehicle for irresistible bangers, even when she seems to hardly exist.
Spears has never been a musical pathfinder; like Madonna, she’s better at breaking down avant-garde sounds and reassembling them for mainstream consumption. But “Britney Jean” is hopelessly dated; its exercises in EDM, dubstep-pop, disco, trance and arena ballads would have sounded familiar in 2011.
Spears’s team is always a beat behind when it comes to choosing producers and material. So it makes sense the duties have been handed off to Will.i.am, who feeds everything through that same gurgly electro-pop filter used on every Black Eyed Peas song in existence. The best tracks keep him at arm’s length, like the record-opening “Alien,” a thumping dance track co-created by “Ray of Light” auteur William Orbit with a gut-wrenching opening line (“There was a time / I was one of a kind”), and “Tik Tik Boom,” a collaboration with T.I. that’s great except for the part where T.I. shows up (“She like the way I . . . beat her / Treat her like an animal / Somebody call PETA”).
There are grimmer moments: “Til It’s Gone” is a naked Lady Gaga homage that’s beneath Spears’s dignity, with lyrics (“Daylight can’t confine me to a cage”) a bit too on the nose. “Perfume,” a ballad co-written by singer-turned-hired-songwriting-gun Sia Furler, is awkward but novel. It relies less on Auto-Tune than most of the album’s songs, demonstrating that when given the chance, Spears is better at conveying emotion, at putting across the hiccupy sadness and longing of a broken relationship, than almost anyone else in her class.
Furler and Katy Perry co-wrote “Passenger,” an ode to giving up control in a relationship that would be appalling even if it were ironic. (It isn’t. Britney is never ironic.) Co-produced by Diplo, it might as well be titled “Ode to My Conservator Overlord”: “It took you to show me / I could hand over the keys,” robot Britney coos. “I’ll let you lead the way now / ’cause I want you to take the wheel.”
There is no level on which this song is not horrifying, derivative and cruel. But it’s still not as weird as Spears’s duet with little sister Jamie Lynn, a former child star who dropped out of the business to raise her daughter. “Chillin’ With You” is a preposterous folk-dance track that seems to exist for no reason other than the Spears family’s desire to reintroduce Jamie Lynn to the same music industry that devoured her sister. Jamie Lynn recently released a country single; her debut album is tentatively due next year.
Stewart is a freelance writer.