A soft green flower set against a pink background branded the first CD I ever owned. My dad, with the help of a butter knife, helped me free the pastel album from its excessive plastic wrap, and I popped it into my long-gone boombox.
It was …Baby One More Time, and it was love at first listen.
On the way home from a swim meet when I was eight, I got goggles stuck in my hair. And, perhaps because my cousin Maren was in town and Britney Spears seemed to score just about every moment we spent together in those days, I changed the words of “Lucky” to recap my harrowing tangled goggles experience. We sang it the whole car ride home.
In fourth grade, when our science teacher challenged us to come up with a creative way to present on geology, other students showed up with dioramas and glittered poster boards and rock collections. I showed up with a microphone and a karaoke machine and performed a self-written rendition of “Oops I Did It Again,” changing the lyrics to be about the differences between metamorphic, sedimentary and igneous rocks.
Then, in ninth grade biology, I reprised this unique (read: useless) talent when I filmed an educational music video about nuclei, ribosomes and mitochondria called “I’m a Cell 4 U” with my science partners Erin and Caitlin, co-starring Erin’s stuffed python.
I could go on, but you get the point. Britney Spears’s songs — and my horribly uninventive parodies — have more or less provided a soundtrack for my life, whether I was on bus rides to and from show choir competitions, warming up on the tennis court or experiencing my first kiss.
Yes, I’m a 21-year-old human woman with a few too many Britney feels. Which is why it should come to no surprise that Queen Brit’s latest release, Britney Jean, was one of my most anticipated albums of 2013, especially when the pop legend herself promised it would be her “most personal record yet,” the creative response to all of the personal problems she has faced in the past few years. “It has really inspired me to dig deeper and write songs that I think everyone can relate to,” Spears wrote on her website.
Despite the fact that Spears co-wrote every piece on the 10-track album (likely a reaction to years of critics questioning her own contributions to her body of work), Britney Jean is about as personal as a shampoo commercial. Her promise of dark, probing material flies out the window, replaced by paint-by-the-numbers lyrics communicating little more than “fame sucks, love sucks, sex rocks, so let’s dance about it.”
Britney Jean conforms to every overplayed trend in today’s pop — robotic vwerps, thumping bass, hollow percussion, auto-tune — but only at their most basic, uninspired levels. It’s not that Spears has never conformed in the past, but her previous efforts work within the framework of Top-40 tropes in order to move the genre forward. Spears perfected pop on self-titled Britney, and continued to strike a balance between conformity and innovation from there. She became the genre’s standard by mastering big pop’s most machine-made foundations, using the mechanical to express the emotional. Auto-tuned and over-processed vocals define Britney’s voice as an artist, and in her music, auto-tune isn’t so much a gimmick as it is an instrument used to highlight, contort and make a statement. “It’s Britney, bitch,” she asserts over 2007’s “Gimme More.” She knows who she is; she knows what she does, and she does it damn well.
Until now. Britney Jean drowns in the deafening screams of contractual obligation (as the eighth, it’s Spears’s last album required under her RCA contract). Brit doesn’t reinvent herself, but even more disappointingly, the album doesn’t even play to her strengths. Isolated moments hint at Spears’s prowess, but none offer the sexiness, artistry or longevity of some of her past power singles. A decade after my first listen, “Toxic” still gives me an intoxicating rush. Listening to the entirety of Britney Jean, however, feels like waiting for a sneeze that never comes. Executive producer will.i.am does what he does best: rehashes dying EDM tropes and meets the minimal requirements necessary for club-readiness.
The pre-released “Work Bitch” and “Perfume,” as well as the leaked “Alien,” satisfy — but pop shouldn’t satisfy; it should thrill. Britney Jean’s only thrilling track is also its most bizarre: a campy, dissonant duet between Brit and younger sister Jamie Lynn called “Chillin’ With You” that haphazardly stitches together metallic trance with sugary guitar sounds. It’s so weird it works, a genreless enigma. And hey, weirdness is welcome on an album that all too often bores. And if nothing else, it at least informs us that Britney’s more of a red wine gal and Jamie’s more of a white.
What has always drawn me to Britney Spears’s music is its escapism, the delirious, dream-like seduction that bleeds through most of her work (and she epitomizes on 2007’s Blackout). Britney Jean fails to awaken that ecstasy within me. If I can listen to a whole Britney album and resist jumping to my feet to dance, there’s something very, very wrong.