Britney Spears’s selling point is sex — and the lack of it. Whether tarted up as a schoolgirl fantasy, sweating slave or automaton, she’s unattainable and all yours. With a voice that’s characteristic but never obstructive, she’s whatever you like — she’s every woman.
It wasn’t always this way. Britney’s anonymity has always followed her, but it was a distinctly Amurrican one — the slight Southern twang, blonde and busty, the occasional “mama.” Britney was vacuous and comfortably sexual, familiar and charmingly empowered by men behind the curtains.
One shaved head and two kids later, Britney’s rounding 30 and single, and not much other than perception has changed. 2006’s Blackout more or less shrugged off her public meltdowns, matching her slithering come-ons to Timbaland protégé Danja’s cerebral future funk and Bloodshy & Avant’s taut pop on “Toxic.” On “Gimme More,” “It’s Britney, bitch” felt absurd, with or without the comma, because stepping back, you had to wonder if you ever knew who she was to begin with.
It would be an exaggeration to call Blackout a pop masterpiece, irony be damned, but the album more or less deserves it. The production and cohesion of it was and still is stunning. Best of all, the songs embraced the vacuum of Britney, screwing her whispers into hysterical rhythmic acrobatics, taking the heat of her effort and molding it into some cold, steely club funk crucible — ballads, emotion and responsibility be damned.
After the lopsided Circus, Femme Fatale returns to the cohesion and icy lust of Blackout, flirting with menace and bedding mixed results. Where Britney can play formless empowered female, she’s more-or-less a marionette to talented men, and chief producers Dr. Luke and Max Martin are mostly peerless puppeteers. She doesn’t bother with Hallmark anthems (Katy Perry), emasculation (Rihanna) or maudlin earnesty (P!nk). She doesn’t need guest cameos. The exciting prospect of Britney is that she’s a willing springboard for any production adventure, however avante-garde. Femme Fatale dabbles in dubstep, goes Euro and impresses even when it loses the range and thrills of her previous bedfellows.
Luke, Martin and a slew of varied producers streamline much of Blackout’s chilling, stern-faced midnight crawl, retaining the cut-‘n-paste hackwork to Britney’s come-ons but losing a lot of the spark. Singles “Till the World Ends” and “Hold It Against Me” are mostly effective if not clunky club exercises, the former doing the big-beat-in-Billboard vogue and the latter wrapping a double-entendre with wobbling, razor keyboards topped with a dub break that’s comfortably threatening.
The best cuts confound and endear. Bloodshy & Avant’s “How I Roll” is a spare, double-dutch bon-bon that feels tense but lets loose. “Trip To Your Heart” is sugary rave romanticism, ornate but spacious. “Inside Out” stomps and the otherwise deadweight “Seal It With a Kiss” bites with Britney cooing, “Yeah I like you like that,” as her voice echoes in what sounds like the world’s smallest and emptiest club.
Forty minutes out she remains impenetrable, unreachable, pristine. Her voice is a silly-putty cliché, the mysterious allure of sex you always wanted. The noir of nonexistent nights almost dangerous, the feminine rendered in masculine robes, the glimpse of excitement — Femme Fatale’s title feels more than appropriate.