Britney Spears’ Britney Jean is the pop star’s eighth album, and her fourth since crossing over fully into the realm of the uncanny. Spears has seemed like only a vague presence on her own records ever since Blackout in 2007, with her highly processed voice seeming like a thin gloss of recognizable branding over dance tracks that have often been well ahead of the curve, at least in terms of mainstream pop. She very rarely sounds present in the music, and most of the time, her voice sounds as though it was constructed without her direct involvement, as though she was the musical version of the infamous Tupac hologram at Coachella. It’s a strange tension to feel on a pop record – it’s a little like hearing posthumously produced songs featuring vocals by John Lennon, Ol Dirty Bastard, or Nat King Cole, but Britney Spears is still alive.
When Spears’ previous album Femme Fatale came out in 2011, Willa Paskin, then at Vulture, described the singer’s current status as “zombie fame.” “It’s like she’s a slot machine rigged to spew out radio singles,” she wrote. “The people around her are just pulling on the handle.” Spears lost control of her life in a very literal sense years ago – she’s been under the conservatorship of her father since 2008. She often seems sedated in public, and her life is managed to such an extent that it was vaguely shocking when she came across as lively and fully coherent in her run as a judge on The X Factor in 2012. But even if she seems to be little more together in the recent past, there’s always a lingering question of how much she’s really there. Does she really do anything of her own volition, or has she only gotten better at cooperating? Is there anything about her life that can be considered normal? What is going on in her head?
Britney Jean is a solid pop record that occasionally tries to answer some of those questions while also feeling like the Spears album where she’s the most absent. The dance tracks, produced by A-list stars like Will.I.Am, Diplo, David Guetta, and Swedish House Mafia’s Sebastian Ingrosso, would mostly be just fine as straight-up EDM instrumentals, and she often sounds like a cheerleader on the sidelines of the music. But that’s fine, since Britney Spears records have essentially become a delivery mechanism for bringing EDM conventions into the mainstream. The entire middle section of the album is all thumping club music building up to the excellent “Til It’s Gone,” which basically feels like one long bass drop. The tracks are far more expressive than the lyrics. Britney’s words hint at a new status quo in her life – she’s in looooove! - but it’s hard to detect any particular emotion in her voice. The only time she ever gets emphatic is when she’s imploring, “You gotta work, bitch” on the album’s debut single. Maybe that’s the line on the record that she actually relates to the most. If it’s true that she’s really just a hostage in her own chaotic life, it would make a lot of sense.
It’s not actually a bad thing that Spears seems like a vague presence on her songs now. In a weird sci-fi sort of way, it’s sort of beautiful to imagine that at some point, her consciousness was uploaded to a hard drive, and her songs are made by sampling her digital ghost. She doesn’t sound like a person anymore, but she does sound like the idea of Britney Spears, the iconic pop star. We all know that particular Spears cadence, and when we hear it in her music now, it’s a welcome, familiar presence. It’s like a vague reminder of someone that we used to know, but remember very fondly.
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