It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there was a lot riding on the release of Britney Jean, Britney Spears’ widely-touted, much anticipated new album. Several years past a string of erratic, meltdown-like behaviors and PR nightmares in which she became the worst caricature of herself—with some of the offstage drama news as fresh as her stint last year on Simon Cowell’s X-Factor—for the past few months now, it has appeared to the onlooker that Spears is getting her life under control and getting back to the stuff she’s good at, the stuff she should be about. With a catchy (if monotonous) new dance-pop single “Work B***h,” an upcoming album in tow and a Las Vegas residency contract inked, Britney’s comeback would seem to be all but in the bag. And speaking of the new album—it was supposed to be her most personal, artistic work to date. And it needed to be. After all, if you want to start getting recognized more for your music than for your personal drama, the one needs to outshine the other.
As to Britney Spears getting her personal crap in order…that may very well be legitimate, and more power to her on that front. But as far as the album itself, and how brilliant it was supposed to be—let’s just say it seems like an awful lot of buildup for an album that in context is lackluster at its best, and grating at its worst.
If I were to venture a guess as to what went wrong, I would attribute it to too many cooks in the kitchen. Remember, Britney Jean was supposed to be something of a personal expression, a revelation of the artist. But with up to 6 credited producers and as many as 9 credited songwriters per track, the odds of making a personal connection with the audience are reduced to almost zero. The fact that Spears had a hand in writing all the tracks is of little consequence because the whole thing feels like a mish-mosh of cliché-ridden, electro-pop blandness. Behind all these producers and songwriters, it feels like two teams were at work: the executives who were determined to craft a money-making product, and the PR team that is still trying to rescue Spears’ public image. The end result is that instead of being a revelation, Britney Jean is laden with so much baggage that it is nearly impossible to get a glimpse of the artist herself.
It turns out that the single “Work B***h” (or “Work Work,” for the family-friendlier version) is just about the best moment on the album. The “personal” part comes out at times in the record’s overall darker mood, no doubt informed by Spears’ recent history of divorce, a broken engagement, and the overall loneliness of being a pop diva. (“I always felt like a stranger in the crowd,” she laments behind a wall of effects on opening track “Alien.”) Otherwise, that’s where getting “personal” ends. Even “Chillin’ With You,” the track that Britney sings with her sister Jamie Lynn, feels like an opportunity wasted because it is so terribly over-produced. The only other time we feel connected to the artist are those few times when they tone back the auto-tune enough to let us hear a little bit of what she actually sounds like. Sometimes this works, as on “Perfume.” Other times, as on “Passenger” and “Don’t Cry,” there are places in the vocals where we’re begging them to turn the auto-tune back on.
At its worst moments, though, I have to say the record suffers not from anything Spears is doing or not doing, but from just plain bad production choices (too many cooks). The obligatory name-dropping feature tracks “It Should Be Easy” (with will.i.am) and “Tik Tik Boom” (with T.I.), for example, are sheer artistic missteps and should have been left off the album, although the clubs will be fine with their dance sensibilities. Elsewhere, while “Body Ache” has its own dance-pop appeal musically, it suffers from so much lyrical shallowness and triteness that it is difficult to accept that it took nine songwriters to craft it.
Bottom line: Britney Jean is an unfortunate example of opportunity missed. This could have been Britney Spears’ chance to shine, to show the world how she has gotten it together and truly come back. Instead, we have a hot mess where so many people were apparently trying to “fix” things that the whole thing ends up broken. This suggests two possibilities: either Britney’s handlers got in the way this time, or Britney herself is still too much of a PR liability to let her have the reins.
Will it sell records? Certainly; it’s true to formula. But artistically, this is far too safe. Britney Spears may truly be making a comeback as a person (here’s hoping), but as far as an artistic comeback, it’s now obvious that it’s going to take more than one record to complete that process.
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