One of my articles for The Gonzaga Bulletin this week is a review of Britney Jean, check it out on the Bulletin website, or continue reading below.
Britney Jean fails to get personal
Originally published in The Gonzaga Bulletin
We’ve reviewed a lot of pop stars in the Bulletin this semester, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and even Avril Lavigne. I guess 2013 was the year every female pop artist wanted to release an album, all vying for the coveted queen of pop throne.
Enter Britney Spears, who just turned 32 on Dec. 2, a day before the release of her eighth album, called Britney Jean. The promotion, collaboration rumors, fan hype and critic speculation have all been leading up to what Spears tweeted as her “most personal album ever.” I mean, the album title includes her middle name so it must be pretty deep, right?
The thing is, Spears has already been there and done that when it comes to personal songs. Over the past 15 years, she’s released “From The Bottom of My Broken Heart,” “Lucky,” “Overprotected,” “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman,” and my personal favorite “Everytime.” If not one of those rings a bell in your Millennial mind, then you do not have the right to call yourself a ’90s kid.
Unfortunately, Britney Jean ultimately doesn’t add anything new to Spears’ small soul-searching collection of songs, nor does it push her sound into the next wave of music trends.
The first single off the album, “Work B**ch,” is actually anything but personal. The rest is a bunch of poorly produced mid-tempos, cold electro tracks and a few diamonds in the rough. Those few gems are glimpses of the direction this album could have gone in.
“Work B**ch” adds another idiom to Spears’ long list of catchphrases, one of them already containing the b-word (“It’s Britney, b**ch!”). The beat on this track is infectious and seeing as it was produced by Sebastian Ingrosso, a member of the electronic dance band Swedish House Mafia, it better be an A+ club banger. Spears commands “You want a hot body? You want a Bugatti? You want a Maserati? You better work b**ch!” with a British-accented talk-singing ferocity, making it the perfect gym anthem. That or it’s a call to action for the middle class to work harder.
Britney Jean begins and ends with the album’s strongest songs, “Alien” and “Don’t Cry.” It’s in these bookend songs that Spears gets some breathing room to actually, you know, sing. Instead of being surrounded by walls of auto tune, Spears sings with emotional fragility. “Don’t Cry” arguably has some of Spears’ best vocals since before 2007 (the year of her public breakdown).
“Alien” gives an actual glimpse into Spears’ lonely personal life. Never a stranger to the harms of fame, Britney sings “I tried but I never figured it out / Why I always felt like a stranger in a crowd.” She relates herself to an alien who floats through the galaxy looking for someone to understand her. It’s eerie, but Spears reminds the listener she’s “not alone” by repeating those words over and over in the chorus.
If you do end up listening to “Alien,” you’ll want to go online and download a demo version of it because the producer, William Orbit, destroyed Spears’ voice in the final version with pitch-shifting of certain words in the chorus to unnaturally low notes. He did such a sloppy job of re-auto-tuning that at the 2:14 mark of the official song, Spears’ voice gets cut off and skips to the next vocal, which caused angry fans to berate the producer on social media. Audible production mistakes like this have never (ever) been a problem with a Spears album, but unfortunately this hints at the rest of the album’s handiwork.
On a majority of the 10 Spears-written tracks on Britney Jean, her voice is lost in the smoke and mirrors of effects, layered vocal filters and auto tune so haphazardly used you would think that the producers made this on a subway train with an iPhone app with $5 ear buds. Spears may not have the strongest singing skills, but producers have had no problem in the past making her shine.
If you’re wondering how a glossy, mass-market album could sound so cheap, it’s because will.i.am (member of the defunct Black Eyed Peas) was hired as the executive producer. His track record has been hit or miss, largely miss. Will.i.am’s greedy fingerprints are all over this album, co-producing seven of the album’s tracks himself, which lets him rack up the song royalties. His own nausea-inducing vocals are slapped on the EDM banger “It Should Be Easy,” the worst song on record, if not the worst in Spears’ discography. The lyrics are vacuous, instrumentation is repetitive and Spears’ voice has been altered to the point that Siri could’ve have passed as the song’s vocalist.
“Passenger,” a personal track penned by Katy Perry and Sia Furler, shows potential until you realize with a fan-tuned ear that a Spears impersonator is singing parts of the second verse and the song’s bridge. I’ve been listening to Spears from my childhood until now, so I know her vocal idiosyncrasies better than my own. The long high note the singer projects in the second verse with ease is not one Spears could attain, at least without being pitch-shifted and electronically extended. It’s one thing to hear Spears’ voice virtually stretched to inhuman possibilities, it’s another to have someone stand in and sing for her.
It’s hard to tell where the laziness truly lies, especially when Spears soars on the song “Perfume,” a glitzy ballad that cleverly tells the story of Spears being caught in a tumultuous love triangle. On this track, her vocals are distinctly her own, the lyrics fresh and the backing piano and strings swell with orchestral beauty.
The few well-produced songs on the album give Britney Jean a redeeming quality. But then there’s the question if any of the songs have a personal connection to the woman behind the brand. The most believable song is when Spears goes spiritual on the bonus cut “Brightest Morning Star,” a cliché ode about her connection to Jesus. While the album themes don’t come off as anything truly introspective, maybe that’s just because Spears is at a lukewarm part of her life. Art imitates life after all.
The intended exciting dance songs of the album come off as pure fiction. Spears is clearly not dancing in night clubs, drinking red wine with her younger sister, or having promiscuous nights with men like “Body Ache,” “Tik Tik Boom,” or “Chillin’ With You” (featuring Jamie Lynn Spears) suggest. Spears is still under a conservatorship (meaning she does not have legal control over her own finances or major life decisions), raising two children, staying sober, licking her wounds from a divorce and getting ready to perform hundreds of routinely choreographed shows in Las Vegas for the next two years.
Out of the pile of pop princesses you have to choose from, Spears is probably at the bottom when it comes to the sheer entertainment factor. But just because Cyrus, Perry and Gaga have put out far more thrilling releases recently doesn’t mean you should forget the pop music of Spears’ past.
As she ironically sings in “Alien,” “There was a time I was one of a kind.” I still believe Spears is one of a kind, it’s an achievement that she’s remained culturally relevant for the past 15 years. She is an icon, and even though Britney Jean isn't an iconic album, it’s just a blemish in Spears’ extensive, impressive discography.