Album Review: Britney Spears – Femme Fatale

“But she doesn’t write her own songs!” the naysayers sneer, as though this invalidates Britney Spears’s career as a singer.

It’s a ridiculous claim, of course. Not because it isn’t true—Britney’s never pretended that she crafts her own music–but because some of the greatest singers of the 20th century didn’t write their own material. I’m thinking Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Nina Simone, to name a few high-profile examples. Nobody would deny their artistry, which came not from the creation of original melody but rather from the way they imbued others’ music with their own signature spirit. These legends made the songs they sang their own, and that’s why they became legends in the first place.

Now, Britney Spears is no Nina Simone. But it’s foolish to disregard her albums simply because she didn’t write the hits herself. Britney’s success has always come from the way she sold the myth of her sincerity; when she commanded us to “hit me baby one more time,” she sounded like she meant it. We believed her; we bought into the Britney pop juggernaut, and what we’ve gotten out of this cultural transaction has been an impressive collection of modern pop classics, culminating in the flawed, mysterious, and magnificent Blackout.

Then came Circus, and sure, “Womanizer” and the title track did well on the Billboard charts. But the problem with that album was that for the first time, Britney sounded as convincing as a karaoke singer after a couple Valiums and a whiskey soda. Even on the global tour supporting the album, Britney seemed to be going through the motions of pop stardom. The music was catchy, but the presentation was more than a little sad and empty.

Which is why I’m delighted to report that she’s back, for real this time. Not only are the dozen tracks on Femme Fatale catchy and joyous, they’re also some of the most sonically interesting of her career. From the skeletal, piano-driven house of “How I Roll” to the Yelle-inspired whistling on “I Wanna Go” and the flower-power flute on closer “Criminal,” Britney and her producers have made an album that never tries for Top 40 radio accessibility but achieves it on the merits of its charms.

Even a track featuring will.i.am manages to avoid sounding obnoxious.

The most memorable aspect of Ms. Spears’s music, of course, has always been the hooks; on Femme Fatale, they’re massive. Opener “Till The World Ends” apes the refrain from 80s MTV mainstay “Tarzan Boy,” but Britney somehow makes the song’s wordless chanting sound infinitely more expansive than Baltimora ever could. “(Drop Dead) Beautiful” takes about twenty seconds to explode into an 808-backed bridge as pristine as the Golden Gate. And we’ve already discussed why lead single “Hold It Against Me” is so successful.

Don’t get me wrong—Femme Fatale isn’t a perfect album; “Seal It With A Kiss” and “Gasoline” are pat but forgettable. But Britney makes up for these momentary lags with plenty of gems; the synth-driven balladry of “Inside Out” and relentless rhythm of second single “Till The World Ends” are both destined to become fan favorites.

But none of these songs’ catchy qualities would matter if Britney didn’t sound like she cared. Fortunately for us, she sounds more passionate on this album than she has since “My Prerogative.” On the aforementioned will.i.am-assisted “Big Fat Bass,” she tells the listener that “you can be my bass,” and she makes it sound like the most important role we can fulfill. The snobs will keep on hating, but I for one am more than happy to oblige her.

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