2013 could have been great for pop music. It should have been great for pop music.
It was a year of potential and, ultimately, disappointment. Every major pop diva — minus Rihanna and Beyoncé — released a new album. Katy Perry, who was the favorite to dominate, released the safe, bland Prism, and reviews were justifiably tepid. (Sales were also underwhelming when you consider she was coming off of Teenage Dream and lead single “Roar” was literally everywhere.) This year’s It Girl, Miley Cyrus, released Bangerz, which was completely unmemorable outside of her two already-released singles. (For being the most talked-about celebrity of the year, you would have expected a bigger splash when the album dropped.) Lady Gaga‘s ARTPOP hardly came in like a wrecking ball to destroy the competition and silence critics. (I liked it, but general reaction was mixed at best.) Beyoncé just decided not to try.
From the beginning, Britney Jean was billed as “Britney’s most personal album to date.” This is problematic for two reasons. For one thing, did anyone really want a personal Britney Spears album? We’ve listened to and adored Britney Spears for 15 years not because she’s proven herself adept at baring her soul, but because she’s been so consistently good about getting us on the dance floor, making us forget our problems, showing us how to have a good time. She is the poster girl for escapism in pop music. Secondly, and more importantly, the album isn’t all that personal. This became clear rather quickly when the first single, “Work Bitch,” was released a few months ago. “You want a hot body? You want a Buggati? You want a Maserati? You better work, bitch!” Methinks you’ve confused the words “personal” and “campy.”
Second single “Perfume” would be a nice mid-tempo number were it not for cheap-sounding, “everything and the kitchen sink” production. (The Dreaming Mix, which strips away some of the nonsense, is far superior.) I suppose this song could be interpreted as “personal,” but it plays like her retelling a story she overheard at a girls’ night after a few wine coolers and half a bag of Cheetos. Later, she veers, questionably, into “Jesus, take the wheel!” territory on “Passenger,” which makes laughable a song that might otherwise hold up. “Tik Tik Boom” sounds like a rejected Ke$ha track and is basically a three minute “When she says ‘tik’ it sounds like ‘dick!'” joke. For a song about dancing so hard your body aches, “Body Ache” sounds like it was recorded in sweatpants, on the couch, just as she was wrapping up a 12-hour NCIS marathon. The less said about the heinous “Chillin’ With You” (which features guest vocals from lil’ sis Jamie Lynn) the better.
The album is not without its moments. Album opener and outcast anthem “Alien” is, lyrically-speaking, very post-Blackout Britney, and the melody is solid and pretty. (I imagine the lyric “Take me home” is reflective how Britney feels most days she’s forced to go out and promote.) “‘Til It’s Gone,” another highlight, is basically just a retread of Femme Fatale‘s “I Wanna Go” (that album’s best song) with bigger EDM flourishes. “Perfume” has its charms, and “Don’t Cry” is a passable ballad and could actually be considered “personal.” Deluxe Edition track “Now That I Found You” trudges through embarrassing verses before hitting its glorious, bouncy stride in the choruses.
The biggest problem with Britney Jean is the production. (And the lyrics. And the fact that it feels like, for a “personal” album with a heart on its cover sleeve, Britney’s heart isn’t in it at all. But I digress… ) It’s half-overdone, half-undercooked. It veers from disgustingly generic and dated dubstep and EDM to saccharine, overwrought midtempos, and then back again. It lacks cohesion, which fans will inevitably blame on will.i.am, whose fingerprints are all over the messiest parts of the album.
At this point in her career, I think the most personal Britney album would be no album at all. It’s clear from both recent interviews and the music itself that she has very little interest in being a pop star. It’s too bad, really, because she was once our finest. But it is what it is, and Britney Jean is what Britney Jean is: a frustrating reminder of potential burned out.
But enough about what I think. What do you think?