For nearly half her life, Britney Spears has been pop royalty. Utilizing the planet's finest producers and agilely adapting her sound to stay current, she boasts a commercial track record that's the envy of any modern act—8 platinum albums, 12 Top 10 singles—and serves as the bridge between 1980s divas such as Madonna and 21st century stars such as Lady Gaga.
Not bad for an android.
It's not that Spears, who turned 32 on Monday, is an unfeeling machine. As she demonstrates on her new album, Britney Jean, she still knows how to embody the emotions of a song through that husky, undistinguished voice of hers. But there's a noticeable gap between the sentiments her songs convey and the connection we make to the woman singing them. For 15 years, Spears has been a dynamic delivery system for sexy dance tunes. And yet, we rarely have any sense that Spears feels these sentiments on any personal level. We love her music more than we love her—in part because we don't know her.
This is even stranger since Britney Jean has been advertised as an album straight from her heart. "It's the most personal album I've done," Spears told Ryan Seacrest before the record's release. "After having a huge breakup this year, I had a lot to say in the studio, so it was really nice to have a therapy like that and to be able to share that with my fans." Apparently, Spears envisions Britney Jean as an emotional exorcism of her three-year relationship to talent agent Jason Trawick, mourning her lost love while also celebrating her newfound sexual freedom. But like 2007's Blackout—a response to the tabloid circus she created that year by shaving her head in public—Britney Jean is entirely dependent on the quality of producers and songwriters involved.
And they don't have a lot to say. Running only 36 minutes, Britney Jean displays a brevity that's in keeping with an artist who's less engaged with pouring out her heart than in moving swiftly between each song-cum-brand-management. The bam-bam-bam professionalism gets put in motion from the beginning as Spears checks off familiar lyrical topics with each track: A fame-is-lonely lament ("Alien") segues into a strutting I'm-famous-you're-not dance track ("Work Bitch"), which segues into a melancholy romantic ballad ("Perfume"). Each one is expert pop overseen by heavyweight industry producers like William Orbit and will.i.am, but they're not really revealing. For as much as Spears has talked about Britney Jean being a personal album, "personal" isn't what she's about.
From the start of her career, Spears hasn't liked baring her soul—she's the ultimate tease, the seductress just out of reach. And that's how her fans prefer it: We like Spears not because she represents anything concrete but rather, because she can be a shiny, willing avatar for us to fill with our own desires and attitudes. Maybe that's why her burgeoning sexuality, first witnessed in the "…Baby One More Time" video where she dressed up like a slutty-innocent Catholic schoolgirl, never seemed particularly risqué. If there had been a perspective to the sensuality—if there was any sense of an authorial voice behind the provocation—maybe it would have been more blasphemous.
But for all her suggestive photo shoots and MTV Video Music Award appearances, she's always made sex seem safe—like the work of Ken and Barbie dolls that are missing the crucial anatomical parts. Even when she started adding an adult edge to her sex appeal on mid-2000 tracks like the bad-boy paean "Toxic," there was still a girlish sweetness that muted the danger quotient. (That's why the more overt "I'm a Slave 4 U" from 2001's Britney was a miscalculation: It was too blatant in its sexual frankness for her to sell it successfully.)
But after two failed marriages and an aborted engagement, Spears can't pretend to be the coy, demure young woman competing with the girlie-girl cutesiness of recent PG love songs like Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" or Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe." Spears is older and more experienced than her female competition, and yet, on Britney Jean her longevity and maturity haven't resulted in a grownup sexiness or self-reflection. Instead, we get bromides like "It Should Be Easy," where will.i.am intones "Love, it should be easy / It shouldn't be complicated" or flat breakup ballads like "Don't Cry" in which Spears moans, "This is gonna be our last goodbye / Our love is gone, but I'll survive."
In the end, survival is Britney Jean's (and Britney's) real theme. It's an unusual move in contemporary pop. Today's female stars flaunt dynamic, highly specialized musical personas: Lady Gaga brings avant-garde strangeness to the mainstream, Katy Perry projects uncomplicated all-American sunniness, Rihanna bridges the divide between pop, hip-hop and R&B and Miley Cyrus parades unchecked, unembarrassed sexuality. By comparison, Spears's persona is that of the fighter, the been-there-done-that veteran. Her 2007 breakdown inadvertently ushered in this second stage of her career in which she shed the coquettish, compliant image of her early hits for a steelier sound and tarter tongue.
But from Blackout through Britney Jean, her best songs (Blackout's "Gimme More" and "Piece of Me," Britney Jean's "Perfume") have lightly hinted as aspects of her personal life without opening much of a window into her world. "Perfume" paints a scenario in which Britney is obsessing that her boyfriend is still interested in his ex, driving her to confess, "I put on my perfume / Yeah, I want it all over you / I gotta mark my territory." The possessiveness should be sexy—or at least kinky—but it's not. There's a blasé matter-of-factness to Spears that doesn't leave room for vulnerability or libido. When she's flirting with rapper T.I. on the pseudo-horny "Tik Tik Boom," her come-ons ordering him to "Talk dirty to me, baby / Every time I want it" are neutered by her studio-treated vocals, turning her into a RealDoll. On the next track, the club banger "Body Ache," she's trying to dance away her relationship woes with some of the lamest pickup lines imaginable: "I know you feel my fire / Throw you into my flames / Tonight we take it higher / What I got ain't no game."
For as dazzlingly inventive as her music can be, tackling current pop trends and adding new dimensions to them, her lyrics have rarely been equally daring. That's probably because her hitmakers have written her words for her, but on Britney Jean she's credited as a cowriter on all 10 tracks—not that it makes much of a difference. When she rides the deceptively euphoric EDM groove of "Til It's Gone"—which deals directly with heartbreak—she only can muster up clichés like "You never know what you got 'til it's gone." In a way, this has always been her strategy: Embrace anonymous sentiments so forcefully that hopefully listeners will project their own specifics into the tunes, making the songs their own.
But the lack of fire suggests an artist who doesn't look at music as therapy—or even a release (no matter what Spears says otherwise). Her songs and her videos are sometimes perceived as being provocative, but true intimacy—between lovers or between a singer and her audience—doesn't happen without openness, trust and connection. Those are things Spears can't, or won't, bring to her music.
And it's why she'll never be the equal of one of her idols—Madonna. ("I would really, really, really like to be a legend like Madonna," she once said. "Madonna knows what to do next, and when she's performing, the audience is just in awe of her.") It was her onstage kiss with Madonna at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards that established her as a possible heir to Madge's throne. But when Madonna was about the age Spears is now, she put out Like a Prayer, a risky, exhilarating album that found her grappling with issues including her contentious relationship with her father ("Oh Father"), her failed marriage to Sean Penn ("Till Death Do Us Part"), female empowerment ("Express Yourself") and the intersection of religious faith and sexual ecstasy ("Like a Prayer").
Intelligent and arousing, Like a Prayer was the best kind of "personal album," a top-flight artist merging pop instincts with individual obsessions. Britney Jean bears Spears's name but not much of her soul. No wonder that she's never more impassioned on the album than when she's advising her fans that if they want the mansion and the jet-setting parties like she enjoys that they better "Work Bitch." "I am the bad bitch," she taunts. "The bitch that you'll never know." And that's a shame.
Photo by Flickr/Steven.Ishiwara