In one sense, Femme Fatale may be the ultimate Britney Spears album.
As the hollowest of modern pop vessels, the attempts to bring her "personality" to the fore resulted in the weakest tracks on Circus and the charmless Blackout, but there's no danger of that happening here: perhaps chastened by the disasters that seemed to result whenever Britney's private life became her public image, all traces of authentic character, issues, attitude and emotion have been ruthlessly excised from Femme Fatale, leaving the hollowest possible shell of corporate entertainment fodder. The ultimate Britney experience, as impersonal as a videogame.
There's certainly no denying its single-minded dedication to dancefloor utility. The album opens with her in strict lock-step, demanding to "keep on dancing till the world ends", and stays in electro-stomp mode for virtually its entire course, with only the tiniest of rhythmic variants or differences in electronic tones distinguishing one producer's work from another's. Britney herself appears to have zero input to either composition or production, while her vocal character has been further denuded by the blanket application of auto-tuning. But it's not just that her voice has been treated: she's also delivering the lines in a brittle, robotic monotone, as if she were Singbot 64 rather than a human performer. But then, almost everything here sounds programmed rather than natural: even the little whistling hook in "I Wanna Go" has a synthetic character about it. Indeed, such is the shock when the final track, "Criminal", opens with a little folksong-style flute and guitar figure that one's immediate reaction is that a Midlake soundfile has been accidentally appended to Britney's running-order.
Apart from that, there's not an awful lot of inspiration or originality involved here. Songs rarely stray far from their titular instruction: "Gasoline" shuffles a few petrol- and fire-related cliches around, while will.i.am's "Big Fat Bass" sticks to dancefloor essentials: "I can be the treble baby, you can be the bass". And "Inside Out" shamelessly plunders Britney's former glory in an attempt to gloss over its drearily grinding electro tedium, with the singer asking, "Hit me one more time, it's just amazing".
Except that it's not that amazing any more, something confirmed by the mediocre performance of the singles "Till the World Ends" and "Hold It Against Me" (which itself recycles the old chestnut about holding someone's body, minus the humour). Both have plummeted out of the Top 50 after so-so showings, demonstrating that even a fanbase as apparently devoted as Britney's will drift away rapidly once the novelty palls. And as far as novelty goes, her natural demographic now has an icon as quirky and characterful as Lady Gaga to fascinate and fuss over, a performer who doesn't expect simply to keep milking the same cash cow without at least a costume-change. Gaga's music, let's be frank, is not that much better than, or even different to, that on Femme Fatale, but she knows the lingering appeal of playing dress-up.
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