Sunday, 3 April 2011

Phoning it in

When she first burst onto the scene in 1999, most people expected Britney Spears to be a one-hit wonder, no matter how great that hit happened to be. But some canny choices on the part of her record label showed that they believed in the pigtailed former Mouseketeer. The hits kept coming, and within a year she'd already lined up her sophomore release, which opened with yet another killer lead single. Its glib title, Oops... I Did It Again, told us everything we needed to know about her approach to her career - indifferent good fortune trumping any kind of musical ambition.

Once again, the Swedish hit factory managed to churn out an album of thumping, insistent and painfully catchy tracks, only marred by the inclusion of a couple of dopey ballads and some spoken-word interludes that could trigger a hyperglycaemic attack. By this point, a number of other would-be pop tarts had emerged, with Christina Aguilera leading the competition with her powerful over-souled vocals. In contrast, Britney's distinctive 'gulp and gargle' vocal style had become a caricature of itself, often making her sound like Professor Frink.

In the years that followed, Britney decided to jettison melody in favour of the overt sexuality of her dirrty rival. Despite this seismic shift in style, the fans stayed with her, regularly sending her back to the top of the charts, irrespective of the quality of the songs involved.

Her new album Femme Fatale was launched this week to a reasonable level of acclaim. Critics suggested that Britney was back on top, and had turned out the best album of her career to date. And on the surface, it's hard to disagree. We've already had a couple of strong singles, and there are three or four other viable contenders on the album - including's predictably over-tweaked 'Big Fat Bass', which features a vocodered rap from the Wall-E of R&B himself.

Although her albums and tours have continued to shift units like the 99p hotcake store, Britney herself has seemed less and less involved. With a dream team of producers at her disposal, and a bunch of technical tricks to disguise her thin and characterless voice, her musical contribution amounts to little more than a cameo on her own records.

So it's funny to hear Louisiana's favourite export telling Capital FM that she'd like to team up with Lady Gaga, Adele and Rihanna: "I feel like we need to come together and do a song that speaks for itself and shows how much power we do have. I feel like the genre of women today musically is just astounding. We can show how our voices can come together.” I don't know what's more disturbing, her misuse of the word 'genre', or the fact that she thinks her voice can blend with anything that isn't written in binary code.

As part of the publicity campaign for Femme Fatale, Britney made an indirect appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show last week, as Johnny Knoxville introduced a deleted sketch from Jackass 3D. In the 'Poo Cocktail Supreme' clip, Britney was shut in a chemical toilet and fired into the air on a giant bungee. Except that she wasn't really - the effluence-soaked woman that emerged from the cubicle was slimmer and wearing a different coloured top. Not that anyone was particularly surprised; if she's not even prepared to sing live, why should we expect her to be up for flying through the air in a plastic box full of shit?

Making things even more problematic for her latest comeback attempt, is the fact that sources 'close to Britney' (meaning 'passing acquaintances keen to sell a story') have been telling the press about her state-of-mind. One close friend told the Mirror “She was basically like a puppet who would be told do this, do that, and then be asked to sit down again. It was sad. From what I saw, she does nothing more than lend her name and celebrity to the production." If Britney does act "like a dead-eyed robot", as this source suggests, at least that's consistent with her vocals. Rather than 'Femme Fatale', maybe 'Living Doll' would have been a better title.

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