I want to enjoy a Britney Spears album without contorting myself through a bunch of justifications about zeitgeists while calling the highlights “sorta as good as ‘Toxic.’” I want to close my eyes and make out with a record that is “executive” produced by will.i.am and that somehow transmutes the dude’s incredible (and cynical) gift for making people who value immediacy in their music feel completely and utterly present by experiencing his alchemy of basically the loudest, most elemental forms of music that civilization has so far bestowed on us into something richer, weirder, and more honest. But we’re not going to wind up happy: will.i.am is going to take his big sack of money and probably record some Jandek-style stuff in his soundproofed penthouse, and I’m going to go home and listen to “Toxic.” By the sound of it, Britney is definitely the unhappiest of us all.
Every Britney Spears record is equally a managed part of the narrative that makes up the Britney Story. If you follow her and her associates on Twitter, the extent to which each artistic event in her life is fed into an echo chamber of self-narratology and transparent phoenixisms is about as staggering as it is incredibly lonely to read. The rap this time is that now she’s all about getting back to basics and reconnecting with her family, her fans, etc. Ushering her gently into the zeitgeist is will.i.am, whose tack is to cast her as a strong, needy, reliable narrator, lost woman, hopeful lover, eternal flame. This is her in full confessional mode, which is more like someone performing for the Diary Room camera in an episode of Big Brother (remember that!).
Yet Britney Jean is her first album not to debut at #1 aside from Circus, but we’ll call that particular dip an anomaly — heck, in 2007, she looked as likely to have a comeback chart-topper as she was to wind up impaled jumping the fence from a rehab clinic, so it’s probably a twinned relief somehow that neither came to pass — and as such, it’s possible to chart a visible decline for the first time in her career. Things may be lonely at the top, but things can get desperate looking down from #4 with an anchor, and it’s no wonder that’s where it peaked: this is almost defiantly her weirdest, most uncomfortable, and strained record yet.
Take her duet with kid sister Jamie Lynn, “Chillin’ With You,” who sings sort of like she’s trying to sell a car while manning the desk at her husband’s Chrysler dealership or whatever. Imagine the kind of belligerent awkwardness that would ensue if, say, a Steven Seagal song was big enough to fit anyone else inside it. To demonstrate their sisterhood, they exchange verses where they alternately get hella dizzy on red and white wine (Brits and Jamie, respectively, for those playing at home) to show how important the moment is that they’re together and really having a healthy relationship. It’s sort of like the “Chinese Food” of mature-age sister bonding. By the end, you don’t know where to look. If you’ve been to therapy, you’ll be subconsciously recalling it.
“Work Bitch” stirred up a bunch of internet dust, but as Kierkegaard might have said, we are post-Miley, and it barely works as a concession to dubstep and/or Brit’s gay fanbase, and mostly feels like refried Gossip. It’s transgression by, say, sending a letter without a stamp and writing the intended address as the return address. The whole record suffers from moves that are either way behind or out of step with the times; the dryness, the flashiness, everything drags its heels and scuttles itself the way something two weeks out of date might as well be calling toward you from the bottom of a deep ol’ 2006-shaped well. The sonic lifelessness that drips from this record is eerie, because no one has fused both the Midas and the “common touch” the way will.i.am has. And while he may vex horribly, stuff he touches usually glitters, or thrusts, or vibes, or irritates, or trepenates, or at least does something. The alien, blank dead-eyedness of Britney Jean is frightening, because it feels like it’s all will.i.am trusts Britney with. Like, the trauma behind the sentiments of these earnest, independent songs is too real, too raw, too everything to even attempt. It’s as if the process works like this: Britney has to turn on the old mode of delivering to get anything done, but as that becomes further and further removed from reality, the sound has to follow her there.
This record, maybe more than any other in last year’s pop zeitgeist, demonstrates the ultimate question that arises from the intersection of celebrity and the album-as-expression. If we talk about Britney Spears as an artist, where does this album take us? She’s suffering (we all know this), and this suffers for her suffering, because despite being an album by Britney Spears (the public persona) about the private persona (i.e., Britney Jean), neither exists here. The whole album slips through a crack in a hermeneutic circle. She used to be able to summon both at the same time — I still get teary thinking about “Everytime.” So, within the confines of the whole million-dollar must-chart commercial bonanza, does that make this the most honest record of them all? By showing us she’s neither here nor there, she shows us where she is. This feels like the death of the ego, the death of hope, a poster falling off a wall. Is complete disembodiment not just the endgame harakiri of pop music, but the point where it attains a weird, symbiotic suicidal wholeness? Is this Britney telling the cops she’s ready for her close-up?
The question is whether this final-seeming disconnect is actually final. Ultimately, here’s where it sits. Britney Spears is contracted for the showbiz river Styx, a Vegas residency. That contract depends on whether she remains under a legal conservatorship that keeps her pretty much well downwind of any legal or financial decisionmaking for the term of said conservatorship, which can seemingly be extended into perpetuity. This is a woman who has been thoroughly chewed. I want her to talk to us. I feel like we all do, and not in the way that people rushed for the tell-all fat-ass diarrhoea-and-speed Elvis biographies after he died. I feel like we want to know what it actually feels like for her. If Britney Spears screams and cries and rages in the woods against all of the endless impenetrable weirdness and cruelty she suffered, will music ever hear about it? Of course not. Problem is, dodging the question means the sun will just keep setting. Even will.i.am doesn’t know what to do with her, by the sounds of it, and he made Fergie a millionaire more times over than I’ve seen a limousine. Many careers have several, if not dozens of penultimate acts. This definitely has the whiff of the next-to-last about it. Breathe it in.