Taking the long view on popular music

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Welcome to the new era of Britney: the head–shaving pioneer of Middle America

With so many writers and a production-driven style, Britney’s voice can sometimes be a lonely thing at the centre.

Dancing till the world ends: Britney Spears in Paris on her Femme Fatale tour, 2011

Britney Spears
Britney Jean (Universal)

I once asked a gay friend what Britney Spears was for and he said dancing. The first time I heard “Work Bitch”, a single from her new album, Britney Jean, I didn’t think much of it. The next day it came on the headphones at work and I was thrown into life like a nodding dog on a bumpy road, thinking this is a modern classic. I like her mock English accent (“Go call the gover-nah”) – it was first premiered on the 2012 hit “Scream & Shout”, a collaboration with Will.i.am, and along with her use of the word “bitch” is one of the trademarks of new-era Britney.

As she explained, shyly, on Alan Carr: Chatty Man in October, Britney says bitch “out of respect to the gays as a term of endearment”. She is as gentle as Kylie Minogue. This month, instead of going on tour, where in the past she has attracted attention for lip-syncing and apparent mental, if not physical, absence, she’s starting a residency in Las Vegas, home of Celine Dion. Noticeable on the Carr sofa was the huge disconnect between the personality of classic Britney songs – hot mess growing up into whip-toting sex mom – and the incredibly sweet person sitting there, almost too gracious to speak about herself, like a young Michael Jackson, and willing to describe her work as the output of a team – we did this, we did that. It’s unusual to hear this kind of thing in 2013, when six writers might appear on the credits for a song but the act itself is marketed as an autonomous one-person pop factory.

Britney and her writers – I counted 32 on the album, including William Orbit and Katy Perry – favour the minor key for the new album, which works well to create the chilly, northern European, post-Abba disco atmosphere that underpins a lot of pop today. Katy Perry’s own music is filled with pneumatic beats, so the sad sound takes on a frenzied kind of energy appropriate to songs aimed at people on the club floor, dancing off heartbreak or whatever. Britney’s songs are more ambulatory, less pumping and production-driven, and her voice can sometimes be a lonely thing at the centre: “Alien” transports me back to long car trips over the fens in the 1990s listening to network radio.

This is only partly because some of her studio techniques seem to be rooted in the decade she emerged from, such as the Auto-Tune that Cher brought to the wider world in 1998, which has never left us: there it is, all over Britney’s latest duet with Will.i.am (“It Should Be Easy”), their voices breaking up like a digital TV in a high wind.

The ungrammatical “Body Ache” (“I wanna dance till my body ache”) is co-written with David Guetta and is covered in a classic rave wash with “boshing” drums and spiky pianos. “Tik Tik Boom” takes Britney somewhere close to abandonment: “You’ve got a sex siren in your face, let me get up on it”. But she has said several times recently that she feels silly trying to be sexy at the age of 32 and with two young children, and needs to move things on a bit with her eighth album. Thank God there’s no Beyoncé-style alter-ego here – how boring would that have been? Instead, she has given the record the name her parents gave her (her sister, Jamie Lynn, duets on “Chillin’ With You”), and there are moments that seem genuinely personal in their sense of vulnerability. “Perfume”, while a convenient reminder that Britney has brought out many successful fragrances over the years, is also a sad, strange song all about spraying your man in your scent to “mark your territory” when he goes to see another woman.

Two bonus tracks (yes, I have the deluxe edition) would sit comfortably in a superchurch: “Brightest Morning Star” and “Hold On Tight”, the latter (“He ignites my bones ... I just wanna fall into his arms tonight/ someone tell me I will be all right ...”) being an ambiguous ode to a father, a good husband or a rather sexy Jesus.

“You look like Austin Powers!” Britney told Alan Carr. She may look 22 but she is of another generation – a youthful, fascinating throwback to a time when there was no convenient way for a famous person to curate their private life for the world’s attention, and no expectation that you had to. As her professional and rather bland Tweets suggest, she has a pre-Twitter concept of what celebrity should be. When the meltdowns came, they were public and messy but not exactly explained. In some ways, her closest reflection in the modern fame frame is Rihanna, who has at times been on automatic too and doesn’t feel the need to give motivational talks to her young fans.

But Britney, head-shaving pioneer of Middle America, also reflects something natural, which is a huge part of stardom – she can still look pretty bemused.