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Monday, March 18,2013

Attack of the electro-zombie

Britney Spears' mostly feeble 'Femme Fatale' shows what happens when a superstar becomes a special effect in her own blockbuster

by James Sanford

The term "femme fatale" conjures up images of sultry, sinful sirens like Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner and Kathleen Turner, using their chilly charms and hot-blooded allure to turn foolish men into slaves eager to do their bidding. The typical ploy involved pretending to be helpless and desperate while secretly plotting to seduce, abandon and frame the unfortunate guy who tumbled into the trap.

Apparently, Britney Spears hasn't spent much time watching the classics of film noir. Her idea of a "Femme Fatale" is a kind of electro-zombie that promises to fulfill every freaky Saturday night fever dream with no strings attached and, if this music is any indication, as little passion as possible. She's the audio equivalent of Magic Fingers: Drop in your quarter, and she'll do her best to shake you up for three or four minutes. But after that, you're on your own.

"You know that I can take it to the next level, baby — hotter than the A List, the next one on my hit list," she bleats in the opening track, "Till the World Ends," her voice processed into audio Play-Doh, capable of being stretched out, chopped up and sculpted into whatever shape it needs to be. The idea of vocalists actually providing vocals is now as quaint as a rotary-dial phone; as Spears, Rebecca Black, Willow Smith and the rest of the Coven of Auto-Tune demonstrate, with the help of some sympathetic engineers and a slick producer anyone is a pseudo-superstar in the making.

Then again, being a femme fatale requires calculation and smarts. Being a Fembot is, like, way easier.

A diva was once defined by meticulous micromanaging and putting her own personal touch on every element of a project. Spears does not write, does not play an instrument and, on many of these tracks, can hardly work up much energy to sing. She has become to her own music what Andrew Ridgeley was to Wham: She’s around, but who knows exactly what she adds to the creative mix?

"How I Roll" opens with what's supposed to be heavy breathing, but it sounds like nothing more than synthesized grunts and gasps; in "(Drop Dead) Beautiful," she chirps, "Boy, you know, you're beautiful," and it's like a come-on from an ATM. Although Spears gets the idea that a femme fatale is supposed to be heartless, she neglects to realize that the woman's secret weapons are her mystery and her humanity, the warmth that she can generate to deceive her target into thinking she's capable of love.

Spears has no such hidden agenda: In track after track on "Femme Fatale," she makes it clear she's sex-starved, pumped-up and ready to party. A small army of producers and writers — including Dr. Luke, Billboard and Benny Bianco — has been assembled to help her accomplish her mission, and there's no denying the melodies are often catchy and the beats reliably steady.

A welcome playfulness in some of the songs at least partially compensates for the surplus of sleepy/squeaky salaciousness. "I wanna go downtown where my posse's at, because I got nine lives like a kitty cat," Spears teasingly declares in "How I Roll," and "Seal It With a Kiss" is a perky, bubblegummy ode to the tantalizing taste of "forbidden fruit." The spiraling "Trouble for Me" is broken up at crucial moments by a jarring synth line and a murmured rap that give the song an icy edge that sets it apart from the rest of the package.  

But the closer you listen to "Femme Fatale," the more evident it becomes that Spears is merely a special effect in her own blockbuster, not the star. Her singing (if you can call it that) leans so heavily on electronics instead of emotion or skill that it's almost entirely stripped of any personality or vitality. When she delivers the line, "Mama, I'm in love with a criminal, and this kind of love isn't rational — it's physical" in "Criminal," there's no way to tell if she's feeling remorseful or defiant or swept away; any clues about her state of mind have been buried under layers of gloss.

Similarly, "Inside Out," addressing the potentially intriguing subject of a break-up hook-up that's seemingly unwanted and yet unavoidable, doesn't have the sizzle it could have had if Spears had been daring enough to actually sing the song instead of hiding behind dense veils of digital wizardry. Throughout "Femme Fatale," she comes on bold and assertive, but when it comes to putting herself into her music, she's not brave enough to show what's she's really made of. She pretends to be adventurous and reckless while playing it safe every single step of the way.

In the beginning of her career, Spears' gimmick was the same one utilized a generation earlier by another teen idol with the initials B.S., Brooke Shields: Strike provocative poses and market yourself as a sex goddess while constantly reminding the public that you are still a virgin. Having run through the usual bag of tricks used by insecure starlets to keep themselves in the media once they're no longer fresh faces — "shocking" nude pictures, supposed mental meltdowns, quickie marriages, motherhood, etc. — Spears finds herself in a precarious place. She may have achieved iconic status, but she doesn't seem to have much drive or direction anymore. Her name is a designer label stitched onto a Dress Barn gown, a recognizable and marketable brand name that, like McDonald’s, signifies something that sells, even though everyone knows it’s not going to be particularly substantial or delicious.

Kylie Minogue, who has amassed dozens of hits worldwide in the past 25 years, has dabbled in different styles and assumed offbeat identities in her collaborations with Nick Cave, Robbie Williams and Coldplay. Madonna regularly reinvented herself throughout the 1980s and 1990s, balancing out her dance floor anthems with thought-provoking compositions about the importance of family, the impact of the AIDS epidemic and the quest for spiritual fulfillment. These women could serve as role models for Spears, who apparently has no interests beyond the club and the bedroom and doesn’t realize there’s a difference between getting into the groove and being stuck in a rut. Too often on "Femme Fatale," she's not doing much more than repeating herself, hoping she’ll sell just enough to stay in the spotlight a little bit longer. Hit me, baby, one more time, indeed.


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