Britney Spears and the Problem with 'Personal' EDM-Pop

(Radio.com) Radio.com's Jamieson Cox takes a look at Britney Spears new album "Britney Jean": Even icons find themselves subject to the mercy of narrative, and Britney Spears has now twice tried one of the tricks of that particular game: a self-titled album as shorthand for truth and authenticity.

With singles like "I'm a Slave 4 U," "Overprotected" and "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," 2001's Britney was the vehicle for Spears' transition from virginal, bright teen-pop to slinky, heavily rhythmic dance-pop with R-rated lyrical themes to match. Twelve years later, new album Britney Jean ostensibly marks another transition, this one into confessional, newly personal pop inspired by Spears' experiences as a mother, her recent breakup with fiancé Jason Trawick and her lengthy tour of duty in the world of hyper-celebrity. Spears co-wrote every song on the album, and in the months leading up to its release has been emphasizing its multifaceted nature and painful roots: "I know I keep telling you that it is my most personal record yet, but it's true and I'm really proud of that … I have been through a lot in the past few years and it has really inspired me to dig deeper and write songs that I think everyone can relate to," she wrote to fans on her website.

The creative process behind Britney Jean certainly sounds promising — a reinvigorated Spears working with her usual crack team of collaborators, fusing her brand of ruthlessly catchy dance-pop with new-found lyrical depth — but spending any extended period of time with the album leaves the incongruity between much of its sound and its supposed thematic focus hard to ignore. The conflict is neatly encapsulated in lead single "Work Bitch," a Sebastian Ingrosso-produced banger that's practically traditional in terms of structure and tone c. 2013: Spears spits banalities about working in her best British accent — working hard, working it out, getting to work, etc. — over a beat that's ripped from Disclosure's UK hit "White Noise" and aggressive synths. There's an interesting message tucked deep within "Work Bitch," a comment on the relentless demands of staying on top that would jive with Spears' claims about universal relation, but it's buried beneath layers of camp, hopelessly generic platitudes and an overwhelming arrangement.

The problem persists through Britney Jean's middle third, where Spears tries to split the difference between contemporary EDM-pop (produced by the likes of David Guetta, Nicky Romero, and will.i.am) and reflections on her life. The songs contained within are wickedly effective, primed for the radio and the dance floor — the Guetta collaborations "It Should Be Easy," "Body Ache" and "Til It's Gone" are particularly strong — but their slavish devotion to familiar form drowns out the sentiments that supposedly shape the album's emotional core. Whether it's will.i.am chirping, "Baby, love / it should be easy / it shouldn't be complicated" on "It Should Be Easy" or Spears repeating, "You never know what you got til it's gone" like a malfunctioning robot over a bed of laser synths on "Til It's Gone," these songs do hold tiny grains of personality and truth, but Spears' post-Blackout brand of pop devalues lyrical introspection compared to melody, rhythm and intensity.

Elsewhere on the album, Spears escapes her issues with context only to find herself performing material that's ill-suited to her style and personal experience. This is most egregious on "Passenger," a mid-tempo power ballad written with Sia, Katy Perry and Diplo. Spears sings about relinquishing control to a lover and finding trust as a passenger, a sentiment that turns disturbing in consideration of the fact that Spears was placed under conservatorship of her father and legal counsel in 2008, and that her ex-fiancé (and ex-manager) was part of this conservatorship until their recent split. "Passenger" would make sense as a deep cut on Prism, Perry's new record that's chock-full of such mid-tempo ballads inspired by her own sordid love life. In Spears' hands, "Passenger" sounds like farce, or worse, a cruel joke. more.

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