Talent drain sinks 'Britney'


November 6, 2001



A palpable air of desperation permeates "Britney," the third album by teen-pop phenom Britney Spears, which arrives in record stores today.

Rarely in pop history has an attractive young diva's attempt to seduce us sounded so desperate. Never has a coldly calculated sexual come-on been so plainly unsexy.

Hey, Britney: Why not just douse us with a bucket of ice water while you're at it?


"Britney" presents two kinds of serious problems. First are the purely musical--above all the fact that Spears cannot sing. True, this has not stopped other dance-pop divas, Janet Jackson and Jennifer Lopez among them.

But while the grating nature of Spears' helium chirp was well-masked by the sugar-coated hooks cooked up by Swedish producer Max Martin on the 12-million-selling "...Baby One More Time" and the 10-times-platinum "Oops! I Did It Again," her shortcomings as a vocalist become glaringly apparent on "Britney" in new tracks crafted by hip-hop duo the Neptunes and R&B giant Rodney Jerkins.

Though there are different levels of inability, Spears is much worse than Lopez or Jackson. If there was a most valuable player at these recording sessions, it was no doubt the computerized pitch-shifter employed to place Spears vaguely in the same key as the toy-store melodies and cheap electronic backing tracks.

The other problem is more intriguing: How can this bubble-gum queen retain her core audience of teenyboppers as they undergo the inevitable process of growing up and discarding the trappings of youth, including the Britney music they loved as pre-teens?

Part of Spears' strategy is to try to stay one step ahead of the kids. She gives us a bevy of "ultra-personal" new tunes (she allegedly co-wrote five of the 12 ditties on the new album) filled with a lot of florid lyrical hoo-ha revolving around that fact that, to paraphrase the title of one song, she's not a girl, not yet a woman.

The Louisiana-born singer turns 20 on Dec. 2, and I'm certain that her accountants and the plastic surgeon who allegedly enhanced her bust size would scoff at her protestations that she is not yet an adult. But let's set that aside for a moment.

While she's trying to address the awkward period between childhood naivete and adult awareness, Spears ratchets up the very-NC-17 Lolita temptress routine introduced on "Oops!," and now takes it to vulgar new levels as she breathes heavy and whispers dirty little nothings in the ears of older male listeners through porno soundtrack fodder such as "Boys" and "I'm a Slave 4 U."

In this postmodern era, many artists attempt to be different things to different listeners. But despite the advances of modern science, it's still impossible to be a virgin and a whore at the same time, regardless of how hard Britney tries.

Then add to the inherent cynicism of Spears' current act a lot of self-obsessed whining about the hard life of a superstar ("Overprotected," "What It's Like to Be Me"), and you have an album that is spectacularly, phenomenally annoying on almost every level.