I’ve written quite a bit about the current contempt for pop music which bubbles away beneath the surface even of much ‘pop fandom’, not least in my recent Lily Allen piece. As I noted there, pop isn’t taken seriously as an art form yet a trite populism means that it’s instinctively defended against any and all criticism. When the banal output of One Direction is celebrated as a joyful cultural force, the pressure to do something great is pretty much non-existent. Add to this the fact that record sales are in decline, resulting in labels increasingly relying on their star artists for revenue (which itself comes more and more from advertising and endorsement deals) and you have a recipe for conservatism. The results of this have been unavoidable this year in most of the big pop releases: Prism’s dry self-denial; Gaga and Justin’s need to smother their music in tortured conceits to lend it ‘worth’; Miley’s ‘will this do?’ singles-and-filler effort. There’s been a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring. If Thriller was the music industry’s Star Wars, it feels like we’re at the stage where the results are market-driven dreck akin to Pearl Harbour.
Britney Spears’ Britney Jean is the last big pop release of the year and (quite remarkably) it’s possibly the worst. Talked up in advance as being her “strongest album ever” and comparable to Madonna’s classic Ray of Light, in actuality it’s completely wretched. This shouldn’t be surprising: no artist has better personified the lack of respect afforded to pop music than Britney. Yet there have been moments, most notably Blackout, where Britney’s blankness has been put to brilliant use; for the most part however, she has cruised on her celebrity and the indulgence of beguiled fans who project themselves into the void. The lead single from Britney Jean, Work Bitch, was depressingly generic fare which very firmly fell into the latter camp. Interestingly enough, though, the single bombed.
If being a hyper-famous void wasn’t enough to sell that song, Britney Jean as an album is very clearly fucked. It’s a quite extraordinary listen – decay and decline seep from its every second. The opener Alien, a William Orbit variation on the existential angst of fame, is actually a decent song but Britney’s vocal is breathtakingly terrible. To say it’s processed would be an understatement – it sounds like some bizarre other-worldly approximation of what a human sounds like, sterile and vacuum-packed. It offers no warmth and no trace of emotion, only a cold technological dejection. As noted, Blackout had great fun with this – here it’s clear that we’re supposed to buy into these vocals being ‘heartfelt’ and ‘real’. It’s such a miserable black hole that the English impersonation of Work Bitch sounds positively sparkling in comparison.
If the album is hobbled by this from the off it’s mortally wounded by a succession of similarly dead-eyed conveyor belt contributions from will.i.am, David Guetta, Sia and a host of others. The ‘personal’ lyrics consist of little more than sweeping allusions to everyday emotions which allow chasms of ambiguity. Passenger is a prime example, seeming certain to be interpreted as being about Britney’s conservatorship yet being a standard love song with lyrics which just seem sinister if taken in a personal context (if you’re in your 30s and deemed to be incapable of managing your own affairs, singing “this is living, yeah!” about the situation is more than a little twisted.)
Britney is a zombie popstar, staggering on long past the point when blood last pumped through her veins and feasting on the low expectations of a catatonic audience. The cracks, however, are bursting wide open. It’s simply astonishing that, throughout the album, other voices crop up to paper over Britney’s contribution; at one point (on Body Ache) it actually sounds like someone else takes an entire verse. The fact that the people behind the record either think no-one will notice or (perhaps more likely) that no-one will care is remarkable. I suppose it’s a fair enough expectation when you have an artist who never actually sings during her ‘live’ shows but you surely need to have a semblance of respect for your audience?! Yet respect is entirely absent here. Britney Jean is one of the most depressing albums I have ever heard. The glimmer of hope lies in the failure of Work Bitch, offering the possibility that even Britney’s own fanbase are tiring of an act that is increasingly less about illusion and more about derangement. It’s ironic, after all, that in the end it’s the listener who has to work to maintain some pretence that this is a functional record.
Maybe, just maybe, this will indeed be pop’s Pearl Harbour (movie). There has to come some point where we say ‘enough now’, quit making excuses for the phoned in crud and start expecting again. Perhaps it’s already happening, with artists like Lorde enjoying the kind of swift and enormous success which testifies to a malnourished audience craving sustenance. On the other hand, One Direction sold over 100,000 copies of their album in one day this week and will be joined by Gary Barlow at the top of Sunday’s album chart. The battle lines are drawn: what do you want your pop to be?