Twelve years and seven albums into her iconic (read: tabloid-friendly) career, there are really only three things we need to know about Britney Spears. 1) She seems to have put the dramatic personal and professional implosion of 2007-08 completely behind her. 2) She continues to owe her extraordinary success (100 million albums sold) to a small cadre of super-producers—most notably Max Martin and Dr. Luke—who treat Britney as a kind of personal sonic canvas to paint upon and experiment with. 3) On Femme Fatale—a hypnotic, grinding, relentless excursion into Euro-style techno-pop—you'll find but one, and only one, subject: sex.
The closest Britney ever veers toward anything approximating self-awareness is the fleeting recognition (on three songs) that she's about to indulge an unwise dalliance. On "Trouble," she tries (in vain) to hide from a notorious playa she knows she can't resist ("Everybody loves you, baby, you're the king of the night/ … And I'm the only one making sure I stay out of your sight"). Likewise on "Criminal": "He's a bad boy with a tainted heart/And even I know this ain't smart." And "Inside Out": "I know that we probably shouldn't do this."
On all of those tracks, however, resistance proves futile for Britney. Nor is resistance an option anywhere else on Femme Fatale. Sex—generally initiated on the dance floor before moving to the boudoir (or not)—is the only subject for 12 tracks (or 16 for those who purchase the deluxe version of the album). Throughout, Britney alternates between the roles of aggressive seductress and willing co-conspirator when it comes to fulfilling carnal fantasies. As a general rule, her lyrical flirtations aren't terribly explicit. But there's no question about what she's interested in.
A brief sampling:
"This kitten got your tongue tied in knots/Baby let me blow your mind tonight" ("Till the World Ends").
"If I said I want your body now/Would you hold it against me/'Cause you feel like paradise" ("Hold It Against Me").
"Said that we're done, but you're all up on me/Tell me how we got in this position/ … I'm telling you let's give it up and get down" (The one-last-time-before-breaking up song "Inside Out").
"I wanna go all the way, taking out my freak tonight/I wanna show all the dirty I got running through my mind" ("I Wanna Go").
On and on it does go. Along the way, we also pick up some references to getting drunk before fleshly indulgences. And we hear a smattering of profanities ("b‑‑ch," "a‑‑," "d‑‑n").
In the process of reviewing this album, I had one accidentally poignant—and telling—moment. One of the songs on Femme Fatale is "(Drop Dead) Beautiful." Looking for its lyrics, I stumbled upon another song of Britney's mistakenly labeled "Beautiful," the actual title of which is "State of Grace."
Turns out it's a song by Britney that didn't make the cut for her 2007 effort "Blackout." Too bad. It begins, "Love is a state of grace/Transcending time and space/No other way I can describe/Insanely beautiful." Before I realized that this song wasn't actually on this album, I thought, Well, at least we're going to get a brief respite from all that sex talk.
It was not to be. There's no respite here. And perhaps that's because those responsible for writing and producing Britney's music believe that she really is only good for the one thing she sings about throughout Femme Fatale. The exclusion of "State of Grace" from Blackout several years ago seems to support that case: That no one wants to hear Britney reflect on what makes a real relationship work. Fans only want to hear her purr, it seems.
Britney's objectification—in which she is a more-than-willing participant—is breathtakingly sad. With each successive album, she's not only not a girl, not quite a woman, but less and less recognizable even as a real human being. Like Marilyn Monroe before her, Britney has allowed those shaping her life, image and career to squeeze her into an increasingly narrow niche, so narrow at this point that she's not even allowed to sing about romance anymore. "Whoever said beauty's on the inside is a liar," she tells us cynically on "(Drop Dead) Beautiful." All that's left, apparently, is compulsive, soulless sex.
Entertainment Weekly reviewer Adam Markovit put it this way: "Femme Fatale [is] jarring on a lyrical level. Judging by surveillance records from the tabloid panopticon, Spears is a workaday mom who likes buying off the sale rack at Walmart and going to Little League games with her kids. Judging by these songs, she's a childless man-eater who could drink Ke$ha under the table."