November 16, 2001

Not That Innocent … Again

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In a span of just three years, pop princess Britney Spears has grown right before our eyes. Who could forget her splashy 1999 debut …Baby One More Time, on which the fresh-faced blonde from Louisiana taunted and teased with her midriff-baring schoolgirl uniform, catering to the pedophiliac desires of perverted men everywhere. Spears then turned legal with 2000’s Oops!…I Did It Again and went all out to mark the occasion, tossing aside the girlish plaid skirt and braids in favor of a skintight red vinyl bodysuit. However, she wasn’t quite a full-fledged sex symbol, and she managed to retain her friendly teen idol image, having it both ways and leaving us confused as to which one was her true identity.

But her most recent release, Britney, leaves us in no doubt of who Spears wants to be. She asserts her grown-up image with a vengeance, hiking down her low-riders dangerously further and piling on the dark and dramatic eye makeup in full defiance of those who demand that she stay the conservative role model for preteen girls. She doesn’t just make empty declarations of change through her body image, but carries it over into her music as well. There are very few of the shallow bubble-gum pop lovesick tunes that were rampant on her past two albums. Instead, she experiments with edgier R&B and hip-hop dance sounds. That’s not to say that suddenly her songs have gotten all deep and meaningful, but you’ve got to give her credit for at least attempting to reinvent herself and push the boundaries of pop music.

The opening track “I’m a Slave 4 U” immediately invites us into Britney’s new world. She maximizes the full potential of her limited vocal ability, foregoing real singing in favor of breathing and panting heavily in time with the decadent background beat, evoking the dizzying atmosphere of a debauched dance club. Spears continues this tradition less successfully with “Boys,” a wannabe Janet Jackson/Paula Abdul song that embarrassingly tries too hard to be overtly sexual. Nevertheless, the funky and threatening hip-hop rhythms make it easy to move along to and set the stage for showcasing more of Spears’ newer and more scandalous dance moves.

The best moments on the album, however, occur when she covers other people’s songs. Like her successful rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” Spears again collaborates with producer Rodney Jerkins to cover the early ’80s Joan Jett classic “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” She makes the song her own, playfully using her affected girlish voice to utmost effect by purring along with the electric guitar riffs. “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” a ballad written by popular female artist Dido, momentarily deviates from the overall fast pace of the album, but its lush, sweeping instrumentals endearingly convey Spears’ uncertainties about leaving girlhood behind.

N’Sync devotees might be disappointed to hear that one of the low points occurs during Justin Timberlake’s brief stint as a producer on “What It’s Like to Be Me.” It’s essentially a rehashing of N’Sync’s own “Pop,” only it flamboyantly places all sorts of undisciplined and chaotic beats all over the place. Perhaps on stage, set to flashy choreography and glitzy visual effects, the track might work, but on a CD it falls flat.

Fans who long for some of the old innocent Spears will be happy to learn that there are a few fluffy pop songs on Britney. “Anticipating,” a ’70s ABBA-esque disco dance anthem, epitomizes the infectious and highly spirited Euro-dance genre that producer Max Martin specializes in. “That’s Where You Take Me” is classic Spears material, combining light pop melodies with a catchy hook and sing-songy lyrics in a very watered down two-step dance beat setting. However, these tracks seem out of place within the overall darker and edgier atmosphere of the album, contradicting her whole intent to coming out to the world as her new bad self.

Spears’ willingness to move and progress beyond her pop sounds is admirable. Britney might not be a completely smooth transition from girl-next-door to seductress, but she just needs a little more time to mature and express that through her lyrical content. And after that, who knows? She just might rise to the heights of pop icon like her hero Madonna, if she continues to experiment with and push the envelope of her music and choreography.

Archived article by Sherry Jun