Erika M. Anderson (EMA) Talks Britney Spears’s Britney Jean

At the end of some dark-hole internet night years ago I ended up watching a video of Britney Spears going through a McDonald's drive through.

At the end of some dark-hole internet night years ago I ended up watching a video of Britney Spears going through a McDonald’s drive through.  She is in her car, surrounded by paparazzi.  They are all calling her name, cameras going off and flashbulbs exploding, when she finally reaches through her window to grab the white paper bag.

There are lots of videos like this, just start on one and the YouTube sidebar is filled with suggestions like “Britney Spears Screaming Mad Inside Gas Station Restroom” and “Britney Spears Has Mini Breakdown at Starbucks.”  And please think about it before you reply that she should probably just never go out in public.  That’s kind of fucked up.

Everywhere she goes the paps follow her like ring wraiths.  I know you “know” this already, but it’s worth watching at least one of these to understand the perpetual claustrophobia and stimulation overload.

There is one called “Britney crying outside her house — January 2008” that is actually pretty heartbreaking.  I can only watch about 45 seconds of these videos before feeling physically ill.  If you feel like staring straight into the nadir of modern society I cordially invite you to sit through all four minutes of “Shocking Britney Spears taken to Hospital (2007)” without your guts clenching up.

And unfortunately, these videos give more insight on what it’s actually like to be Britney Spears than Britney Jean does.

It was supposed to be her intimate, honest, tell-all of a record.  She steps away from her old label, she co-writes every track. I wanted this to be the moment that she finally wrenches control from the jaws of her own machine.  The reality is at once more complicated and more banal.  Kind of like watching the most famous person in the world at the drive-through.

The album starts strong, with Spears’ singing about being lonely and feeling like an “Alien.” I like imagining a Britney/grey-alien hybrid bouncing across the universe in a pink, fuzzy UFO. (Or taking it to McDonald’s). It’s lyrically promising as well, like maybe this will be the confessional exposé about how fucked up she and Michael Jackson feel.

“Alien” is also one of the only songs on the record not produced by It’s done by William Orbit, who brought us Madonna’s Ray of Light. Part of the problem with evaluating Spears’ work is that so much of it seems to depend on the producer that it’s hard to tease out her actual contributions. But if Spears wants to go deep, next time can we get Rick Rubin (a la Yeezus)? Or go back to the Swedes (Max Martin)? Or anyone other than the man behind “My Humps”?

“Work Bitch” isn’t bad if you’re taking a spin class. “Perfume” has some OK melodies although the vocal sounds comped together from about 35 different takes.

But it’s “It Should Be Easy” where things go decidedly downhill. This is where Will.I.Am pulls out his funky bass pad and the lyrical clichés become downright numbing.  Will.I.Am sings on this one too, and his vocal part sums it up best: “It should be easy/It shouldn’t be complicated/It should be easy/ I don’t know how else to say it.” Well, obviously!  Next time hire a damn lyricist to help you figure it out!!! Then there’s “Tik Tik Boom” — not even a Portland stripper could make this inane song seem sexy.  And with T.I.’s lyrics — “eat her, beat her, treat her like an animal” — I doubt many would even try.

By the time “Body Ache” rolls around, we have dispensed with even the most inane rhymes in favor of simple, brutal repetition.  I guess if international pop stars sell a significant portion of their records to people who live in countries where English is not the primary language, then lyrics this bad maybe aren’t a problem. Same with “Passenger” — anything cool Diplo does here, like the amazingly weird instrumental intro, is mostly negated by Katy Perry’s bland platitudes for the morning-rush commuter.

The whistle on the otherwise completely generic “Don’t Cry” reminds me of the MIDI flute from “Criminal,” my favorite track off of 2011’s excellent Femme Fatale.  And perhaps that’s the big problem: Femme Fatale was so great in both the production and Spears’ delivery, and this record just feels a bit like pale imitations and missed opportunities. There’s just no vibe.

Then there are three bonus tracks and a remix, happy, bouncy anime lullabies that are better than most of the record. In that vein, “Chillin’ with You” is pretty sweet, and not in the Cali-stoner sense of the word — it’s a duet with her sister Jamie Lynn Spears, and the chipper, innocent Jamie connects more effectively than her world-weary older sis.  Maybe this sounds conservative and lame, but I think if Britney would’ve skipped the phoned-in sex jams for more upbeat “focus on the family” heartwarmers, this might have been a better record.  I can’t believe I just wrote that.

But I might not be the only one who feels this way.  Spears herself recently told a Boston radio station, “Like, I cut out half the [“Work Bitch”] video because I am a mother and because, you know, I have children, and it’s just hard to play sexy mom while you’re being a pop star as well. I just have to be true to myself and feel it out when I do stuff.”

And that’s the lingering question, just what is “true” to Britney Spears at this point? The sad thing is, if these clichés are supposed to stand in for her deep emotions, then maybe even she doesn’t know.

I have this futuristic cyborg fantasy for her, where we all finally realize that she has given us enough, both physically and emotionally.  We have audio recorded of her every word, syllable, and it’s licensed out to the best producers in the world and they make the records and the videos and the hologram spectacular goes on tour and she gets to go back to Louisiana with her kids and a pack of tiny dogs and we’re all happier.

It feels slightly anti-artist to say this, but if Britney Jean is what we get when she co-writes all the songs and picks out the producer, then the hologram dream team might give us better results. I’m sure there are fascinating insights and emotions involved with the crazy life that has been hers, but this record does not reflect that. While it feels ghoulish to keep yelling “gimme more!” at a woman who has, at various times, lost custody of her children, her finances, and seemingly her sanity, maybe it would be therapeutic for her to just let it all out.

Either that or she should just throw the Big Mac at the camera, hit the gas and take off down the road.

Erika M. Anderson performs and records music under her initials as EMA.  She grew up in the dive bars and rotten graveyards of South Dakota.  Now she lives in Portland, OR and tries to do yoga and eat local but sometimes that shit just don’t work out.  She is only occasionally blonde.