If there is a critical consensus so far on Britney Spears' Femme Fatale so far, it goes something like this: Spears doesn't show much of her personality on the album, nor does she seem to have contributed much to it artistically, and more than anything, she may just be a kind of void at its creative center. Oh, and it's great!
Yes, the critics like it, they really like it—for the most part—even if it's in spite of (or even because of) Britney being perceived as a producers' pet. It might even be her best-reviewed album, even though some say it doesn't quite match up to her supposed pinnacle, Blackout (which seems to have grown greatly in stature since 2007, not having received universal acclaim at the time).
"Despite her weak voice and empty lyrics," writes the Telegraph's Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski, not beginning promisingly, "the troubled Disney graduate has placed herself at the avant-garde of pop with this masterful mixture of uber-cool dubstep and sugary pop."
The Los Angeles Times' Carl Wilson concurs in a three-star review, writing, "On Femme Fatale, her seventh album and plainly one of her best, the erstwhile teen-pop princess is less the center of sonic attention than the occasion and enabler for a dozen of the age's most accomplished record producers to show off their wildest moves from behind a plastic Britney mask." Yes, that's a recommendation.
The New York Daily News' Jim Farber absolutely relishes in Spears' apparent lack of input on an album he gives a whopping four stars out of five. "Britney's seventh album finds her more pliant, poker-faced and remote in the creative process than ever. As it turns out, that's a good thing... It's as if the singer dragged a cot into the studio, threw herself down and drawled in the direction of her producers: 'Have your way with me, boys. Just make sure it's fun and catchy.' They delivered on both. Femme Fatale rates as the giddiest and wittiest album ever cobbled together under the Britney brand... And just think, all it took was for Britney to get as far out of the way as possible."
You may sense a certain pattern of damning with faint praise—or praising with faint damning—in many of these reviews, even the most outrightly gushy ones.
Rolling Stone magazine gives the album four out of five stars, with critic Jody Rosen calling it "Britney's best album" and the singer "pop music's stealth avant-gardist." But his highest praise for her is as a willing vessel for more creative collaborators. "On nearly every track, Britney's voice is twisted, shredded, processed, roboticized. Maybe this is because she doesn't have much of a voice; it's certainly because she, more than almost any other pop diva, is simply game. Femme fatale? Not so much. But say this for Britney: She's an adventuress." (Rosen doesn't consider Spears' malleability or vocal lackings a liability; in an online discussion at Popdust.com, the critic said he actually wanted to give Femme Fatale an even higher rating than four stars, but was talked down by Rolling Stone's editors.)
In a B+ review, Entertainment Weekly's Adam Markovitz writes, "Britney always brings one undervalued asset to the table: her reedy, preshrunk voice—probably the single most maligned instrument in music this side of the vuvuzela. Spears is no technical singer, that's for sure." But under the tutelage of executive producers Max Martin and Dr. Luke, says Markovitz, "her vocals melt into a mix of babytalk coo and coital panting that is, in its own overprocessed way, just as iconic and propulsive as Michael Jackson's yips or Eminem's snarls."
In the Chicago Sun-Times, Thomas Conner makes similar qualifications. "Recently, the dance music she's been creating has been more interesting and occasionally irresistible... The trade-off is personality. If she had one at all, it's gone now. Brit-Brit's voice is processed so heavily on this record, and the lyrics so bland, these songs could be sung by anyone."
London's Guardian also gives her producers all the credit: "You'd be hard-pressed to call Femme Fatale anything other than a success, albeit a rather old-fashioned one: despite rather than because of the woman whose name is on its cover. At its best, it sounds like a party, with a cutting-edge pop soundtrack. The question of precisely what Britney Spears brings to said party remains as imponderable as ever."
USA Today's Edna Gundersen is a little more sure about what Spears brings to the soiree. "Spears' appeal can be baffling," she writes, in a three-star review. "Her voice, swamped by the fastidious production, is thin and colorless. Still, her babyish coo and seductive breathiness prove appealing on such pop-tastic thumpers as 'Hold It Against Me' and 'Inside Out.'"
Executive producers Max Martin and/or Dr. Luke and their team are responsible for most of the tracks, but it's the work of others that comes in for the most praise or most derision in many of the reviews. The most frequently praised tunes are the two from the team of Bloodshy and Avant, particularly "How I Roll," which is cited as too weird to be a single but still "sputtering, oddly beautiful techno" by Rosen, and the album's "only artful assault" by the New York Times. The most often criticized number is Will.I.Am's "Big Fat Bass," in which EW says she "tries to play an ersatz Fergie."
Two comparisons pop up consistently: how the album rates against Spears' own Blackout, and how Spears rates against pop-queen-come-lately Lady Gaga.
"While it's not quite as late-night-hazed-out as the 2007 masterpiece-in-retrospect Blackout," writes Popdust's Maura Johnston, "it definitely has a dark edge to it that calls back that album more than the overly cheery Circus."
Pop Justice concurs: "Femme Fatale is another Blackout. It's bursting with all that album's best bits—the slightly deranged production, the hard and dark spirit, the massive beats and the big tunes... On first listen it might just be as much of a masterpiece."
When the blood-spattered specter of Gaga is raised, however, it's rarely with the intention of flattering Spears.
"Femme Fatale arrives in a world where Lady Gaga is setting pop's agenda," writes the Guardian in London. "But if the pop personality stakes have been raised, no one seems to have told Spears. Her voice is as anonymous as ever, a state of affairs amplified by the lavishing of Auto-Tune. She does what pop stars invariably do in lieu of having a detectable character of their own: goes on and on about sex, a topic that becomes a bit tiresome if you're stuck with a vocalist who sings... with all the erotic charge of someone suggesting you put the recycling bin out. After a while, you get the feeling the lyricists just gave up in the face of her indifference."
The New York Times' Jon Caramanica filed the most dismissive of the major reviews, writing, "More than any of her previous releases, Femme Fatale is blank. Ms. Spears isn't much more than a celebrity spokeswoman for the work of the producers... who needs artists like Ms. Spears as calling cards. But whereas her collaborators in the past... have used her as a guinea pig for their cleverest work, much of the music on this album feels flat and redundant, no more invigorating than the average European dance-pop album of five years ago... In some places the lyrics she's provided with read as a cruel prank," he adds, singling out the line "Got me kinda hot but I ain't sweating you/Steaming like a pot full of vegetables."
EW's review points out the disparity between her real life and album persona, saying that tabloid reports suggest Spears is now "a workaday mom who likes buying off the sale rack at Walmart and going to Little League games with her kids. But judging by these songs, she's a childless man-eater who could drink Ke$ha under the table. That disconnect, added to the fact that Spears doesn't claim so much as a co-writing credit on a single track, can make the album feel like an autopilot affair." But he doesn't find this fatal to Femme at all in his otherwise positive assessment. "No matter who she might be outside the studio, the Britney we hear on Femme Fatale is a confidently corrupt guide to a place where our only worry is whether the beats will end before the sun comes up. And when it comes to pop stars, what more can we really ask for?" (Some readers may not take that query in the rhetorical spirit in which it's intended.)
Greg Kot of the Chicago Sun-Times also pointed out Spears' seeming lack of creative involvement. "No fewer than 28 songwriters and 13 producers manicured the 12 songs... She doesn't even bother to shake down a songwriting credit, preferring to let the highly paid professionals do it instead." But he thinks the lack of autobiographical input might actually be a plus. "She's smart that way. Femme Fatale dispenses with the messy personal baggage and real-life subtext attached to her two previous albums and simply goes for the dancefloor gusto."
If there's one thing her adorers and detractors agree on, it's this: Please, no more videos like "Hold It Against Me." USA Today cites her "mechanical, lethargic delivery" in the video. EW's otherwise admiring review also singles that video out, calling it "a flatline clip" that she "sleepwalks through." The Associated Press's Nekesa Mumbi Moody writes: "The driving 'Hold It Against Me' is one of the album's better tracks, though it suffered from the nonsensical, product-placement video that accompanies it. In it, Spears looks listless and off her game, and it's a reminder that she's not the Brit who wowed us just a few years ago. But when you block out the visuals and focus on the songs, Spears once again sizzles, and her flame burns as bright as ever."
Can a record be anonymous and brilliant at the same time? You tell us, in the comments section below...
Meanwhile, here's a look at some of the album's reviews strictly by the numbers (or letter grades):
Rolling Stone: 4 stars out of 5
USA Today: 3 stars out of 4
Los Angeles Times: 3 stars out of 4
New York Daily News: 4 stars out of 5
The Chicago Tribune: 2 stars out of 4
The Telegraph: 4 stars out of 4
The Independent: 2 stars out of 4
The Globe-and-Mail: 3 1/2 stars out of 4
The Guardian: 3 stars out of 4
The Daily Mail: 3 stars out of 5
Spin: 7 out of 10