Everything that’s contradictory and frustrating about Britney Spears’ Britney is laid out in its second song. ”I need to make mistakes just to learn who I am/And I don’t wanna be so damn overprotected,” our proud midriff queen snarls in ”Overprotected,” her voice hovering between testiness and aggression. Good for her, you think, until you realize the Max Martin-produced track is pretty much the same stentorian Europop of her past records. Spears may proclaim she’s not afraid to make a ”mistake,” but the song is a study in risk management.
To be fair, Spears is on the right track. She and her handlers must realize that teen pop’s fizzy high is going flat, and that the moment has arrived when boys and girls must become men and women. (This was revealed for all to see at the Concert for NYC; next to meaty performances by the Who and David Bowie, the Backstreet Boys were wet-noodle choirboys.) After Spears released two albums (…Baby One More Time and Oops!…I Did It Again) with brazen singles that couldn’t compensate for the remaining filler, it was time for her to shimmy up to the plate and make a quality disc worthy of her potential. On paper, Britney is that record. Its list of au courant contributors — the Neptunes, Dido, Rodney Jerkins — signals its seriousness of purpose. With all that talent behind her, Britney was on track to be either a cogent pop-R&B album or, at the very least, a series of worthy, if not always successful, adventures.
Sadly, it’s neither. Other than the absence of ellipses in the title, Britney finds pop’s poster girl for virginal vamping in an awkward adolescence, wavering between playing it safe and busting a few tentative new moves. In the former category are tracks like ”Cinderella” and ”Overprotected” — top-dollar variations on the hits off her first two albums, albeit with more assertive lyrics. When the music tries to branch out, the twigs snap around her. On ”I’m a Slave 4 U,” a paean to the powers of music, the Neptunes swaddle her in writhing, kick-the-can beats, but never have a groove and a verse been so betrayed by a limp chorus. Their other production, ”Boys,” is cut-rate ’80s Janet Jackson. ”Anticipating” and ”Bombastic Love” rely on enervated formulas — faux disco and ABBA lite, respectively. Her remake of ”I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” is neither imaginative (it simply xeroxes Joan Jett’s arrangement) nor all that believable: If there ever was a kid who didn’t grow up loving raw power, it’s Spears. Dido’s contribution turns out to be the lyric to ”I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” in which Spears searches for ”a moment that is mine” to a melody that should have been relegated to the opening credits of a daytime soap.
The title of that song is more revealing than, one bets, either she or Dido intended. Ever since she arrived as full-blown MTV jailbait nearly three years ago, Spears has recharged pop with a sexuality MIA for most of the ’90s. Still very much a tease, she moans and coos and oozes and purrs and makes references to her body (”Feelin’ kinda naughty/Come and get me now”) throughout Britney. But thanks to the combination of her girlish delivery (often manipulated to sound like a special effect) and the impersonal, synthetic quality of the music, the results aren’t adult or erotic. Likewise, her exhibitions of grown-up frustrations aren’t all that persuasive; her gritted-teeth delivery feels more like an acting audition. In ”Overprotected,” she gripes about being manipulated by unnamed people around her. But the complaint rings absurd coming from someone who was grooming herself for multimedia stardom even before she auditioned for The Mickey Mouse Club.
When Spears breaks loose, Britney springs to life. She and beau Justin Timberlake work themselves up into a don’t-tread-on-me lather in ”What It’s Like to Be Me,” a frenetic, undeniable blend of videogame effects, staccato beats, and soul-band harmonies that feels like a leftover from ‘N Sync’s admirably enterprising Celebrity. With producer Jerkins’ rivet-gun blasts providing sonic boom, ”Lonely” is ersatz-haughty Britney at her best. Yet even there, our heroine hesitates. Berating someone she’s had enough of, she taunts, ”Why you screwin’ with my head?/I don’t think you understand/I won’t take your” — pause — ”uuhnn no more.” Uuuhnn, Britney? Just say the word, girl, and the truth will set you free.