Weekender: 10 years later, analyzing ‘Femme Fatale’ as Britney Spears’ zenith

The cover of Britney Spears' album 'Femme Fatale' (2011) is pictured. via Jive Records / Sony Music Entertainment

There’s something particularly enticing about the opening seconds of “Till The World Ends,” the first track and second single off Britney Spears’ “Femme Fatale” (2011). An electronic ringing introduces the song and quickly transforms into a steady dance-pop beat. Spears’ iconic heavy breathing and vocalization appear soon after, setting a familiar tone. But as “Till The World Ends” continues, we soon realize that this is a different sound than what we’ve heard before from the princess of pop. It’s sparky and robotic. This is “BritEDM,” “Britelectronic” music or whatever you want to call it.

It’s breathtakingly euphoric. With each chanting chorus, Spears brings us deeper into the crowded dance floor. She sings that she’s “never … felt like this before” and pleads to “keep on dancin’ till the world ends.” Of course, the music video’s pretty on the nose in representing these lyrics. It features Spears at an underground party on Dec. 21, 2012 — the day the world was predicted to end. But none of the partygoers care about the destroyed world above them. They just keep dancing.

“Femme Fatale” came at a significant moment in both American music and Spears’ career. Riding on the early rise of electronic dance music, the singer’s seventh album had one overarching desire: to commemorate Spears’ new era after her rise, fall and comeback in popular culture. Of course, that’s a simplification of what might be her greatest work to date. But at the time, “Femme Fatale” acted as a turning point, a recognition that Spears was more powerful and profitable than she had been since her 1999 debut, “…Baby One More Time.”

The numbers don’t lie: three Top 10 singles, a No. 1 album and possibly her best concert tour. “Femme Fatale” was Spears’ zenith.

Spears spent 2008 to the end of 2009 staging a career revival. She was in the news because of her return to normalcy. Her sixth album “Circus” (2008) was certainly a palate cleanser from the shocking darkness of “Blackout” (2007). And the subsequent tour, “The Circus Starring Britney Spears” (2009), was the perfect way to reconnect the singer with her fans.

But by 2011, because enough time had passed and other music artists had dominated the charts, “Femme Fatale” was almost like another comeback. Drama surrounded the new album, mostly about who would actually produce it and what it would sound like. The latter concern came with Spears’ desire for something “fresh-sounding.” Of course, that’s a loaded statement. What does fresh-sounding even mean? For “Femme Fatale,” it meant embracing EDM while maintaining Spears’ provocative lyricism.

The album was a smash hit, with a sound inspired by Eurodance and techno, but packaged for radio play. Songs like “I Wanna Go” and “Hold It Against Me” played everywhere, from clubs to house parties to school dances. Their music videos — we’ll get to those later — were instant classics in Spears’ already crowded videography. With every successful single, “Femme Fatale” became one of 2011’s principal pop works. But the release didn’t come without criticism. Spears wasn’t credited as a producer or songwriter on almost all of the songs, and the album’s nonstop dance floor vibes came across as exhausting to some.

Of course, with hindsight, that cohesion is commendable. Spears set out to make a nonstop dance album, a fancy “Blackout,” and she succeeded.

The album era was also notable for Spears’ collaborations with other female pop stars, particularly her feature on a remix of Rihanna’s “S&M” (2010). Spears’ last big duet was “Me Against the Music (feat. Madonna)” on “In The Zone” (2003), which hosts an iconic music video that almost ends with a kiss between the two (Spears actually asked Madonna to be on the song during rehearsals for their iconic 2003 VMA performance and kiss with Christina Aguilera).

It wasn’t until “S&M Remix” (2010) that we got another steamy duet between Spears and a female pop star. The song belongs to Rihanna’s “Loud” (2010), an explosive dance-pop album we could certainly double-feature with “Femme Fatale.” With provocative lyrics deemed too explicit for plenty of daytime stations, the remix feels like a connection between both artists’ albums and visions. The same goes for Nicki Minaj and Kesha’s remix of “Till The World Ends” and Spears’ “(Drop Dead) Beautiful (feat. Sabi)” (2011).

In some of these cases, Spears was working with rising female talents. Minaj had just released “Pink Friday” (2010), Kesha dropped “Animal” (2010) and Sabi was on the rise in the music industry. Rihanna, of course, was well established by 2011. But there’s a parallel to draw between Spears’ work with these stars and her earlier collaboration with Madonna. Is it proof that Spears had reached an echelon where she was a mentor?

All of this helps identify that the legacy of “Femme Fatale” rides on connecting to and concluding Spears’ previous works. This is especially seen visually, in the music videos of “Hold It Against Me” and “I Wanna Go.” Both function as reckonings for the singer, her career and her tumultuous personal life.

“Hold It Against Me” turned 10 years old this past January. In an interview, director Jonas Åkerlund noted that its music video works with “the whole idea of reflecting back on [Spears’] life and her creativity.” That’s evident from the setting: A towering digital structure displays Spears’ videography on screens, with cameras and lights surrounding her. It reflects the media’s harassment and Spears’ rise, fall and redemption (which is also shown in the music video by her arrival to Earth as a meteor).

But there’s strength amid all of that pain. After Spears fights another version of herself and collapses in a wedding dress, she and her clone rise. It’s a moment of celebration: Spears is back and stronger than yesterday.

This music video is more sophisticated than “I Wanna Go,” which follows the singer’s daydream during a press conference. She cusses out the reporters, flaunts her sexuality on the street, pokes fun at her acting work in “Crossroads” (2002) and ends the video with a Michael Jackson “Thriller” (1995) reference.

That’s all weird — in a good way — and wacky, but what’s most interesting is Spears’ violence toward the paparazzi. She poses for photographs and blows a kiss before destroying a camera. When the cameramen surround her for attention, Spears gets on a taxi and swings her microphone to hit them. It’s a real Gogo Yubari from “Kill Bill Vol. 1” (2003) moment, but the paparazzi are then revealed as robots, so more like a “Kill Bill” meets “The Terminator” (1984) moment.

Both of these videos exemplify what “Femme Fatale” engages with. It completes a trilogy of “Blackout” and “Circus” and presents Spears as an adult who is dealing with her past and moving forward. If “Blackout” was an explosion of notoriety, and “Circus” was meant to be a calculated reinvention, then “Femme Fatale” is a sort of a Frankenstein’s monster of the two. A combination and conclusion.

Sure, Spears is acknowledging her history with the media and infamy on all three. But on “Femme Fatale,” there seems to be a catharsis. And with that, the album also made the singer older and wiser; she collaborated with younger female talent, made the record she had set out to make and dominated pop music once again.

This all looks different in our current context. With “Framing Britney Spears” (2021) and the movement to #FreeBritney, we’re having a larger cultural conversation around the singer’s autonomy and how those involved in her conservatorship have profited off of her. It makes listening to any of Spears’ albums a bit heavier, and feels connected to the criticism of Spears’ lack of involvement in the production of “Femme Fatale.” How much say has Spears really had over any of her music? Does it contradict the goals she set when making the album?

Nothing’s clear, but 10 years after “Femme Fatale” dominated, it’s safe to say the album’s legacy remains, both musically and as Spears’ best work.


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