Britney Spears is pop music's stealth avant-gardist. For years, critics have dismissed her as a cipher with a wisp of a voice. But from the minute she burst on the scene — heralded by the keyboard power chords of ". . . Baby One More Time" — her music has steered bubblegum into weirder, woollier territory. "Toxic" was a mélange of Bollywood and spy-movie guitar; "Piece of Me" was an essay on 21st-century tabloid infamy crooned over 22nd-century club rhythms. Then there's this year's "Hold It Against Me," which dissolves into a furious dubstep breakdown — easily the most assaultive beat on the Hot 100 right now.
Femme Fatale may be Britney's best album; certainly it's her strangest. Conceptually it's straightforward: a party record packed with sex and sadness. Max Martin and Dr. Luke, the world's two biggest hitmakers, are responsible for seven of 12 songs: big melodies and bigger Eurodisco thumps. But other producers go nuts, tossing the kitchen sink at Britney. The Bloodshy-helmed "How I Roll" is sputtering, oddly beautiful techno. In "Big Fat Bass," Will.i.am turns Britney into a cyborg obsessed with low-end. ("The bass is getting bigger!" she exults.) 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.