Britney Spears and Beyonce both turned 32 this year. They are also pop stars who have been in the game since they were children and now find themselves in the second decade of adulthood, caring for their own kids and working out how to be grown up artists and celebrities. Needless to say, these journeys must be tremendously challenging, but they also make for some compelling music on their new albums, Britney Jean and Beyonce (respectively). During this transitional period in their lives, it's no surprise they both reclaim their identities with these self-titled efforts, while also putting their eyes on the future.
Let's begin with Britney's record, which received mixed reviews and slow sales. Britney Jean is a concise effort that vacillates between club stompers and more personal tales from the Spear's private life. Though the record is not confessional in a traditional sense, it does feel much more intimate than its predecessors (namely the excellent but hard-edged Femme Fatale and Circus). Spears had a hand in co-writing all ten tracks, and the softer moments are the best, including the lovely, melancholy opener "Alien," new single (and her best ballad in ages) "Perfume," and the Katy Perry co-penned "Passenger;" all three tracks show Britney sorting out romance and the loneliness brought on by success and being a single mom. Each track is quirky and moving in its own right, as well as highlights an under-appreciated fact that the singer can make much stranger and more emotive records than some critics have acknowledged. That quirkiness translates into the dance tracks as well: the faux-British accent on the muscular "Work Bitch," the cheeky "Tick Tick Boom" (which contorts the lyric to sound like "dick dick boom"), and the "Scream and Shout" sequel "Body Ache;" each shows the artist owning her newest club fascinations. In fact, they find her settling deeper and deeper into dance music territory, even as music begins to move in new directions. Ultimately, these two strands (despite some of their imperfections) mingle to create an interesting picture of pop stardom and aging--a meditation on the cold realities of maturity. In that light, the album is a touching artifact.
Evolving around the same themes, Beyonce's album is a more experimental affair. From the found audio and interviews spliced into tracks like "Pretty Hurts" and "***Flawless," to the extremely sexual subject matter ("Drunk in Love," "Rocket," and "Blow," among others), the diva is trying on new sounds. Beyonce pursues a soul and R and B hybrid that is meditative, edgy, and not all that different from the music Justin Timberlake is making right now. That said, while the album is receiving rave reviews for being "unique," it owes a lot to past recording artists, namely disco-era Donna Summer and Velvet Rope and All For You era Janet Jackson. Not to mention, the accompanying videos are not any different than the grand video projects Tori Amos has been pairing with her records since Abnormally Attracted to Sin. What results is an album that is just as uneven as Britney's, but that also has some wonderful high points like Britney Jean. With Beyonce, we get another exploration of fame and its expectations, as well as the challenges of being in love and a mother, and we hear a diva trying to filter these experiences through her current sonic inspirations.
Pop stardom is not often forgiving on artists, and Beyonce and Britney Jean prove that. While media coverage and sales figures might confuse the issue, both albums show strong artists attempting to balance overwhelming personal and professional expectations. If you want to better understand the life of an over-exposed pop diva, listen both to albums back to back; together, they create a complete picture, humanizing two artists who have survived and can still sing about it.