Cue up track six on the new Britney (Jive) and prepare yourself for the technicolor disco flashback of the year, swooning string section, chunky Nile Rodgers guitar riff, and all. The songís called "Anticipating," and it captures the most famous 19-year-old girl in the world at her guileless, sentimental best: "Iíll be anticipating/This is our song theyíre playing/I wanna rock with you/Youíre feeling this right/Letís do this tonight." "Our song" may or may not be the disco-era Michael Jackson hit "Rock with You," but the tuneís lyrical allusion and wide-eyed funk foundation sure do point in that direction. Which is nothing if not appropriate, since by the time you read this, Britney will almost certainly have knocked the first proper Jackson album in 10 years, Invincible (Epic), from the top of the charts.
Itís a symbolic transition on a couple of levels ó not as many as when Nirvanaís Nevermind (DGC) pushed Jacksonís last album of new material, Dangerous (Epic), from the #1 spot in early í92, but still enough to raise the attention of megapop fans around the globe. The beleaguered Jackson has long been king of pop in name only; yet itís been years since a solo performer emerged with enough mainstream appeal to take his soft-drink-shilling place. Eminemís not gonna do it, so that leaves us with Britney, an outrageously telegenic and charming student of the í80s school of dance pop pioneered by Jackson and his girlie counterparts, sister Janet and arch-rival Madonna.
On Britneyís first single, the Neptunes-produced tour de funk "Iím a Slave 4 U," sheís up to the task. Premiered at the MTV Video Music Awards just a few days before the World Trade Center tragedy, itís a dark, cosmic sex jam with a whole lot of heavy breathing and brilliantly spare musical accompaniment. You can practically hear the revered young production duo giggling to themselves when Britney sings the "dirty" lines they penned for her: "Whatís practical, whatís logical?/What the hell, who cares?" or, more to the point, "Baby, donít you wanna dance up on me?" Itís a bold anti-pop move that only a star of Britneyís magnitude could get away with, and itís enhanced by the kind of cleverly concealed hooks its closest antecedent, Madonnaís "Justify My Love," sorely lacked.
The Neptunes contribute one other X-rated moment: "Boys," which weds the eroticism of prime Janet to the raw groove of one of their most famous productions, Olí Dirty Bastardís "I Got Your Money." Britney pants along to the handclaps that flavor the songís rhythm track, cooing and whispering at her suitor to "turn this dance floor into our own little nasty world." The albumís called Britney for a reason, but the Neptunesí playfully innovative arrangements cannot be ignored. And with "Lapdance" ó the debut single from their vanity project, N.E.R.D. ó currently making inroads on cheeseball rock radio (where everyone hates teenyboppers), theyíre having their cake and eating it too.
As for Britney, sheís all grown up and playing the sex card more convincingly than ever ó as the photo of her in trailer-trash chic on the album cover attests. But sheís still got her schmaltzy side, and the pretty, unadorned ballad "Iím Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" is probably the best slow dance sheís ever recorded. Adult-pop bore Dido makes up for Shania Twainís underwhelming compositional turn on the last Britney album by cribbing lyrics from Shania herself ("Iím just trying to find the woman in me"), and teen-pop demigods Max Martin and Rami draw an understated curtain of acoustic guitar and piano over the drum track from Shaniaís "Youíre Still the One." Britneyís vocals still arenít going to win any contests, but she takes this song to heart, and it shows in her performance.
The early-í80s Joan Jett classic "I Love Rock íní Roll" is such a natural for Britney that she does it as straight-up karaoke, with synthetic beats and erstwhile turntable scratching thrown in for good measure. Super Bowl halftime shows aside, she hasnít "rocked" this hard since "(You Drive Me) Crazy," and the girl-power lyrics and fuzz-guitar coda that pump the song up make it a guaranteed concert highlight. And since the boy she spies danciní there by the record machine is only 17, thereís an extra cheap thrill to be had: Britney, of all people, is a cradle robber!
As íN Sync showed on their recent Celebrity (Jive), the secret to making a great megapop album is to explore new styles without abandoning that all-important sugary foundation. Britney isnít quite as ambitious as Celebrity, but by that definition itís an unqualified success. Producer Rodney Jerkins contributes both "I Love Rock íní Roll" and the discís second-most-rocking tune, "Lonely," a guitar-driven kiss-off that ends with Britney rapping her way out of some guyís life. Martin and Rami up the tempo once theyíre done with "Iím Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," but none of their other three efforts matches that oneís saccharine shine.
Britney is writing more and more of her own lyrics these days ó that includes "Anticipating" and the equally lovestruck "Thatís Where Youíll Take Me." Her primary songwriting collaborators, Josh Schwartz and Brian Kierulf, are the albumís unsung heroes: rooted in pure pop more than in R&B, their melodies are a perfect foil for the singerís daydream crushes. Her real-life crush, íN Sync heartthrob Justin Timberlake, shows up on the final track, "What Itís like To Be Me," which he wrote, produced, and sang back-up on. "You donít know what itís like to be me," sings Britney over a standard íN Sync hard-R&B track ó a fitting refrain for the most glamorous young couple in America.
WE DONíT KNOW WHAT ITíS LIKE to be Michael Jackson, either ó not that many of us would want to these days. In the current cultural landscape, Jackson is a strange combination of his disgraced í90s self and his godlike í80s (and í70s, for that matter) self. His face looks really weird, and his reputation still suffers from the personal scandals and the lackluster musical output that troubled him last decade. Thriller (Epic) will never go out of style, and to kids like Britney and Justin, he practically invented MTV and everything thatís good about pop music. But itís unlikely his image will ever be fully rehabilitated.
Despite its lofty chart debut, Jacksonís new Invincible has been the subject of widespread public ridicule ó most of which seems unfounded when you actually listen to the album. Produced largely by Jackson, Rodney Jerkins (Britney, íN Sync, Backstreet Boys), and R&B legend Teddy Riley, itís a conservative yet respectable comeback after 10 years of ill-received B-sides and dance remixes. And considering the fate of that other Hollywood wacko who last put a real album out in í91 ó Axl Rose, who still hasnít gotten it together ó Iíd say Jackson earns points simply for showing up.
The discís finest moments recall the fun and innocence that marked his early solo career, and his voice sounds no worse for the wear. He starts off the first single, "You Rock My World," scoping for chicks with actor Chris Tucker; a smooth Jerkins groove kicks in after the yuks, and Jackson sings about puppy love as if it were í82. He may be play-acting, but itís a decent performance thatís just as suited to todayís middle of the road as yesterdayís. The album opens in a more forceful style, showcasing Jerkinsís neo-funk splatter and Jacksonís legendary vocal tics over three standout tracks. Despite its title, "Invincible" is about a girl whoís playing hard to get rather than the singerís stability in the face of his detractors (that would be "Unbreakable").
Jackson probably wonít get very far in his attempts to lure a youthful audience ó using Jerkins didnít help the Spice Girls much last year, and itís not as if the producer were saving all his best stuff for Britney. But thereís still hope for Michael in the far less lucrative adult-contemporary market, and thatís where his formidable ballad skills come in. He calls in the back-up singers and turns down the lights on "Break of Dawn," an old-school bedroom jam that once again recalls his girl-crazy younger self. Jackson the humanitarian is alive and well too, rounding up a youth choir for a tender waltz dedicated to all "The Lost Children."
Like most 80-minute pop albums, Invincible gets a little tedious toward the end. Thereís a sleepy Babyface ballad, a sleepy R. Kelly ballad, and Jackson going on and on about his "Privacy" while a bunch of shutterbugs click frantically in the background. Thereís the obligatory Carlos Santana jam, which gets consigned to the end, just like the one on the Dave Matthews Band album from earlier this year. Still, thereís a good ratio of ballads to dance tracks and one particularly well-executed segue between the weepy a cappella showcase "Speechless" and the bass-heavy "2000 Watts." Professionalism sometimes outweighs passion in Jacksonís music these days, and his bizarre personal life may well have done irreversible damage to his popularity. But he hasnít lost his skills as an entertainer.
Britney Spears plays the FleetCenter on Sunday December 9 and Tuesday December 11. Call (617) 931-2000.