The much beleaguered Britney Spears has reason to celebrate this week: for only the third time in her career, she’ll have a song debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song is called “3” and addresses the singer’s desire to participate in a threesome. Risqué, yes, but also not surprising given that other current top pop songs debate the merits of “disco sticks” (“LoveGame”), girl-on-girl action (“I Kissed a Girl”), and redeemable lechery (“Whatcha Say”).
For Spears’ song to debut on top of the charts, a lot of people have to want to listen to it, but that doesn’t mean she can pull off the extroverted sexuality as well as her slightly younger contemporaries. While the instrumentation in “3” is reasonably interesting and the lyrics seem like they should fit right in, there’s still a lot of Spears’ characteristic voice in the song.
Overall, it’s fast, fun and danceable, but that voice — especially during the breakdown in the song’s final third — still seems way too girlish to be interested in a ménage a trois. If you’re a diehard fan, that’s probably a good thing; but it left me feeling confused and slightly disconcerted that, even layered with heavy robot-voice effects, Britney sounds more like a girl about to have her first kiss than a woman who’s down with promiscuity.
To be fair, “3” suffers less from this problem than other recent Spears singles like “Womanizer” or “Circus.” In fact, with its catchy hooks, “3” is really a fair-to-middling effort from someone who has stumbled in recent years. Still, the song serves as a subtle reminder that Britney is something of a relic in today’s pop world; when she started out, ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys were pumping out fairly innocent, safe hits about teeny-bopper love.
Those artists who began in the late ’90s and have managed to stay relevant — people like Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé — have done so by maturing. They didn’t just release increasingly more marketable techno-pop songs, they actually cultivated a grown-up image. (Timberlake, for example, has shown a surprising sense of irony by starring in all those Lonely Island/SNL videos, and Beyoncé seemed downright matronly next to Taylor Swift at this year’s VMAs.)
In that environment, even a relatively strong single from Britney Spears like “3” seems outdated, mostly because it sounds like Britney Spears. If you can listen to the edgy collaborations between Jay-Z and Alicia Keys or Rihanna, or the intentionally absurd sex-pastiche of Lady Gaga, why listen to Britney when she sounds like she’s still “not a girl, not yet a woman?” Her songs have recently shown development, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into maturity or artistic progress. As someone who (to my own endless surprise) has lately developed an affinity for mainstream dance music, I can only hope that Britney Spears will take what works from “3” and figure out a way to translate it into some legitimate maturity.
Jim Dalrymple is a pop culture writer for Rhombus. He thinks more about Britney Spears than anyone else has in at least five years.
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