Britney Spears’s new song is called “Work Bitch” and it’s terrible

by on September 15, 2013

Posted in: Music, Pop

The new Britney Spears single that leaked this morning is called “Work Bitch,” and the album artwork features Britney in a blue boa and sequined deep-V leotard, so I understand why you’re excited. And let’s get one thing out of the way right here, right now: this song is, indeed, craaaaaaaaaaaaaaazy. “Work Bitch” rides a brazenly stupid, retro-sounding riff (that maybe used to be a guitar before it was torqued to all hell in the studio?), the sort of riff that’s so obvious that you know how it ends when it’s only on the third note — the sort engineered to never leave your head. While it loops incessantly, Britney asks things like “You want a hot body?…You want a Maserati?” and then informs us that to get these things, “You better work, bitch.” Meanwhile, “Work Bitch”‘s true genius lies in the way it exists in a constant state of imminent climax, with all kinds of escalating whirrs and sirens rising in pitch as the hi-hat gets hit so quickly it blurs and the beat threatens to spin out of control. There’s a bridge in there too somewhere, but basically the song is those three elements: nail-biting climax, central riff, Britney telling us to “work, bitch.” Every time a section gets exhausting (and they all do), everything in the song races towards climax again and new hook drops in for a while to whet our appetite for the main melody again. This thing was lab-bred to be a force of pop nature, so naturally it succeeds. As a commercial investment, it’s a guarantee. It’s not only easy, it’s practically obligatory to imagine how successful this song will be in American gay clubs, sandwiched between Kylie and, like, early Fischerspooner. Britney’s speak-singing will be mouthed sassily across dancefloors the world over. She ticks all the requisite “dancefloor diva” boxes, and if it’s with a businesslike efficiency, that hardly matters in the perpetual heat of “Work Bitch”‘s moment.

“Work Bitch” is also horrendously awful. Appalling, really. Not only is it simply not a good song, it so ruthlessly guns for a certain gay-club cache that’s so cliched it steps almost instantly over the line into parody. The fun we have is at Britney Spears’s expense in the same way the money her label earns comes at our own. Listen to the way she mouths the word “hot,” the “t” lopped off and the “o” stretched out, resulting in a truly cringeworthy attempt at an accent — British? German? It’s unclear, but it’s bad. Who told Britney to speak this way? When I first listened to the track and heard her tell me that I’d “bettah call the gah-vuh-nah,” I nearly lost it. You know she’s not doing this ironically because her entire contribution to will.i.am’s godawful “Scream & Shout,”  from this spring, consisted of this weird faux-European speak-singing. In the music video for “Scream & Shout,” they gave poor Brit nothing to do except look coyly over her shoulder, only she couldn’t quite pull off coy because her hair had never looked worse, not even when it was cut off entirely. And then there’s the attempt to work the word “bitch” into Britney’s personal brand. “It’s Britney, bitch” was instantly legendary when it kicked off “Gimme More,” but stale when it was one of her only lyrics in “Scream & Shout.” Now, “Work Bitch”‘s title lyric is supposed to scan like a quintessentially Britney line. But is it?

The star’s handlers seem to have forgotten that the best-loved Britney Spears tracks had other qualities. This and other recent work from the singer attempt to cash in on her name while barely involving the singer herself, going all-in on the dumb Euroclub schlock that’s sweeping America after decades of festering in Europe. It’s a sound to which Britney isn’t very well-suited, so she’s simply sidelined, barely singing at all, sounding anonymous, and using the word “bitch” as a calling card/throwback to the better days of “Gimme More” (already a weak single for Britney) because there’s no evidence of personality anywhere else in the songs. Whether or not you think Britney Spears can capital-S Sing, it’s important to remember that on the songs which made her famous, she did in fact sing. Her voice is a bit thin and nasally, with a light Louisiana accent and a fairly harsh all-around American edge, but it’s also got a likable and recognizable ratio of girl-next-door innocence and darker huskiness. Truth be told, no one else sounds like Britney Spears — from straightforward numbers like “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and “Oops I Did It Again” to more sonically innovative ones like “I’m A Slave 4 U” and “Toxic” (her two best singles), the songwriters and producers might be responsible for the indelible and exciting music, but it’s Britney’s voice, especially when harmonized against itself, that completes the package and sells the songs. And this year’s best horror movie, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, brought back the oft-overlooked gem of a piano ballad “Everytime” and reminded us all that the way the raspy undertone of Britney’s voice interfered with the cute clarity of her main register could, used effectively, read as genuinely heartbreaking. When her name could move units like no one else’s, at her career’s prime, Britney’s vocal work was never faceless even when the songs were dangerously close to pedestrian. It’s no accident that her most recent bonafide hit, “Till The World Ends,” played the Euroclub game her latest stuff’s in it to win but also had Britney singing in a voice that was unmistakably her own.

The neverending climax structure of “Work Bitch” reminds me most of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” although the two sound nothing alike. No song since that one has offered such a feast of hooks. But “Bad Romance” introduces new elements by raising the bar, not simply changing the tune; Gaga eventually takes off into swooning, larynx-shredding operatics. It was her debut as more than a studio-produced algorithm, as more than a pop curio. It was when we learned Gaga could Sing, had a voice that could matter apart from the songs that drew it out. Britney Spears has one of those voices, too, a voice that left an important mark on pop music history and made people like Lady Gaga possible. Now that voice is being squandered and she’s making a fool of herself with silly accents and diva cliches. I didn’t pay much attention to Britney Spears’s personal turmoil in the 2000s, but the music being released under her name today? Now that’s what I call sad.