“If Britney Sparks survived 2007, you can survive today” – an actual coffee mug I’ve seen someone sip brandy out of. I can think of two times in my life where I’ve felt genuine concern for a celebrity. One was Charlie Sheen during his winning streak, which wound up briefly making him the most famous person on the planet, often in the context of “is this guy gonna survive another year?”. The other was Ms. Spears. Never been much of a fan of her music and quite frankly I was a bit irritated by her celebrity, which I felt she didn’t really earn. In fact she was kind of the poster child for “everything wrong with the music industry” for about five years. I never quite knew what her deal was. Her personality and backstory was totally downplayed, other than the fact that she was just a “down home Southern girl with dreams of becoming a star”. Had I not been 12 at the time it was released, I might have recognized “…Baby One More Time” as one of pop culture’s most uncomfortable moments, though even that was eclipsed by that one VMA performance which caused everyone’s Dad to completely perv out. WHAT DO YA THINK THE GIANT SNAKE REPRESENTS, GUYS? She was such a fever dream for the business that it almost seemed strange to consider that there was a real person behind it all. That is, until her personal life became a tabloid fixture, with candid, somewhat unsavory shots of her cropping up all over the place, along with monthly stints in rehab for God knows what. It was really a vicious cycle; like 90% of her bizarre, “OUT OF CONTROL!!” behavior was probably directly attributable to the fact that she was being followed by paparazzi everywhere she went. Then again she did lose custody of her kids to Kevin Federline, so maybe she really did crack.
At some point in ’07 Britney wound up shaving her head, which I think was the moment when the world realized that she was going Michael Jackson-crazy. Suddenly she was no longer the snake-wielding fantasy girl, instead looking like a hairless Barbie doll with a rictus grin. Which I think sparked a serious conservation on what exactly our society’s obsession with celebrity was leading to. Just kidding, that conservation lasted all of five seconds. Instead, Jive Records sought to strike while the iron was all twisted and lukewarm, perhaps noting that “Toxic” seemed like it was released about fifty years ago. Blackout is exactly the sort of trainwreck album that most of us expected and secretly hoped for; make no mistake, this is prime beating-up-cars-with-umbrellas Britney. I remember her VMA performance of “Gimme More” that year going viral for an odd reason; she looked completely uninterested most of the time, blankly going through the motions and not really bothering to lip-synch, randomly cracking up for reasons nobody could quite figure out.
But I liked the song. And not in a begrudging, “yeah, it’s catchy…” sort of way either. I legitmately thought it was good. Granted, most of that is because it starts with “It’s Britney, bitch”, which I think is going to go down as one of history’s greatest opening lines. But also because there was something a bit off about it. It wasn’t sweet-girl pop, or sexy-girl pop, or even pop at all. It’s the sort of tune that makes you feel a little dirty, and not in the way Britney Spears usually does. The All-American Pepsi Girl suddenly turned to the sounds of European Electroclash, which ain’t exactly surprising on its own, as a lot of pop acts were going this way (as always, I blame the Black Eyed Peas). But there’s something off about it. Even the chorus – “Gimme…Gimme…M”…that the best take you got? Say what you will about the VMA performance but it kinda fit the song, did it not? Who cares.
Whatever it is, the album is a pretty good reflection of what her life was being depicted as. Even that cover shot seems designed to repel, as though it was cobbled together by kids who flunked out of design school. Britney herself is sort of a ghost on the disc; her voice is so autotuned and chopped up that it makes a person wonder what the recording sessions were like. It’s almost as if the album could’ve been made without her. There are 14 different vocalists credited on this album and with so much treating and autotune it definitely occurs to me that what you’re hearing sometimes might not actually be Ms. Spears. It’s the same feeling that Michael Jackson’s posthumous albums give me. Mainly because there’s barely anything here that sounds earnest, or even the least bit emotional. Barely a reference to Kevin Federline or her kids, and no “gotta get my life together” ballad like everyone was expecting. Instead, a few shots at the paparazzi (“Piece of Me”), lots of sex jams, and a decent amount of “not sorry for partying”. The one real standout then is “Heaven on Earth”, a shimmering slice of technopop that updates the Moroder sound for the 21st Century, complete with a strangely yearning vocal line. Weird that it was never released as a single.
One of the odd things about Blackout is how well it works as an album. With 12 producers and 20 different songwriters it’s amazing that this thing coheres as well as it does; every time I hear one tune I kind of want to hear them all. There’s an uncanny valley feeling to all of it, as Britney’s voice is so weirdly disfigured and reckless, and the synths tend to be detuned and tortured in a way you don’t often hear in pop music (“Piece of Me”, “Why Should I Be Sad”). There are some male voices on the album, but they’re so deformed and pitched down that they’re absolutely faceless, leaving something like “Get Naked (I Have a Plan)” utterly sexless and bizarre. I mean, I know what the lyrics say, but the song itself sounds like humping a malfunctioning android. The production, and ultimately Britney herself, wind up screwing a lot of this up. “Radar” is supposed to be a girl-on-the-prowl party jam but comes off like a pizza jingle. “Toy Soldier” has that “who’s gonna step up and satisfy me” vibe to it but winds up covered in puke. “Piece of Me” wants to come off cocksure and provocative but instead sounds like it was recorded in a loony bin with a chicken. “Ooh Ooh Baby” sounds like it’s about to quote The Turtles. Don’t get me wrong, this is exactly what makes the album so damn intriguing to me. There’s usually something pristine about Britney’s stuff, as overdone and bloated as it can be. The songs on Blackout seem to revel in their jagged edges and imperfections. Granted that was the sound of 2007 – Justice made a pretty big hit record just by blowing up everyone’s speakers – but it almost seems subversive to hear Britney in this way.
Ultimately the album wound up doing alright; it sold three million copies and got some hype in weird places, even getting a bit of outsider buzz, ultimately leading people like me to hear it. To this day it’s her only album to score over 3.00 on RYM – a 3.01, to be exact. That’s pretty impressive, as the RYM crowd is usually overly hostile to pop artists like her. It was probably exactly what she needed from a publicity standpoint – a lot of critics jumped on how weird it was, which I think let Britney take control of the narrative somewhat. So by 2008, when she released Circus and “Womanizer”, a lot of the weird stuff was behind her, and suddenly people were talking about a comeback. Now admittedly I can’t remember any Britney Spears singles since then, though I’m sure there’s been a truckload. If that Vegas residency is any indication she’s doing quite well, which is pretty significant for a teen idol about to close out her second decade in the biz. As much as I’ve disliked her in the past I feel like I have to root for her now, or really any should’a-been-a-one-hit-wonder that I grew up with. Call it Stockholm Syndrome. There’s just something about that girl….