Pop music is a genre that is more volatile than any other. As the years fly by and the Internet tightens its stranglehold over our lives and our choices, the borders around what constitutes a pop record become more blurred. In that sense, crafting a timeless pop album can be hard to do. Pop music is always of the time it was made, and time moves faster than anything we know, so how can one album transcend that to stay relevant years after its release?
Few artists in the world are more synonymous with a genre than Britney Spears is with pop. Her shift from bubblegum to sex kitten was done with ease, and her instantly recognisable vocals have inspired countless other artists, within and outside of pop. It wasn’t until almost a decade into her career that she released what many would consider her magnum opus – 2007’s Blackout. And, it disappoints me greatly to admit that it wasn’t until 2019 that I listened to it for the first time.
It seems bizarre that Britney’s darkest year in the public eye was also the year that she’d give us her ‘best’ album, and that hype was something that I couldn’t escape going into the record. Opening track ‘Gimme More’ is one I’ve heard a million times and really sets the done for the entire album. Danja’s signature brooding production – present on all of Blackout’s best tracks – in conjunction with lyrics that tell a story of Spears enslaved by her career. It almost feels like she was on auto-pilot for so many years that she burned out, which of course happened quite publicly.
It makes sense then that following track ‘Piece Of Me’, produced impeccably by Bloodshy & Avant, would address her public perception quite bluntly. A song that was released just as TMZ was becoming established; it is no secret that Spears was tabloid gold for years. But listening in 2019, I can’t help but think how this song has taken on new meaning. Spears’ public image has never been better, and her career is still thriving, but stan Twitter would dub her a ‘flop.’ Her latest album, 2016’s Glory, debuted at #3 on Billboard – her lowest debut ever – and lead single ‘Make Me…’ peaked at #18. By the Internet’s impossible standards, Spears has failed to keep up her relevancy. Accounts can sling the same insults magazine headlines were doing ten years ago, but now in an age of social media, they can make sure she sees it. But something tells me – partly due to her wildly successful and groundbeaking Vegas residence and partly due to her absolutely ridiculous and heartwarming Instagram account – that she is doing just fine.
A few songs later, the opening “it’s been a while” of ‘Break The Ice’ starts and chills – excuse the pun – flow through me. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the song, and it won’t be the last, because it is, and will likely forever be, the best song Spears has to her name. There’s a sternness that dances around vulnerability, but it wasn’t until I took in the context of the song that made me realise how truly devastating it, and the entire album, is. Spears’ vocals on the record are more auto-tuned than usual – not a bad thing – but it does eat away at her humanity. Then you cut to the songs video – not only is it inspired by anime, but its plot is centred around robots and clones and is a sister video to ‘Toxic’ from four years prior. To relate such an intense, multi-faceted video like ‘Toxic’ to a video that is almost completely devoid of life like ‘Break The Ice’ remains a testament to Spears’ public breakdown and how the constant sledges against her character eventually got the best of her.
The whole album seemed like the birthplace of the moody, industrial pop that has become so omnipresent in 2019 but it floats on an entire underworld of melancholy. But, in the same breath, it remains completely unapologetic. ‘Get Naked (I Got A Plan)’ is hauntingly sexy and features some of Spears’ most explicit lyrics in her entire discography. ‘Freakshow’ is lathered in latex and plastic and the pounding bass of ‘Toy Soldier’ leaves you shaking long after the song has ended.
But as I approached the final track ‘Why Should I Be Sad’ – a glittering mix of electro-pop and R&B – one question kept popping up in my mind: “Where’s Britney?” She indisputably has an all-eyes-on-her persona. Despite being a mild-mannered Southern girl who never needed anything big, she commanded attention. But on Blackout, Spears feels less like the star and more like just one piece of the larger production puzzle. That’s not to discredit her in any way – it’s still her name on the album, her voice on the songs and her choice to work with the collaborators that she did.
It’s funny that the album is named Blackout because Spears seems so sadly distant from it. But that somehow makes it all the more intriguing, as opposed to that making the album worse. This album flourished while her personal life crumbled, as she became an animal in an enclosure with the whole world laughing at her. Eventually, Britney’s 2007 would become a major springboard for serious discussions around mental health and celebrity, but in a pre woke world Spears was just the jester. She kept dancing and singing her way through even though her mind, heart and body were no longer in it.
With that being said, Blackout should then stand as a testament to power of support and collaboration. It’s an album that was born during her darkest days, but it shines so much brighter than any of her other records. Were it not for Danja, Keri Hilson, Pharrell and Bloodshy & Avant, Blackout would be just another blip in Spears’ career completely overshadowed by images of her shaving her head. But, her collaborators helped lift her up to a point where she transcended the bullshit. To endure such public ridicule and scrutiny, and still produce an album that is this good is astounding. It didn’t just meet the hype – it exceeded it. It’s an album that probably pushed her to her absolute limits, even though sonically she is so removed from it. It’s an album that epitomises everything that’s wrong with the music industry and celebrity culture, but its one that everyone on it should be proud of. Spears may have been the jester being forced to put on a show for us all in the midst of darkness, but ultimately it was her having the last laugh.