In 2007, when Britney Spears dropped Blackout the internet lit up. Long before there was a critical appreciation for pop music, forum users were picking apart the music from a critical lens. Blackout felt like the peak of the forum pop critic. It was a menacing, sexy and celebrity-driven pop record that was infused with gritty electronics. While the critics largely dismissed it, the forums celebrated it.
Blackout wasn’t the kind of pop record that changed the sound for the following year. Pop/rock and hip-hop dominated the airwaves but Lady Gaga’s The Fame, in particular, felt like a graduate of the Blackout school of pop. It was an electronic pop record that toyed with the price of fame as an outsider. The only difference is Spears was an insider.
Gaga’s influence has been felt more over the last decade than Spears’ but it seems that Blackout-era pop is having a resurgence in pop’s thriving underground. As ’90s-nostalgia wears off, a new wave of artists who had their formative years in the ’00s are popping up. Like the forum critics, they’re of a class that have looked to pop for its mastery rather than for cheap thrills and they’re making music that’s both inventive and nostalgic.
It’s difficult to talk about the current underground of pop without mentioning Charli XCX who is at the forefront right now. She’s gathered a collective around her of experimental, pop students who are sitting just a little too far left of the mainstream for radio play right now.
XCX is a fan of Blackout more than any other Spears record. “The songs felt very ahead of their time,” she told The Fader when the record turned 10. It’s easy to hear the influence in club-centric songs like Click or Silver Cross which, funnily enough, also feel ahead of their time. In turn, you could easily hear XCX making Spears’ Freakshow her own with little alteration.
While Spears, however, was playing to the radio while also dealing with increasing public scrutiny, this new wave of pop artists are operating without the same pressure. They’re largely new to the scene and are unlikely to find hoards of paparazzi following them to the grocery store. It’s giving them the freedom to play with the ’00s pop aesthetic that Spears, Christina Aguilera, Paris Hilton and more perfected.
Aesthetically, artists from Kim Petras to Slayyyter, are looking to the ’00s, presenting as a rebirth of the shiny, girl next door popstar while also destroying the model. They’re wildly outspoken, explicit and unhinged while serving deliciously melodic pop songs. You can imagine hearing Petras’ Do Me on the radio if it weren’t so sexually vivid or Slayyyter’s Touch My Body if the bass didn’t smack so hard.
Both Slayyyter and Petras are fans of Spears. Earlier this year Slayyyter covered Everytime proving just how vocally similar the pair were. She also told Paper that she loves the description of her music as “bottom-rate, Walmart clearance section Britney Spears,” because she’s mentioned in the same sentence as her idol. Petras, meanwhile, used Spears as a tool to learn English while growing up in Germany.
“Have you ever seen this pretty pop queen on a bassy scrunching track,” Blackout producer Danja said to The Fader in reference to Spears. It’s a question that you could easily answer now by namedropping XCX, Petras or Slayyyter.
Beyond Spears’ sound, the underground popstars of today also find nostalgia in the celebrity of the time. The visual aesthetic of the ’00s party girl, including Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, is pastiched and perfected by these artists. It was initially brought back to life by the PC Music crew, in particular Hannah Diamond whose visuals appropriated shiny flip phones and mini skirts but it’s carried on.
It’s born of nostalgia for an era they grew up with but with fantasised notions of celebrity. Nowadays we’re fed a version of a popstar through social media, often publishing before the tabloids get in. Back then, the tabloids set the script – something that essentially drove Spears to despair.
Interestingly, Blackout was a record that addressed the fame while also playing into the version of her that the press had painted. Spears had only two co-writes on the record, allowing her world to be described by other writers. Piece Of Me is an example of both shunning the celebrity and embracing it. Gaga’s The Fame then visualised that level of fame by writing from the perspective of someone famous without having really experienced herself. She has now, of course, seen it all.
That similar vision has found its way into underground pop in a braggadocios, playful way. Petras actually got Hilton in the video for I Don’t Want It At All – a song that revolves around materialism. Slayyyter’s debut features a song called Celebrity where she fantasises about wealth and publicity. Similarly, Liz’s latest cut Lottery declares, “I’m a rockstar” in the first line.
In terms of lyrical content, they can be filed next Lindsay Lohan’s Rumours or Fergie’s Glamorous. The only difference is, those popstars were living it. The new wave are simply acting it out. Just like our parents’ generation glorified ’70s rock ‘n’ rollers, we’re finding a place in our hearts for ’00s celebrity. Blackout‘s writers nailed this version of celebrity before it was even widely being picked apart.
At the time, NME called Spears “a robot” while Pitchfork didn’t review the album at all. 12 years after its release, however, it’s being looked upon more favourably. And for good reason. It’s still ahead of its time and relevant in an era where XCX, Petras and Slayyyter are all finding critical favour with their pop music. It seems we should’ve listened to the forum pop critic back then because Blackout is ageing better than most of its peers.