How the superstar overcame very public controversies and proved her critics wrong with one of the most inventive pop records in recent history
On September 9, 2007, Britney Spears was supposed to make a triumphant return to the MTV VMAs stage. After a couple of years of controversy – an impromptu 55-hour marriage to her childhood sweetheart and its subsequent annulment, accusations of out-of-control partying and erratic behaviour by the tabloids and blossoming online celebrity gossip rags like TMZ, and the infamous head-shaving debacle – this was the moment that Britney, an artist who epitomised the last decade of pop culture, would show that she was still the greatest entertainer of a generation. What actually occurred during her debut performance of the grungy and pulsating “Gimme More” would, however, later be described by the New York Times as an “inept pantomime” and by the BBC as “one of the worst (performances) to grace the MTV Awards”.
While it might be tired to preface any discussion of Britney Spears’ fifth album, Blackout, by dredging up this now iconically disastrous performance and the media rabidity surrounding the pop star herself, it’s important to frame the album in the context of the public’s expectations. According to the tabloids, professional celebrity troll Perez Hilton and the newly founded TMZ, Britney was a mess – no way could someone inhabiting an unprecedented and chaotic paparazzi and media circus produce work of any merit, especially someone who, according to some, was just another manufactured marionette. It is perhaps one of pop music’s greatest justices, then, that Blackout fucking bangs.
In 2006, amid the birth of her second son and her divorce from Kevin Federline, Britney’s rep’s confirmed that she was officially working on what would become Blackout. Reports by MTV spoke about how a heavily pregnant Britney was working with people like J.R. Rotem and Timbaland protégé Danja (who in turn brought in his own group of collaborators who would end up making up most of the bulk of those who worked in the album). In a recent comment to The FADER, Britney described the process of making the album as “simple”. “I just did what I felt and it worked. Sometimes less is more I guess,” she said. And from the sounds of things, the journey to create a cohesive and forward thinking album was exactly that. Danja, who co-wrote and produced lead single “Gimme More” as well as six other songs on the album, has repeatedly said how Britney would leave his team to work on concepts before coming in to record what she felt worked. “If (Britney) felt it, she was gonna ride with it,” he told Rhapsody in 2008. “If she didn't, you’d see it in her face.”
On the surface, it might not sound like Britney was the most hands on, but what many people don’t know about Blackout is that, for the first and only time in her career, Britney took on the role of executive producer for the record; her public life might have been unmanageable, but when it came to her work, Britney was the boss. So, like an expert curator, she shaped and plotted the album with her deftness for pop music. Flooding the record with studio trickery and electronics – from Danja’s fusion of hip hop and house music to Bloodshy and Avant’s amalgamation of Scandinavian pop sensibilities and underground European dance experimentation – she picked producers who were plucking at genres and melding them together to create a Frankenstein musical behemoth threaded together by Britney’s idiosyncratic vocal touches. As her A&R, Teresa LaBarbera Whites, said at the time, “It’s her magic that turns these songs into what they are.”
However, this disparity between the personal and the professional was just another excuse for critics to comment on Britney’s transformation from pop provocateur to pop robot and vocally, Blackout sees the singer’s voice treated, chopped, spliced and mutated in new and sometimes alarming ways, her whispery southern drawl either coalescing with the throbbing electronic production or pitched unnaturally. Yet, from song leaks it’s clear that the album could have pivoted in another direction. Among leaked demos for songs like “Hot As Ice” (originally titled “Cold As Fire”) and “Perfect Lover” (originally called “Got Me High”) were stripped back tracks like The Crown Heights Affair sampling “Baby Boy” and “Let Go”, both of which are unlike anything you’ll have heard from Britney before. Singing in her (naturally) lower register, the songs highlight her vulnerability as a vocalist as well as her talent as a songwriter. They’re rare peeks at portraits of one of pop’s most enigmatic artists and perhaps always intended to remain unfinished sketches.
“Britney Spears once lamented that she wasn’t a girl but not yet a woman... Blackout was the signal that this transition had reached its climax. Yet rather than emerging as a Stepford pop princess, the Britney that appeared was disruptive and peddling demented pop music”
Nevertheless, it’s to the benefit of Blackout’s legacy that this rawness was all but excluded. Keri Hilson, who co-wrote singles “Gimme More” and “Break The Ice”, said that those involved were told explicitly that the songs submitted shouldn’t represent what was going on for Britney personally. Instead, she told The FADER, they created a “fantasy world that she would be happy in”. Clearly it’s this escapism that permitted Britney to head straight from filing divorce from her husband to the studio to record “Radar”, as recounted by producers The Clutch. On the few moments where we are permitted a glimpse into Britney’s life, she forgoes syrupy balladry for snarling fury on the crunchy “Piece Of Me” and brazen detachment on the dissonant Pharrell Williams produced “Why Should I Be Sad”.
It’s these subversions of expectations that are the album’s smoking gun. From the assertive declaration of “It’s Britney, bitch”, Blackout is an unrelenting venture to push pop’s envelope. Given her now tarnished media image, the Britney of yesteryear – the one all tied up with conservative coquettishness – could no longer perform as America’s perpetual virgin. Rather among the implacable glare of the paparazzi, Britney emerged possessed by a demonic explicitness to dismantle any assumptions about her life, career or music. 2003’s often overlooked In The Zone, which spawned career-defining hits like “Toxic” and “Everytime”, might have laid the musical groundwork for Britney to push herself, but Blackout was the moment she arrived – as she whispers at the beginning of “Break The Ice”: “It’s been a while. I know I should have kept you waiting, but I’m here now.”
Given that the media frenzy surrounding Britney would continue well into what should have been Blackout’s reign of supremacy, the album was the singer’s first to not arrive at Number 1 on the Billboard album chart. Circus, which arrived 12 months later, was a more commercial but conservative effort devoid of its predecessor’s nihilism. And although glimmers of Blackout’s darkness have lingered, the MO for the next few years was to show that Britney Spears, a divorced mother of two, was still the poster girl for America’s contradicting obsession with chastity and provocation. Really, it wasn’t until 2011’s Femme Fatale – which nestled commercially pulsing EDM of “Till The World Ends” with outlandish panpipes of “Criminal” and the skittish “How I Roll” – and later 2016’s Glory – with its mesh of trop-pop with the weirdly frenetic hyper-pop on songs like “If I’m Dancing” and the ominous and melancholic electro on French language “Coupure Électrique” (which, as it happens, translates to “power cut” or “blackout”) – that carried on Britney’s penchant for colouring out of pop’s presumptuous box.
If Britney Spears once lamented that she wasn’t a girl but not yet a woman, then Blackout was the signal that this transition had reached its climax. Yet rather than emerging as a Stepford pop princess, the Britney that appeared was disruptive and peddling demented pop music that, unlike similar records by Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado, wasn’t the result of meticulous planning. Rather it was the result of a hazardous moment in pop culture history that saw a serendipitous and symbiotic relationship between an artist eroding her past and producers forging their future that payed off. It’s a result that often sees Blackout being cited as one of the most influential albums of the last decade for the way it suffused hip hop, pop, R&B and EDM. But more importantly, Blackout was the record that forevermore proved that Britney Spears’ career was way more than just an “inept pantomime”; she might be one of its biggest provocateurs, but she’s also one of pop’s most important pioneers.