Happy 5th Birthday Blackout.A celebratory look back at the greatest pop album of the 21st Century.
So, imagine, if you will, that Coca-Cola, the world's leading manufacturer of pop drinks (sorry Pepsi) went suddenly out of business in a wave of bad press about rumoured, morally questionable child labour practices in the middle-east. It takes small hands to mix that high-fructose corn syrup! Withdrawn from shop shelves across the land, the much beloved Coca-Cola, one of the great marketing miracles of the modern age, is no more.
Then 4 years later, amidst a wave of cautious anticipation, Coca-Cola arrives back on the shelves, but this time it is actually laced with cocaine and addictive as hell. The press, church leaders and world governments are outraged; the drink is wonderful. The public, having forgotten just what they were missing, rejoice at the return of their favourite brand of pop, only better. It's "bad", but it's also really fucking good.
Now let us consider the other kind of pop, and The Greatest Pop Album Of The 00's, Britney Spears' Blackout.
In 1999, Britney Spears arrived at the tail end of an era in which corporate marketing dominated pop. It began in the 1980's with Michael Jackson, Madonna, and partnerships with brands such as Pepsi and Sony that funded mammoth mutual marketing ventures which bred the world's first pop megastars. Then in the 90's, in the desolate wasteland left behind by grunge and the hip-hop scene, the Spice Girls emerged: 1 part Girl Power, 2 parts merchandising opportunity. The Spice Girls' rapid rise to pop super-fame was unrivaled as they rode an avalanche of sponsorship deals with the likes of Pepsi, Polaroid, Walkers Crisps, ASDA and Playstation.
And so by 1999, the formula had been perfected. And Britney Spears was launched upon the world as an irresistible marketing opportunity. She was the all-American girl next door, with the perfect, knowing, smile and a promise to abstain from anything too naughty. And then there was the Rolling Stone cover: at 17 Britney Spears was clearly more than prepared to walk the fine-line between Daddy's religious southern girl and your Daddy's secret fantasy.
Carefully crafted, impeccably produced and neatly delivered, Britney became the premiere pop commodity. Two Max Martin produced sugar-sweet pop albums were delivered in quick succession, breaking sales records and scoring sponsorship deals with the likes of Skechers and (once again) Pepsi, spawning several equally polished imitators and a boyband boyfriend from the same shiny pop stable. A third album, more risqué and urban in its attack, pushed the brand (somewhat problematically) into a more sexually aggressive position. Sales dropped as the kids stopped buying, but the cachet was raised as the clubs caught on. By album number four in 2004, no longer a girl, and certainly a woman, songs like "Toxic" made Britney Spears a dance-hit superstar, while a kiss with former Queen of Pop Madonna reinforced the press obsession. A true international superstar, Brand Britney could sell almost anything.
And yet, by the Summer of 2007 that brand was well and truly broken. Whether it was the result of poor management, rebellion, a taste for questionable substances or pop-superstar burnout, Britney Spears was a long way from the sweet all-American image she had spent much of her youth so delicately trying to hang on to.
Britney turned her back on being a popstar when she fell pregnant with her first child in 2005, and she went out with the "fuck you" that was her own reality show. Following Britney and husband-to-be Kevin Federline through their whirlwind romance behind-the-scenes on her Onyx Hotel Tour, the show portrayed Britney as indulgent, narcissistic, and, at times, incoherent. Chaotic took a sledgehammer to Britney's celebrity persona, portraying a self-obsessed and naive small-town girl, far removed from the polished and together star that sold so many cans of Pepsi.
And for many, that may have been the end of the story. But Britney was the last of the great manufactured stars, and by 2005 the web-savvy public were indulging in a new kind of tabloid obsession, and Britney provided the ideal byline. For three years, sites like PerezHilton.com and Just Jared tracked Britney's LA antics. Without her pop career, Britney's new job became cruising LA, buying Starbucks, and finding herself in compromising positions. We witnessed the birth of her second child and the end of her marriage, accusations that she was a bad mother and scenes of her falling, sans-underwear, from LA's nightclubs. Her friends became the notorious party girls, and after trips to rehab centres came tales of explicit sexual encounters with paparazzi.
The new tabloid media, a now constantly rolling stream of scandal and gossip, provided the perfect platform for chronicling the deconstruction of the American Dream that was Britney Spears. Without the gloss of the corporate led magazine industry, and completely untamed, we got to witness Britney candidly destroy her previous persona. And while it was a completely gratuitous experience for both star and watching public, it gave the audience, for the first time ever, a proper look at the monster behind the machine. Just like the scene in the Wizard Of Oz where the big bad wizard is revealed to be little more than a narcissistic and frail old man dogged by the pressures of the position he had inadvertently found himself in, Britney was unveiled to be as broken by the system that made her as the brand she was smashing her way out of.
Whether rebellion, breakdown or delayed adolescence, Britney's Ferris Bueller moment seemed to mark the end of the corporate pop movement. Which is why, when Britney Spears The Popstar made a sudden comeback at the end of the summer of 2007, it caught many off-guard.
They Want More? Well I'll Give Them More
Blackout was "launched" with the release of "Gimme More", a song that opens with intent - "It's Britney, bitch." The words felt shocking, in-spite of Britney's very public lude antics. I guess it was the moment that said, "the old Britney is dead, and here's the new one, bitch." And oh the new Britney was a joy to receive.
"Gimme More" is a pop song that seems to drip from the speakers; sexy and smooth, it is not a million miles away from the Timbaland produced urban dance songs that had been filling dancefloors since Nelly Furtado's "Loose". But "Gimme More" pushed the genre to a new place; written and produced not by Timbaland himself, but his talented protégé Danja, Jim Beanz and Keri Hillson, "Gimme More" is far more 'pop' than any of its predecessors. The song is tightly produced, full of blips and electronic synths that echo, in a demented sense, the kind used on Britney's earlier, Max Martin produced hits. And then there is Britney's vocal...
If Britney Spears contributed one thing to the world of music, it was the vocal brand. Britney is not a brilliant singer technically, in terms of the notes she can hit or the melisma she can plaster all over a song. But Britney's voice is unique, and instantly recognisable. At times breathless and uncontrolled, like a modern day Marilyn Monroe, her vocal is more of a nasal feline purr than a powerhouse belt. But as a tone, sat atop a big dance record, it's sexually empowered and untouchable. At times on Blackout, it is pushed with the aid of autotune to Cher like levels of distortion, but Britney doesn't require too much help - her untampered vocal provides a kind of artificial resonance that partners flawlessly with flowing electronic sounds.
Undoubtedly, Britney's vocal talents are a hangover from her manufactured days. Max Martin has spoken openly about pushing Britney for a sound that exists quite outside of her natural register - this is why Britney finds it nearly impossible to recreate her records in a 'live' environment. But used here, in a context far removed from that for which it was created, it becomes an even more joyous experience.
It is the learnt talent from Britney's former career, and her acquired knowledge at mastering and dominating a pop song, that make Blackout such an experience. Was Britney Spears a puppet of the pop industry? Yes. But you do not become 'Britney Spears' without knowing how to do your job very well. Britney has the ear for a pop song, the vocal training to make a lyric sound saucy, delicious, x-rated and familiar all at one time, and a kind of dominating swagger that makes her every groan, hook and purr completely believable. Like using your daddy's money to buy weed, Blackout employs all of Britney's pop sensibility to rebel against her former pop reality.
The Fall Of Rome
There was, of course, that disastrous performance at the MTV Video Music Awards that demonstrated that Britney was perhaps not quite as in control of her faculties as a pop fan would hope. And a few months later Britney was being stretchered out of her own home after a rumoured breakdown, and losing custody of her children. The second single, "Piece Of Me", a thumping electro "fuck you" to the press and the publicity birdcage she had lived in her entire adult life, provided a somewhat serendipitous soundtrack to the whole event.
But Blackout never reached its full potential. Perhaps it is because by the time it had gained some momentum, its star was missing in action - heavily medicated, living under a conservatorship and gradually being transformed back into a product that was a little easier for the greater public to endorse. Indeed, 2008's Circus is a joyless tour through limp pop moments that veer between the saccharine shadow of a 24 year old Britney and outrageously unpalatable sexuality, delivered with all the energy of a woman reading her shopping list. It did, however, come with a Candie's sponsorship deal.
Britney Spears now graces magazine covers once more, vacantly flashing expensive dental work from behind bleached blonde hair. She sits next to Simon Cowell on the X Factor USA, looking to him for guidance everytime someone asks her a question more complicated than her name. Occasionally she limply wheels out a new album, or partnership with Will.i.am, lacking any real commitment to the cause. She is guaranteed to always be a star, but it's questionable just how fun it's going to be.
Britney will eternally be the perfect, and last, manufactured popstar. With the diversification of the music industry, the rise of the Internet and changing tastes, it will never again make financial sense to create another 'Britney Spears'. And Blackout - the only one of her albums she ever took the Executive Producer position for - will always remain her greatest artistic statement. The soundtrack to the fall of Rome, as recorded by Julius Caeser, it is a thrilling and decadent journey through the pre-Gaga pop landscape, with severely gothic undertones.
Pop may never fully recover to its former position of privilege post-Blackout, and Britney Spears may never be the cultural icon she once was. But she will always be the woman who gave us Blackout, and on this, its 5th birthday, we say thank you Britney. It was fucking awesome.