"Blackout," the new album from Britney Spears, is as intoxicating as a snort of high-grade white powder. Like that nightclub indulgence, it's an expensive ride, crafted by a team of top producers exploring the outer reaches of cybernetic pop. Its dazzling studio effects, rhythmic reconstructions and vocal shape-shifting drag the listener in, as each song elaborates on the power of desire and desirability. It's hard to resist.
But maybe it's time to start just saying no.
Since it leaked online a few weeks ago, "Blackout" has been receiving buzzy attention. A few reviewers have trashed it, but most have called it a comeback. Spears' musical presence on the album may be minimal (dance-pop notables including Keri Hilson, Europop darling Robyn and L.A.'s own Nicole Morier shore up her vocals throughout, and Spears has just two deeply buried writing credits), and her public behavior remains cause for concern, but apparently that doesn't matter. The music's fun, the beats are fresh and the Spears that "Blackout" promotes isn't a person anyway but a publicly traded fantasy. Cynicism clearly outweighs compassion when it comes to poor, sad Brit.
The public agrees that Spears is a product worth purchasing. "Blackout," which was released Tuesday, is expected to chart at No. 1 next week, moving about two-thirds of the 527,000 units Carrie Underwood did the week before. This even though, beyond a sleepy and rather sad phone-in appearance on Ryan Seacrest's KIIS-FM radio show Wednesday, Spears isn't promoting the release. Maybe she's too caught up in the loss of her kids in a custody battle; maybe (even this seems possible with her) she really doesn't like "Blackout" all that much.
After all, it's not really her album, is it? It's one thing to recognize the fluid collaborative process that has made for great music since the days of disco, and jazz before that. It's another to blithely dismiss the importance of the figure who carries that music forth into the world. Spears is listed as executive producer of "Blackout," and the Wall Street Journal reported that it earned her a nearly $4-million advance. So the idea of Britney it presents must have some relation to her own idea of herself.
At any rate, there are three Britneys now. There's the tragic celebrity going through a public breakdown, who seems to have little command over her own actions and less over how others treat her, including the public that's circling and scorning her. Then there's the Britney created by Spears and many others over the course of a decade, an embodiment of the feminine libido in an age when empowerment and exploitation are often confused. Finally, there's the Britney the public imagines, a repository for our fears about what today's tough little girls might become and our disgust and fascination with the fame machine.
"Blackout" is an attempt by Spears and her latest crew of in-studio plastic surgeons to reconcile those three Britneys. But as seductive as the music is, it fails. Instead of reconciling the fantasy Britney with the one who breathes, these songs push aside her pain and defeat and substitute an almost militant wantonness. In the process, they abandon what made the invented Britney so appealing: her stance on the knife's edge between virtue and corruption, the innocence of a girl brash enough to declare "I'm not that innocent."
As the living, breathing Spears continues to crash downward in plain view, few seem troubled by the disconnect between the success of this album and the sorry state of its nominal maker. Even more disturbing, no one seems to care that the songs on "Blackout" uphold the very attitudes about femininity, sexual power, and the blur between reality and television-tabloid "reality" that have dragged Spears into misery -- and those of us enthralled by her into a state of callousness and cynicism.
Let's assume that Spears still wants to connect to the spirit of sexual liberation that took shape in the 1970s and went pop mostly through Madonna's efforts in the 1980s. "Blackout" contains some direct Madonna references. The CD booklet photo showing Spears sitting on a priest's lap, which has outraged the Catholic League, is an obvious nod. More generally, the album's mix of avant-garde dance music and libertine lyrics echoes controversial landmarks such as "Justify My Love" and "Erotica," which blended explorations of explicit subject matter with cutting-edge dance beats.
But Madonna's libertinism was always tied to a community -- an underground of self-identified queers and other sexual outlaws who saw erotic freedom as part of a larger movement toward gay and women's liberation. In comparison, the mood of "Blackout" is oppressively retrograde.
Enlisting her signature panting coo, Spears presents herself (or is presented by the songwriters representing her) as a girl gone wild, driven incoherent by desire. "What I gotta do to get you to want my body?" this mother of two implores on "Get Naked." The song is subtitled "I Got a Plan" -- but the voice that claims that plan belongs to a man, background singer Corte Ellis, not Spears. Spears plans nothing. She occupies the centuries-old stereotype of the woman in heat, unable to control her sexuality, finding relief only when a man takes her in hand.
The other message "Blackout" strongly conveys is that notoriety is its own reward. In "Piece of Me," the song most often cited as proof that Spears possesses some level of self-awareness (though she didn't write it), Spears responds to being surveilled by the tabloids by listing the violations for which they cited her: She's too fat, too thin, a grocery-store flasher and a working mama who trots her kids around to her photo shoots. Most of all, she's "shameless," a word that has sounded truly defiant in the mouths of Garth Brooks and Ani DiFranco but that, dully voiced by Spears, becomes a condemnation she's willing to embrace.
This list of sins is made musical within a choppy, mechanical setting that reinforces the aggressive petulance of the vocals. The title phrase suggests a threat without following through. A few songs later, "Freakshow," which Spears did co-write, presents Team Britney's solution to the quandary of constant surveillance: "Make them clap when we perform."
In this scenario, a woman who's been branded as overly sexual can respond only by becoming truly pornographic. It's the culmination of the self-objectifying process that reality television and the fever for celebrity promotes, in which any kind of interior life, including both sexuality and artistic creativity, gets flattened out and transformed into an empty commodity.
If these songs represent Britney talking back, her response is disturbingly adolescent and predictable, with none of the redeeming emotion and individuality of other celebrity answer songs, like "Get in the Ring" by Guns N' Roses or "Leave Me Alone" by Michael Jackson. W. Axl Rose wanted his enemies bloody; Jackson wanted to escape to Neverland. Britney doesn't want to fight or retreat. Her solution to being exploited is only to exploit herself further.
But lyrics don't matter in dance music, right? Real meaning resides in the way its rhythms moves the body and its inventive sonic twists expand the mind. If words are present, though, they communicate. Think about the dance songs you love most: They're built around ritual incantations that express freedom, sorrow, pride or communal connection: "I Feel Love," "I Will Survive," "I've Got the Power," "Groove Is in the Heart." Even chilly Madonna built a utopian vision of the dance floor as a free space in songs such as "Vogue," in which striking a pose becomes a means to self-realization.
There's no self-realization on "Blackout," nor is there celebration. There's only addiction -- to sex, to powerful men, to exhibitionism. If this is how Spears wants to be perceived, she's even more troubled than the tabloids tell. If it's what those entrusted with her best interests think is most enticing -- and if the marketplace proves them right -- then we're all hooked on some pretty nasty stuff. I wonder, will we ever be able to kick it?
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