Sunday, October 25, 2009

Albums of the 2000's: Britney Spears Blackout

The end of the year is approaching quickly and, as 2009 marks the end of another decade, "Best of the Decade" lists are going to be popping up before you know it. I'm already planning ones devoted to films and singles that should be popping up eventually, but I had a tough time deciding what to do about albums. I felt confident I could pick out the best from the last couple of years, but the first half? Er, not so sure. Although you could debate the fact that I have "good taste" in music now, in the first half of the 2000's it was really off. I spent most of the time listening to generic Top 40 music from artists who either made better music later on (Britney) or who I'm embarrassed to admit I liked at the time (yes, I went through my phase where I thought Simple Plan was the greatest band on the earth). Then there were my high school years where I spent the entire time listening to roughly the same six or eight albums over and over again--half of which weren't even from this decade. How on earth can I make a definitive list from that limited of perspective? I could start catching up but that honestly would take too long. I need multiple listens to even decide if I like an album and I just don't have the time to do that over and over again. What am I supposed to do?

Then I realized that Nick's Flick Picks came up with this really ingenious idea for his Films of the 00's series: instead of picking out the best of the bunch, discuss works that really stick with you, good or bad, or ones that deserve a reappraisal. Needless to say, I loved this novel solution and thought it would work perfectly with my conundrum (Just to be clear, however, I'm not stealing from him exactly, just imitating--which is the sincerest form of flattery!). So, in the coming months or so, expect write-ups on my fave albums of the decade, ones that didn't work so well and ones I haven't listened to in ages (Jessica Simpson will be making an appearance here at one point). So, without further ado, let's get this started.

To kick things off, I thought I'd go straight for my favorite album of the decade: Britney Spears's electrodirtypop masterpiece Blackout. Sure, it's probably not as "accomplished" or "deep" as whatever crap Bob Dylan or U2 hocked this decade, but I can't think of another album released in the 2000's that I've analyzed in my head as many times as Blackout. Every time I press the play button on this CD, there's something about (1) the combo of Britney's trademark husky sex growl, (2) the layer upon layer of beats and sound effects used to highlight Britney's voice in its best possible way and (3) the intensely personal lyrics that serve not only as a mirror to the life and times of the former Mrs. Federline but also to our whole pop culture obsessed society circa 2007 that draws me in, without fail, for the entire 45 minute runtime.

To fully understand and appreciate Blackout, I think it's compulsory to remember the circumstances it was released under. In the fall of 2006, Britney divorced Kevin Federline and looked to be taking positive steps toward fixing her sinking career. But then she started hanging with Paris Hilton, going to clubs every night of the week and forgetting to put on underwear, which lead to three pussy photos in one week. This wasn't even the worst of it. There was also the umbrella incident, her adoption of a mutated British accent for a period of time and, oh yeah, the time she completely shaved her head. Britney was a mess and the media was all over it. She couldn't get a Starbucks frappaccino without hounds of paparazzi swarming her like a pack of locusts. As a nation, we were to blame for it. We loved living through her very public meltdown and hoped against hope that the latest story to emerge about her would top the last. Her new album was announced during the summer with her first single, 'Gimme More,' debuting during a comeback performance at the VMA's. As I'm sure you remember, that performance was a bit of a...mess and it looked like Britney's comeback had derailed before it even started. But then the album came out and literally stunned everyone who listened to it. Critics who were oh-so-ready to give it a quick and dismissive pan had to retract and admit that it was actually a very well-made album and easily the best of Britney's career.

From the album's opening words--the now iconic, "It's Britney, bitch"--it was immediately clear who was in control of this album and she'll be damned if she's going to let you forget it. The media circus surrounding her every move may still be in progress, but she's going to make you forget about it for the next 40 minutes and concentrate on reminding us while we fell in love with her in the first place. 'Gimme More,' the album's opener, proved just that; armed with nothing more than a two word chorus and a great beat, Britney crafted a club anthem that got people moving.

But Blackout has more on its mind than getting its listeners to dance--it's also here to give you a little insight behind the enigma of Ms. Spears, the woman you don't know or see behind all those tabloid covers. And it does all this disguised as an electropop dance album. The most damning song on the entire album is 'Piece of Me,' a dance track redhot on its intent to question and indict the entire crazed media industry for its treatment of not only her but other young female celebrities in the same situation. The entire song is full of perfect bon mots like "I'm Mrs. Most Likely to Get on TV for Strippin' On the Streets/When getting groceries, no, for real are you kiddin' me?/No wonder there's panic in the industry" that just sting with both their cleverness and clarity. Another almost painfully personal song is Blackout's closer, 'Why Should I Be Sad.' The song chronicles her relationship with Federline in insanely precise detail ("I thought what could separate us/But it just seemed that Vegas/Only brought the pimp out of you" she coos, almost offhandedly, about Federline) but it also serves to sever her ties from him completely. She doesn't feel sad about the end of the relationship and the "stupid freaking things" that he does, so why should she be forced to feel that way?

From this description, if it sounds like Blackout is full of nothing but excursions through Britney's personal life, that's a complete slap in the face to many of the stunning dance tracks on the album. My favorite among them, 'Break the Ice,' starts off with a spoken intro that apologizes to us for her absence ("It's been awhile/I know I shouldn't have kept you waiting/But I'm here now") and immediately lapses into the most killer hook on the entire album. If there's one song in the world that will get me to dance like an idiot in a club and not have anyone care, 'Break the Ice' might just be it. On 'Toy Soldier,' she wishes for a "really badass soldier" to take care of her instead of the measly toys parading as real men who have surrounded her for the past few years. 'Hot as Ice' informs us that, yes, she may be a walking oxymoron and may not always make sense, but you'll have more fun with her than anyone who may be completely rational.

Like I mentioned in the beginning, Blackout may not be the most "sophisticated" album of this or any decade nor will it solve the world's problems but it captures with exact precision Britney during her meltdown phase in all of her crazy, over-the-top glory. Circus, Britney's Blackout follow-up and first "post-meltdown" album, may be more polished overall, but it lacks the fun and spontinaiety of even Blackout's weakest tracks. Without a doubt, Blackout is Britney's finest moment as a music artist and a career height that she will have to try her damnedest in the years to come to surpass.


Adam M. said...

I wish I had more to say, but I thought this was an invariably weak album-- nothing to even come close to touching her earlier work. 'Gimme More' was a horrendous song. 'Piece of Me?' might have been worse. 'Radar' was (and then was again on her next album) derivative and repetitive.

This album was pieced together and released at the lowest depth of Britney's downward spiral. And I think it shows.

'Britney' might be my favorite of hers from the decade. Though 'Oops' and even 'In the Zone' aren't far behind. Not that I *loved* any of them-- they just weren't a mess and had a few really solid, if not quite inspired, tracks on each of them.

J.D. said...

Adam = pop fail.

Adam M. said...

JD - I probably am a pop fail. I don't think pop music is all that inspiring. But it should at least be catchy and not irritating, in my view.

Let me qualify myself. Here are the songs that stick out for me:

Baby One More Time:
1. Baby One More Time (an incontrovertible classic)
2. You Drive Me Crazy
3. Born to Make You Happy

1. Oops!...I Did It Again (another pop game-changer)
2. Stronger (= epic)
3. Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know
4. Lucky (simple but sweet)

Britney (the most listenable overall IMHO):
1. Overprotected
2. Boys (ultimate party song)

In the Zone:
1. Toxic (her best song ever hands down)
2. Everytime (her best slow song ever hands down)

She hasn't done anything since In the Zone that isn't sloppy, inconsistent, or facile.

J.D. said...

I love how the only songs that stick out for you are singles - in one case ALL singles.


...Baby One More Time:
1. "...Baby One More Time"
2. "Born to Make You Happy"
3. "Autumn Goodbye"
4. "(You Drive Me) Crazy"
5. "I Will Be There"

Oops!...I Did It Again:
1. "Stronger"
2. "Oops!...I Did It Again"
3. "What U See (Is What U Get)"
4. "Can't Make You Love"
5. "Don't Go Knockin' on My Door"

(I've never actually listened to Britney.)

In the Zone
1. "Toxic"
2. "Breathe on Me"
3. "Touch of My Hand"
4. "Everytime"
5. "Shadow"

1. "Heaven on Earth"
2. "Radar"
3. "Get Back"
4. "Piece of Me"
5. "Toy Soldier"

1. "If U Seek Amy"
2. "Circus"
3. "Lace and Leather"
4. "Kill the Lights"
5. "Phonography"

And then:

1. Blackout
2. Circus
3. ...Baby One More Time
4. Oops!...I Did It Again
5. In the Zone

J.D. said...

"Can't Make You Love Me"* lol.

Adam M. said...

JD - They become singles for a reason...

Also, I've listened to all of the albums in their entirety-- several times even. Those are the ones that stand out to me, singles or not.