To discuss Britney Spears as an artist and an artist alone is a tall order. From the beginning of her career, the intertwining of her music and her personal life has helped create the feedback loop of Spears’s success. There’s no question of her talent as a performer, but the fact that her every misstep is gobbled up as readily as her performances raises the question: Is it all intentional, or is she just a very well-framed catastrophe?
Musically her choices have been beyond reproach. From a singles standpoint, either Spears has a brilliant ear for picking out a catchy hook or someone she employs does. The singles haven’t been radio hits simply by virtue of her fame. “I’m a Slave 4 U” is a great pop song, and so is “Toxic.”
That being said, it’s difficult not to view Blackout through the prism of tabloid headlines and personal scandal. This is the trick that is now propping Spears up as a recording artist: self-referential lyrics that serve as a sort of soundtrack to a “she said” gossip-column. Every lyric begs to be mentioned alongside quotes from news clippings.
“Gimme More” is catchy, but nothing interesting is going on musically. Spears has become obsessed with every weird synthesizer setting, seeming to confuse oddness with uniqueness. What’s more, the song — like most of the album — overstays its welcome. Pop music thrives on being concise. Spears has never manufactured (or bought) the kind of music that could defy that convention successfully. In fact, rarely do the songs on her previous four albums linger much beyond three and a half minutes.
The quick snag-and-release hooks of “Heaven on Earth” actually keep it moving successfully for nearly five minutes, but it’s washed-out by needless production, synths, effects, and everything else that technology has given us to take away from a song’s inherent value. It’s as close to a really effective pop song as Blackout offers, although it brings the falseness of what Spears is doing on the album into contrast. The music of Blackout, much like Spears herself, tries too hard to be original.
Spears is adept at using her sexuality, but the truth is that her sexuality is arrested at the college level; it falls flat when she tries out a more adult style. It appears that what she’s doing on Blackout is attempting to co-opt the same sexual vibe of Justin’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, a trick that proves she either hooked up with the wrong producers or is simply not as talented a musician as she is a performer. “Get Naked (I Got a Plan)” is the best indication of this, with its weird, trying-to-be-Timbaland production. Clearly, Timbaland knows why he’s doing the things he does even if no one else does, but the same is not true for “Get Naked” producers the Clutch. And it just doesn’t work.
Blackout‘s only real stand-out track is “Ooh Ooh Baby,” which steals vocal melodies from the Turtles’ “Happy Together” and the drums from “Rock N’ Roll (Part 2)” by Gary Glitter. That this is the album’s best song indicated the overall quality of its music. The album would be forgotten tomorrow if it weren’t pinned to the media circus of Spear’s celebrity.
Sadly, there is nothing left to discuss about her music career except its correlations with her personal life, which has become nothing more than a time-lapse movie of an alternate universe where Madonna fell apart four albums into her career. Spears isn’t back so much as still here, frozen as she was when we first found her. This album will sway neither the faithful nor the unbelievers from their positions along the borders of her stalled momentum.