Britney Spears' 'Blackout' Turns 10: How Her Worst Year Gave Us Her Best Album
publish date: 2017-10-25
In February 2007, Britney Spears walked into a California beauty salon and shaved her head in full view of the snapping paparazzi. After the iconic public meltdown, she checked into a rehab facility. In July 2007, she finalized her divorce from her husband of less than three years, dancer Kevin Federline. In September 2007, she ambled through an infamously terrible performance of a new single, “Gimme More,” at the MTV Video Music Awards. Not long after, she temporarily lost custody of her children.
And yet on Oct. 25, 2007, she released the best and most influential album of her career, Blackout.
This unlikely product of Spears’ infamous 2007 is an eerie, funhouse mirror of an album, written by the best producers in the business, who were explicitly told not to write about Spears’ personal troubles. And yet no album of hers seems better matched to her personal state at the time of recording. “Gimme More” pretends to be about exhibitionism, but the haunting “gimme gimme” refrain underneath feels like the insatiable public grabbing at Spears. (“I’m tired of everybody touching me,” she said during her head-shaving incident.)
“Radar,” “Get Naked (I Got a Plan),” and “Freakshow” depict Spears as having the voracious sexual appetite the public had been projecting onto her since she was a teenager. The album astutely strips Britney’s persona down to two main priorities, often repeated throughout: shaking her ass and making sure the male she’s addressing “rise(s) to the occasion.”
And in “Piece of Me,” producers Bloodshy & Avant, with cowriter Klas Ahlund, took a chance by giving Spears a kiss-off track that broke the rule about mentioning her personal life (“I’m Miss American Dream, since I was 17"). Spears and her team went with it. The resulting album gave us a refracted view of Spears’ life, a group art project about what other people thought being Britney Spears was like. And given that Spears herself had been decimated by her own media narrative, this seemed like the perfect artistic expression of Spears at the time. She had become more concept than person, Spears Inc. instead of Britney. Who better to express this than those watching it happen, rather than the one experiencing it?
Now, as Blackout turns 10, it stands as a masterpiece of her extraordinarily resilient career, a perfect piece of pop art of its time as well as a trend-setting record that brought EDM elements into the mainstream, where they still permeate today. In 2012, it became her sole album to join the archives of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
At the time Blackout dropped, it sounded like it came from the future—a dystopian and warped future, but nevertheless interesting. Pop radio had remained steeped in the pop-R&B influences that had also driven Spears’ music until then: The top songs of the year were Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” both beautifully sung grooves. Blackout offered crunchy beats that sounded like they were coming from a broken computer, classic dubstep wobbler effects, and Spears’ voice intentionally distorted in every way possible. Whether Spears could sing didn’t matter; her producers played her like an instrument.
That’s one of the more practical reasons that the opening line of the first song, “Gimme More,” is brilliant: “It’s Britney, bitch.” Instantly quotable, yes, but also a mere disclaimer—yes, this is actually Britney Spears. She is present and accounted for before her recognizable breathiness morphs seamlessly into a bass-toned, male sounding gurgle, then into a chorus of Britneys and back again during the repetitive chorus of the song.
“Piece of Me” became the second single and remains the rare Spears song that directly addresses the specifics of her public life. It starts with one of the album’s several emergency-space-vehicle sounds, then drops into a beat that brilliantly combines an almost-human gasp sound with an orgasmic, synthesized “yeah.” It features Spears sing-talking her way through some cleverly self-aware lyrics: “Don’t matter if I step on the scene or sneak away to the Philippines/They.still gon’ put pictures of my derriere in the magazine.” And the chorus: “I’m Mrs. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous/I’m Mrs. Oh My God That Britney’s Shameless.”
The album doesn’t go classic, melodic Britney until its tenth track, “Ooh Ooh Baby,” which eschews the futuristic soundscape for an intriguing pairing of throwback samples: the beat from Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll” and the guitar riff from The Turtles’ “Happy Together.” It also pairs two classic Britney words: “ooh” and “baby” (including a bridge full of nothing but “baby”s). It’s one of only two songs on the record for which Spears is credited as a cowriter.
The other song she’s credited on is the sleeper classic “Freakshow.” Its spoken verses, perfect for Spears’ whispery voice, are club-banger poetry: “On some superstar ish/Pushing hot Bugatti whips/Rocking new designer fits/We can do it if you wit’ it.” Though it was tragically never released as a single, “Freakshow” has remained a staple in Spears’ performances; it holds a place of honor in her nearly-four-years-running Las Vegas residency show as the number when she brings a member of the audience onstage to enjoy a playful striptease from her and her dancers. She cites it as one of her favorites: “It’s sassy,” she told The Fader. “And I love sassy.”
Lucky for us, she survived that horrific time in her life to bring us Blackout, and bounced back enough to still be performing songs from it today. If we’re even luckier, she might even bring us another Blackout-level record before she’s through.