Defector Music Club Wants A Piece Of Britney Spears’s ‘Blackout’
11:30 AM EST on November 22, 2023
Welcome to Defector Music Club, where a number of our writers get together to dish about an album. Here, Israel Daramola, Patrick Redford, and Lauren Theisen share their thoughts about Britney Spears's Blackout: a magnum opus, an end of an era, and a still-vital presence in pop music today.
Lauren: Let me just get it out of my system real quick: It’s Britney, bitch.
Patrick: As mission statements—and also descriptions of the 55 or so minutes to follow—go, it’s fab. Truly, “A screaming comes across the sky,” for the latter Bush years. Also, like Pynchon’s ass said, it (the all-consuming phenomenon of Britney) has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now. I wonder if he ever listened to Britney.
Lauren: I’ve only really experienced this album in retrospect, because this wasn’t what I was listening to when I was 12, but there is something truly stunning about the one-two of “Gimme More” and “Piece Of Me” to open a record that arrives while Britney’s becoming more and more of a morning radio show punchline. It’s a snarling attack on all the little freaks who use her to keep their tabloids propped up, but the music also makes her sound like she’s bursting with self-love and having so much fun. The first track is this firm declaration of how important she knows she is, and then the second repurposes everything cynical that’s happened to her into material for her melodies. In 2023, these songs would instead be a passive-aggressive Instagram Live.
Israel: This album is so 2007, which is what I expected going in. What was less expected, though, was how modern that 2007-ness still feels today. A truly Mark Fisheresque moment of realizing that the future of music was simply more of its past, all smashed up together. Listening to Blackout as an adult means hearing it as “The Swedish pop factory discovers Nine Inch Nails.” So much of pop music now is trying to achieve this still, 15 years later. That says something certainly, but not all of it good.
Patrick: Iz, that’s such a bar. I, too, was struck by the retrofuturistic (maybe future-retro?) sensation of thinking about the churning, cohesive production, put together by the best in pop music at the time, and how culturally and musically distant that must have felt in 2007 from, like, Justice, and how close something like early bloghouse sounds to something like “Heaven On Earth” now. The linear passage of time is crazy, is my point. If that song was made today, it’d be much lighter, I think, though I enjoyed the blunt directness, the claustrophobia of its propulsiveness.
Lauren: Donna Summer’s influence is all over the pop charts now, but in the earlier Max Martin stuff, it’s not really anywhere to be found. There’s something soaring and irresistible in the first Britney hits, but they’re weirdly chunky and static at the same time, especially compared to the TikTok-ready singles of today. Songs like “I’m A Slave 4 U” and “Toxic” started to evolve that sound into something sleeker, but Blackout giddily dives all the way into the flurry of possibilities suggested by ‘00s EDM, and in doing so it’s the first Britney album that really sounds ahead of its time. (Or, alternately, it emphasizes how much pop music stopped in its tracks around this point.) I listened to Beyonce’s 2006 release B’Day, just to compare, and it was truly jarring how much empty space I could perceive on those tracks after being absorbed in Blackout.
Israel: In 2007, I was just starting college and though I’d always liked Britney, I was probably not too interested in Blackout at that time primarily because this was the will.i.am ascension era, aka the oontz-oontzing of rap/R&B/pop. I will never have enough words to express my utter disgust at will.i.am as a producer, an artist alongside the Black Eyed Peas, and really just a human being. I truly hate his guts. All of that said, it’s funny how little this album actually resembles that particular sound. Obviously, it’s very electronic and dance-infused, but it’s not as kitschy as the watered-down techno funk of Mr. i.am. I think that’s what I mean when I call it modern. It’s more like a rough template for Charli XCX or Dua Lipa or something, and there is more of a hardness and industrial production akin to Reznor. You obviously can’t disassociate the music from where Britney was as a celebrity at the time, and that darkness and edge really pops on this listen.
Patrick: I’m glad you mentioned will.i.am, since I agree, we need to find a way to impose sanctions on him.
Lauren: It’s funny that we’ve already agreed that this album is both very 2007 and strangely modern, but I also appreciate its influences, which are blatant on tracks like “Heaven On Earth” (“I Feel Love”) or “Everybody” (“Sweet Dreams”). Those older songs have remained touchpoints for pop stars over the last 15 years, but the way Britney can so smoothly tweak her style to comfortably fit into these disco and synth sounds points to how she’s stayed so relevant for so long. Whether it’s bubble-gum, new wave, or EDM, she’s one of the queens of pop because she can dress herself up in all of the genre’s clothes and always look good.
Patrick: That versatility, if we can call it that, is so special, and it's part of why this album feels so coherent as such. Maybe its only true throwback flair is that it really works as an album. There’s something pleasantly hypnotic about the consistency of the beats she’s working with and the thematic knottedness of the lyrics—like by exploring every possible iteration of Fuck you, I’m gonna have fun; can you keep up? over Neptunes-y production she’s showing a real fine control of her range, if that makes sense.
Lauren: It helps, too, to not have guest stars. In The Zone opens with Madonna and then, of all people, Ying Yang Twins. That’s going to unavoidably keep it dated in a way that Blackout will never have to be.
I want to ask, though, how you guys feel about the contrast between the literal content of this album, which feels so self-assured and artful, and Britney’s career off this CD. She was not good at all performing (if that’s the word we want to use) “Gimme More” at the VMAs, and she didn’t do another tour until after the next album, Circus, came out. Does that make the excellence of Blackout feel a little like an illusion?
Israel: She was in a very dark place obviously. In the years between 2003’s In The Zone and 2007, things got … hairy, to put it nicely. The media and the paparazzi and the blogs were just a nightmare, and she had very public meltdowns. We don’t need to relitigate all of it. What is interesting is the way pop music worked back then where there was no expectation that she would or could open up about any of it on record, but that sort of dark spiral is expressed in the music even when it isn’t made literal. It’s really impressive in some ways but also unfortunate that she still has to make a bunch of songs about being hot and sexy and getting laid at a time like that.
Lauren: In some ways it’s almost like a peak Kanye record, especially Dark Fantasy, where during a rough and unhealthy period a wealthy and resourceful artist is able to just surround themself with an overwhelming bounty of musical talent and act as the centerpiece of an ambitious project, rather than the sole force behind it.
Patrick: Probably the most fascinating thing about this record is the context it was made in, the ways it sidesteps all that lyrically, yet still feels crafted, at some more obtuse angle, in response to the Britney character and the enthusiasm over her year of meltdowns. Or maybe we just read that into it because we know how rich the context is. Either way, I get the tingle, I wanna mingle.
Lauren: Incidentally, whether it’s really there or not, I hear a swagger in these songs that I don’t hear on Circus, which was a bigger hit and is superficially pretty similar but arrived at the end of the year she was put in the conservatorship.
Israel: There’s always a risk that we’re overanalyzing music, particularly in a post-poptimism era, but I think when you can’t express things consciously, it’s fair to wonder how much of the subconscious does the work. I have to imagine her being drawn to these harder, industrial pop productions must be related to her headspace.
We should probably talk about our favorite songs, I really enjoy “Freakshow.” That beat is absolutely insane. And clearly “Heaven on Earth” is a favorite among the group.
Lauren: The wub-wub-wub of “Freakshow” hits a nostalgia button for me, except that nostalgia is for something that went mainstream like five years after this song dropped. It’s hard for me to pick individual songs out of the back half, because I don’t feel like that’s where the standouts are, but I appreciate “Toy Soldier” because it’s a bit of a messy one. It’s loud and off-kilter and significantly less thought-through than the singles, but as far as deeper cuts go it’s a fun one.
Patrick: “Get Naked (I Got A Plan)” is not only the best track name I’ve come across in a while, it’s my favorite here. There’s a ruffled desperation to it, mantled with the control of the slowish one-two of the beat that works so well. Of all the tracks on this album, Britney is maybe doing the least straight-up pop-singing. It feels more like she’s MCing a dance track, and I dug it. “Radar” was also a highlight.
Lauren: “Radar” and “Break The Ice” are both just a couple steps short of Greatest Hits material for me, which means they provide a lot of the typical Britney pleasures without quite hitting transcendence. Also, I want to hear about the meeting where they decided not to call it “I Got A Plan (Get Naked).”
Patrick: Ah, here this presupposes that the plan is simply getting the subject of the song naked, not the first step in the plan. A classic inversion of tension and release.
Lauren: “Hey, get naked! No seriously, trust me: I got a plan.” Buried in all the goofiness, though, is that “Maybe I’m a freak and I don’t really give a damn” is one of the best lines and deliveries of Britney’s whole career.
Israel: “Perfect Lover” is also just a great bit of 07-era Timbaland’s sound. It’s obviously done by Danja but that’s more or less the same thing at that point in time.
Lauren: So with the exception of Glory, which to me represents a point where she’s really exhausted with the life of fame she’s led/been forced to lead, I can find the strengths in every Britney album. Blackout, however, feels front-to-back the strongest and most consistent, even if it doesn’t have the greatest singles of her career, and thus I’d rank it No. 1 and call it my desert island Spears record. What about you two?
Patrick: This is clearly top for me too. I listened back to the few albums before this and Circus, and there’s a high point here of creativity that hasn’t quite yet been consumed by the pressures and contradictions of having to play the character of Britney Spears against an increasingly hostile, nasty industry and apparatus of exploitation. But yeah, the best hits are on previous albums, I agree.
Israel: Well, to me it’s easily the best Spears album, but it’s not the one that I’m most nostalgic over—that’s probably the self-titled one. But as someone who I’ve always seen as a singles artist more than an album one, this is just a front-to-back heater, and it’s a true testament to her that it came about in such a tumultuous time. People tend to be very dismissive of pop artists because they don’t write songs, and because the human pea brain is so simple they can’t understand how an artist can author music they don’t write or produce. But listening to this again made me really sad about how she has not been truly given her due just as an artist. She’s a star, man, and this is a superstar type of album.