Happy tenth birthday to Blackout, which is not only the greatest of all Britney Spears albums, but one of the most innovative and influential pop albums of the past decade. It’s where America’s sweetheart changed her name to Mrs. Oh My God That Britney’s Shameless and got real, real dark on us. On Tuesday, October 30th, 2007, when the world was trying to write her off as a joke – not for the first time, not for the last – Brit dropped music way too weird for the radio, all alien and distorted, warping her Southern drawl into a surly electro-punk sneer. Within a couple of years, everybody was trying to sound like this. It’s Britney, bitch.
Blackout is an avant-disco concept album about getting famous, not giving a fuck, getting divorced, not giving a fuck, getting publicly mocked and despised and humiliated. It’s an album about dancing on tables in a cloud of glitter and Cheeto dust. But mostly it’s an album about not giving a fuck, which is why it sounds perfect for grim times like these. Especially since America in 2017 is less sane or stable than Britney was in 2007. If our girl could emerge from the wreckage with an album like Blackout, there’s hope for us all.
Every now and then, a pop queen delivers a masterpiece that stops in the world in its tracks and commands respect. Blackout was not one of these masterpieces. It got widely dismissed as a career-ending flop, in the wake of her disastrous performance of “Gimme More” on the MTV Video Music Awards, stumbling through her dance moves, giving up halfway through. People decided Blackout was a pitiful crash-and-burn from a has-been skin job.
Yeah, well, people were pretty stupid in 2007. If you require proof, just Google “Audrina and Justin Bobby.” (“Homeboy wore combat boots to the beach” was the “homeboy is gonna like get it” of its time.) Blackout is where Britney vents all her raging party-girl hostility, from the way she snarls “I’m Miss American dream since I was 17” in “Piece of Me” to the way she spits “stupid freaking things” in “Why Should I Be Sad.” No wonder the radio got scared away–this is her version of Lou Reed’s nihilistic noise opus Metal Machine Music. We’ll never know if Lou listened to it, but surely he would have admired a statement like “Get Naked (I Got A Plan).”
Nobody has ever been able to explain how Blackout happened – how a star in mid-meltdown managed to document it all so vividly. It’s not like anybody sat down and decided to make a great album, least of all the artist herself – out of twelve tracks, the only two she had a hand in writing were “Freakshow” and “Ooh Baby Baby.” There was no production mastermind pulling strings behind the scenes. Blackout had an all-star team of circa-2007 hitmakers: Danja, Jim Beanz, T-Pain, Bloodshy & Avant, Freescha, Fredwreck, Henri Jonback, the Neptunes, the Clutch. Yet they all outdid themselves. Sonically, the abrasive robo-screech was years ahead of its time. It’s almost as if the producers and writers were using Blackout as a beta test, trying out their craziest ideas on the assumption that the album would bomb and nobody would listen.
At first, it looked like they were right. In the parlance of 2007, Britney was “not in a good place.” She was all over the tabloids for head-shaving and windshield-smashing. A kid in Tennessee became a YouTube star for sobbing, “Leave Britney alone!” Her marriage to Kevin Federline barely outlasted her first (which clocked in at 55 hours), leaving Brit with two babies and a warehouse full of unsold Britney and Kevin: Chaotic DVDs.
Her high-profile VMAs gig in September was eagerly awaited as her comeback – until about two seconds after she stepped onstage. She could barely move. Live-blogging for Rolling Stone that night, I’d saved up all my superlatives for the queen’s conquering moment. Instead, I spent four minutes trading “how is this happening” texts with my editor. As I typed sadly at 9:06 p.m., “Oh, Britney. That was not a not-terrible idea.” Just a few weeks later, Jay-Z dropped the single “Roc Boys,” boasting that his drugs “got less steps than Britney / That means it ain’t stepped on, dig me?” Never one to hold a grudge, Brit posted a Jay-Z song on Instagram last month: “When this song came out, I lost my mind like a little kid!!! I fangirled and cried!!” And of course, Jay went to see her Vegas show in 2015, because that’s what you do when Beyonce runs the world.
By the time Blackout came out in October, everybody figured Brit was over. “Gimme More” reached Number Three on career momentum, but it stopped the other singles cold; “Piece of Me” stalled at Number Eighteen while “Break The Ice” missed the Top Forty. If you were in NYC for Halloween 2007, you probably remember the streets were crawling with Britneys serving the “Gimme More” lewk; half the ladies on the L train that night kept screaming “It’s Britney, bitch!” (The other half were Amy Winehouse. That was quite a Halloween.)
But it’s ironic that of all the turmoil Britney went through in 2007, the one thing people remember today, the thing that turned out to be lasting, is the music. As the lady once sang, she’s got nine lives like a kitty cat. The trilogy of Blackout, Circus and Femme Fatale is the summit of Britdom; in so many ways, it’s comparable to Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, with its electric-blue Euro-haze ambience, as well as the angst of a damaged fame junkie who’s always crashing in the same car. Pop artists keep building whole careers on the Blackout sound – just to pick the most stellar example, Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar” is the best Britney song of 2017, just as “Hands To Myself” and “Slow Down” were the best of 2015 and 2013 respectively.
“Piece of Me” is the peak of the album – and maybe Britney’s career – produced by the Swedish duo Bloodshy & Avant, who also did “Radar,” “Toy Soldier” and “Freakshow,” not to mention the 2003 classic “Toxic.” Miss American Dream Since She Was 17 lists all the ways the TRL dream turned into her nightmare, so she punishes America by making us live it out with her. “You wanna piece of me?” sounds like she’s either pimping herself out or taunting you into a bar brawl. Either way, it’ll cost you. No wonder Taylor Swift quotes this song (“another day, another drama”) in “Look What You Made Me Do.” “Piece of Me” remains the template for every pop girl who decides it’s time to wreak her evil vengeance on a world that made the fatal mistake of pissing her off. Are you sure you want a piece of Britney? After ten years, Blackout still makes that sound like a thrillingly dangerous question.