October marks the 10th anniversary of Britney Spears’ sixth studio album, Blackout. Before getting into the crux of things, it’s important to set the scene.
It’s 2004 and In The Zone is still a recent release. The album hit No.1 and produced worldwide hits ‘Me Against The Music’, ‘Toxic’ and ‘Everytime’, Spears is midway through her most ambitious and provocative tour to date: The Onyx Hotel Tour. A true spectacle, Onyx featured celebrity cameos, acrobatics, and a host of hit singles in its setlist. However Spears sought creative freedom. Whilst on tour she penned the hauntingly premonitory track ‘Mona Lisa’:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve got a little story to tell
About Mona Lisa, and how she suddenly fell…
…Now, see, everyone’s watching as she starts to fall
Now don’t have a breakdown, you will hit the freaking wall”
And this is where we’re meant to believe that the breakdown started. First, Britney suffered a knee injury during the music video shoot for ‘Outrageous’. As a result, the Onyx Hotel Tour was cancelled. Future promotion for In The Zone was also concluded. Damage control came in the form of Britney’s first greatest hits collection, and a reality TV show (or should I say docuseries?).
‘Mona Lisa’ premiered at the end of 2004 on radio station KIIS FM as the lead single from Spears’ upcoming album. Prospectively titled Original Doll, it was said to be halfway completed.
However, promotional efforts continued for the greatest hits collection – in the form of the music video for ‘Do Somethin’’. Spears’ label Jive Records said there were no plans for an album release. It appeared ‘Mona Lisa’ was going to be left in the dust. It did eventually have an official appearance, remixed and rerecorded for Britney’s docuseries EP.
‘Mona Lisa”s official release was overshadowed by the whirlwind of personal changes the star was going through. A second marriage and a child on the way prompted what many believed to be Spears’ break from music. Spears reiterated that the break was from ‘being told what to do’ and not music, but with Original Doll seemingly shelved, ‘Do Somethin’’ stood as the only remnant of the pop princess’s attempt to take creative control.
The year and the half between the release of the EP and Britney’s next studio album are a messy and well documented period (see: head shaving, attacking a car with an umbrella, divorce) so I won’t get into it here. But somehow, through all of this, Spears was still making music. Work on Spears’ next full studio effort begun in early 2006. Leaks gave fans a mix of sombre ballads and club bangers, with Sean Garrett and Pharrell Williams noticeably present, but no one knew what exactly to expect from the singer’s next studio album.
The final product was Blackout: a dark, brooding pop experience which mildly hinted at Spear’s personal life. Gone were the radio-friendly bops that filled Zone; replaced by a more hard-hitting and club-ready sound. Our first official introduction to this was the now infamous VMA performance of lead single ‘Gimme More’.
You Need More?
From the blue contacts to the awkward side stepping across the stage, the whole performance was a mess. It rightly went down in infamy. The official music video didn’t do much to instil anymore faith in the general public about Britney’s return to the pop scene. It was a far cry from the Onyx Hotel Tour three years prior. Considering what happened in between those three years, it’s important to remember that Blackout is now considered as some of Spears’ best work.
First, we have aforementioned album opener ‘Gimme More’. The songs iconic opening line ‘it’s Britney bitch’ demanded attention and served as a reintroduction to the new darker Britney (dubbed by fans as Darkney). What started off as a joke between Spears and producer Danja became an emblem of confidence. The line rightfully went down in pop culture history, with a will.i.am feature cashing in on its relevance five years later.
Even now, those three words are enough to fill a dance floor or make an arena erupt in cheers. When Danja’s floor-filling beat kicks in, it’s clear from the get-go that Britney is not playing games. The beat hits hard yet Britney’s vocal delivery is sweet as ever. This juxtaposition creates a contrast that many a pop starlet still try to imitate. Talkney is also in full effect, with every song on the album having Britney’s trademark spoken ad-libs.
Of the deluxe album’s 16 tracks, 4 were produced by Bloodshy & Avant who had previously collaborated with Spears on her EP and In The Zone, and 8 were produced by Danja, who was relatively unknown in the mainstream at the time. It was the producer’s first big project without his mentor, Timbaland – needless to say the stakes were high for both he and Spears. Danja’s production create the moody backbone of the album but the other producers don’t give you a let up; ‘Heaven on Earth’ and the Neptunes produced ‘Why Should I Be Sad’ are the closest the album comes to balladry and even they are a far cry from Zone single ‘Everytime’.
Piece Of Me
If ‘Mona Lisa’ was Spears’ premonition of her own downfall then ‘Piece of Me’ acts as the perfect sequel. ‘Piece’ sees Britney truly take her crown as ‘the legend of the fall’, biting back at haters, paparazzi and naysayers in the best way possible: with a hot pop bop:
I’m Mrs. Lifestyles of the rich and famous (You want a piece of me?)
I’m Mrs. Oh my God that Britney’s shameless! (You want a piece of me?)
I’m Mrs. Extra! Extra! This just in (You want a piece of me?)
I’m Mrs. she’s too big now she’s too thin (You want a piece of me?)
On an album that was blacking out negativity (which subsequently led to an essentially promo-less era) ‘Piece of Me’ acted as the perfect reasoning why: Britney had become more of a staple in the tabloids for her personal life than her music. As a song and a single, ‘Piece of Me’ was a middle finger to those who thought they knew Spears ‘oh so well’. ‘Piece’’s warped guitar intro almost act as a warning to listeners that ‘Gimme More’ was not a fluke, Britney was coming for everyone that was out to get her.
The vocal production was also stellar. The use of vocal pitch-shifting in ‘Piece”s chorus and middle 8 put the production front-and-center whilst simultaneously also keeping a focus on Britney’s vocals. This technique would also noticeably feature on dub-step infused album cut ‘Freakshow’. It’s hard to imagine that such a sound would be absurd and different in 2007, due to its prevalent use in pop music today. It’s fair to say that ‘Piece’ brought the effect to that mainstream.
Similarly to ‘More’’s VMA performance, ‘Piece’’s lyrics, although not penned by Spears’ herself, became a pop culture hot topic. It perfectly encapsulated what made Britney so interesting: her ability to bring herself to the table as a talking point as a popstar should. The song almost acts as a game of cat and mouse between Spears and the media, basically saying ‘if you’re going to talk about me, then I’m going to talk about you talking about me’. She would again address the media with Circus album cut ‘Kill The Lights‘ (produced by Blackout frontman Danja).
‘Piece’’s video went even further to approach the media’s treatment of Spears, with Britney addressing the invasive nature of the paparazzi, and how manipulative and sleazy they can be. The video is self-parody tongue-in-cheek genius, from the literal ‘Britney army’ to the end scene of Britney watching herself visit the club televised as ‘news’. Although there’s no choreo per se, that club bathroom dance sequence is sure to be repeated. The video rightfully went on to win big at the 2008 VMA’s, including ‘Video of the Year’ solidifying Britney’s triumphant return as the princess of pop.
Blackout became Britney’s first album to miss the No. 1 spot due to an midweek decision allowing albums sold exclusively at one retailer the opportunity to chart. From the internet leaks to the VMA performance, it would seem that Blackout had so much going against it. However this made Blackout the album of the underdogs, with a rebellious pop princess at its forefront. The album is rightfully considered as one of pop’s best, being featured at No.7 and No.5 respectively on Rolling Stone and Times album of the decade lists, as well as being inducted into the Roll & Roll Hall of Fame.
Many pop artists attempted to imitate the urban influenced sound that Blackout captured, but they fall flat. Blackout stands out the way it does because of its authenticity. Blackout was not an album littered with rap verses in order to make Britney appear more urban and edgy, nor was it a shift so far out of the realm of pop that it made Britney unrecognizable.
Bloodshy & Avant’s production was new yet familiar, allowing Blackout to fell like a natural progression from Spears’ earlier work. This progressive yet mainstream sound made Blackout cohesive & unique. So much so that it’s a sound that fans still clamor for with each new Britney release. Blackout stands as the only album executive produced by Spears. Fans believe it was this hands on approach which helped make Blackout the revered pop gem it is today.
To Be Continued?
The era ends with a ‘to be continued…’ at the end of music video for final single Break the Ice. Fans are still waiting for Blackout’s sequel. Circus could be described as Blackout’s popier companion, it’s production more slick & polished than brooding. Subsequent albums Femme Fatale and Britney Jean slip further into a more EDM, sometimes unrecognizable sound.
Celebrating it’s 10 year anniversary, Blackout still stands as one of pops most interesting and captivating releases. It has stood the test of time and feels as fresh and exciting today as it did on initial release. Spears’ most recent album Glory was on the right track to show that Britney can still deliver a great pop album. Fans still want Danja and Britney to reunite. One has to wonder if we will ever get the Blackout 2.0 that’s teased during the run-up to every Britney release since 2007.
Thank ya’ll for the #blackout love. I wish I could explain to you what it means to me that you love that album as much as you do ?❤️??
— DANJA (@only1DANJA) October 25, 2017
Listen to Britney Spears’ Blackout: