[29 October 2007]
When it comes to classifying a piece of music as trash, it could be argued that there’s good trash and there’s bad trash.
Example: Gwen Stefani unleashed “Hollaback Girl” on an unsuspecting public in early 2005, and nobody quite knew what to do with it. The thing is, it’s an unabashedly awful song, and intentionally so. It’s a cheerleader chant or three turned into a song by a Neptunes beat and about three synth notes. Gwen yells about banana shit for four minutes, the song ends, and if you’ve never heard it, you’re left in an unbreakable state of WTF for about ten minutes afterwards. This is good trash. For one, it was like nothing else on the radio at the time, making it instantly identifiable. Two, it’s catchy enough to shout along to the second time you hear it, if that’s what you’re into. Finally, Stefani had the charisma to take something so awful and believe, nay, believe in it, selling the hell out of it to anyone who would listen. She took that joke of a song as far as she could, turning it into something inexplicably charming in the process.
Sitting largely on the flipside of that formula for good trash is Blackout.
The songs on Blackout, like Stefani’s wunderhit, don’t carry with them any illusions of high art. It’s obvious that Britney Spears and whoever is guiding her career these days set out to make an album that’ll be played in dancehalls and strip clubs. As the extent of Blackout‘s aspirations, it could easily be deemed a success, as it’s true that you can dance to these beats. They’re good beats, meticulously and carefully crafted by some of the most desired and high-priced producers in the business. The problem is Spears herself, just as meticulously and carefully placed onto her own songs by those same producers.
There is so much whizbang studio wizardry going on here that Britney never has a chance to sell these songs. She’s reduced to a disembodied voice hung robotically over the top of them, purring disinterestedly into a microphone until someone tells her to stop. First single and album opener “Gimme More” is chock full of this. Sure, Danja’s synths are sufficiently buzzy, his beat simplistic and easy to nod to, but putting Britney’s voice on top of those synths and that beat robs them of any mettle they might have had. The surgically inserted “more” syllables in the chorus only add to the feel that this is a genetically engineered sort of dancefloor banger, rather than the sexy come-on of a song that it’s trying to be. The only real value in the song comes just as it begins, with Britney’s proclamation of “It’s Britney, bitch”, which is kind of hilarious. It’s more schlock value than shock value, really, but still worth hearing if, somehow, you haven’t yet.
Besides the disembodied nature of the vocals, however, there is context that keeps someone like Britney Spears from any air of believability. Second track and likely single candidate “Piece of Me” is supposed to be the grand kiss-off to a media that won’t leave her alone (never mind that she didn’t write a word of it), but it’s this close to coming off as proud of her tabloid “accomplishments”. Perhaps it’s reverse psychology. Whatever it is, it’s confusing enough that there’s no actual message to be taken from the song on which Britney is, by all appearances, actively trying to say something. As such, it’s just another little bit of dance pap, nigh-indistinguishable from (and decidedly inferior to) most of the rest of the radio pop that’s currently clogging up the airwaves.
Thank God for Bloodshy and Avant.
More than anyone else out there right now, this particular production duo seems to have some idea of what makes Britney tick, of what could actually make her a success. It’s a knack they first picked up on Spears’ last album In the Zone, with “Toxic”, which was just a killer pop song to end all pop songs. They’re responsible for a few of the tracks on Blackout, and it’s a pair right in the middle of the album that says that, yes, there might be hope for Britney on a musical level yet. “Freakshow” and “Toy Soldier” are simply incredible little dance ditties. “Freakshow” is actually one of three tracks that Britney had a hand in writing, the other two being “Get Naked (I Got a Plan)” and “Ooh Ooh Baby”—not exactly broadening her horizons with those now, is she? Regardless, “Freakshow” is fantastic for the very fact that a few of the layers of electronics are actually stripped off of Britney’s voice, allowing her to growl and coo and talk about how much she likes shaking her ass on the dancefloor like a human being. The robotics behind her are as processed as ever, but that’s okay, because for once she actually comes off as believable, as someone that the very clubgoers that the song is directed toward might actually relate to.
“Toy Soldier”, for its part, succeeds entirely due to its killer beat, a rolling little number nothing like anything else on the album.
The rest of Blackout has its big names, but none of them really put together anything that really sticks. It’s true, Danja’s all over the album, but he spends most of his time making Timbaland-lite beats and processing the hell out of Britney. T-Pain writes a track that’s as nondescript and lightweight as anything out of his own oeuvre, and Pharrell Williams tries to get Britney to emote a bit, though he seems to be fighting a losing battle.
Truth is, there’s no fun in piling on. Britney’s media-fueled public persona is sitting at such a low point that her true Hollywood story seems due for a positive development. As such, that same media is primed and ready to give high marks to what is, essentially, a pile of electro-pop dance tracks that could have come from anyone else’s album if anyone else had the dollars to pay for this collection of producers. The media wants her to succeed because, at this point, we all want her to succeed, and we’re ready to call a subpar piece of art a success because that’s what we want it to be. Don’t fall into that trap. Right down to its utterly garish cover, Blackout is utterly disposable and ultimately forgettable. At least the title, then, is perfect.