Britney Spears Blackout

How Britney Spears’ ‘Blackout’ Documented Her Harrowing Present While Predicting Pop’s Future

Britney Spears’ Blackout feels fresher than ever 15 years on. It captured the darkness of her personal life and cemented new dance music in the pop lexicon.

Britney Spears
Jive / Zomba
25 October 2007

We tend only to sense early rumblings of major seismic shifts in popular music when they happen; things that end up being the most influential often arrive to no applause, getting their flowers only in years to come. Other monuments hide in plain sight – under the cover of sound and fury, signifying nothing, comes what will be duplicated repeatedly during the years to follow. Britney Spears changed the pop landscape when her 1999 debut “…Baby One More Time” revitalized teen pop for the new century. If there were a second shift she’d set in motion, it started in a crowded club in Miami circa 2006, where producer Danja, fresh off of crafting hits for Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake, decided he heard the sound of the mainstream’s future on the dance floor.

“I didn’t think about ‘pop music’ while creating Blackout,” he told The Fader for Spears’ fifth album’s tenth anniversary in 2017. “I was into dance music and EDM at the time, but it wasn’t mainstream yet. […] Everyone was bouncing around to Benny Benassi’s ‘Satisfaction’ and Tiesto in a trance. I was like, ‘That’s it. If my music doesn’t make you feel like that, what are we doing?’ I didn’t think about anything other than bringing that essence to popular culture.”

Fifteen years ago, people weren’t as concerned with the growing underground EDM scene as they were with Britney Spears – and not necessarily Britney Spears, the performer, but what they perceived as her inevitable, tabloid-aided collapse. In recent years, we’ve followed the uncovering of her confinement under a conservatorship, realizing the darkness she’d endured as one of the most famous women in the world. Back then, most critics focused on her increasingly public struggle with fame, her divorce, and a rehab stint, but Spears let the venom seep into her most consistent musical effort to date, sketching the blueprint for an entire decade of pop in the process.

If 2001’s Britney and 2004’s In the Zone were the sound of Spears attempting to mature, staging sexual liberation as former teen idols have done before and after her, Blackout was the first time she sounded truly dangerous. Looking back, the record opened the gates of dark, glitchy dance-pop heaven (or hell) for a new breed of artists immersing themselves in the world of futuristic, more experimental sound. By the next decade, you couldn’t turn on a radio station without hearing chopped-up, pitch-shifted vocals over layers of jagged club beats. It’s also no surprise that hyper-pop innovators like Charli XCX or experimental R&B artists like Tinashe have cited the album as a key influence, especially as each of their fringe genres has bled into more radio-friendly fare that they either wrote or influenced themselves.

Blackout’s production and writing team – including Danja, Keri Hilson, Kara DioGuardi, T-Pain, the Neptunes, the Clutch, and Bloodshy & Avant – crafted something sinister to counteract the sickly-sweet teen pop of Spears’ early career, sounding sultry and bloodless in equal measure. If the breathy, delirious lust of airtight hits like the Bloodshy & Avant-produced “Toxic” built the foundation for Spears to become the genre’s heaviest hitter, Blackout is the same sensuality stuck in a deep freeze, icy in even its grimiest moments.

“We were given the specific direction that she did not want the music to mimic her personal life,” Hilson remembered of her time working primarily with Danja, as well as producers Ms. Lago and Jim Beanz, on three of the album’s tracks, “so we figured, ‘OK, so let’s create a fantasy world that she would be happy in.'” Hilson credits Beanz with writing the album’s opening declaration of “It’s Britney, bitch,” manipulated to sound like echoing sonar sent down the line directly to the center of the listener’s head. This battle cry kicks the innocence of “Oops!…I Did it Again” directly in the teeth. 

An entire decade before other pop mavens claimed their “old” self was “dead”, Spears threw an elaborate, alien club night as her wake with the opening track “Gimme More” serving as her entrance song. Allegedly, the song’s original music video even featured Spears holding a funeral for the “old Britney”, though only the audio of the “funeral intro” version still exists online. As wailing demands for “more!” guide you into the center ring, there’s still a distinct feeling that the harsh neon light is constructed to block out flashbulbs bursting through the hedges outside the studio. When Spears whimpers, “They want more? / Then I’ll give ’em more,” it feels more like a taunt than a genuine come-on. Delivered in her signature husky pout, she plays menace as much as a temptress, winking to the media chaos that surrounds her against her will. Even with the rule that Spears’ personal life was to stay out of the music, the reality can’t help but bleed into the synthetic party’s darkness.

Elsewhere, the single “Break the Ice” feels like a similarly calculated release of heat amidst the icy production, slamming on the breaks midway to submerge into a whooshing, Janet Jackson-inspired dance break. Choir vocal samples sprinkled throughout make the affair feel more like a heavenly second coming than a story of smooth seduction, interrupting the hook’s insular loop with eerie flashes of divine intervention. Reaching comparable extremes, deeper cut “Toy Soldier” sees Spears and Danja fully immerse themselves in the sleaze as both rasp over the relative lightness of tip-toeing synths mimicking plucked strings. It feels more aggressive than Spears had ever gotten, with the refrain’s party-girl whines grating beautifully against the harsh, structured beat. From the spooky, swampy groove of “Freakshow” to the wobbly backing vocals on “Hot as Ice” and pounding synths of “Perfect Lover”, there’s always a looming sense of unease beneath seemingly innocuous lyrics, never letting you completely settle into your booth in the club of Blackout’s creation.

There are points where the personal creeps in beyond suggestion, but only when Spears loved the song enough. Such was the case with the Bloodshy & Avant-helmed “Piece of Me”, with its warped, electroclash backing, kiss-off lyrics, and gasping hook that fittingly sounds like a voice being strangled. “I’m Miss American Dream since I was 17,” she sings to a clipped staccato melody, purposely sounding robotic in her delivery. It’s as if the real Britney knows an artificial stand-in could take her place and the public wouldn’t notice, just shove their lens in its face in anticipation of the next scene it’ll make. When the line is repeated later on, it’s warped almost beyond recognition, posing as if “Mrs. Oh-my-God-that-Britney’s-shameless” is real flesh-and-blood Frankenstein’s monster at Spears’ side.

At the album’s literal and thematic center comes the clearest representation of heaven and hell colliding on the same dancefloor, splitting it down the middle with the Eurodisco euphoria of “Heaven on Earth” and the distorted meltdown of “Get Naked (I Got a Plan)”. Where the former shimmers in the mirrorball lights as its overlapping vocal lines grow increasingly dizzy in their infatuation, the latter flips the listener to its underworld counterpart, letting Danja’s down-pitched hook warp things enough that it sounds like the track itself is intoxicated. There are points where Spears sounds like an alien trying to mime human sexuality, repeating each refrain with such overt, druggy conviction that it almost sounds satirical – or unintentionally disconcerting, namely in light of how Spears was allegedly mistreated in the years that followed. Even in the chaotic swirl, each section or hook arrives in precise sections, purposely devoid of heart or sentiment in its hunt to create a different reality for Spears – one where her only concern is dancing under the lights rather than the world breathing down her neck.

If one track lets Spears get vulnerable in a way that defies the rest of the album, it’s the closing track, the Pharell-written and Neptunes-produced “Why Should I Be Sad”. Reflective lyrics and warm, swelling synths paint a regret-filled supercut of Spears’ public relationship and breakup, finally letting color return to her cheeks after playing dead for the rest of the album’s runtime. “It’s time for me to move along / It’s time for me to get it on / I’m tired of singing sad songs,” she insists, finally finding a pulse over sustained strings before Pharrell’s voice through with a sharp “Britney, let’s go!” in each chorus. It feels like a cold slap of reality – or perhaps a reminder that this isn’t the album and that it’s time to immerse ourselves back in the fantasy world Blackout creates. 

In hindsight, it almost sounds like a distinct slam of the door behind a pop star we’d never see in quite the same light again. Though subsequent albums reintroduced a more immediate, marketable sound to revitalize SpSpears’areer, they also marked the beginning of her isolation as a very real darkness manifested behind closed doors. The demented club of Spears and her collaborators’ dreams drew from the darkness of her life at that point, but they couldn’t have possibly known the parallels we’ve drawn retrospectively – both in terms of the space created for weirder music on the charts and the album’s throughline of a woman barred from the real world, feigning performance until she has no autonomy at all.

In that sense, Blackout’segacy has worked twofold: where Spears, her achievements, and the injustice she faced have caused her most celebrated works to come up regularly in music media (and social media) conversation, it’s also continuously referenced in the current frontier of pop. By pulling from the underground, Blackout infiltrated the next generation of writers and producers in a way that has reached the mainstream’s surface again. If, at the time, it felt like a defiant statement from an artist who had played the system up to that point, it feels even more radical now (and only slightly less shocking, simply because everything we hear has borrowed from it, often with less exciting results). It might not be the definitive Britney Spears album, but it’s contested as her strongest effort, unraveling the myth of the pop princess as it brands her a survivor of a harrowing past, still writing music’s brighter future.



Everything You Know Means Nothing: Problematic Art and Crystal Castles’ Legacy

Sara Petite Has Fun “Bringin’ Down the Neighborhood”

The 10 Best Indie Rock Albums of 2013

Liberation Blues: Tinariwen Invoke the Sahel’s Complex History on ‘Amatssou’