Sex and Guilt and Britney Spears
Fall off the edge of my mind
The deluge of Britney-related uninformative info is so thick in the air these days that I can't begin to unpack where I heard what about what. Just by going to the gym, by flipping channels, by walking outside and glimpsing broadsheet-paper headlines, you're going to learn some new appalling factoid about mid-breakdown Brit. Britney Spears might even be more famous now, as she's scraping rock-bottom, than she was when she was still a world-conquering pop star who actually sold records and didn't inspire mass-cult tuts. Last time I was in Rite Aid, she scored some sort of ugly TMZ trifecta, appearing on the covers of the three magazines displayed next to the cash register: People, Us Weekly, and OK. I can barely remember a time when I could buy Nerds Rope without getting an eyeful of this one pop singer's public shame. That sad omnipresence isn't the only reason I've been spending an inordinate amount of time with Blackout, that last Britney album; it is, after all, a strikingly well-made dance-pop album, especially for its first half. But on Blackout, craft is inextricable from context. Songs that would've worked perfectly well if they'd come from aspiring pop princesses suddenly take on ooky new meanings because the unspoken subtext of Blackout is this: what we're dealing with is an album from a young singer who was once massively successful and who might die soon.
I forget where I heard it, but apparently some newspapers have already prepared Britney obituaries, just in case. And I'll admit I've contemplated my eventual post-Britney-death blog post in the same way that I contemplated a Spice 1 tribute playlist after he suffered a gunshot wound to the stomach last month. That's just the sort of ghoulish possibility you learn to contemplate when you work in the media, when it's your job to help generate the noise that fills the air. But Britney Spears isn't an 89-year-old post-heart-attack Red Auerbach; she's not even a faded rapper recovering from a gunshot wound. She was born in 1981. She's 26 years old. And her biggest health problem is the string of incredibly public and incredibly questionable decisions she's trailed behind her over the past couple of years. But even if she eventually gets her shit together and figures out a way to live a fulfilling life inside or outside the public eye, it'll always be impossible to hear Blackout as anything other than a tangled missive from someone near the brink of something really, really bad.
Around the time Blackout came out, I had this to say about it: "Blackout is mostly an album about dancing and fucking, and at its best (the first half, basically) it actually does a pretty good job conveying the joy that ideally comes with both activities." Listening to it today, I have no fucking idea what I was talking about. When Spears is singing about dancing and fucking on this album, there's a sort of mechanistic desperation in her multitracked, autotuned voice. There's no joy or giddiness or even gentle self-mockery happening here. Instead, her voice is the blank slurry mutter of the drunk chick at the bar trying to attract or provoke attention by broadcasting how fucked up she is. The weird thing is that that sticky, stumbling discomfort actually works aesthetically for her way better than wide-eyed youthful wonder ever did. Consider, for example, "Gimme More," where her mumbles and giggles tumble haphazardly through a glistening field of decayed Euroclub synths; pretty much every industrial band of the 1990s would've killed to sound that depraved. Britney's VMA performance of the song has unfairly become the stuff of pop-cult legend, maligned as an atrocity when it was really just garden-variety bad, like pretty much every other performance on that show. But her narcotized inexpressiveness and her half-interested dancing worked perfectly with the song's music and message. Coming from anyone else, they might've even been seen as artistic decisions.
In many ways, Blackout reminds me an another album from a mid-breakdown pop star: Ol Dirty Bastard's Nigga Please, a record I love dearly. ODB was a rap cult hero as beloved for his self-destructive antics as for his rapping, so the reports of his long, agonizing degeneration carried more than a whiff of nasty playground-bully comedy rather than the shock-outrage moralism that's attended the decline of a genuine superstar like Britney. And ODB first arrived into public consciousness as a fully-formed bundle of self-exploiting self-destroying habits while Britney at first worked to seem as virginal as she was sexy, so her decline doesn't seem quite as inevitable as his. (Race and class and sex also come into play here in all the old, obvious ways.) But even if their situations were different, Dirty and Britney have both responded to their parallel deteriorations in the same way: by releasing tough, hard, elastic, immediate dance-pop albums that never distract us from their issues, that actively draw our attention toward whatever they're going through. Both Blackout and Nigga Please are all high-impact synthetic snap, their candy-colored new wave synths careening into each other in all sorts of enormously catchy ways. (And hey, Neptunes tracks on both!) Britney never slides as far into her own issues as Dirty did; there are no mid-verse burps or coughing fits, for instance. But on "Get Naked (I Got a Plan)" and "Freakshow," there's a willfully discomfiting pay-attention-to-me unsexy sexuality. When her voice suddenly pitch-shifts into screwed-and-chopped lower registers on the ladder ("Me and my girls like to get it on / Grab us a couple boys to go"), she sounds just like a drag queen, and she's actively repulsing attention at the same time as she's seeking it. She knows she's a car wreck, and she makes it work for her.
And so the gorgeous sundazed new-wave love-song "Heaven on Earth" works the same way ODB's death-warble cover of Billie Holiday's "Good Morning Heartache" worked on Nigga Please; it suddenly and heartbreakingly reveals an actual human heart still beating under all the outward neuroses. "Heaven on Earth" is total romantic-longing little-kid stuff, and there's a near-unbearable sincerity behind her sad, simplistic statement of devotion: "Tell me that I'll always be the one that you want / Don't know what I'd do if I ever lose you / Look at you and what I see is heaven on earth / I'm in love with you." Picturing her singing those words to or thinking them about her evil douchebag married paparazzi boyfriend with the goatee that looks like a caterpillar crawling up his face and I want to die. If she does die way too young, like ODB did, it's my fault and it's probably also yours.
Voice review: Theon Weber on Britney Spears's Blackout
Voice review: Sterling Clover on Britney Spears's In the Zone
Voice review: Irin Carmon & Amy Phillips on Britney Spears's Britney
Voice review: Metal Mike Saunders on Britney Spears's Oops! I Did It Again