Britney Spears

Blackout

(Jive; 2007)

By David Ritter | 2 February 2008

Are the kids in America ok?

In his 1987 culture war manifesto The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom spills a lot of ink elaborating his resounding "NO!". Not only are they lacking a common cultural upbringing based in canonical literature, classical music, and moral philosophy, but their Eros is off. Rather than channeled and heightened through institutions of sexual deferment and a tradition of beautifying erotic poetry, Eros is spent early. The kids are dancing; they are looking at porn; and, most significantly for Bloom, the kids are listening to rock music.

I am paraphrasing rather loosely, but there is no doubt that Bloom sees music as a generational obsession with no historical equivalent. It is "society's greatest madness." Literature, film, technology, career choice...nothing defines the young identity as thoroughly as musical affiliation. We pledge allegiance to rock and roll, the lowbrow howlings of cosmetic revolutionaries and pelvic ministers. The beat of rock music is the beat of sex, and the fandom of twelve year-olds is their premature induction into sexual maturity; Bloom's nightmare is young children singing "Brown sugar, how come you taste so good?" They cannot authentically be erotic, so they just gyrate and masturbate and spoil all their potential. It's not the loss of innocence or lack of family values he laments, but that the soul under these conditions becomes really boring. All the erotic tension that used to keep us tight like a bow, hungry with a desire that motivates us to transcend the mundane, is dissipated by premature ejaculation, so to speak. Eros used to fill kids with wonder and longing. Now it is all wasted like so many dribblings of ejaculate on the sheets.

We are all partisans, and so we must be against this sort of conservative fogeyism. Rock is our passion and our politics, and we cannot sign on to a theory where rock and roll cannot properly fire our passions. Neither will we listen when they tell us that hip hop's misogyny and heterosexism engender hate, nor that the violence in our video games fills our fantasies. Thus, I am against Bloom, but ambivalently so. His book haunts me. Like him, I wonder what it has meant for me to have grown up walking down city streets that read like a Victoria Secret catalogue, and I wonder if the kids in America -- fatherless YouTube strippers nourished with nitrates and corn syrup -- are ok.

Inevitably, I glimpse a blurry outline of Blackout through the thick fog of BRITNEY, the infinite galaxy of paparazzi bullshit that ensures I know all about a certain young woman's dedicated sex room and lack of a sound investment strategy. The spectacle of young female celebrity dissolution functions for today's parents as the free love movement did in the '60s, as a nightmare of unbridled sexuality and the evils of privilege + license. Where are her parents? they wonder as DUI's fall from the sky like miracles of Paris Hilton-hating revenge. Meanwhile, their children of thirteen are high and fellating each other, just as their icons say they should. Of course, this is a grossly ridiculous amalgamation of media money-making, reactionary backlash, and our fears of a world gone mad. As with most nightmares, however, there is truth at the heart: our children are oversexed. And artists like Britney, though neither cause nor effect, seem to have something to do with it.

Blackout signals its defiance of our disapproval with the opening salvo: "It's BRITNEY, bitch." She is BRITNEY the star and we are all her bitches. From a position "above" all the drama, Britney proclaims that everyone taking shots at her, from the paparazzi to the critics and even her listeners, is just a jealous hater. In response to the hate, Britney gives us a middle-finger-to-the-world album consisting of two different types of songs: explicit paparazzi response jamz, and dance floor sex jamz. This is slightly and boringly complicated by the fact that her club songs consist of a certain kind of defiant response, since one of the things they seem to say is, "I'll keep partying whether you bitches like it or not." Lead-off single "Gimme More" is the exception that stradles the fence -- i.e. an explicit dance floor paparazzi sex response jam. It's all in (shit, the whole album is encapsulated by) the first two lines, "It's BRITNEY, bitch / I see you, and I just wanna dance with you." It's a dance floor grinding scene that is somehow also the "center of attention." "Cameras are flashing" and it's actually the crowd that is singing "gimme more"; though we suspect that its both the world that wants more BRITNEY and Britney who is saying "bring it on." "Gimme More" is the best song here and the most appropriate lead single because its status as sexarazzi explicit dance response floor gives it a depth lacking in the rest of the record. Its completion marks the end of any subtext on the album; everything else just is what it is. Not that I am complaining about a lack of serious content. I'm as happy as the next guy to listen to vacant dance music about dancing, and lyrical depth would be out of place on a Britney record. The issue is rather that ("Gimme More" excepted) the album completely fails in two of its three intentions. It wants to be danceable, sexy, and a defiant response to the media shitstorm. It's not even that danceable.

A consensus seems to be forming around this record that goes Britney/vocals = bad, producers/tracks = good, with a caveat of "she chose collaborators well." I'm kind of on board with this except that the right people here do so many wrong things. I shouldn't write shit about Danja, and it's months and months too late to call him Timbaland-lite. Still, you play his solo productions on Blackout next to the team work on FutureSex/LoveSound (2006) and that's exactly how it feels. You even get Danja's crappy voice ad-libbing and singing hooks like big bro does, but not as well (which is quite something, considering Timbaland's vocals). This feeling of disappointment pervades this record. The tight beats and fat synth hooks are fashionable and feisty enough, but they're ultimately frustrated by a sense of not-quite, a feeling that skilled beat-makers are saving their A-game for next week's gig. The Neptunes production "Why Should I Be Sad" is particularly disappointing, not just in comparison to career highlights like last year's Hell Hath No Fury but even next to previous collaborations like "I'm A Slave 4 U." Everything is serviceable enough, but none of it pops. It sounds like I should want to dance to it, but I don't. Good talent, sub-par results. ln baseball they chalk that up to bad management.

After "Gimme More," the best stab at futuristic club fare is "Piece of Me." The basic beat+synths+vocal package works here, and it's bolstered by detailed double-tracked vocals. The hook, "you want a piece of me," is just the kind of slippery fish that benefits from the vocoder treatment. So far so good, but then there's the lyrics. Unfortunately, "Piece of Me" is Britney's anti-papparazzi manifesto, a song dripping with so much flaccid disdain that its sure to alienate everyone. The sentiment here oscillates between "piece" as in the piece desired by the lover, the capitalist, or the tabloid photographer, and "you want a piece of me?" in the fisticuffs sense. What should've been a much better song about sexy fisticuffs (!?) comes off as thinly veiled sour grapes. It's hard to imagine how Britney could have constructed a dignified response to her media situation, but her faux-arrogant hurt feelings do nothing but distract. And as far as defiance goes, all that "Piece of Me" proves is that Britney is pissed -- which, as any schoolyard bully could tell, just reveals how much it has gotten to her.

The remainder of my anecdotal complaints ("Toy Soldiers" apes "Hollaback Girl" with a vengeance; "Ooh Ooh Baby" seems to contain a "fillin' me up"/"feelin' me up" pun, which is gross) are all eclipsed by the apparent paradox that this most explicitly sexual of Britney records is also her least sexy. Score one for Bloom, who understands that Eros spoils in bright light. The flat lewdness of songs like "Get Naked (I Have a Plan)" and "Perfect Lover" leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. The trying-too-hard unsexiness just hangs there like an X-rated oops pic. Lines like "Baby I'm just hot for takin' / Don't you wanna see my body naked" and "Get naked / Get naked / Get naked" are signifiers of explicitness with no signifieds. I would never claim a subtle eroticism to Britney's early work, but at least there were levels. On singles like "...Baby One More Time" and "Oops!... I Did It Again" the subject was actually love and relationships. Sex was (not too subtly) implied in the beat, the gyrating, and the schoolgirl midriffs. Britney said one thing but meant another. Her double-talk image was similarly tantalizing, as she played the virgin/whore dichotomy by combining hot pants with teletubees or in-heat panting with talk of down-home values. All the young, forbidden hints and inuendos --though completely stupid -- were at least more titillating than all this cutting to the chase. Britney's new straight-talking, truculent stripper persona is about as sexy as a Sue Johanson seminar. For an album that is predicated so thoroughly on turning us on, this is about as big a flop as it gets.

More than just making me listen to a bad album, Britney makes me wonder about the state of the West. There are no less than four porn company reality shows on any given TV night, while HBO and Showcase recently debuted their most nude-filled series yet. We live in a world where that which used to fire our imaginations more and more just assaults our senses. We only get a little of what we need, but the amount of what we get is staggering. One-dimensional arousal is so readily available that there is no thrill, no chase. If I sound like a prude it's because we no longer understand the difference between sexual freedom and pole dancing fitness classes. Indeed, the central evil of all this pornographic pablum is not that it makes us grow up too fast, but that it keeps us infantile. There is thus a strange continuum between BRITNEY the tabloid nightmare and Britney the artist; both are predicated on a lowest-common-denominator sexuality that wants to titillate and shock, but mostly just leaves us cold. Even worse, this shit is everywhere, from the bedroom to the boardroom to the dark corners of my soul. And if my instincts are right it's going to be difficult for us not to become very, very boring because of it.