'Blackout': Britney Is Back, Not That You'd Notice

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

That Britney Spears maintains a busy schedule, no? There's the rehab; the carousing; the wig fittings; the Taco Bell runs; the ongoing custody battle over her two sons with ex-hubby Kevin Federline. Perhaps it's no wonder, then, that Spears doesn't have a lot of time anymore for the thing that made her such a cultural phenomenon in the first place. No, not her infamously flashed private parts; her music.

In the four years since Brit-Brit released her last studio recording, the sexualized "In the Zone," she's become better known as a walking personal disaster than as the seller of 83 million albums worldwide. Now comes the return of Britney Spears, pop singer. Her new mediocre studio album, "Blackout," opens with a declaration: "It's Britney, [expletive]!" Dripping with attitude, it's a star move of a statement -- but it's also an outlier. Britney isn't really Britney on "Blackout" -- her voice has been digitally distorted to the point that she sounds like a cooing cyborg.

She also sounds like a supporting player on her own comeback album. With studio software manipulating her voice and stripping it of any real human characteristics, it becomes a somewhat faceless digital instrument for "Blackout's" sprawling team of producers to sprinkle between the album's pounding programmed drums, squiggly bass lines, synth stabs and such. Were "More Vocoder!" T-shirts being passed out in the studio or something? The end result is (mostly) state-of-the-art dance-pop in which the singer is secondary. This is fine if you're a random Euro-pop singer; not so much if you're Britney Spears and you're attempting to resurrect your brand.

Spears mostly sat out the songwriting process after becoming increasingly engaged in that element over the course of her two previous albums. Nobody will ever confuse her with Carole King, but one would think that Spears might have some thoughts of her own about K-Fed or her life in the boiling water of the celebrity fishbowl. And yet, her name is nowhere to be found on the writing credits for the "Blackout" songs that address those topics as she instead relies on others to get in touch with her innermost feelings.

Those feelings apparently include (but are not limited to) disappointment, defensiveness and defiance. In the sinewy, shifty "Piece of Me," Spears "sings" that she's "Miss-bad-media-karma/Another day, another drama/Guess I can't see the harm in working and being a mama." She's also "Mrs.-oh-my-God-that-Britney's-shameless" and "Mrs.-most-likely-to-get-on-the-TV-for-strippin-on-the-streets-when-getting-the-groceries." Repeatedly, she asks in the refrain: "You want a piece of me?"

"Toy Soldier" is a hopped-up K-Fed kiss-off in which Spears announces, "I'm so damn glad that's over . . . I'm sick of toy soldiers." In the wretched album-closing ballad, "Why Should I Be Sad," Spears reflects (via a ghostwriter, of course) on her failed marriage. "My friends said you would play me/But I just said they're crazy/While I was crying, praying/Was it true?"

Britney's absence from the majority of "Blackout's" credits certainly makes one wonder whether she sounds like a strangely disembodied diva here because she just wasn't fully committed to the project. (She certainly looked like a disembodied diva during that catatonic performance of lead single "Gimme More" on the MTV's Video Music Awards last month.) There was no shortage of talent willing to work with her: The credits for "Blackout" include roughly two dozen songwriters (including heavyweights Sean Garrett and Kara DioGuardi) and more than a half-dozen producers or production teams, from Timbaland protege Nate "Danja" Hills to Bloodshy and Avant, the Swedish tandem behind Britney's earlier hit "Toxic."

Mostly, they've created slinky, synthy come-ons constructed for the dance floor, from the exhilarating Euro-disco song "Heaven on Earth" to the futuristic funk of "Gimme More." Not that Britney herself has anything else to give. No time.

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