In 2007, I was a college sophomore living in Centennial Hall at the U of M who spent a decent amount of her "studying" time on the popular LiveJournal celebrity gossip group Oh No They Didn't.
The most popular topics at the time (all of which I was interested in) were Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton’s jail time, and Britney Spears, then in the midst of her now-infamous breakdown. I, like everyone else, was glued to Britney's every move, every wig, every late-night Frappucino run.
I’d never cared much about Britney back when she’d been on top of the world. My cheer squad practiced dances to her album In the Zone and she was always on TRL, but she just wasn't my thing. (I preferred Christina.) When B's TV show Britney + Kevin: Chaotic debuted in 2005, though, I found myself obsessed with this weird, often-stoned, rebellious pop star. She'd spent so much of her life in a celebrity bubble that she yearned for the outside world, kind of like Ariel.
2007 was a turning point for a lot of Britney fans. It was a tough time to be emotionally invested in her well-being, as she was clearly Going Through It: serving her mom a restraining order, going to rehab, immediately checking out of rehab, dating a paparazzo whose name will probably be on my dying breath (Adnan Ghalib), and losing custody of her adorable Federline progeny, Sean Preston and Jayden James.
It was also the year that Britney dropped Blackout, an album beloved by Britney stans and skeptics alike. Its first single was “Gimme More,” a song that continues to reverberate through gay clubs and bachelorette parties around the world.
I couldn't stop listening to it. I listened to "Gimme More" on my 8 a.m. walk to Folwell Hall. I listened to "Gimme More" in the elevator. I listened to "Gimme More" while burning my hair with a cheap flat iron before a Friday night frat party. I listened to "Gimme More" over and over and over, entranced. And when Blackout dropped, I woke up at 3 a.m. to an IM from my BFF in the dorm room next door, saying that she'd gotten the leak and was uploading for me.
In the years since, I've listened to Blackout probably more than any other album except Joni Mitchell's Blue. It was my go-to tanning bed album from 2007-2010, when I quit the bed like the bad habit it was. It was my album of choice when mowing rural cemeteries, a summer job I loved. It always sounds good, and today it sounds as modern as when it dropped 10 years ago.
Blackout helped pioneer a sound pop stars and producers still draw from today, foregrounding the good-girl-gone-bad edge that had always been present in Britney’s music and taking it downtown and downstairs into the darkest corners of the club. Danja, the album’s primary producer, warped Britney’s nasal kittenishness throughout the album, pushing her vocals from a purr to a growl to a shriek and back again. There’s the crunch of “Get Back,” the ‘80s synth drumming of “Heaven on Earth,” and the jarring “Piece of Me,” a biography in a song if there ever was one. (It’s also the title of Britney’s Vegas residency.)
Blackout also sounded like what Britney was going through at the time, as dark and sharp and sexy as her own life. “Get Naked (I Got a Plan),” on which Danja appears, is supposed to be a come-on, but his dragged-out vocal is laced with danger. Blackout sounds like glass breaking, like the thump of a basement party, like the fizz sparkles of your first strong drink. It’s the party, the hookup, and the hangover, all in one.
Blackout is an album for your early twenties, for that blissful few years where you’re staying up until 5 a.m. and waking up on a futon in someone else’s dorm room, smoking cigarettes just because you can, popping open a Red Bull, figuring out your sexuality (and yourself) with every hookup and text message and late night taxi ride, every breakup and all-nighter with your girlfriends.
And the album saves its biggest surprise for the end: “Why Should I Be Sad,” a mournful-yet-triumphant song clearly inspired by the Britney/K-Fed divorce, and a pivot from the party vibe of the rest of the album. In all Britney’s years of stardom, we’ve gotten only a few deeply personal songs written by B herself, including the delicately devastating “Everytime” and “Someday (I Will Understand),” written just before she found out she was pregnant. We grasp at these little moments where we see the woman behind the machine, and the inclusion of “Why Should I Be Sad” on Blackout was one of the most important of these. With 10 years between us and the Federline era, it’s like listening to a time capsule now.
Blackout’s influence feels as strong in 2017 as it did a decade ago. Britney remains the model for young pop stardom; look at Selena Gomez, who isn’t much of a singer but teams up with the right producers, or Miley Cyrus, who shared a manager with Brit and experienced her fair share of Disney star drama. The criminally underrated Tinashe worships at the altar of Britney, and you can feel the influence of Blackout in all of her music. (Tinashe also appeared on Brit’s song “Slumber Party.”) Even electropop acts like Terror Jr. and Kiiara have taken a cue from the edgy, otherworldly production and vocal styles of Blackout.
The legendary Miss Britney Spears herself has transformed from a sexy pop star to a kooky mom with a hilarious, impeccable Instagram. We speculate about her mental state and her happiness and the secrets of her meltdown of yore, but we can never really know what’s going on with Britney because she doesn’t do interviews (at least not anything more than superficial stuff) and is kept fiercely guarded by Team Spears.
By all accounts, Britney seems happy with her life as it is now: the Vegas shows, the workouts, the days at the pool with her sons, the trips to Disney with her model boyfriend Sam, who’s nearly a decade younger than her. The follow ups to Blackout, Circus and Femme Fatale, were quite good, and Britney Jean had potential that was wasted by will.i.am’s production. Last year, Britney released Glory, an album she called “artsy fartsy” that’s purely delightful in its weirdness—and an album that feels more like Blackout than anything she’s released since 2007. We’ll get Britney’s Ray of Light sooner or later.
Then again, maybe we already did. Maybe Blackout was her album of rebirth and renewal.