"DID YOU HEAR? BRITNEY'S DEAD." The rumor spread quickly through an off-campus party one Saturday night. It was November 2007 and anyone with an Internet connection was well aware of Britney's troubles that year--the shaved head, the alleged drug use, the rehab, the divorce, the custody battle. Each new low captured in close-up by swarms of paparazzi. Britney in a ratty wig at Starbucks. Britney in the club with no panties. Britney bald and swinging an umbrella. How far she had fallen, this patron saint of our collective puberty, whose career over the previous decade had stoked the hormones of boys and girls alike. It was rumored that some news outlets had already drafted obituaries for her. It was only a matter of time. I was stunned by the news. I had come to regard Britney like you would a troubled cousin who couldn't quite get her shit together, and was rooting for her to find a way out of this mess. My fellow partygoers were mostly unsurprised. This was the kind of thing that tended to happen to celebrities, right? Another LA horror story. What else was there to do but continue the party? They assured me that Britney would have wanted it that way.
Famous women behaving badly have always been easy targets for our collective projection of disgust and fascination. The year 2007 seems in retrospect like a highwater mark for the feeding frenzy, with Paris Hilton's DUI and brief jail stay, Lindsay Lohan's two arrests and visit to rehab, Amy Winehouse's ascent and subsequent troubles, Anna Nicole Smith's tragic death by overdose, and, above all, the spectacular decline of Britney Spears. Countless web outlets at the time provided daily accounts of young Hollywood's hijinks, but the appetite for Britney-related content reigned supreme. It was easier, I think, to pick apart the failures of these women at behaving respectably than to consider the seemingly intractable problem of America's diminished position in the world. Britney's fall from grace represented the biggest rupture in expectations of them all. As Harvey Levin, founder of TMZ, told Rolling Stone in 2008: "We serialize Britney Spears. She's our President Bush."
On October 25, 2007 Britney released Blackout, her fifth studio album. Pop star bylaws in the age before Gaga dictated that a change in hair color at the dawn of an album cycle, especially from blonde to black or brown, was meant to signal a shift in tone. Madonna's Like a Prayer dye job accompanied her most personal album yet, while Christina went dark over the course of the Stripped era as part of a newly liberated and confrontational sexuality. The music video for "Gimme More," Blackout's lead single, similarly heralded the arrival of a new Britney. Released on October 5, 2007, its premise is simple--a break from the more complex narratives of videos like "Toxic" or "Everytime." Blonde Britney watches from across the club as brunette Britney pole dances listlessly and removes her top. Fin.
The album art for Blackout, shot by Ellen von Unwerth, is just as explicit in its intentions, portraying brunette Britney glowering as a motorcycle tough in one shot, and seducing a priest through a confessional screen in another. Gone are the wide-eyed assertions of virginity, the big smile shilling Pepsi and Big Macs, the ambivalence of being not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman. What remains is an album of stark, chilly electro-pop that boasts two songs about sex on a dance floor while people gawk and take photos. Coupled with Britney's day-to-day antics--driving aimlessly around Los Angeles, antagonizing paparazzi at gas stations, missing court dates regarding the custody of her kids--the overall message sounded like "I'm not who you thought I was and that's not my fucking problem."
Competing theories in the media attributed Britney's behavior in 2007 to drugs, alcohol, mental illness, or some combination therein. There was an air of entitlement to these criticisms. Perez Hilton chastised Britney for her performance of "Gimme More" at the VMAs, calling her "disrespectful and half-assed" for not living up to our expectations, as if she owed us anything. Despite the legions of Hollywood's highly visible casualties throughout the years, Americans still view fame as a worthy and desirable goal, with money and attention presumed to be salves for all of life's difficulties. To see someone so willfully sabotage their own public image elicited a visceral reaction. How dare Britney show so little regard for all that we've given her? How dare she leave the house looking like such a mess?
These responses hinge on the faulty perception that fame is actually worth the chaos it causes in people's lives, especially those whose adolescent years play out in the public eye. Interviews with those present at the infamous head-shaving incident, which occurred 6 months before Blackout's release, recount Britney saying that she was "tired of people touching me," providing context for the act that complicates the prevailing narrative that she was simply crazy or fucked up. Perhaps these were the actions of a woman who, however messy or misguided, was trying to claim some space in a life that for years did not belong to her.
Songs from Blackout, especially "Gimme More" and "Piece of Me," were everywhere in the fall of 2007, underscoring many of my first experiences on gay dance floors in New York City. Many gay men I know describe their first visit to an exclusively queer space as overwhelming, accompanied by a heady and resounding sense that "I can do whatever I want here." The sudden acknowledgment of long-repressed desire explodes outward, inspiring behavior that is bold or drastic or just plain reckless. I found myself retreating into darkened rooms with guys I just met to see how badly they wanted me. Stripping to my underwear and dancing on a bar because someone dared me to. Fishing singles out of my briefs to pay for a round of shots. Catching my own eye in the bathroom mirror and conspiring to have one more drink, one more hit, one more cigarette. In the weeks after I came out to my parents, I too shaved all my hair off. Not because of Britney necessarily, but because I wanted to feel like I was in control.
Blackout was the perfect companion to these experiences, "It's Britney, bitch!" a rallying cry for the transgressions it would inspire. Taken together in one listen, the album is a potent cocktail of exhibitionism ("Gimme More" "Freakshow"), dance floor cockiness ("Radar" "Break the Ice"), sexual ecstasy ("Heaven on Earth" "Perfect Lover"), and a middle finger at expectations ("Piece of Me" "Hot as Ice"). Critics praised the album for its bold and innovative sound, but also took note of how absent Britney seemed, how autotuned and distorted her voice was, how she would drop out of some tracks altogether for one of the producers to take over the chorus. In the samples of Britney speaking throughout the album, she sounds woozy and a little out of it. Listen to how she purrs "I just can't control myself... oooh," on "Gimme More," or her iconic "I like this part" in the middle of "Break the Ice," both of which sound like they were preceded by a hit of poppers. While Jive Records claimed (unconvincingly) that Blackout's title referred to "blocking out negativity and embracing life fully," it's hard not to read the album more literally--as a celebration of escapism by any means necessary.
Despite Britney's credit as an executive producer on Blackout--her first and only album where that's the case--it was generally presumed that producers Nate "Danja" Hills, Jim Beanz, and Swedish duo Bloodshy & Avant were responsible for the album's forward-thinking production. Similarly in life, a string of men were assumed to be responsible for Britney's increasingly deviant behavior, including ex-husband #1 Jason Alexander, ex-husband #2 Kevin Federline, paparazzo-turned-boyfriend Adnan Ghalib, and hanger-on-turned-manager Sam Lutfi. The media narrative of an innocent woman corrupted by men is tremendously common, visible elsewhere throughout 2007 in Amy Winehouse's relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, and Whitney Houston's divorce from Bobby Brown. I think that Blackout persists as an object of fascination because of this blurring of lines between Britney, the person, and Britney, the pop star. It's as if a glitch in pop's machinery allowed Blackout to reveal something darker and more truthful about fame, sex, and growing up with Britney at its center.
Blackout's influence is apparent on the following year's biggest pop album, Lady Gaga's 2008 debut The Fame. Consider Gaga's tongue-in-cheek worship of celebrity and paparazzi on the album alongside her reliance on wigs, costumes, and persona early in her career. They made her stand out and attracted attention, as she intended, but also doubled as tools of self-preservation, obscuring the woman underneath who, in Britney's wake, knew just how bloodthirsty her audience was. On her gory performance of "Paparazzi" at the 2009 VMA's, Gaga told MTV: "I wanted to say something about how the celebrity sort of has this inevitable demise that we love to watch. But are we killing them or are they killing themselves? If you're wondering what I'm going to look like when I die, here it is."
None of the albums that have followedBlackout in Britney's catalogue have its sense of immediacy and wild abandon. Since Britney was placed under a court-approved conservatorship in January 2008, which to this day limits her personal and financial freedom, her handlers have been primarily concerned with righting the ship and playing it safe, presumably to protect both Britney, the person, and Britney, the pop star. By a certain metric it has worked--Britney's Vegas residency earned more than $100 million as of February 2017 and she looks happy and healthy in her Instagram posts of late. But dip into any Britney fan forum in the weeks leading up to a new release and you're sure to see hopes that this will be the album that is as good as Blackout.
\u201cI heard Happy Birthday Blackout was trending earlier... thank u all for loving the album as much as I do. Blackout 2.0?\u201d
Fans are similarly hungry for Britney to talk about the album, but in interviews she is mostly tight-lipped and vague about this period in her career. A rare mention that stands out is a tweet sent on the eve of the album's fifth anniversary. "I heard Happy Birthday Blackout was trending earlier... thank u all for loving the album as much as I do." Despite the pain and trauma that may haunt her memories of 2007, when the world turned on her for daring to show the ugly side of fame, I hope that Britney draws comfort from the fact that there are people like me who feel connected to her through Blackout. That by channeling the messiness of her life into an album of weapons-grade pop, she ceased being just a sex symbol or a commodity or a celebrity and became unmistakably human.