The tenth anniversary of Britney Spears’ most raw album, Blackout, is upon us. Looking back, it's a harrowing time in the life of the pop star that marked a significant downturn in her career and public image, from which she's still recovering.
Every time I hear one of the singles from it, I have a physical reaction. I cringe. My body pulls into itself, making me smaller, while my mouth draws into a wince. In short, I look like I’m being attacked. In a way, I am — I worked at MTV during the release of the album, creating content around it, and there are some things from that time I can never unsee.
Blackout was anything but a normal album — or a normal album rollout. I was there at the 2007 VMAs in Las Vegas when Spears...well, calling it performed feels wrong so when she walked around the stage while “Gimme More” played. The rehearsals were closed, so the first time I saw it was during her live performance. It was immediately apparent that this was going badly, but by the end it was so terrible that I couldn’t even look at her. So, I watched Rihanna and Diddy’s faces instead, as their expressions went from confusion to disbelief to scorn in her case and pity in his. That was August — the previous February she shaved her head and had a few public breakdowns. Looking back, I can’t believe anyone thought she would just be fine and promote an album when she had so recently been displaying troubling signs of mental illness. Although I don’t remember hearing many conversations in the industry where what she did was referred to as signs of illness — I remember it as being something no one had a name for.
After the VMAs, there were lots of post-mortems in my team about what went wrong with Britney and conversations with her label about the upcoming album rollout. We were told that Britney wouldn’t be available to make any appearances or do any interviews, which was unheard of at the time. They were launching her album without her, while she took time to “get better.” Think about that for a minute: the wheels of commerce couldn’t stop until she was able to promote the album. The company releasing it felt they didn’t need her to promote her album. The Britney Spears brand was bigger than the actual Britney Spears. It’s not an accident the album was released on 30th October 2007, either — that date was selected to maximise fourth quarter (and holiday) profits. If her label had held the album, they would not have made that money in the year, and it might have caused their stock to go down. Yes, the music industry is now, was then, and always has been just that crass.
I worked on a fan video project we launched, where Britney stans could take elements of her “Piece of Me” video and mix them with media to create a remixed video. It meant I listened to that song, in chopped up pieces, at least five times a day for a couple of weeks. To this day, hearing it gives me goosebumps of the sort people say they get when it feels like a ghost is watching them or someone walked over their grave. Picking the song apart bit by bit like that made me really hear each and every lyric, isolated from each other. “Piece of Me” is a cry for help from someone who doesn’t want to be in the spotlight anymore, ironically presented on an album that thrusts them back into the spotlight. Britney snarls and growls through the song, attacking the industry, paparazzi, and fans alike. It makes not only celebrity but creativity sound like a noose that she’s choked herself with. And that, along with “Gimme More,” a song about having sex in public, were the singles from the album.
I have a physical reaction when thinking about this album because I believe it shouldn’t have come out. Spears went on to have a complete breakdown in February of 2008, including being detained without consent for her the sake of her mental health and having her finances and career placed under a court-approved conservatorship held by her father, Jamie, and a lawyer, Andrew M. Wallet.
Spears has gone on to release more albums since. Her “comeback” was orchestrated for the 2008 VMAs the next year when she showed up perfectly groomed in a sparkling gown to accept her very first Moonman: she won Video of the Year for “Piece of Me.” I was at those VMAs also, and seeing her there was like looking at the ghost of a person who had been humbled and was consumed with being on their best behaviour.
Today when we talk about Britney Spears, we talk about her incredibly successful Vegas residency, the silly moments she shares on her Instagram account, or her normal-seeming life as a full-time mum. Occasionally we talk about a change in her love life, but even that seems like it’s scrubbed of any hint of scandal. But, under the functional surface lies a reminder: she is still under that conservatorship. Maybe it’s a good thing, a thing that stops a callous industry from taking advantage of her again.
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