'Black' mark

October 24, 2007


For all her travails -- the divorce, the child custody fight, substance abuse, hassles with the paparazzi and a zombielike performance on MTV -- it wasn't inconceivable that Britney Spears could produce an artistic triumph on her fifth album, "Blackout," which arrives in stores Tuesday but already is streaming on the Web.

Granted, the deck was stacked against her: Since morphing from a Disney child star into a Lolita-meets-Madonna pop princess, the 26-year-old entertainer has been better known for tawdry attempts to seduce and provoke than for musical excellence. The slight charms of hits such as "... Baby

One More Time" (1998), "Oops! I Did It Again" (2000) and "Toxic" (2004) could be credited to the best producers money could buy and enough digital trickery with the vocals to make Cookie Monster sound like Beverly Sills.

Nevertheless, Spears could have followed so many musical greats before her -- from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin to Sinead O'Connor -- and sought catharsis in new sounds that drew from the pain in her life. What would that album have sounded like?

Alas, we'll never know, because "Blackout" is just another of the tawdry pole-dance routines La Brit has given us for nine years. Only the fifth time around, the aural sex sounds more pandering and desperate than ever.

Although her corporate hype machine tells us the album title refers to "blacking out negativity and embracing life," the 12 songs are more like defiant boasts about being a black sheep and an unrepentant bad girl, despite the toll such behavior is taking on the newly brunet singer and her children.

"I'm Miss American Dream since I was 17/Don't matter if I step on the scene/Or sneak away to the Philippines/They still got pictures of my derriere in the magazine," Spears sings on "Piece of Me." "I'm Miss bad media karma/Another day, another drama/ Guess I can't see no harm/In working and being a mama."

Britney, no one is criticizing working mothers. It's the kind of work you do and how a good you are as a mom that listeners and the family court are questioning.

Bursting with synthesized hooks and seductive grooves, the music is as enticing as any current mainstream dance-pop. Credit is due an army of top-dollar songwriters (some tunes list as many as seven) and producers such as Swedish hit-makers Bloodshy & Avant, Timbaland's protege Danja and the Neptunes. But ultimately, the blame for the album's failure rests on Spears alone.

One difficulty is the breathy cooing Spears tries to sell as singing. She has never sounded more robotic or relied more on studio enhancement; as New York Daily News critic Jim Farber wrote, "If a blowup sex doll could sing, this is what she'd sound like."

But an even bigger problem is the cliched nature of lyrical come-ons such as "Baby I'm just hot for taking/ Don't you wanna see my body naked" ("Perfect Lover"), "Touch me and I come alive/I can feel you on my lips/I can feel you deep inside" ("Ooh Ooh Baby") and "My body is calling out for you bad boy/I get the feeling that I just want to be with ya/Baby, I'm a freak and I don't really give a damn" ("Get Naked").

This goes on and on, past the point where people who think Penthouse Forum is great erotic literature will be bored or cracking up. In the past, some critics have defended Spears as a post-feminist fully in control of exploiting her own sexuality. But her out-of-control behavior makes that tough to accept, and it's become just as hard to pity her.

"I'm Mrs. 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'/You want a piece of me/I'm Mrs. 'Oh my God, that Britney's Shameless'/You want a piece of me," Spears sings, asserting that the caricature in the gossip columns isn't the "real" Britney. The trouble is none of that sounds too exaggerated. And anyone who does want a piece of such a sad, troubled and self-destructive woman should really be ashamed.