HIDDEN tracks

Music was Pete Paphides' first love. And at this rate, it will be his last.

Britney Spears

Sun, 8th April 2007

While the person slowly disintegrates, the singer carries on singing.”

Soon after Radiohead released In Rainbows (see post below), my editor was keen to ensure once again that The Times would be first off the blocks with a review of a prominent new album. The means of In Rainbows’ release had made Radiohead more newsworthy than at any other time in their career. By contrast, the reasons for Britney Spears’ newsworthiness were more bound up with her personal circumstances. What appeared to be a tortuous process of mental dissolution was captured and exacerbated by the clicking of flashbulbs that followed her everywhere she went. Somewhere along the way, she had managed to record Blackout – an album whose commercial fortunes were torpedoed when a dead-eyed Britney turned in a faintly sinister performance of its teaser single Gimme More to a worldwide audience at the MTV Awards. A fortnight ahead of release, the album hadn’t been serviced out to journalists. With high-profile records this happens for one of two reasons. As with Radiohead, it can be because the artist has such an intensely loyal fanbase that the presence of reviews prior to the record won’t have any effect on its sales; or it can be because the record company has no confidence in the product. I called Sony BMG and asked them if the record was embargoed. Britney’s press officer didn’t seem to know. Off she went to ask someone. Apparently, there was an embargo on sending out CDs, but if I wanted to, I could come into the office and listen. Any album usually released by an artist of that stature comes with a certain amount of corporate cheerleading, but none of that seemed to apply to Blackout. It was hard not to expect something that sounded every inch the car crash that Britney’s life had become. When your review is the first to run, there’s always a worry that yours is the one that reads like the work of a madman. Six years on, Blackout still sounds to these ears like one of the three or four greatest records of the last decade.

Finally, a good week for Britney Spears? Just as we were getting to think that a lunar eclipse might come sooner, here’s some tentative cause for celebration. In the space of 24 hours, the woman who yields roughly 82,000 results if you Google her name along with the phrase “troubled singer”, has been granted temporary visitation rights to her children and seen her new single Gimme More leap into the British Top Three. Now, if Britney’s record company is to be believed, a good week just got better. Apparently, “unprecedented popular demand” has prompted SonyBMG to bring the release date of her comeback album Blackout brought forward by three weeks.

Cynics might point out that, one way or another, they would have been compelled to do so. MP3s of songs from the album have been circulating among fans over the last few weeks. That they have been moved to do so, does at least, serve reminder of the very thing that is perhaps most easily forgotten among her recent rollcall of infamy. She is first and foremost a pop star. In a life not exactly saturated with joy, she should take a certain amount of pleasure in the fact that Blackout coheres far better than sprawling recent sets by her fellow Mickey Mouse Club alumni Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. Far from show contrition for a spell of adversity that takes in custody battles, hit-and-run offences, extreme hairdressing, sudden lingerie loss and umbrella-on-pap savagery – she comes out fighting on the utterly wonderful 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,” she declaims over an adhesively catchy chorus.

Britney may have grown up in front of MTV, perfecting Madonna’s dance routines, but she isn’t the self-determining control-freak that her heroine turned into. Neither, it should be added, does she need to be. Her recent mishaps have only compounded her status as muse of choice to top-notch writer producers such as Swedish hitmakers Bloodshy & Avant, Timbaland protégé Danja and The Neptunes. On the Pharrell Williams-written Why Should I Be Sad and, indeed, most of what precedes it, Britney is a strangely disembodied presence – her heavily treated voice suspended amid an icy fug of minor chords and brittle synthetic beats. If truth be told, certain songs wouldn’t have sounded too different if her vocal were totally erased. On Get Naked (I Got A Plan) and Radar her voice is a piece that slots tidily into a finely sculpted piece of burnished future-pop. But when the whole works so well, it makes no sense to mind. Perfect Lover and Toy Soldier are quite simply two of the most strangely wonderful tunes to emerge on any reccord this year – exercises in sonic risk-taking that, until this point, have never hitched themselves to a Britney Spears record.

So why now, then? Well, perhaps it was in the spirit of having nothing to lose that someone suggested Britney try her hand at a marching-pace sex fantasy about a soldier which pitched itself somewhere between Prince’s female alter-ago Camille and the sensation of watching Full Metal Jacket as ten Glade Plug-Ins infuse the air with amyl nitrate. Who knows? Furthermore, does this stuff work on any profound level? Well, ever since she appeared in 1999 with Hit Me Baby One More Time, Britney has enjoyed a certain status as metatextual plaything of Late Review guests and chin-stroking post-ironists (no mean feat, this – Kylie and Madonna had to endure years of highbrow snobbery to get to the same point).

When it comes down to it though, the answer is no, not really. A gaggle of schoolchildren exchanging ringtones on the top deck of the bus will just as easily tell you why these songs work. They tick almost every box in the checklist of great pop, period. Whether or not it will be enough to save her career probably depends on what condition she can get herself in to sing them. That she was allowed to go through with last month’s infamously listless MTV Awards appearance shows just how few people in her circle seem to have her welfare at heart. But there’s something fitting about the fact that, while the person slowly disintegrates, the singer carries on singing. After all, Britney Spears learned to be a pop star way before she learned to be an adult. It’s no real surprise that her facility for great pop moments is the very last part of her to shut down.