Blackout and Erotica

A few years after the infamous MTV kiss with Britney Spears (poor Xtina) Madonna revealed how she had explained it to her daughter:

“I am the mommy pop star and she is the baby pop star. And I am kissing her to pass my energy on to her.”

Certainly at the time, Britney Spears was the nearest thing we had to a ‘new’ Madonna and this was reflected in her increasing involvement in her own music. 2003’s In The Zone had featured 8 Britney co-writing credits, easily the most direct creative involvement she had yet had on her albums. Appropriately enough it was also the album to feature Madonna in its lead-single, ‘Me Against the Music’. Truly there was a sense that Madonna was anointing a chosen successor.

It didn’t quite work out as planned. While Madonna rebounded quickly from the failure of 2003’s American Life, it would be four years before Britney Spears released another studio album. And what a four years they were – Britney went haywire, quickly and decisively moving from an American sweetheart to a TMZ poster child for celebrity dysfunction and drama. She went off the rails in a way Madonna never had. However in doing so (and retreating once again, no doubt due to necessity, from creative involvement in her music) she ultimately delivered the album of her career. Blackout, which is five years old this week,is an almost-perfect postmodern pop album. Yet while it is different in many ways from Madonna’s work, it’s impossible for the ‘baby’ to fully escape ‘mommy’’s influence.

Conveniently enough, the Madonna album which Blackout owes a debt to is also having a birthday this week. It’s 20 years since Erotica was released and while time and familiarity has dulled its power, even today it sounds like an odd pop album. Madonna, coming off the back of the mega-selling The Immaculate Collection and the acclaimed Blond Ambition tour, was having one of her imperial phases (as Neil Tennant so memorably called the periods when commercial success and critical acclaim align for artists). She had cuckolded Pepsi with the Like A Prayer video; she had confronted the Catholic Church when it criticised her tour; she had even made MTV look uncool and turned its ‘ban’ of the Justify My Love video into both a money-spinner and an eloquent attack on moral hypocrisy. It’s understandable that she felt untouchable – but even so, few were expecting what came next.

In retrospect, of course, it’s easy to see that having pushed the buttons of the religious establishment and the moral majority, Madonna had to tread carefully. Moving swiftly onto an album called Erotica and an accompanying coffee table book called Sex was supreme, almost reckless, hubris and it led to the biggest backlash of her career. I can remember the period well – the tabloids had anti-Madonna stories on an almost-daily basis while the publishing of a book called The ‘I Hate Madonna’ Handbook summed up the prevailing attitude. Madonna has since said that the overlooking of Erotica amidst this maelstrom of controversy and recrimination is the biggest regret of her career. 20 years later the album is not quite popularly regarded as a ‘lost classic’ but it’s certainly seen as underrated and its influence is undeniable. Few grasped it at the time but Erotica is that most cumbersome of beasts – a concept album. Understanding this goes a long way to putting its strangeness in context – and boy, it is strange. It is difficult in a way none of Madonna’s previous work had been, the pure pop moments such as Deeper and Deeper and Rain sitting alongside jazz and blues influenced excursions which offer little ‘give’ to listeners. The decision was taken to use Madonna’s heavily processed demo vocals for much of the album, causing her to sound detached – on tracks like Bye Bye Baby and Fever she sounds like a sneering impersonation of herself. These sit uncomfortably alongside much more emotionally engaging material like Bad Girl and the gay rights anthem Why’s It So Hard? It all makes for a disorienting experience. Yet it’s intentionally so – as Madonna states in the album’s opening line, “My name is Dita, I’ll be your mistress tonight”’. Shep Pettibone’s ‘Erotica Diaries’ make clear that Madonna was in creative control and the irony of an album called Erotica which deliberately pushes the listener away is a masterstroke. It underlines that the album is not only about sex – it’s fundamentally about relationships and power. Indeed, much has been written about Madonna ‘opening the door’ for subsequent artists with her use of sexual imagery. This is missing the point. Madonna was very careful not to present her sexuality as mere titillation and Erotica’s genius is that she has the bravery to make a pop record which turns expectations upside down. Rather than being a come-on to ‘fuck me’, Erotica could more appropriately be described as ‘fuck you’.

Blackout could be similarly described. Its opening line has obvious echoes of Erotica’s – “It’s Britney, bitch” is an uncompromising invitation – command, even – into Britney’s world. What’s fascinating, however, is that whereas Madonna invented the persona of ‘Dita’ to play with her listeners, the character here is ‘Britney’. This is the fundamental genius of Blackout. At its core is the absence of its main star. Circumstances undoubtedly dictated this yet the producers took the ‘fuck you’ template of Erotica and went crazy with it. The album makes a virtue of her lack of presence, from its ironic almost-mocking title to its production. Britney’s voice is twisted, treated, transformed though-out so that she often doesn’t sound like ‘Britney Spears’. Instead she sounds like a demented robot, another production tool in an orchestra of sonic wizardry that goes far beyond anything on any previous Britney record. If Madonna played up detachment on Erotica, here it becomes the entire focus. In that regard Blackout is also a concept album – one about modern fame and modern pop music. Its power rests almost entirely on the persona of ‘Britney Spears’, not the person. The associations of that persona feed into the music and lend it an uncomfortable power – we know that as a person she is damaged and unhappy, yet as a popstar she is all-consuming. This subverts a dominant notion in modern pop – namely that the context is irrelevant and all that matters is whether a song is any good or not. We are under no illusion that Britney Spears had anything to do with most of this record – but the album confronts that head on and makes it into a dazzling virtue. As with Erotica, there is nothing seductive about Blackout – instead its pleasures lie in the confounding of expectations and the contorting of Britney’s image. “You think Britney and her music are manufactured? Fuck you. How about this?”

The contrast to be found between Madonna’s control in Erotica and Britney’s lack of it in Blackout speaks untold volumes about the differences between them. Yet in both cases the albums use their context as a weapon and make the listener complicit in their message. This more than ever underlines the truth behind the often-trite mantra that ‘manufactured’ music can be dazzlingly brilliant and, fundamentally, speaks to the power of pop music. Perhaps, in some small way, that’s what Madonna was passing on with that kiss.

‘X Factor’, Britney Spears and ‘The Voice’

When ‘X-Factor’ first arose from the ashes of ‘Pop Idol’ in 2004, it was intended to be different. Michelle McManus had won the second ‘Pop Idol’ and, while undoubtedly a nice person and able to carry a tune, she was by no means a pop star. As its name suggests, then, ‘’X-Factor’ was intended to be about more than singing. It explicitly aimed to recognise that there was something almost indefinable which made a truly great pop star – something which made a mediocre singer like Madonna infinitely more interesting than ten thousand big-voiced pub singers.

It was certainly an interesting concept but one which (whether by design or by necessity) was quickly jettisoned. “It’s a singing competition!” became a mantra for the judges and audience alike, though even that became less true as the series progressed. In the endless chase for ratings it became very much a modern reality show, emphasising the personalities of the ‘contestants’ and ramping up the cruelty and contrived conflict at every opportunity. In the 2011 series Misha B was arguably the only contestant who had ‘it’, yet she was mercilessly undermined for dramatic effect and we ended up with three bland acts in the final (though certainly Little Mix are enough of a blank canvas to facilitate some decent pop singles). In short, ‘X-Factor’ these days shows nothing but contempt for pop music. ‘Talent’ is defined as being a) likeable and b) being able to hold a tune, and little else. Acts with a sense of their own artistic identity are maligned. ‘Versatility’ is fetishised but in a very narrow sense equated with the willingness to sing anything that sells records. The biggest crime of all is a desire to be creatively involved – if you want to do well from ‘X-Factor’, do not under any circumstances say that you wish to write your own material or, God forbid, aren’t particularly interested in ‘pop music’ (in its most narrowest sense  – taken to mean dance-pop).

It is perhaps naive to believe that it was ever different yet the show’s progression/degeneration can be easily traced in the lineage of its judging panel. It initially began with three industry people who could ostensibly spot ‘talent’. From there we have overwhelmingly moved to more ratings-driven choices, with each judge playing a set ‘role’. You could conceivably argue that people like Cheryl Cole or Tulisa are meant to illustrate the original concept of being pop stars despite rather modest talents, yet this is nonsensical given the decisive shift away from that idea. Indeed, when Cheryl launched her solo career on the show she mimed her performance, a quite staggering display of contempt for both contestants and audience of the ‘singing competition’. It both highlighted and undermined the charade – Cheryl is a pop star who began life as a tv personality and, despite the frequent brilliance of Girls Aloud, the latter has remained her most prominent role. This meant that she could perform as a tv personality – the singing (and even the song) were incidental. We are encouraged to buy into the person as an individual brand. This is the idea of a pop star being pushed by ‘X-Factor’ – a personality first, a singer second, an ‘artist’ a very distant afterthought. In this sense Olly Murrs is the archetypal contestant – someone who is able to present tv shows while churning out catchy, undemanding singles – while Leona Lewis’ swift decline could be attributed to her failure as a ‘personality’.

What ‘X Factor’ has become has reached its apotheosis with the appointment of Britney Spears as a judge on ‘X Factor USA’. She is in many ways the perfect ‘X-Factor’ pop star – Britney as a brand & persona long ago eclipsed Britney as a person. It’s almost irrelevant to ponder Britney as an artist because she is the ultimate blank canvas, reflecting everything and nothing, at once devoid of personality and containing everyone’s personalities. She may still put out albums but really, at this stage, no-one would bat an eyelid if she was used to advertise hedge funds.

It is a dead-eyed idea of pop as something which, at its best, sells. That becomes its primary purpose and, to this aim, it must not be demanding, difficult, too interesting or have aspirations towards being an art form (other than as, perhaps, a Warholian commentary on the cultural void at the heart of pop which has been replaced by the marketplace).

The launch of ‘The Voice’ in deliberate contrast to ‘X-Factor’ has been interesting. It already seems clear that it cannot hope to even begin to challenge the notions of pop disseminated by the latter. Yet in some ways it seems like a sincere effort. The instant admission that the contestants have all been pre-vetted is a hugely positive move, moving away from the deliberate cruelty and humiliation of the audition stages of ‘X-Factor’. It does try to avoid the traps of modern reality tv with its emphasis on the contest rather than the contestant. We aren’t led to believe that the contestants all mess around in a house together; there are no ‘profiles’ of each individual every week and no ironic ‘quizzes’ wherein we are encouraged to ‘get to know’ the individuals. It displays a very self-conscious interest in ‘talent’, from its judges performing live to contestants who play instruments and speak about song-writing.

All of this is much mocked, usually with an appeal to the oft-derided notion of ‘authenticity’. This criticism works in two ways – firstly to suggest that the show is obsessed with the sneering notion of ‘real music’, secondly by highlighting that it’s a tv show and involves manipulation and so isn’t actually ‘authentic’. I think the first is unfair – I don’t think the show is overly concerned with ‘real music’ in the sense of any specific genre or even the idea that artists write songs – indeed, the two favourites to win, Ruth Brown and Jaz, are simply singers. However they are singers who seem to be treated with respect, guided to improve and grow in confidence without artificial hoops to jump through such as singing ‘big band’ or whatever. The ‘authenticity’ being pursued is one that is in opposition to the ’X-Factor’ ideal of blankness. Yet it almost goes back to ‘Pop Idol’ and its idea that a good voice is enough. Madonna certainly wouldn’t make it past the pre-audition stage of ‘The Voice’.

The second criticism, though largely facile, does inadvertently highlight another big problem with ‘The Voice’ – it doesn’t quite work as a tv show. In avoiding the contrivances which make ‘X-Factor’ entertaining and aiming for an ostentatious sincerity, it ultimately misses both the entertainment of a trashy reality show and the honesty which it aims for. How could it not? The American version is far more astute regarding this and is based almost entirely around the relationship between the superstar judges.

Ultimately, I do prefer ‘The Voice’ to ‘X Factor’. The latter feels exploitative and unpleasant; I feel grubby when I watch it. The greatest crime of the former to date is that it’s a bit dull. I suppose if there’s a ‘lesson’ here it’s that pop music can never be reduced to a magic formula which works on television. ‘X Factor’ is explicitly aimed at a television audience while ‘The Voice’ naively aims itself at an audience who will appreciate ‘good singing’, assuming that this is enough. Both, perhaps, contribute to the reduction of pop music to a talent show and the increasing emphasis on pop stars as next-door ‘personalities’. To coin a phrase, the next pop revolution will not be televised.

Britney Redux

I wrote about my problems with ‘Femme Fatale’ here . It’s interesting that the videos for the campaign have attempted to address this, suggesting that the people around Britney actually do get in some way that the only point to her in 2011 is as a self-referential cipher. It doesn’t quite work – while the music, imagery and Britney’s life all intertwined in ‘Blackout’ to provide a spectacular metanarrative about our modern fame culture, this just smacks of half-heartedly trying the same without any deeper grasp of what was going on. Perhaps the central problem is that, since ‘Circus’, Britney Inc have been at pains to paint her as a normal, balanced, down-to-earth ’girl’ and this has jarred with any snatched glimpses of her outwith that prism. This causes videos like this, which largely rely on her ‘mythology’ but also push this banal vision of her, to ultimately collapse under the tensions created.

She still sounds like a robot, though. We’ll always have that.

So…’Femme Fatale’

‘Blackout’ isn’t Britney Spears’ ‘masterpiece’ because it contains catchy pop music. It’s because the people behind it recognised (in a way that Britney herself doesn’t really seem to) what the point of Britney is these days. She doesn’t sing live and on record her voice is auto-tuned to the point of distraction. She can no longer dance spectacularly. She is so devoid of personality that her fans go into spasms of delight when she says something as banal as ‘my songs are fucking amazing’. She rarely contributes to the music she fronts. As a pop star she fails on pretty much every level – except (and it’s a big one) her iconic persona. Her name and image conjure up a wealth of associations and by the time ‘Blackout’ came along she seemed like a spectacle detached from a human being. And ‘Blackout’ played with this magnificently. It doesn’t try and paper over Britney’s weaknesses but instead magnifies them – indeed, her voice is the most robotic it has ever sounded. The entire album is built around her persona, her history, her status as a celebrity and in referencing everything surrounding the music, the music itself becomes something far more. Britney is dead-eyed at the centre of things and the album works because of this. It simply wouldn’t work with anyone else ‘singing’ the songs – only Britney could have made that album.

Which leads us neatly onto ‘Femme Fatale’, the second album since ‘Blackout’ which demonstrates quite neatly that Britney/the people around Britney really don’t get ‘it’ at all. The charts are littered with Britney soundalikes, and most of them tick at least one of the boxes mentioned above. The best ones also seem to be in on their own joke in a way that Britney is not. The thing Britney has that they don’t is that detached persona, and when this is played with the results are invariably great, and uniquely Britney – the best parts (and, in retrospect, pretty much the only interesting parts) of ‘Circus’ continued this (‘Circus’, ‘Kill The Lights’). When this is stripped away and she’s just given catchy pop songs to sing, we’re left wondering what the point of Britney is and why we’re not listening to one of these other singers. After a couple of listens, ‘Femme Fatale’ seems to have precisely zero moments which understand the point of Britney in 2011. It’s just a bunch of anonymous pop songs that could be performed by 20 other women in the charts. Which makes it a chewing gum album – enjoyable but ultimately pointless and unsatisfying.