Britney Spears: An Alternative Blackout Album
Fellow Britney site NewBritneyology.com wrote a cool article this weekend about an “alternative “Blackout” compilation they preferred over the original.
While “Blackout” in itself is a masterpiece, the tracks that didn’t make the cut are like precious jewels fans were lucky enough to receive thanks to the cracks of the interweb and Britney mistakenly (or not) leaving demos at clubs and radio stations way back when.
This article details some of the best b-sides that, while many fans know about, are mostly hidden away from the rest of the world.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…” Charles Dickens was writing about the situation in Europe in 1775, but the quotation fits our purpose. We’d been having a terrible time worrying about Britney. There had been no “good” news for years (if you discount her two beautiful babies) and trolls were operating almost without challenge. So the day/night of the Great Blackout Leak was an electrifying one for Britney fans.
It was especially exciting, and rather moving, to realise that almost every Britney fan throughout the world was doing the same thing at the same time – downloading! And what a variety of material was set before us. It was extremely unclear what direction her forthcoming album would take, how many tracks it would contain, what would be included and what excluded, and whether there would be the usual brilliant bonus tracks. In the end, the official “Blackout” album didn’t have ANY bonus tracks. It was designed to be all of a piece, all of a particular mood and feel, with no loose ends and no distractions.
Yet there were some of us who mourned the dumping of some of the loveliest music Britney had ever made. From the leaks we’d heard, it seemed pretty obvious that the original thinking about the album was that it would be “son of ITZ” – it would take the urban-ish feel of “In The Zone” a little further, and – like that album – would also contain contrasting but beautiful ballads. When the official “Blackout” was released, I was disappointed to see what had been jettisoned. Urban music and ballads are my things, after all.
And just then, a friend gave me a so-called “Blackout” album he’d bought for me on eBay. But this one was very different, and the blend of styles and genres was so perfect that I ended up playing it continuously for a year while the official “Blackout” sat unplayed on my shelf. This article reviews what the “Alternative Blackout” contained.
If any track could be called iconic, this one would be. It has so many associations, good and bad. It recalls the notorious 2007 VMAs, continuously ratcheted up by history from “not very good” to “catastrophic” via all points in between. The gift of “It’s Britney, bitch!” was something money couldn’t buy (even if Britney’s too nice a girl to snarl it) and the song itself is mind-blowingly great. It’s the high point of Danja and Lago at their multi-layered vocal-fest best, with so much going on you can hardly take it in. It deserved one of Britney’s very best videos, but the one it got seemed to say everything people feared about this time in Britney’s life. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as its reputation suggests, but there were a lot of stories…. stories of on-set breakdowns, alternative shock storylines involving death. And Britney’s role-playing as a pole dancer and the subsequent topless photos (which catapulted her back into the lads’ mags) seemed perfectly symptomatic of her downward spiral towards the gutter. There are two versions of “Gimme More” on this album, and this is the official one.
Kiss You All Over
“Blackout” is often considered to have been an influential album because of its metallic hardness and toughness, its thick skin, its absence of a softer side. If tracks like the Sean Garrett-penned “Kiss You All Over” had been retained, it would have been a lot cooler, more street-smart and more hip-hoppish than it turned out to be. And it would have been a better album for fans like me who veer towards r&b more than towards edgy pop. But without that relentless focus, it would have been a lot less influential. Moreover, “Kiss You All Over”, while cool and catchy, just isn’t all that remarkable. And Britney doesn’t make any special effort with the vocals, which suggests that she wasn’t inspired. Based on his work with Britney, I’m not a Sean Garrett fan.
Get Naked (I Got A Plan)
Like “Mmm Papi”, this is one of the almost-experimental tracks that seem to find their way on to Britney albums – but would probably be dismissed with a snort by anyone else. This song is a lot of fun, with Danja’s drunken moaning and croaking, and Britney’s tones, sometimes seductive, sometimes demanding. The rhythm track is a no-nonsense driving force, but the powerful marching rhythm is mostly established by Britney chanting “What you tryin’ to do, do, do?!” But this is much more prominent in the outtake version. The official version brings Danja more to the fore and subdues Britney. And that’s only the most obvious difference. To list all the differences between the two versions would take a whole article, and the brilliance of the finished product is a fine testimony to Marcella Araica’s skills and fanatical attention to detail.
When U Gon’ Pull It
Another track emanating from the early urban-inspired period, this one goes a little further, with a chorus of homegirls going “Uh-huhhhhhh?!” in a way that recalls Britney herself in “Do Somethin’”. There’s really no melody line that you could whistle, but it makes the most out of some two and three note phrases. Large sections are the kind of one-note Sprechgesang that always finds Britney in bratty street-temptress mode, and nobody does Lolita-ish petulance better than she does. In that respect, it would fit beautifully with “Freakshow”, “Toy Soldier”, and maybe even “Piece of Me”, but presumably Britney and Jive thought enough was enough. “When U Gon’ Pull It” is very short and a lot of fun, but insubstantial and yet another disappointment from Sean Garrett.
Tell Me What Ya Sippin’ On
I adore this track. Yes, it’s another entry in the diary marked “Britney thinks about going hip-hop but decides not to”, but it has the lovely, cool, chilled-out, unhurried feel of one of my other faves – “Summertime” by Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Indeed, it’s hard to avoid the thought that “Summertime” was its inspiration. There are strong melody hooks, but the verse and especially the middle-eight are much more traditional r&b than hip-hop, and this inconsistency may be a problem for some listeners. AC and his co-rappers have much more than a token presence, and it reminds me a lot of the kind of collaboration we’ve often heard from Mariah Carey over the years. Since Mariah always sings these songs in her most minimalist style, Britney’s vocal doesn’t come off any the worse by comparison, and, on her side of the scoreboard, there’s her usual warmth and charm and the endearing personality that makes most of her fans want to give her the biggest hug. I think the loss of this track was a waste, but it really didn’t fit into “Blackout”… or “Circus”… Or “Femme Fatale”…
Hot As Ice
I have talked about this outtake recently, in the In Depth review of the official “Hot As Ice”, and didn’t find much love for it among the New Britneyologists. To me, the biggest appeal of this song in either of its versions is its power to evoke Sehnsucht, and the outtake version just does it that much better. The “break it down” in the official track sounds more self-conscious, more mannered; whereas on the outtake it feels like the unconscious, Freudian expression of Britney’s somewhat disengaged mental state, which was causing us so much anxiety at the time. In general, the outtake has more clarity, focus and sense of purpose, while the official version feels like a decent work of art that’s been painted over and turned into a poster.
A Song About You (aka Outta This World)
Disturbingly, the voice we hear at the outset of “A Song About You” singing “I know you hear me on your radio” isn’t Britney’s, and other voices are prominent throughout. In parts it’s almost like a duet or vocal group. There are beautiful harmonies, it’s a pretty melody, and it’s a finished and polished production. But there isn’t a lot of “essence of Britney” on offer. So how does such a track fit into her collected works? Well, it seems like the planned urban album was to have many and varied flavors and this was another one. It follows the Janet Jackson model of gentle, sweet, understated, rather rambling little songs. I can’t hear this track without thinking of Janet. It’s good in its own way, but a million miles from the toughness, darkness and conscious style consistency of “Blackout”.
What can I say that hasn’t already been said? Including by me, in an In Depth review… You only have to mention “Radar” and fans’ eyes roll in their heads. There only seems to be one version, the official one, and this is it – yet again! However, I shall not move on without saying this: I absolutely LOVE “Radar” and always have, right from the very first hearing. I thought it had the potential to be a huge hit if released at the right moment, with the right video, and properly promoted. But it wasn’t. None of these things happened and it was a shocking waste. But all of that is history. “Radar” is an original – it sounds like nothing else, it has instant impact, a great melody and – like “Gimme More” – it’s still fresh after all these years. And to me, if to nobody else, there’s something mysteriously and inexpressibly sad about Britney’s delivery and its synergy with the imaginative and beautifully conceived production. There! I feel better now.
The odd thing about this track is that, if anything, it was ahead of its time. It’s the kind of fun-but-not-exactly-deep dance-pop that would have sat well on “Femme Fatale”; yet it also has the kind of emotional emptiness that must have made it a strong contender for “Blackout”. “Get Back” doesn’t go anywhere near the hip-hoppish seam mined by so many of the other outtakes, which means it has always jarred a little with me. It’s a very full, album-ready production too, with many vocal lines, backing and interacting harmonies, chants, interjections and effects. The synth-driven backing tracks are rather lively too, if a little underwhelming in the bass department. However, the melody is really just a riff that some may like but many will find annoying, and the two-part mid-section is a kind of musical response to it. There’s nothing especially satisfying about “Get Back”, intellectually, sexually, viscerally or spiritually, and Britney’s Britneyness has been drawn like the venom from a tame rattlesnake. Bah! Let’s move on to something a lot more appealing, which is….
Sugarfall (aka Hooked on It)
This Pharrell Williams song has always been a fan favorite, and it was a tragedy that it couldn’t have been sneaked in along with “Why Should I Be Sad”, to which it’s clearly a companion piece. Many have pondered the exact meaning of the word “sugarfall”, but it’s generally agreed to be something to do with female sexual arousal. I can hardly express how much I’m in love this track, but that has nothing to do with sex (I promise!) It’s because, out of all the songs associated with the “Blackout” era, this one evokes even more powerful feelings of Sehnsucht. Oh I know it’s just a story about a horny girl and how she screws around with some guy, but the mental image conjures up a sense of light and place and the scene looks like something that has always been a part of me and that I have always known – and all it needed was for some special person – someone with a hotline to my soul – to give it a concrete musical shape. It has a beautiful, dreamy, misty melody that inhabits the territory between wistfulness and a kind of wished-for lightness of heart that never quite arrives. Only Britney Spears and her unique singing can approach that kind of emotional subtlety.
What do you think about this alternative tracklist version of Blackout album?
Which is your favorite unreleased about this era?