Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ghost story

Wow: the new Britney Spears album is pretty good. I might actually go as far as saying that it's good, period. Each song is a self-contained nugget of inventivity, and almost each one has a sonic hook that makes me pay attention, like the bass vroom on "Piece of Me," which sounds like a Robyn song (no wonder: Robyn actually contributes backing—and perhaps more—vocals), or the intro to "Heaven on Earth," which is total Moroder.

Kelefa Sanneh's review in the NY Times strongly implies that Britney has pulled a Milli Vanilli and doesn't even sing on some tracks. Clues include the fact that she's always done all her own backing vox and she doesn't this time, and that each track has a "vocal production" credit. Indeed, the album sports some of the most processed vocals I've ever heard. Not that I mind, it's just an observation.

As my esteemed colleague Mike Wolf pointed out, following this line of inquiry to its logical conclusion, why do we even need Britney anymore? Why not just a triannual report from a selection of studio wizards? Seen like that, Blackout is a triumph of engineering, a missile directed straight at the heart of decades of rock & roll purity. Ka-BOOM!

And really, is it that much different from art superstars like Jeff Koons employing armies of assistants to do the actual work, or from jet-setting chefs like Alain Ducasse who don't often cook in the restaurants bearing their names? You might argue that at least Koons comes up with a sketch and Ducasse with a dish, whereas it's debatable whether Britney, despite a pair of songwriting cocredits, had much creative input on Blackout. But in a way she certainly helped define the template that's being implemented on the album, so sure, her artistic fingerprint is definitely there.

In all these cases it's the brand that matters most: You don't go eat at Ducasse's to feel the master's personal touch in a sauce. There, the sous-chef is good enough, just like Swedish producers Bloodshy & Avant, who are all over Blackout, are certainly good enough left to their own devices—and possibly even better without Britney. After all had she been involved in the album she might have requested saccharine ballads (there are none), insisted on different arrangements (the current ones are brilliant) or made some other bird-brained choice—it's not like the past three years have inspired a lot of confidence in her decision-making abilities.

So Ms. Spears was not as involved in her own album as she might have been? It's not a scandal, it's a relief!

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