The Mysterious Case of the Pink Handcuffs
In the comments box for my 2007 best-of-the-year list, some wag took me to task for forgetting the latest Britney Spears album, Blackout. Ha ha. Well, I assumed he was joking, anyway. But given how many smartypants bloggers actually did rate Blackout as one the year's best, you have to wonder.
I've been meaning to write about this for a while. Unfortunately, I must confess to not having an informed opinion about Blackout because I haven't actually heard any of it. Honestly, I don't go out of my way to avoid hearing mainstream pop/R&B hits. Somehow, my life seems to have become structured in a way that ensures I would have to actively seek out what is utterly unavoidable for millions of people.
The thing is, nothing I've read about Blackout makes it seem worth seeking out. But here's another confession - I haven't even read about Blackout in any detail. See, it's an album that seems to bring out the most dreadful, hackneyed cliches and platitudes in otherwise incisive, intelligent critics. Therefore, I usually only manage to read one or two lines of some forty-something male writer gushing about the greatness of Blackout before I become near paralyzed with ennui, unable to go any further.
Hey, I remember the early '90s when egg-head music journos first discovered R&B-pop as the harbinger of a pornotopian anti-humanist future. I also remember that most of the music associated with the original round of R&B hype turned out to be soul-sucking in its bland, conformist vapidity. Seems incredible that people are still plowing this particular furrow. Has the music actually gotten a lot better in the interim or are these folks simply even more stuck in the '90s than I am? Both options seem impossible.
Anyway, from what little I've been able to force myself to read about Blackout, the album's proponents seem terribly impressed by Spears' brave decision to allow a team of producers to reconfigure her vocals with an array of avant-garde digital science. Seems that she's making a bold post-humanist statement about the relationship between the body and technology in late capitalist society.
Would it be outrageous to suggest that the real reason that Spears' producers have chosen to edit and Autotune her voice beyond recognition is that she's so... far gone that there's little or no chance of her being able to come into a recording studio and sing a whole song, all the way through, relatively in tune?
This is to miss the point, of course. It doesn't really matter why the album sounds the way it does; it only matters that it does sound that way. And - by most accounts - the bloody thing sounds great. Sadly, I'll never know for sure because I'll never hear it - not just because I'm a huge, huge snob but also because the thought of a grown man sitting down to listen to a Britney Spears album really, really creeps me out. This may be a result of having worked in a record store where I got to find out first hand what kind of person buys albums by The Donnas.
So, yeah, Blackout obviously has some appeal and Britney Spears (along with Rihanna, who seems much more intriguing as an artist) has certainly managed to tap into the critical zeitgeist at the most unlikely of times. What with the Burial album and all, slice-and-spliced vocal science seems to have been the cutting-edge sound of 2007. Bearing that in mind, isn't it strange that my personal album of the year - Von Sudenfed's Tromatic Reflexxions - was almost entirely absent from the top 10s of clever-clogs music bloggers?
Tromatic Reflexxions is absolutely packed with vocal science and one could even argue that it has a lot in common with Blackout. In both cases, we have a charismatic vocalist, apparently plagued with personal issues and lifestyle-related health problems. In both cases some techie producer types have gotten around said vocalists' pathological inability to get it together by assembling a bunch of scattered, half-finished vocal takes into brutalist, hyper-real pop constructions.
Again, this assessment is made from a position of ignorance about what Blackout actually sounds like but you get the point, I'm sure. Certainly, it can't be controversial to state that Mark E Smith has long been unable (or unwilling) to sing a song all the way through from start to finish. Anyone who's seen The Fall play live in the last 10 years will tell you that. I recently re-watched the band's DVD Live at the Hacienda 1983-1985 ("That was one long show!" as Brady once quipped). It was a real shock to see Smith actually knowing what came next in a lyric and being able to follow chord changes/song structures.
Anyway, to my mind, what Mouse and Mars have done with Smith's vocals on Tromatic Reflexxions is absolute genius. And not only is it avant-electronica genius, it's also pop genius. "Fledermaus Can't Get It", "The Rhinohead" and "Serious Brainskin" were absolutely the most infectious and compelling pop songs I heard in all of 2007.* Of course, I wasn't paying attention to actual pop music, so maybe there is plenty that compares in the mainstream. But that does not in any way diminish the massive impact these tracks have on the listener and the deepening fascination they continue to exert.
So why didn't the bloggers get it? I suppose it could be blamed on Popism. Why listen to something made by a bunch of sour-faced avant-gardists hell-bent on producing "work" that has (retch!) redeeming social value when you can have the psychopathic amorality of real pornotronic pop-soul. Honestly, though, I wouldn't have had most of Blackout's proponents down as Popists. Maybe, though, the illicit thrill of Blackout helped to expose a crypto-Popist element in the Neo-Rockist music blogger community.
Maybe for these folks, the fact that Tromatic Reflexxions was obviously the best album of 2007 was - well - a little too obvious. If you dedicate a good chunk of your spare time and energy to writing about music and you come across something that is as obviously brilliant, obviously perfect and obviously right as the Von Sudenfed album, well, it's likely to make you feel a little redundant isn't it?
I'm kidding, of course but - as usual - there's a more serious (and more positive) way of looking at this. A truly serious critic will always shun simple pleasures that they find obviously appealing in favour of something more complex, challenging and troubling. What an odd state of affairs that this impulse would push people in the direction of Britney Spears and away from Mark E Smith!
For whatever reason, it's a terrible shame that Tromatic Reflexxions has become the album to glibly dismiss in late 07/early 08. This is a piece of work with the vitriol and strangeness of The Fall's classic albums plus the macro impact/micro detail concept-clash of MOM's best work. It's a musical and lyrical kick in the pants for the complacent blandness that blights mainstream pop, alternative rock and electronic dance music today.
The fact that it emerged at the absolute artistic nadir of both MES's and MOM's careers seems incredibly apposite - a classic Classic Album story in the making. So, smartypants music crit types: diss this album at your peril. You'll feel pretty stupid when the folks at Domino ask you to write sleevenotes for the deluxe re-issue in 20 years time.
(*Also, according to this post from Momus, "Fledermaus..." was one of the two sexiest songs of 2007. The fact that the other song he mentions is Grinderman's atrocious "No Pussy Blues" rather destroys his argument but the post is still extremely well-argued and relevant to the Von Sudenfed vs. Britney Spears clash that I'm proposing here).