The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Tome On The Range

Marcello Carlin On Britney Spears - An Extract From The Blue In The Air
The Quietus , April 6th, 2011 07:30

Razor sharp music blogger Marcello Carlin has a new book out on Zer0 - here is a brief introduction to why he writes and his thoughts on Britney Spears

From the introduction to The Blue In The Air published this month by Zer0 Books:

Most music writers write for a living, but I began writing about music in order to live. My first partner, Laura Gerrard, died of cancer in August 2001 at the age of thirty-six. That the ensuing period was not a happy time for me scarcely needs to be said, and for most of it the last thing I wanted to do was to listen to music. Still, it quickly became apparent that this was no route back towards any life worthy of the name, and that to survive, let alone come to terms with my own grief, would involve coming to terms with music, not simply the music that Laura and I had shared for many, many years, but all the music that Laura would now be unable to hear. I felt I owed it to her memory, not only to pay due tribute to her spirit, but also to do all the new listening for her. If I could do this in public, moreover, then perhaps other spirits would stumble upon me, and even connect with me.

With some considerable encouragement from others, I felt confident enough to want to approach both writing and music again, and The Church Of Me, named after the planned but unbuilt memorial to the first wife of the artist Stanley Spencer, stumbled into existence at the beginning of 2002. The blog became quickly and surprisingly popular, perhaps because there were few other websites at the time devoted to long-form analytical music writing, and fewer still with such unavoidable personal content. Certainly the latter, together with the perceived quality of the writing, struck a chord with many readers as well as other bloggers. One Toronto-based blogger, Lena Friesen, thought enough of The Church Of Me to want to get in touch with its writer and so, in 2003, what effectively began as an online penpal relationship slowly developed over the next couple of years into something more profound. We met, became engaged, married – in Toronto – in November 2007, and little over a year later she finally came to join me permanently in London. While awaiting her arrival I began a new blog – The Blue In The Air. Although this blog had no overt agenda, I found that, in retrospect, the posts did tell an accidentally profound story. While I was waiting patiently for my world to change forever and for the better, the world too seemed to be waiting for change; this period covered Barack Obama’s nomination for the Democratic presidential candidacy and eventual election as President. Despite the well-documented economic collapse which occurred towards the latter half of 2008, there did appear to be a definite air of optimism, and I hope that this feeling is palpable in the pieces which I have selected for the present collection. Indeed the sense of optimism, although cautious and mindful of wider global crises, has pervaded into the change in British politics which is currently being undertaken as I write these words.

Of the more than two hundred posts which I made over this period to The Blue In The Air – read Joan Didion’s novel Democracy and discover the idea which inspired the title – I decided to select fifty, the half-century which collectively told the best story.

Britney Spears: Heaven On Earth

5 November 2007

Whatever else Blackout may be, it’s not Britney’s Low. For one, that would have required a largely instrumental second half with cut-up and processed/distorted voices, and we only get the latter; the miniature Barthesian essay on the nature and expression of the word “baby” three-quarters of the way through 'Perfect Lover' which uses only the word “baby,” and the more pressing matter of Britney’s ProTooled/Auto-detuned/stretched/squashed vocal grains throughout; the startling Godardian Cinemascope of the low, growled “More!”s in 'Gimme More', Britney as her own man/lover in the parlous elegy of 'Get Naked (I Got A Plan)', the logical next point of departure from Dee D Jackson’s 'Automatic Lover', the booming, low “LOW!” which intrudes into the “turn the lights down” quasi-fantasia of 'Break The Ice'.

For two, Britney does not sound especially low on this record (and for an incidental three, the lowing on this record sounds to me unambiguously Britney despite, or even because of, the multiple Berioesque variations which producers Bloodshy & Avant, Danja and co. apply to her voice(s)). Yes, there is the swipe at the press in 'Piece Of Me' with its chain gang chorus of multiple facets of Britney, and the occasional extended bout of what I take to be K-Fed bitching – 'Toy Soldier' (“I’m sick to death of toy soldiers! . . ./I’m so damn glad that’s over”) and the quite gorgeous Neptunes closer 'Why Should I Be Sad?' with the Philly oasis which shimmers into view midsong contrasting pointedly with Spears’ snarl at “stupid freaking things”. But her closing invocation of “Time for me to move along” – which at one point provokes a semi-ironic “Hey baby, what’s your name?” from Pharrell – and her “goodbye”s do not indicate a New Pop 'Decades'; rather, the upstanding resignation of someone who throughout this record seems more firmly in control than on any of her previous ones; see for instance the hilarious Gwen Stefani send-up in the first verse of 'Cool As Ice' (with curious “hooka hooka” backing vocals which seem to have strayed from Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk).

For four, Blackout is so musically strong and packed with creamy nowness that most of the rest of this year’s pop might as well get back into bed. When Britney does the schaffel schtick, as she does on 'Radar' and 'Ooh Baby Baby', we do not think of slumming Sloanes or Hoxtonites trying to pass themselves off as cutting edge but of rainbows old and horizons new – the repeated dove-like swoop of “on my radar” in the former might count as the greatest use of Autotune on record. Britney (and producer Farid Nassar) is even bold enough to revive the 'Rock ‘N’ Roll Part 2' rhythm on the latter and make it sound like tomorrow; it is a not inconsiderable feat that I could easily imagine Elvis performing either tune.

But even if Blackout is not the apogee of nihilism that perhaps too many people were expecting – then again, neither was In Utero – it still has its 'Be My Wife', its moment where everything suddenly clears and naked emotion is clarified, and 'Heaven On Earth', the loveliest song that Britney has ever sung, is that moment. Its opening New Order-via-PSBs-via-Tiga sequencing bassline is promising enough but Spears – and Bloodshy & Avant – then build steadily on its foundations with more than a nod to Scritti’s 'Lions After Slumber' with its opening foray/seduction/catalogue of “Your touch, your taste, your breath, your face, your HANDS [Britney about to crumble at the prospect of those hands], you’re sweet, your love, your teeth, your tongue, your eye (just one?), your mind, your lips, you’re fine,” intoned with breathless expectance of transfor- mative ecstasy.

Then the melody begins to make itself known and there is some sharp intake of listener breath as one realizes how great and noble this song is going to be as the two-part chorus commences; the first, almost Motownish in a different world, bearing her already fainting “Waking up and you’re next to me” with the emphasis floatingly on the “wake” and “next,” the “look and you stop” leading to an abrupt pause, punctuated by an upwards squirting synth flourish, before the second part demonstrates such lyricism you want to cry all black holes into extinction via exhaustion – “when you’re next to me it’s just like heaven on earth” is not the most original of observations but in this setting carries the weight of paradises regained. The extended moment of the first half of the second verse – a slowly perambulating but determined “I’ll move across the world for you,” followed by “Just tell me when, just tell me where, I’ll come to you” – is shattering, though immediately mended by the distant cry of a modified syndrum at 2:11.

The minor key piano echoes into view after the second chorus but it is laying down the foundations for happiness rather than digging an oblivion while synths detune, warp and chuckle behind. But even this does not prepare the listener for the 'Strawberry Fields' citation which accompanies the “Fall off the edge of my mind” coda, after which words, for the first and final time on Blackout, fail her; “So in love,” she mumbles in unreachable joy. “I said I’m so in love! With you!” she repeats as both voice and mind crack up (“Yeah!”). A brief electronic wave looms out of the distance before being cut off. The rest we’ll have to guess, as Britney lets go.

More details on The Blue In The Air and other forthcoming releases at