Britney Spears’s every move is documented by paparazzi and celebrity blogs, but there is one area where she is keeping a low profile: promotional efforts for her fifth album, “Blackout,” set for release Tuesday.
That’s remarkable, given the make-or-break moment that appears to be at hand for the 25-year-old singer. Her career represents one of the biggest ascents — and biggest flameouts — of the past decade. After exploding into the cultural consciousness in 1998 with “…Baby One More Time,” the former TV Mouseketeer blazed a hit-making trail that defined the teen-pop era of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Ms. Spears seemed positioned to become her generation’s Madonna: a tireless professional with an ear for timely pop hooks and a flair for reinvention. Instead, the wheels came off, and she started careening down a slide that had more in common with Michael Jackson’s carnival-ride lifestyle than Madonna’s focused careerism.
Shearing Her Hair
Not long after the singer released her fourth album, in late 2003, Ms. Spears’s music career all but ground to a halt as she became a full-blown tabloid fixture. Highlights included two failed marriages, a stint in rehab and a bizarre episode earlier this year in which she commandeered a razor at a suburban Los Angeles hair salon and sheared off her blond hair, with photographers capturing it all through the window. For months, Ms. Spears has led L.A.’s paparazzi around like a pied piper, her movements tracked in minute detail from Starbucks to Taco Bell to child-custody hearings.
Now comes “Blackout,” her chance to move the spotlight back onto her singing and away from cringe-inducing parenting mishaps and run-ins with photographers. Yet apart from last month’s MTV Video Music Awards, at which the pop star performed an infamously sloppy rendition of the album’s first single, “Gimme More,” Ms. Spears has had little to do with the kinds of efforts traditionally staged by a music label to kick off a major release.
Nonetheless, Ms. Spears’s label, Sony BMG’s Jive Records, is betting that the album is strong enough to release now, even with its star largely unavailable. Sony BMG paid her a hefty cash advance of nearly $4 million for the album, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Ms. Spears is spending much of her time in a custody fight with ex-husband Kevin Federline over their two young sons; he has been temporarily granted sole custody of the boys. As a result of that and other competing priorities, the singer hasn’t committed to appearances on television or radio, interviews with print media or other typical promotional opportunities. She cut short a shoot for the video for “Gimme More.” And she has recently parted ways with her manager, her music-business and divorce lawyers, and her publicist, leaving her effectively without direct representation or guidance. For several months Ms. Spears was even estranged from her mother, Lynne, who had long been a key adviser. According to people around Ms. Spears, her mother is now back in the picture.
Early Signs Promising
Even so, executives at Jive Records are confident about the commercial potential of “Blackout.” The company is shipping 750,000 to one million copies of the CD to retailers before its on-sale date, according to people close to the label. By standard industry reckoning, that would imply they expect first-week sales of roughly 400,000 to 500,000 copies. In a market that has seen album sales plummet 14% from a year ago, that would be a strong showing — though still less than Sony BMG executives are apparently forecasting for some other artists on their roster. Carrie Underwood’s latest CD shipped around 1.4 million copies before its release this week, while Alicia Keys’s new album, planned for next month, is expected to ship more than one million copies.
Some early signs for “Blackout” are promising. “Gimme More” has remained in the top 10 songs on Apple’s iTunes Stores for more than six weeks, helping it reach a peak position of No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart — her highest position on that chart since her very first single, the No. 1 “…Baby One More Time.” But “Gimme More” quickly lost momentum in radio airplay, a key driver for album sales, sliding to No. 50 last week on the chart before inching up to No. 48.
After shooting some footage for the “Gimme More” video, Ms. Spears backed out of the rest of the taping, resulting in a video that relies on some shots of a dancer whose face can’t be seen.
Teresa LaBarbera Whites, senior vice president for A&R at Jive’s corporate parent, Zomba Label Group, says that when it comes to promoting the album, Ms. Spears will be involved in “certain key things,” but declined to elaborate. She says the singer has been reviewing concepts for a followup video to “Gimme More.” (Ms. LaBarbera Whites declines to name the followup single involved.) “I don’t think of her as out-of-pocket because I talk to her two or three times a day,” the executive says.
Ms. LaBarbera Whites adds that during the 14 months it took to record the album in Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta, Ms. Spears’s professionalism “never wavered.” The label set up nurseries for her sons at the various recording studios. “She’d work, take a break and play with the babies,” then get back to work, the executive says.
Recently, some magazines have found themselves waiting for Ms. Spears. Before a Los Angeles judge’s ruling that temporarily removed the children from Ms. Spears’s custody, the editors of Us Weekly and People magazines received calls from young women who identified themselves as assistants to the singer and offered to bring Ms. Spears and her sons to the magazines’ offices for photo shoots. The singer never turned up. Us Weekly Editor in Chief Janice Min says the call “was from [Ms. Spears’s] assistant at the time, and not surprisingly the call was returned” but ultimately no shoot was arranged. A spokeswoman for People says, “We just can’t talk about our story subjects.”
Whether Ms. Spears cooperates with traditional promotions for “Blackout” may end up a nonissue. When a music label sets up interviews and televised performances, the goal is to gain visibility for the singer ahead of the CD’s release. When it comes to typical promotional gambits such as appearances on late-night talk shows, there is little Jive could do to boost Ms. Spears’s profile significantly higher than it already is. “What’s she going to do?” asks a person close to the label. “Play Kimmel?”
Source: Wall Street Journal