"It's Britney, bitch." Thus begins the latest album by Britney Spears, marking her metamorphosis from teen sweetheart into the most terrifying woman in contemporary pop. Even when she was cavorting around in a school uniform, there was a hint of steel in Spears's megawatt smile (and in her early announcement - admittedly soon abandoned - that she would remain a virgin until she married). Now, after two children, divorce, a custody battle, bereavement and alleged problems with drugs, she looks cold and glassy but apparently indestructible, like a kind of popstress-terminator.
Out of the well-documented wreckage of her personal life has emerged Blackout, a feisty and, at times, brilliant pop record. It could also serve as a morality tale for anyone who believes that being famous might be fun. It is de rigueur for stars to complain about the pressures of celebrity, but few have made it sound as unequivocally hellish as Spears. On "Piece of Me", her robotic-sounding voice intones wearily over a knockout punch of a bassline: "I'm Miss American Dream since I was 17 . . ./Miss Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous/Miss Oh My God that Britney's Shameless/Miss Extra! Extra! This just in/Miss she's too big now she's too thin." At times, the exasperation is barely contained: "I'm most likely to get on TV for slipping on the street when I'm out getting groceries . . ./No wonder there's panic in the industry/I mean, please."
The griping is a bit rich, coming from somebody who, when she first married the dancer Kevin Federline (who had left his eight-months pregnant partner for Spears), signed up for a reality TV show called Britney and Kevin: Chaotic. But that tension is what gives the album its claustrophobic power - Spears evidently knows that she is being devoured by her own fame, and yet she still craves it. The thumping first single from Blackout, and Spears's biggest hit in several years, is appropriately entitled "Gimme More"; her dazed, stumbling performance of the song at an MTV awards ceremony in September indicated that more was the last thing she needed.
Elsewhere, the songs on Blackout sound like the voracious cries of a sex-crazed cyberwoman - in a good way. On the best song on the album, the stupidly bouncy "Hot As Ice", Spears professes to being "just a girl with the ability to drive men crazy". It is rather easier to imagine them fleeing from her in alarm. In the album artwork, she looks like a dominatrix - all black leather and invitingly open lips - and the lyrics have the same bent. One song is bluntly called "Get Naked (I Got a Plan)" and another "Toy Soldier" ("I need a soldier/I'm sick of toy soldiers"). This is girl power, if of a slightly disturbing kind.
Where a more stable individual might have retreated from the spotlight, Spears has chosen to let it all hang out. She became a symbol of the increasingly dark nature of celebrity culture when she shaved off her hair in the full glare of the paparazzi's cameras (she later explained that a much-loved aunt had just died of breast cancer). She has not tried, à la Victoria Beckham, to maintain the illusion that her life is perfect, and has been photographed crying, or looking drunk and dishevelled. On "Freakshow", one of only two songs on Blackout for which Spears herself has a writing credit, she outlines her philosophy: "If they want to look, we can give 'em a freak show."
Blackout is a potent addition to a growing catalogue of honest accounts of the dark side of celebrity. Another personal favourite is "When You Wasn't Famous" by the British rapper The Streets, in which he recounts taking crack with a fellow pop star before her appearance on the early-morning TV music show CD:UK: "Considering the amount of prang you'd done/You looked amazing . . ." In an age where stars are no longer revered, but rather pursued and dissected by a slavering press pack, the mystery is why anyone would consider fame an attractive prospect. It is not surprising that a small but determined band of musicians and artists, including Banksy and Burial, whose work was reviewed in these pages last month, prefer to maintain their anonymity.
Others, such as Kylie Minogue - one of the few female artists whose celebrity is comparable to Spears's - prefer to hide behind an impenetrable facade (Kylie's latest album, X, has been criticised for failing to mention her own recent battle with cancer). But Britney Spears has turned an unenviable situation to her personal advantage by making an album that is as grimly compelling as the pages of Heat magazine.
"Blackout" (Sony BMG) is out now