Britney set for "Blackout" hit despite herself

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NEW YORK, Oct 24 (Reuters) After making headlines for everything but music, Britney Spears is back with an album industry insiders say should top the charts despite her.

Over the past year the one-time Mouseketeer shaved her head, spent time in rehab, went through an ugly divorce, lost custody of her children and attacked a photographer's car.

And in an odd habit yielding endless tabloid references to the title of her biggest album -- ''Oops!... I Did It Again'' -- she kept getting photographed without her underwear.

Now Spears is hoping that the release of ''Blackout,'' her first studio album in four years on October 30, will revive her reputation. The album has already produced ''Gimme More,'' which topped US digital charts and critics expect a hit.

But some critics who have heard her latest opus say the album's likely success has little to with her abilities and more to do with the producers.

The New York Daily News noted all the ''studio trickery'' made her sound like a ''Brit-Bot'' machine.

''If a blow-up sex doll could sing, this is what she'd sound like,'' wrote Jim Farber. ''In terms of studio trickery, Paris Hilton's album was practically 'unplugged' compared to this.'' ''How wonderful it is that, in the world of slick pop, even if stars can't deliver, the machine behind them still can,'' he said, adding that her personal woes don't mean ''Britney Spears can't turn up on some slammin' new songs.'' The Times of London said that Spears should ''take a certain amount of pleasure in the fact that 'Blackout' coheres far better than sprawling recent sets by fellow Mickey Mouse Club alumni Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera.'' But reviewer Pete Paphides added ''certain songs wouldn't have sounded too different if her vocal were totally erased.'' EMBRACING LIFE! A Jive Records press release reveals the album's title refers to ''blocking out negativity and embracing life fully.'' And the lyrics make clear references to her life. In one song, she sings ''I'm Miss bad media karma/Another day another drama/Guess I can't see no harm in working and being a mama.'' Spears is due to appear at a Los Angeles court hearing on Friday over the custody of her kids. She and ex-husband Kevin Federline have been locked in a bitter custody battle over their kids as Spears' life has seemed to veer out of control despite a stint in drug and alcohol rehab.

Geoff Mayfield, director of charts at Billboard, said Spears' album could debut at No. 1 with sales of between 200,000 and 300,000, well down on the more than 600,000 copies sold of previous album ''In the Zone'' during its first week. The 2003 album contained the Grammy-winning song ''Toxic.'' Spears' first-week sales peaked at more than one million for her second album, 2000's ''Oops!... I Did It Again,'' he said.

''Most artists are selling less than they did before just because the album market is down,'' he said. ''She's not immune to that and she's already seen an erosion of her sales from what she did when she was a teen pop star.'' ''Even without the adverse publicity that she's had to weather I would have expected her to have a smaller number.'' According to Nielsen SoundScan data, year-to-date US album sales are down 14.2 per cent in 2007 compared to 2006 as the industry grapples with the rise of digital music.

Michael Musto, entertainment columnist for New York's Village Voice, said that while he is yet to hear ''Blackout'' he has high hopes for it ''because it is what she does best,'' although he did acknowledge that her ''voice is one of many elements that are put together in a record by other people.'' ''It's a good time for her to come out with this and say 'look I am an artist on some level and I'm not just a walking train wreck','' he said.

Jive is a unit of Sony BMG Music Entertainment, a joint venture between Sony Corp. and Bertelsmann AG.

Reuters AK VP0430

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