Editor’s note: According to a personality test the two writers took at Emode.com, Britney Spears is the inner rock star of both 18-year-old Harvard freshman Irin Carmon and 20-year-old Columbia junior Amy Phillips.
September 6. From: Amy OK, Britney . . . Here are some thoughts, just random stuff:
I still love “Lucky.” It’s such a perfectly constructed and well-oiled machine, like a Kraftwerk song—so tight and slick and every beat absolutely where it should be, like it was made by robots. The harmonies are angelic, and the counterpoint could have come from some medieval chant. But it’s weird that I like it, since the punk in me usually values emotion over technique, messiness over cleanliness. None of Britney’s other singles do that to me, except for ” . . . Baby One More Time.” But the difference is that in “Lucky,” she’s inhabiting another character, and “Baby” and her other hits are all in the first person. So we’re supposed to think Britney’s saying she’s “not that innocent.” And I really don’t care about Britney as a person. I prefer Britney the machine.
Back when the “Baby” video was constantly on The Box (whatever happened to that station?), I remember talking to a friend about how we hated the song, and Britney, yet couldn’t turn the damn thing off. I think I understand it now. That video just captured some sort of zeitgeist that we knew we were a part of, yet tried to resist (especially since my friend had gone to Catholic elementary and middle school). And “Baby” is a great song, due in part to Britney’s vocals—that “oh baby baby” at the beginning could pass for PJ Harvey. And the bass is great—all funk-slap porno—and it’s been pretty consistent since then; I hear the same bass sound on all her songs. Especially on “Oops! . . . I Did It Again,” because it’s basically “Baby II,” except without the vocal urgency or cultural urgency.
Speaking of Britney’s image, I don’t give a shit about the boobs, but what about the nose??? Dude, am I the only person who noticed a huge difference in noses between “Baby” and “Oops”? Maybe I’m nuts, and it’s just puberty . . . or something.
For my birthday last year, my mom got me a copy of the Britney and Lynne Spears Heart to Heart book, because it’s all about mother-daughter bonding. I haven’t read it yet.
Fave Britney outfit: the Super Bowl arm sock.
September 8. From: Irin I spent the entire Super Bowl halftime show contemplating what the fuck that sock was doing on her arm. But at the same time, I felt kind of thrilled by that whole manufactured “Walk This Way” rendition—especially when Britney came out spitting artificial fire.
This summer, I butchered a pink Britney tank top—a gift—into a halter that, in true Spears style, was much more audacious. I wondered if there was a way to wear it and clearly demonstrate the irony. Nope. I wore it anyway. Down St. Marks, a metal-laden punk said wistfully, “I wish I had a Britney Spears shirt.” By Avenue A, a half-dozen curious glances and would-be-witty comments later, a ratty, overgrown indie-rock geek sunning himself wanted to know if I really was Britney. Maybe the top had revealed my inner Britneyness to the world? “No, but I wish I was,” I lied. “Don’t you?” He agreed, and for 10 minutes, we discussed what one would do if one were Britney for a day. “I’d probably spend the whole day in my hotel room masturbating,” he concluded.
The entire Britney thing seems to come down to the conflict between real and fake. All of the favorite Britney debates center around that: Are her boobs (or nose) real? Is she really that innocent, really a virgin? (My roommate announced today that she personally wants to deflower Britney.) Can she really sing or dance? Do we really care? I kept thinking about this every time I saw her (or confused a clone with her and started theorizing anyway); then, the recent Rolling Stone cover article articulated it: “Real” is very important to Britney. Her upcoming movie, tentatively titled Not a Girl, is, in her estimation, “really real.” Susan Sarandon is one of Britney’s favorite actresses because she “has a realness about her.” And one of Britney’s biggest pet peeves, she says after a moment’s thought, is “fake people.”
September 21. From: Amy I haven’t been thinking about Britney too much. On the afternoon of the attacks, I caught the first train I could to my boyfriend’s house in Connecticut, where I stayed until Friday. While there, all we did was sleep, eat, and watch TV. The only videos I wanted to watch were r&b slow jams. Britney reminded me of everything the terrorists wanted to destroy. I just kept thinking of the “BRITNEY WANTS YOU” Rolling Stone cover on Michael Musto’s wall, where she’s in red, white, and blue.
September 21. From: Irin I heard she’s going to donate a dollar from each ticket sold for her fall tour to children of police officers and firefighters. If that’s the element the terrorists wanted to destroy, it’s only surging out stronger.
The only other thing I have to add is that I saw a drag king show at a thrift store in Cambridge—featuring, among other things, a king who did a German-cabaret/cowboy/stripper version of “Oops! . . . I Did It Again.”
October 22. From: Irin My friend Allison downloaded the “I’m a Slave 4 U” video and wrote me an e-mail asking, “When did Britney become Pamela Anderson posing as a showgirl in a brothel in Tijuana? And how does abstinence fit into this? Is the pope penciled in after her late-nite nudie shift? TRL is officially The Red Lightdistrict.”
October 22. From: Amy Actually, most people I’m friends with either don’t think about Britney at all or just plain despise her. Part of it is snobbery, of course, but part of it is that they’re just not interested. Whenever I try to engage them in any sort of intelligent debate about Britney or any other “disposable” pop star, they usually just dismiss me with a comment like “Britney Spears represents everything I hate about American culture” (an exact quote from my boyfriend).
Is Britney still claiming to be a virgin? Man, I’m so behind on these things.
October 30. From: Irin Three of us sat in my common room and watched the “Slave” video, arguing over whether Britney was being portrayed as getting pleasure out of the sweaty, pulsating throng that was grunting in a circle around her. If anything, though, she’s totally in charge of all of them. And all the other dancers are just faceless foils.
PS: I hate myself for loving the “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” cover. Sort of.
November 19. From: Amy What the fuck is Rolling Stone doing putting her on the cover AGAIN??? Let’s see, her last cover was September 13. Is this some kind of record? (On the September cover, to Britney’s right is written “NIRVANA’S NEVERMIND 10 YEARS AFTER: INSIDE THE MAKING OF THE ALBUM THAT CHANGED THE WORLD.” Are you fucking kidding me? It changed the world so much that Daniel Johnston is on the cover of Rolling Stone now, right? Man, I hope Kurt, wherever he is, got a good laugh out of that one.)
November 23. From: Irin I just watched the second half of the HBO special (Britney, soaking wet in a crystal bra, doing a horrid souped-up version of ” . . . Baby One More Time” for the troops).
And, here, as promised, are my thoughts on some of the new songs:
“I’m a Slave 4 U’: Even when she’s trying to scrape her candy gurgle of a voice into some kind of sexy, sultry growl, she still sounds like a little girl playing dress up. I was wrong on two fronts concerning the lyrics: I thought she was cooing, “kitty, kitty”; turns out it’s “get it, get it.” Also, what I initially assumed were wordless, unintelligible yaps turned out to be “Baby, don’t you wanna dance upon me/Leaving behind my name, my age?” Even if she didn’t write it, that’s pretty astute—plenty of people want to dance “upon” her, to get somewhere that has nothing to do with her. I like the jarring drag and lift of the beat and, between her pants (as in, her gasps!), the zombie drone of the chorus. But this will obviously never be “Oops”—i.e., drunken college boys won’t opt for this one for karaoke stripteases. (I’m not making that up.)
“Lonely”: I like Britney better when she’s acting pissed off than when she’s trying to act sexy. Good chorus, forgettable song.
“Boys“: The absolute best part is when she yelps, “GET NASTY!/Moan Moan Moan, OUW!” The Neptunes beat doesn’t save this one, but it makes a valiant effort by muffling everything else.
“Cinderella”: OK, I get it—she’s Cinderella, because she’s a slave 4 her boyfriend, scrubbing at the cinders and his approval. But she’s had enough, because he doesn’t let her say what’s on her mind. So she’s leaving. Wait, is this a feminist revision of the fairy tale? Maybe I’m just assigning to her what I want to be there . . . maybe I should stick to Le Tigre and Sleater-Kinney.
“Bombastic Love”: My favorite song—I found myself audibly humming it at my film discussion section. I’m a sucker for fake operatic interludes. Something about the occasional jerkiness of the chorus reminds me of the flailing of a marionette, and then I want to pat myself on the back for the obvious wit of my metaphor.
November 22. From: Amy I explored Britneyspears.com tonight. Her mom’s diary is still up. Interesting items for sale in the Britney store: “punk headshot sleeveless shirt” ($49.95—I have no clue what makes this shirt “punk”); “Britney Tour 2001 sterling tag choker necklace” (it says “Slave 4 U” on the front—something you’d see in a fetish shop. Who do you think your audience is, Ms. Spears?); afghan throw rug; teddy bears; hair accessory fanny packs; bubblegum.
Britney was the subject of discussion at Thanksgiving dinner tonight for about 15 minutes. Consensus: She’s a good dancer.
November 25. From: Amy Who was on acid when they dreamed up those between-song vignettes on the HBO special? If you see the video, check out the opening sequence of dancers crawling up her billboard on the side of the MGM Grand (a metaphor for the public’s invasion of her privacy, perhaps?) and the dude who really, really looks like Jon Voight reading a nonsensical “bedtime story” to a little girl before the “Born to Make You Happy”/”Lucky”/etc. medley. That was some wack shit. And oh god, that version of “Baby” was terrible. I did, however, think the rain idea was genius—it was like the whole concert was foreplay leading up to the money shot. There she is in her crystal bra and ass-crack jeans, soaking in the entire nation’s cum.
The bit with the soldiers looked tacky. She sounded so insincere. And she was most definitely lip-synching. But who cares? Who goes to a Britney concert for the music anyway?
It was quite poignant for the show to end with an image of Britney trapped inside a bubble, for the same reason that I think “Lucky” (not “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” or “Overprotected,” and certainly not “What It’s Like to Be Me”) is the song that most reflects Britney’s true feelings. I just don’t buy her whole “oh I’m so happy, my life is just great” shtick. I think she’s miserable. One clue is that “Lucky” is her only song (besides “The Beat Goes On,” but that was a cover) sung in the third person. Hmmm.
OK, OK, on to the album. “I’m a Slave 4 U”: I don’t know about the “kitty, kitty” vs. “get it, get it” thing—Rob Sheffield wrote it as the former in his column in RS last month. But then again, he likes Nelly Furtado, so he’s not a very dependable source. There’s a rumor going around, so I’ve been told, that Britney’s whispering “I just wanna have sex with you” in the background, at various points. Perhaps: It sounds like “next to you,” which, to me, means pretty much the same thing. This song is an extremely risky move. I can’t believe they chose it as the first single. Britney’s people must have such faith in her audience. There’s no melody—in fact, it’s more like an anti-melody. You can’t hum it. It’s an uncomfortable song, very itchy, not satisfying like most—actually, all—of Britney’s other work. “Baby” and “Oops” both have these bombastic choruses that build and build and build then explode on their “money phrases” (“hit me baby one more time” and “I’m not that innocent”); “Slave” does the exact opposite. It just kind of bumps ‘n’ grinds along, the only thing close to a crescendo being the beat between “a” and “slave”. I really dig the way she sighs the word “slave” away into nothingness. If you think about it, this song is much more in tune with feminine sexuality than her other, instant-gratification, climax-oriented mega-hits. Oh those sneaky, sneaky Neptunes: Fuck Bob Dylan and the Strokes; they’re the real Artists of the Year.
“Overprotected”: The cursing (“I don’t wanna be so damn protected”) caught me off guard. I wonder if Mr. and Mrs. Spears approve! (It made me think that “Oops! I Did It Again” would be much better if it were called “Shit! I Did It Again.”) This is one of my personal faves; I’m slowly beginning to appreciate Max Martin’s talent for crafting pop songs with kick. And “Overprotected” totally kicks. Somebody yells “ACTION!” and it’s on. (Probably the best use of the word since that Nation of Ulysses song that was the theme song for MTV’s The State.) The cameras roll, she’s in your face. It’s even got that Britney Bass™—the real nicotine in the cigarette, ’cause it’s what gets everyone addicted.
“Lonely”: She’s mad at the guy for doing exactly what she did to him in “Oops”!: “You think I’m so naive/How dare you play with me/I gave you my heart and soul, yeah/Tell me baby, please/Why you’re screwin’ with my head.” Hello? Didn’t anyone ever teach Britney what comes around goes around?
“I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”: Ugh!! But what do you expect from Dido? I found it quite inappropriate that Britney dedicated this song to the troops on HBO. What do they care about her growing pains?
“Boys”: I don’t know about you, but I’ve never in my life thought hair could be sexy, especially on a man, I mean a boy. Still: another Neptunes triumph. By virtually copying their beat from Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money,” they turn a song about a pimp giving his ‘hos a verbal beatdown into a celebration of feminine desire. And nobody notices, least of all Britney. Brilliant. Oh, how much money I would pay to hear Britney moan, “I don’t have no trouble with you fucking me/But I have a little problem with you not fucking me.”
“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”: First of all, she doesn’t love rock and roll. It’s so obvious. Did you see the little Behind the Music parody that preceded this song on HBO? Rock and roll is something silly, something to be made fun of. A costume to put on. Britney loves pop, not rock and roll—and there’s a big difference, I’d like to think. “Rock and roll” means rough and nasty sex. I don’t think Britney likes it rough and nasty, despite the claims of the messages that flood my Hotmail bulk mail folder. And rock and roll does not and should not soothe the soul, as Britney moans in the line she added in. It fires you up, makes you want to change things, break stuff, get it on. Rock and roll is anything but soothing; smooth jazz is soothing. And finally, this song has nothing to do with girl power, as Britney claimed in one of her countless indistinguishable interviews. As she may or may not know, Joan Jett’s version was a cover as well—the song was originally written and performed by the Arrows, who were boys. Her Jettness turned it into a girl-rock anthem. Who besides dorks like me has heard of the Arrows?
“Cinderella”: I think you’re right about the feminist revision, Irin, except for one thing: Why’s she apologizing? She keeps saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Cut it out! He’s the one who should be apologizing! Musically, though, this is another winner. It would be great workout music, if I worked out.
“Let Me Be”: The first of three forgettable “Me” songs that close the album. The pseudo-Latin guitar is pretty funny.
“Bombastic Love”: Yeah, this one’s rockin’. But I much prefer Shaggy’s “Boombastic.” See, that’s the kind of word that can be used in one hit song per decade at most. I guess she wasn’t willing to go the extra mile and call it “Sarcastic Love.”
“That’s Where You Take Me”: more filler. Everybody says this sounds just like “I Want It That Way,” and they’re right. By the way, did you know that at the end of Britney’s first album, there’s an ad for a Backstreet Boys album?
November 26. From: Irin I got to thinking today when I saw a girl in a plaid miniskirt and a white button-down shirt (unrelated anecdote—as an initiation, one of the women’s sports teams here had to show up at dining halls dressed like “Baby”-era Britney during freshman week): Up until now, Britney hasn’t necessarily traded on her sexuality per se; she’s traded on the whiff of it. What people found so tantalizing or immoral about her was how much she exploited the sexualization of innocence—so, yeah, that heaving bosom, but specifically encased in a Catholic schoolgirl outfit. I hate to focus more on Britney’s breasts, since they’ve already gotten so much airtime, but think about it: The public’s obsession with them centered around whether they could change that fast. Then it was her virginity. She’s like a fast-forward morality play of adolescence, parodied beyond recognition and tacked onto the public imagination. I mean, have you even heard the MP3 that turns “Baby” into a ditty about her . . . well, you get the idea. I’m not gonna touch that rhyme.
Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote a great essay in The Guardian last year, saying, “Britney Spears’s entire appeal is in denying her entire appeal. Unlike, say, Madonna, who never pretended to be anything other than an overtly sexual being, Britney Spears has built an entire image around insisting that she does not mean to be sexy.” And where I’m going with this is, if Britney loses her virgin nymphet status, where is she? What is she? This new image of hers is crafted so carefully to show that she’s grown-up. So what? So are a lot of the chicks in glitter tops and skintight pants lining up to audition for Pop Star. If Britney’s currency has always been the temptation of awakening, how much will people care about her once she’s fully awake, once she officially brands herself a woman? All of the fucked-up ideas our society has about female sexuality come to a head here—women lose cultural value with maturity.
November 26. From: Amy So few pop stars are successfully able to make that leap in audience from kids to adults. I can only think of the Beatles and Madonna—people who started out with an almost exclusively underage audience and were able to grow with them, the Beatles out of sheer talent and innovation and Madonna because she never treated the kids like kids in the first place. I don’t think Britney’s capable of making that leap. Already, this album is selling less than the other two—a lot less. And it’s not because of September 11—people are still buying Garth Brooks albums like mad.
December 6. From: Irin Before lecture today, I sheepishly produce my Britney ticket stub as an excuse for missing the screening yesterday. After spitting out his soda in disbelief, my teaching fellow admits that it’s a pretty good excuse.
Last night at Madison Square Garden . . . it ends up being about watching the line between irony and sincerity waver out of existence: We can’t tell anymore who’s kidding. It’s not the little girls sitting next to us in Britney shirts, cooing, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” in baby voices and toting teddy bears. Jury’s out on the little girl’s daddy who thought it would be cute to dress his four-year-old in coy Catholic schoolgirl attire. Gay men in glitter tops vie for vision with petulant teenage girls tarted up in homemade I * Britney shirts. Parents clap along amiably, as if they’re doing time at Barney Live in Concert rather than the sort of Cats-meets- Moulin Rouge debauchery onstage.
Any healthy skepticism I had about the claim that Britney is any sort of role model, let alone a poor one, dies before she even comes on, as a girl of about six in a spangled midriff top performs an impromptu gyration against a railing. Her mother looks on fondly, the adults in the audience applaud and whoop, and she, still thrusting gamely, beams at the attention.
We summon a sort of rebellious superiority at having arrived in jeans and free of makeup. All girls within 10 years of us—eight to 28—are hyper-styled: unyielding, ironed, and maximized to obliteration. They only follow Britney’s example. Her body is flawless, her dancing respectably close. But what you get from her show is, aptly, a cliché: smoke and mirrors. During “Lonely,” real-life Britney challenges a life-sized video Britney to a fight, but no one cares who wins. Out of the smoke, dancers swirl around Britney carrying jagged mirrors, reflecting her out of existence.
“I’m not a little girl anymore,” she explains earnestly, sitting down for a solemn “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” This is the only ballad on the album, so it’s time to reflect on the heroism of New York. The little girls chorus along, swaying with their arms around each other. I almost envy them.
I find it utterly charmless, even alarmingly desperate. Britney Spears is past her peak. I want to appreciate the camp, the unabashed spectacle, but instead I feel personally bruised by the excess. Songs like “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” delivered writhing from a suspended cage, lose their power when they’re disembodied and decentralized. The dark edginess she’s trying to introduce not only rings false, it seems macabre and inappropriate. I want cheer, maybe some prettiness.
We get a little during what is my favorite sequence, though its reactionary fairy-tale message makes me gag. Britney rises slowly out of a giant Freudian music box, spinning like a ballerina and singing “Born to Make You Happy.” Confetti rains on the audience, Britney rips off her tutu, and moves into brilliant renditions of “Lucky” and “Sometimes I Run.” She sinks back into the box; her dancers close the gilded top. “When the moment comes,” the narrator intones, “he will wake her up. And he will love her until the day she dies.” They roll the box away.