Perfect Sound Forever

Britney Spears Won't Go Away

by Calliope Kurtz
(August 2009)

"The way things are going, they're going to crucify me."

Ten years on, she's Beatle big. Sales, press, ubiquity, notoriety--supernova. Not bad for a no-talent.

It's informative to recall the Fabs were anything but assured of their canonization. Tin Pan Alley labeled them a menace, radio stations burned their records and almost half the United States considered them druggie homo atheists. Who knew if they could even play--their concerts were just screams and their hippie productions were smothered in violins and gimmicks. And the Beatles were always up to media mischief--even work as mature as Abbey Road got a chart push from the Paul-Is-Dead hoax. The jury was anything but in--the New Yorker panned Pepper while the Monkees did better business.

Then, war is over, hoopla settled. Fate and the free market decreed the Beatles were, after all, really truly bigger then Jesus. Funner, anyway.

It's Britney's turn now, bitch.

She was down, over and out, well supposedly, all popwreck as Blackout soared to the toppermost and her spot on How I Met Your Mother wowed the Nielsens. Still, hey, "Gimmie More" only went to number 3, so that's evidence of serious decline, and the critics bought themselves another round of drinks. Bottoms up, boys. Then along came "Womanizer," number one, and Circus, number one. As John Lennon--remember him?--once quipped, "When you're number one, there's no complaints." Well, actually, for Spears, complaints keep roaring in. What's up with that? Can't sing, puppetmaster production, just a hype? If that were really true, Sony, WEA and Capitol could hustle up a hundred blonde bimbos with cute belly buttons to outsell Spears in a flash. Mickey Mouse. Right?

Wrong. There's something almighty going on with that girl. Once it was sexuality--love, love me do, maybe--but now there's extra heat. Defiance. "Love me, hate me, say what you want about me." Fair enough. Spears might be cranking out bubblegum gone to whores, but the attitude is all rock & roll. Is Spears, as her "bad media karma" has it, the next pathetic Judy Garland waiting for an inevitable car crash? Or is she onto something stronger--an iconography closer to fuck you than I hurt? Despite the universal, demotic desire to punish transgressing women, Britney Spears has been taunting, fascinating, revolting and, above all, selling unholy amounts of product. Ten years. Top that.

Spears' detractors dismiss her, pointing to the many writers and producers featured on her recordings, an argument infrequently used when evaluating, say, Annie Lennox, another singer with a penchant for electronic enhancement. Hey, then, there's Sinatra who often sang compositions by writers he couldn't name while letting studio professionals choose which takes to use. Whatever, the job gets done and the job is singing. There's the charge Spears "can't really sing" but, like, huh, what is singing? If singing is holding a listener's attention throughout a song, then, whack, Spears is a singer. Don't much matter who produces or writes it, it always sounds like Spears. Purr.

Spears got into the game bearing the traditional chart ideology of female vocalists, yelping "my loneliness is killing me" on "... Baby One More Time." Here was jailbait--reassuringly easy to hurt. Another hit from her debut, "From the Bottom of My Broken Heart" confirmed vulnerability with the line "loneliness up ahead, emptiness behind, where do I go?" "Oops ... I Did It Again" freed Spears from ruining her makeup but posed her as a witless flirt--a vehicle transmitting unconscious, albeit prodigious, pheromones. "Stronger," from the same CD, reversed her initial lede; she claimed "my loneliness ain't killing me no more," but true to the plotline, all hotties gotta be penalized for their power, however adventitious, over men: the wounded routine continued with "Lucky," in which Spears recounted a faux autobiographical soap opera that, today, would play like cabaret introspection:

Isn't she lovely,
This Hollywood girl;
And they say
"She's so lucky,
She's a star";
But she cry cry cries in her lonely heart
Thinking, "if there's nothing missing in my life
Then why do these tears come at night?"
That attitude proved as yesterday as "Lucky's" Happy Days ambiance. Somewhere around Spears' third album, a harder persona prevailed upon the Abbaesque bounce and helium mush of earlier releases. Her plastic remake of "I Love Rock 'n Roll" proved credible, cathartic. Girl getting the hang of throwing beats. More Devo. Spears still couldn't "sing," ha ha, but she was learning how to yell. "I'm a Slave 4 U" replicated--and challenged the hegemony of--Madonna's corporate club sound while introducing a less sentimental, more impulsive Spears ("What's practical is logical, what the hell, who cares?"). "Boys" features a wicked Prince backbeat and predatory vocals: "Boys!--and when a girl is with one, then she's in control!" Harsh and hungry. Dagny Taggart. Whatever.

Spears' "adult" career begins on her fourth CD, In the Zone. Here was the "brave new girl" alluded to on isolated earlier tracks, now sustained. For the first time, the cover art dispenses with the coy availability of previous photo shoots, showing Spears' face bearing down on the camera, cool, and inscrutable. The Grammy-winning classic "Toxic," mashing Mellotron gates and retro-twang guitar, highlighted her artistic transformation while "Outrageous," with its Bollywood exotica and menacing minor chords, documents her own iconography, acknowledging with bravado her insatiable "sex drive" and "shopping spree[s]," concluding with mocking insouciance, "if you don't like it, then--lalalalalalalala." Better yet, there's "Early Mornin'," her woozy, serpentine session with Moby, a dispassionate recounting of concupiscent misbehaviors even ol' Jim Morrison could have appreciated:

Alright, I was out a little late last night,
Got a little messy [...]
I was shaking my ass in the streets this morning;
Just walked in and it's early morning [...]
Passed out on the couch, I'm yawning;
Just walked in and it's early morning;
Bump, bump, till the break of dawn and
It don't stop till the early morning.
On "Me Against The Music," Spears announces a crush-all-opposition policy: "If you really wanna battle, saddle up and get your rhythm; tryin' to hit it, you could die; in a minute I'm a take a you on." Significant that Spears raps that warning on a duet with Madonna. For her part, the postmodern diva admonishes, "Sexy lady, I'd rather see you bare your soul." No way, the usurper learned all too well from the grand dame. Britney Spears, from here on out, is done with scrutinizing the bottom of her heart, broken or otherwise. If there's a bottom of the heart in Spears' performance--and image-crafting ~ then it's the bottomlessness of an unmeasurable cipher. With a merciless tempo, this 2003 track documents a passing of the radioactive torch no less ambiguous than on The Valley of the Dolls.

The 2003 compilation My Prerogative featured, amongst its three new tracks, the ballbusting Bobby Brown cover, amped up by "Toxic" producers Bloodshy and Avant's crushing digital equalizations, in which Spears offers up her own spoken-word intro, a simple mission statement: "People can take everything away from you but they can never take away your truth; but the question is: can you handle mine?" From there:

They say I'm crazy, I really don't care
That's my prerogative;
They say I'm nasty but I don't give a damn;
I don't need permission,
I make my own decisions,
That's my prerogative.
"I've Just Begun (Having My Fun)," with its freebasing bass, and "Do Somethin'," with its fuzztone riff, are equally arrogant, troublemaking funk. Synthetic, sure, shrunk-wrapped, admittedly, yet unbridled, elemental, crudely suggestive, harshly aggressive. There's blood here. And leering. Irresponsibility and invincibility. Not for nothing did Spears' cover the Stones' "Satisfaction" earlier in her career; she seems to be following some primal urge to tap into their sloppy, serendipitous theater of lawlessness. Or, second-best, maybe: Van Halen, Aerosmith, Motley Crue--slick, yet uncontrite, boogiers. There's voltage behind the barcode.

From there came the unholy tabloid circus--marrying down, getting knocked up, giving hubby the boot, pink-slipping her management, pantyless partying, the head shave, the umbrella incident, the custody battles over the children, losing visitation rights, the automobile escapades, detox, more partying, faltering performances, the psychiatric hospitalization and, especially, her family's attempts to seize and control Spears' fortunes. All of which is saliently reminiscent of Victorian interventions to neutralize female agency. It's always for her own good. Hysteria. She went Patty Duke, and came back with Blackout.

Hits! "I'm still an exceptional earner," Spears sneers on "Piece of Me," adding "just try an' pissin' [sic] me off." Blackout, Spears' uppity manifesto, is a triumph--a trendy playlist of candied hiphop and fingerpoppin' feminism: militant bling, Mae West rave, headstrong as MIA and durable as Dolly. The sound is as blunt as the CEO at the microphone--a tickertape of pink punk, scraps of oscillated data, squarewave detonations and Casio ringtones undulating briskly under graffiti vocals, impassioned narcissism. No covers, no ballads, no filler, no remixes, no middle eights even, Blackout sounds like it was recorded on a laptop and mixed on a Palm Pilot. "New Britney's on a mission."

Love songs don't much suit Spears. She's most sincere when she's hostile. Funner, anyway.*

* Sex Pistols star John Lydon has expressed a desire to work with Britney Spears--claiming he can help the singer overcome her personal problems. "I haven't written a song for Britney yet but I would love to," Lydon said. "I'd like to help out because there's a girl who needs some help," he added. Lydon said that he believed Spears had been "hurt" over recent years and that "hurt is the root core essence of good music." Sun (excerpt), May 28, 2008.

Along comes Circus, a year later, and Britney's slapping some guy around in her latest video ("Womanizer"). Fever. "If you think you're hurting, you ain't seen nothin' yet." Voice to skull. Trounced ugly Axl Rose on the charts. On the title track, Spears "call[s] the shots," "run[s] a tight ship," and "crack[s] the whip." Thriller. The sound is less radical than Blackout, but more irradiated--shorter songs, brighter riffs, tweaked midrange, and telescopic intent everywhere. It's all delirious swirls of silicone noise--flanged, compressed and distorted. There's moods on parade, transmitted through a platinum cellphone, appropriately--silky grunge, Sixties goof, mutated Motown, matter-of-fact debauchery. Mainly, flipping the bird:

You don't like me,
I don't like you, it don't matter;
Only difference:
You still listen, I don't have to;
In one ear and
Out the other, I don't need you.
("Kill the Lights")
What cheek! All the while her Circus tour is SO (sold-out). Supposedly the great unwashed masses want lip-synching and lap dances. Go figure. Just wait till all the gays upgrade to Spears. Broadway, next. "Is that money in your pocket or ya happy to see me?" Why the hell has the customer put up with such a transparent Mata Hari travesty? For a decade no less? Lotsa luck, Lily Allen. Why won't Spears go away? Because people need an other, something to point at, someone to hate--and fear. Why not? Rock & roll always starts out as bad taste, can't believe what the world's comin' to, up yours, then, next big thing, presto, clap your hands and rattle your jewelry.

Calliope Kurtz, a frequent contributor to Perfect Sound Forever, resides at Twin Oaks Community where she is presently making hammocks and writing her memoir.

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