Tweet It's Britney, bitch. That's the opening to the first single released from Blackout, Britney Spears's sex and drugs masterpiece though the drugs aren't in the lyrics and "masterpiece" is a bit of a stretch. I'm not sure what led me to the point in life where I'm listening to Britney Spears on repeat. It started while I was writing about a murder trial, a trial that I almost got thrown out of—the judge calling me to chambers, three lawyers and two cops sitting around his desk.
He wanted to know if I had been talking to a juror. I had seen the juror at the train and said hello. The juror wrote a three-page memo detailing our conversation, which the judge waved in front of me. He was deciding whether or not to bar me from the court.
All I could say was, "I'm sorry. It was a sympathetic smile, his bright-red lips twisted to points on his cheeks, like Jack Nicholson's Joker.
He was commiserating with me, trying to say: It sure is hard to stay out of trouble around here! But that doesn't really explain Britney or her new album, Blackout. That's just where I was in my life, immersed in crime, making bad decisions, scattered.
That was enough for me. I downloaded the rest of the album, and then her earlier albums, and I started trying to understand what I had been missing, what the teenage girls always knew. Every day I woke before 6: I needed music that wouldn't challenge me in any way.
I sat at the table in my small room staring at an air shaft, the sound of my roommate shifting noisily on the other side of our thin wall replaced with earbuds piping Britney Spears, who is 26 years old and the seventh-best-selling female artist of all time. It's challenging to engage in a serious conversation about Britney Spears.
My friends are proud of their musical tastes and I frequently embarrass them, but there are limits. Over time, derivative acts such as Stone Temple Pilots and Everclear have gained a grudging hipster acceptance. Ten years from now, I predict, we'll think about Nickelback in an entirely different way.
Despite selling 80 million albums, it's doubtful Britney will ever be appraised as anything more than a signifier of other, more relevant cultural trends. The intelligentsia doesn't even consider her a musician. She's barely a vessel. One friend tells me that Britney Spears is a wholly manufactured sound, the only difference between Spears and a computer program being her ability to walk onstage.
But it's not true. Britney has a way of dipping at the end of a verb like she's having an orgasm so intense and fast the only thing to do is dance right through it. Other times she's forceful, or innocent; she always feels it at exactly the right time. She doesn't have "pipes" like Mariah or Christina. What she has is a sweet Southern drawl that tells a story, which is strange, because it's a story she doesn't seem to understand.
Her songs contradict each other; and as she gets older, her schoolgirl drawl is ripping in two, leaving a ragged, adult edge evidenced on almost all the songs in Blackout, her best album by far. It's the sound of a voice at its peak, about to go into steep decline. A large part of the criticism of Britney comes from the fact that she doesn't write her own songs. If she did, it's likely the rest of her transgressions would be easily forgiven.
After all, artists are supposed to be self-centered and crazy. I have to remind people that Elvis didn't write his own songs, either. He arranged a meeting with Richard Nixon on this very topic.
He showed up to meet the president of the United States stoned out of his mind and wearing a cape. But not just any cape, a half cape that went to his elbows like an unfinished Batman costume. Tell me Elvis is a genius, I'm not going to disagree with you. But can we agree on what the word genius means? The word genius almost always begs for a modifier—a "musical genius," a "physical genius," an "empathic genius. Compare that high-energy performance with the totem-faced members of the Rolling Stones swinging their guitars over their craggy shoulder blades.
Apples and oranges, of course. The Stones write their own music and play their own instruments. They were never chosen, they insisted on taking the stage.
Without any help from anyone else, the Rolling Stones are still a great band. Britney is just a performer. It's like comparing an actor and a director. Getting back to that "genius" word again. Stanley Kubrick is indisputably a genius. Tom Cruise, not so much. But I'd still rather hear Tom say, "Worship the cock. And I love the Rolling Stones. Her unquestioning trust in her producers is a hallmark of her sound.
A cluelessness pervades her music—a deliberate ignorance of larger societal issues, lyrics shocking in their meanness, all of it layered over a pitch-perfect delivery and simple, unforgettable beats.
How many people could remove themselves so entirely from the process until called upon, at which point they slide into their role like a spoon into soup? Which is to say that Britney Spears is more complex than she's given credit for. Take her debut album, Baby, One More Time. At first glance, the target audience would seem to be pedophiles. There she is in her video in shiny, flat, round-toed shoes, socks to her knees this time, a short skirt, a jacket open to expose her belly button, dancing in the school hallway.
She shakes her chest then sways her hips in a way that's more of a promise than a suggestion. Her skirt flashes open baring the tops of her thighs. Inhibited schoolgirls in starched button-ups look approvingly from behind open lockers, like they've been given permission to live, though in real life they're professional dancers, some with coke habits. What's going on here? Britney is wearing pigtails with pink ribbons, and a quarter inch of lipstick, singing, My loneliness is killing me. But that's not what this is about.
The call is to teen girls in sheltered suburban environments prepping to break the chains of their generation's expectations. And they do, for a moment. Then they go back to their schoolwork, then college, then married with a kid on the way. Soon they'll be chastising their own children, running out the door to the Montessori school, screaming, "Come back here, little missy! You look like a whore! Britney doesn't dissolve into obscurity.
Britney goes all the way. At the end of that video, Britney is back in class. It was all just a dream. Though obviously it wasn't—she's still wearing a full tube of lipstick. In her next album, the pining schoolgirl returns in a red-leather catsuit to tell us that she's not that innocent, that she's a self-satisfied heartbreaker. She doesn't care about other people at all. She has the same inviting smile, but it's no longer friendly. In fact, she might not be capable of love.
It's too much to be expected to empathize with this greedy, beautiful creature. But hey, she's just the messenger. Fast-forward past the Pepsi commercial, though it is impressive to note that Britney can sing a ballad about a soda with the same skill as any of her songs.
Her "genius" is interchangeable. My father used to tell me a good writer can write about anything and make it interesting, but I've never believed that.
An author has to be interested in his subject. Britney doesn't have that problem, or else she's passionate about everything. Fast-forward past In the Zone, a worthless album with the exception of "Toxic.
Pass the marriage to the backup dancer and the two children. Land on the best track on Blackout, "Piece of Me. But Britney's version is one of the best. This song is so infectious, so basic, that when you hear it the first time it's like you've heard it a hundred times before.
In fact, you've already got it memorized. It reminds me of a pornographic novel that once caught my interest for a couple of years. I reread that book at least once a month, despite its lack of any literary merit and no ending the author stopped at the halfway point, having painted himself into a corner.
I read it more than anything I'd read before or since.