Cheers for Spears
I, like many of my peers, used to exercise a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the brand of perky, bubblegum-flavored pop that you, and countless other one-hit-wonder types like you, have been trading in and out of the Billboard Top 40 for basically the last quarter of this century. I saw your glamour photos in Rolling Stone, heard your Max (Ace of Base, Backstreet Boys) Martin-produced hit single in retail outlets, and watched your best-selling CD, ...Baby One More Time (Jive Records), soar past the five-million mark, and I thought your whole trip was pretty lame. I've never really bought into the idea of your cookie-cutter teeny-bop being anything other than the soundtrack to a soft-drink commercial. Yet in the past few months, I've softened my position against you by developing an appreciation for the blurred line between the spheres of art and commerce that you occupy. Now, I think you're totally rad!
Currently, you, along with fellow Radio Disney-fueled DAT acts such as Backstreet Boys, Ricky Martin, 'N Sync, and dozens of other aspiring boy groups and girl-powered combos, are bothering the top of the charts with a vaguely soul-inspired, urban sound that's all the rage with the 9- to 14-year-old mall set. I know you were created for the express purpose of siphoning some of the expendable income out of daddy's wallet, but I gotta say, ...Baby, One More Time kicks ass! Your squeaky-clean image (even with a bare midriff and fetishistic Catholic-schoolgirl uniform you look wholesome) belies a relentless groove replete with a nagging, syncopated piano riff, popping bass, and a chorus refrain indirectly (?) inspired by the Crystals' misogynistic "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)." But you've probably never heard of the Crystals. Who cares? ...Baby, One More Time is just about one of the slickest and funkiest adolescent-white-girl anthems in the history of pop music. Well, at least since Robyn (who has also been produced by your friend Max Martin).
I know you don't get the respect that you deserve. Some may complain about your inability to push the boundaries of popular music. Some would chide you for your alleged surgical "enhancements." But I know now that your breezy, disposable kiddie-pop is not about breaking social conventions or taboos but about providing an unobtrusive background noise in between Dawson's Creek episodes for millions of prepubescents all over the world. And like any good dubba-dubba WB youth drama, your music is innocuous, fluffy, and thematically homogeneous. In short, you, with your taut-tummied, aerobicized stage show and Lolita-esque videos, are all about entertainment, and I say, huzzah!
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You are the aural equivalent of an Austin Powers movie; like Mike Myers' enormously influential creation, you appeal to a child's sense of sophistication and taste on a purely escapist level. Don't get me wrong -- I like Austin Powers. I think the Austin Powers films have as much validity as the more "serious" cinema of Robert Bresson, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or any other auteur for that matter. I don't think art should have to be great art for it to be held up for consideration, and maybe that's where most of your critics stumble. By stripping your oeuvre to its core value, I believe one gets a sense of where the lunch-bucket crowd really wants to go today. Do they want to be challenged? No; they want to party, and what sounds better when you're trying to get your groove on -- Elliott Smith or ...Baby, One More Time? Heck, if I want sincerity, I'll put on a Lucinda Williams record.
One could listen to a lot of CDs possessing greater artistic merit. I'm not trying to say that ...Baby, One More Time is for everybody. There are plenty of reasons why someone shouldn't like it. Unlike, say, the new Mercury Rev album, ...Baby, One More Time doesn't sound any better after smoking a doobie, nor does ...Baby, One More Time reveal itself through repeated listenings. (As a matter of fact, it actually starts to get on one's nerves with repeated listenings.) The times that it sounds best are when you're in a dance club or in the car driving to a dance club, and all I gotta say is, what's wrong with that? I'd never lie to you and say that you could do no wrong and that your lyrics couldn't use a little more depth, but when the chips are down, I'd rather listen to your song on the radio over Limp Bizkit any day.
But I do have my concerns, Britney. Where will you go from here? Have you seriously considered your creative longevity? I know the cash may be a cold comfort, but what about your inner muse? Maybe you should have a sit-down with Max. As you read this, your career arc is probably at its halfway mark. You're hot now, but six years on, you and all your little buddies will be littering another one of those as-seen-on-TV '90s-era dance compilations, and your star in the sky will have been taken down and replaced by a newer, younger one: another all-singing, all-dancing Ms. Thing. Your young fans will have grown up, and their tastes hopefully will have matured as well. The same critics who despise you will be denouncing the latest boogie-woogie being bartered by your rivals in the future, even as these artists chalk up merchandising and record sales by the truckload.
It seems to me that whenever the radio gets clogged up with hyper-slick, over-marketed, commercial Top 10 music, something always comes along to upset the apple cart. In the 1950s, it was Elvis Presley; in the '70s, it was the Sex Pistols and punk; in the '90s, it was Nirvana. These little musical revolutions hog the spotlight until their momentum is watered down by a glut of soundalike impostors who quickly lose the plot, and then things tend to revert to the bottom line: what's shifting units. Well, shift away, Britney. I'll probably play your song a few more times before I never want to hear it again. Put on a good show for the kids, will you? Don't keep them out too late. I'm probably gonna stay home that night and read a book, but I'll remember to include you in my prayers.
Hugs and kisses,
T. Erich Scholz
Scholz, occasionally known as Jody Powerchurch, is the bassist for The Tomorrowpeople.
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