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." I returned to my pew, passing the smiling accused murderer seated at the end of a long table in the middle of the court. 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. Like the rest of America, I saw Britney's disaster on MTV, lazying around a stripper pole like a cat on Valium. 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 6:00 a.m. to spend three to four hours trying to place what I'd seen into a coherent narrative before heading to court. 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.
"Are you comparing Britney to Elvis?"
"Yes, I am."
Remember, Elvis wanted to lead the war on drugs. 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." Sometimes I wonder if these qualified terms aren't interchangeable with "talented idiot."
I'm talking here about Britney Spears performing at the Super Bowl wearing socks on her hands. 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'd rather watch Spears dancing with socks on the wrong appendages than four old men clapping their hands over their heads. And I love the Rolling Stones. I'm just saying.
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. But it's not. 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. Not likely. 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 is the opposite of that. 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. "Oops, I Did It Again" has more to say about the Britney phenomenon, and perhaps why so many smart people loathe her. It's too much to be expected to empathize with this greedy, beautiful creature. I played with your heart/Got lost in the game. 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." Fast-forward past Britney's cover of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," which should be enough to convince anyone that this no longer a girl, not yet a woman is in possession of a unique and terrifying talent, irrespective of the vacuum it may exist in. Pass the marriage to the backup dancer and the two children. Land on the best track on Blackout, "Piece of Me."
Every star at this point in their career puts out a song like this, an angry or wistful ballad about the difficulty of being recognized, misunderstood, and exploited. 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. "Piece of Me" has everything in common with that unfinished tome. A pornographic novel doesn't need to make sense; pornographic music doesn't, either. It just feels good. You don't have to think about it at all, just nod your head and do your work. Or you could listen closer, fall off that ragged edge I was talking about, you might get an idea of where this is going.
Britney is having her perfect moment. If you want a piece, the time is right now. Despite shaving her head, flashing the paparazzi, losing her children to K-Fed, or the other things that have absolutely no relation to her music, when she says, You want a piece of me, she's right. The only flaw, the only line in the whole song that accidentally snags on the listeners' intellect, is when Britney says, I'm Mrs. 'Most likely to get on the TV'/When slipping on the street/When getting the groceries/No, for real, are you kidding me?/No wonder there's panic in the industry/I mean, please. When you take that last piece of Britney, the playful horror of grocery shopping, there's nothing to do but let it go—the synthetic slide guitar is intersecting the sounds pouring from her beautiful lips at just that moment. She's been Ms. American Dream/since I was 17. Nine years later, did you really think she was shopping for her own groceries? Do you shop for yours?
Stephen Elliott is the author of six books including the novel Happy Baby and the story collection My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up. He is also the editor of two collections to be released in February 2008, Sex for America and Where to Invade Next.