Simply put, Britney is a fascinating document because it casts Ms. Spears as the rope in a sort of existential tug-of-war, and ends up making her a symbol of the whole Quixotic predicament that threatens to confound and destroy the giants of teen pop.
Britney was touted as the record in which Ms. Spears would finally shiver off the coil of teen pop and offer a mature, viable collection of songs that were, if not necessarily difficult, then at least vaguely challenging. She hinted at such a possibility with the first single: an icy, spastic track that sounds like EENIAC breaking down while Spears coos over the smoking rubble. It was a bold move, to be sure, and one that left most of Spears' junior-high apostles confused and confounded.
So it's distressing, then, that the 11 other songs on Britney don't even pantomime the willfulness or derring-do of that leadoff track. "Boys" comes close, with its stuttering synths, haunted house vocals and percussion that sounds like a voodoo nightclub. But the odd pitch the whole record strikes is one of sustained disappointment. And over the course of its 39 minutes, Britney expertly illustrates the conundrum faced not only by Britney, but by her waifish rival, Christina Aguilera, and her closest boy band ally, 'N Sync. If Spears (or Aguilera, for that matter) wishes to be taken seriously as an artist, she risks alienating the throngs of Trapper Keeper acolytes most responsible for her success. And yet it's precisely because she's so entrenched in the teen market that older listeners have a difficult time adjusting their perceptions. Spears perpetually runs the risk of seeming too grown-up for the teen market and too juvenile for the grown-ups.
Were the pop market not fluctuating at an alarming rate, Spears could simply grow with her audience, the way Madonna has. But the blitzkrieg attention spans of most music buyers no longer allow for such dalliances. In the end, confronted with this towering pop-culture Catch-22, she chooses to resolve the problem by trying to have it both ways.
First, Spears' publicity corporation kicked up a small tsunami of whispering over that fact that she shares writing credits on five of the new record's compositions. Considered in the light of Spears' primary audience, this seems a detail of woeful irrelevance. But the information wasn't meant for her primary audience. The unspoken implication is that because Britney had some small part in the composition of her songs, she is somehow inching toward legitimacy. The whole maneuver is a willing kowtow to the invisible cynics who have spent the last five years crowing the same tired mantra about Britney's lack of involvement. Never mind the fact that no one bothered to ask if Britney penning her own songs was really even a good idea.
Boasting of Spears' newfound authorial ability was a concession to a garrison of aging record collectors who are not going to be satisfied until Britney tries to make Kid A, and who would probably jeer from the sidelines the instant she does. Team Spears knows this, of course, and to counteract it they also try to make Britney top heavy with the same sort of sonic cotton candy that catapulted her to stardom in the first place. Songs like the ABBA-esque "Anticipating" are reassurances to eighth-graders bewildered by the bizarro bump 'n' grind of the first single that Britney really hasn't changed all too much, that she's still their best friend and loyal spokeswoman.
And so, considering all this, it's downright perverse that the first single is called "Slave 4 U," because in those three minutes Britney unwittingly encapsulates the whole dilemma. She's a slave 4 the kids. She's a slave 4 their cool older siblings. She's even a slave 4 the critics. Maybe the reason Britney didn't end up being Spears' equivalent to Control, Janet Jackson's coming-of-age record, is precisely because she didn't have any.
Britney wants to make everyone happy, and as a result, nobody is. The scythe that keeps cutting Team Spears off at the knees is its lack of a singular vision. Its method of operation is roughly the equivalent of throwing a fistful of darts at the board and hoping that one of them sticks.
Nowhere was this more evident than during Spears' recent concert telecast from the MGM Grand. Over the course of two excruciating hours, the key-shaped stage exploded with every awful blockbuster cliche. There was a typhoon. There were frantic armies of dancers. There was a cameo by Jon Voight. The whole thing played out like some sort of Andrew Lloyd Webber fever dream, a gigantic desperate bid to provide something to satisfy everybody. And in the center of the maelstrom, huffing and gyrating for no one in particular, was Britney -- practically invisible, painfully insignificant.
More apt metaphors cannot be purchased.
Britney Spears performs Sat., Dec. 15, at Philips Arena, 100 Techwood Drive. Show time is 7:30 p.m. $41.50-$67. 404-878-3000.
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