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Britney Rules the Airwaves

Ubiquitous yet self-mocking, vacuous yet ironic--Britney Spears erases the minds of cynics and critics

By Gina Arnold

WRITING A REVIEW of a new Britney Spears CD really calls into question the whole business of rock criticism. Spears is the latest teen-pop sensation, an impossibly blonde and plastic creation of the evil Marketing Department in the Sky, the latest in a long line of Tiffanys, Debbies and Brenda Lees trying to usurp the brain waves (and fashion sense) of 12-year-old girls everywhere.

Her music--prepared in a carefully monitored laboratory of hits--exudes syrupy silliness with a really good beat that you can dance to. To analyze her record from any perspective other than a commercial one seems wholly beside the point.

That being the case, ought one to listen to Spears with the ears of a 12-year-old girl or view her through the eyes of a 16-year-old boy? Or should one apply stricter standards of journalistic integrity and gripe about the way the music industry has always liked to crank out completely plastic, manufactured crap like this? Another tack would be to pontificate on the music's almost breathtaking vacuity, or take the Outraged Mother approach and bum out on her pneumatic breasts.

Unfortunately, none of these approaches seems wholly satisfactory, because writing about Britney Spears is a losing battle. Whatever you say, you lose and she wins, because it all just goes into the roiling frenzy of hype that surrounds her, thus helping to publicize her already overpublicized mug.

The girl has sold 12 million albums since her 16th birthday, and her new CD, the aptly titled Oops! ... I Did It Again (Jive/Zomba), is bound to sell even more in the months to come. Now, if one were to judge the former Mouseketeer the way that she and her peers judge themselves--that is to say on looks alone--then this girl is definitely a winner.

Her blonde hair, perky nose and breasts make certain that not only 12-year-old girls but 16-year-old boys and 40-year-old lechers will have nothing to complain about. But seen from the perspective of almost anyone else, her persona leaves much to be desired.

She is, of course, just another product meant to convey certain mythic qualities to the girl population of the earth--qualities like niceness, physical perfection and this conflicted American ideal that teenage girls should be both outrageously sexy and totally pure.

WHAT IS DISCONCERTING about Britney, as compared to numerous other similar pop stars, is the extreme canniness of her act. Her ambitions seem to go much higher than mere pop star, a la Debbie Gibson. She wants world domination and is well on the way to getting it.

At the old age of 18, she is currently in the transitional phase, attempting to lasso listeners who aren't preadolescent (or super-horny). And the way to get them, she (or her handlers) have decided, is through the very postmodern trick of irony.

By behaving as if her sugary shtick is a completely self-aware act, Spears hopes to get past the awkward phase when most teen idols, exposed by the media as soulless puppets on some ugly corporate string, fade away from the Zeitgeist and are remembered only as one-hit wonders.

In short, instead of becoming a joke, like her contrived-pop forebears in Milli Vanilli or New Kids on the Block, Spears hopes to become a joke that her fans think they were in on all along. Crafty stance, that, and it seems to be working. For example, during Britney's recent stint as both host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live, she took good-natured part in skits that satirized all of the stupider aspects of her persona.

In the opening monologue, she lip-synced her words, thus mocking the rumor that she lip-syncs in concert. Meanwhile, as she "spoke," her breasts jiggled uncontrollably, sending up the equally prevalent rumor that she's had implants. (Spears says they just grew naturally in the last year.)

In the next skit, Britney played a bad Mouseketeer homegirl with tattoos and a ghetto accent who has just written a book exposing The New Mouseketeers (the show on which the real Britney got her start). It was quite amusing watching the Bad Britney, speaking heavy-duty hip-hop lingo, dis her "rival" Britney for her phoniness and professionalism and for "not keeping it real." ("I," grunted the homey-Britney, "don't front.")

Later in the show, she played herself being mobbed by fans, whom she shunned in favor of a smelly homeless person. (He took her into the gutter, where she declared her undying love for him--thus mocking the Britney machine's adage that unlike most pretty and popular girls, she loves all the geeks and losers in the world as much as she loves, say, Carson Daly of MTV or Justin Timberlake of 'N Sync.)

Finally, during the News Hour segment, SNL player Chris Parnell came on to rhapsodize about his fantasy of dating a girl as "pure and as radiant" as Britney Spears. In order to woo her, he said he wanted to sing her a love song. The song turned out to be a nasty-minded rap about having Britney in his pants and Sarah Michelle Gellar on hold to replace her when his orgasm ends--a sly comment on the fact that although Spears' music appeals to teenagers, her sexy outfits, dance gestures and over-exposed body have been the No. 1 porn fantasy on the Internet for the last year or so.

AS THOSE SKITS SHOWED, Spears is perfectly comfortable with the idea of jesting about her completely contrived and unbelievable image. This is an admirable, but also incredibly shrewd, stance, and it sure doesn't lessen the sense that Spears is some kind of cynical cyborg.

When she performed her new song, "Oops! ... I Did It Again," which she did while singing through a head-set and bumping and grinding at the head of a dance troupe of extras, she was of course perfectly schooled and competent. But she didn't do anything any of the people in the "jeans or khaki" Gap ads couldn't do just as well.

In a recent Rolling Stone cover story, Spears pleads with critics to "judge her by her music" rather than her appearance. Such a plea is perhaps the only stupid thing she's said to date, because there's nothing to say about her music at all. It is mostly written by Swedish pop meister Max Martin (who is also responsible for much of the Backstreet Boys' material).

On the more upbeat numbers, an effects box makes her voice sound more black--like TLC or, as the New York Times pointed out, Michael Jackson. On the new album, there are also some songs by proven hit machines Shania Twain and Mutt Lange ("Don't Let Me Be the Last One to Know"), Diane Warren ("One Kiss From You") and Jagger/Richards. (Spears' superprocessed breathy little-girl take on "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is almost unbelievably insipid.)

Not surprisingly, these songs are all potential hits. But so what? All that demonstrates is that her producers and songwriters can contrive a record that resonates with the mass consciousness of pop listeners, circa now.

Because her act is so very prefab, it is obvious that in order to like Britney Spears, you have to like her persona. Many people do. And yet, there is clearly no real there in there. Lyrically, none of this music bears close inspection. As for personality, you could listen to it forever, and the only thing you'd find out about Britney Spears personally is that she likes boys and movies.

Truthfully, Spears' real art is visual, not aural. She projects the very type of fleeting blonde cheerleader-cum-lap-dancer good looks that has dominated the American psyche since at least the 1950s. Does that make her a great artist or actress or someone critics should have to deal with in a sentient manner in print?

Of course not. It merely makes her interchangeable with a host of other girls who can sing and dance: Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, Jessica Simpson and the aforementioned Gap ad girls (if any of them happen to have pipes).

Unless Spears can make this "I was only joking about being a teen queen, really I'm a talented singer and actress and comedienne" stance work, she will disappear into the vacuum of lost celebrity where all used-up teenage sensations go to die.

In a sense, even though she's trying to snow us, one finds oneself wanting to pull for her: Come on Britney! Transcend the limitations of your chosen field of pop dominance! But pulling for Britney Spears, of course, directly violates the critical creed. We are sworn to tell the truth about artists on an artistic level, not a commercial one, and of course, artistically, Britney is worthless.

Even as a concept, she's pretty scary, and a contextual analysis of her art would leave one shaken to the core from having peered into such a well of emptiness. Clearly, the only thing to do when listening to Britney Spears is to let one's mind go totally blank. A blank mind is an uncritical mind, and that is, of course, how Britney wants it.

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From the May 25-31, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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