“Britney Spears” came to me as a heterosexual love object. At my college newspaper the male editors lusted after her early ’99 Rolling Stone cover, for which I loathed them.. She wasn’t a person — she was, to quote Billy Idol, flesh for fantasy. “…Baby One More Time” mattered less to me than “Believe” and “Genie in a Bottle” or, a few months later, “Waiting For Tonight.” Within a couple of years I could acknowledge it slammed harder than any teen pop released in ’99: Kristian Lundin, Jake Schulze, and Andreas Carlsson took copious notes writing and producing “Bye Bye Bye” for ‘N Sync exactly one year later. But as Tom Ewing implies in his excellent essay/retrospective Britney doesn’t accommodate herself to pop narratives: she’s never “matured,” never released Serious Music — “teenage feelings matter, even the dumb and disastrous ones,” he writes. On the contrary: with each release Spears has regarded her voice as an infinitely recombitant instrument best suited for conveying the simplest pleasures. Soccer chants, Eurocheese, EDM — she’ll do it at any price. Fools don’t understand this availability is exactly what makes her a pro. Offer her a song and she’ll contort herself in any shape you want.
But this is the Britney of Femme Fatale; and Blackout. Eight years earlier, “…Baby One More Time” hit #1 on the American and English charts. Then and now we asked questions about songwriting credits, auteurism, and authenticity. Tom again:
But the whole debate over who came up with what is also a red herring. Even if Britney had zero input into anything, it’s her name up there in lights – the whole enterprise depends on her. The idea that you can dig into the credits and origins of modern corporate pop to find secret lines of creativity and influence is a true one. But to imagine those stories are more important than the public ones can be a seductive fantasy of insider knowledge. Britney Spears, like every modern pop star, is the frontwoman of her own career: the story begins with her. It’s like politics, that other great bit of modern theatre: every candidate is the creature of a party machine. But the individual candidates – their strengths, foibles and priorities – matter. They are the story.
So if “manufactured” is unfair, what is the right metaphor for Britney’s relationship to the pop machine? Scanning the pop culture of the late 90s gives us a better possibility: mecha, the Japanese anime genre where beautiful, tragic youth fuse themselves to sublime, state of the art machines. Britney is not the machine’s puppet; she’s its pilot.
I’d rewrite that last sentence: Britney is the puppet, and she’s the pilot — the automatic pilot. What makes her so intermittently effective is her lack of ego, her willingness to become an endlessly protean signifier of pleasure.