There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
On her lustful and wildly successful debut, teen diva and former Mouseketeer Britney Spears came across as Satan’s own Amy Grant, a hot and bothered fallen angel performing songs that celebrated pubescent sexuality so blatantly you could almost call them subversive. Almost. Sure, a couple of great singles aside, the songs were utterly forgettable, but still—there she was, on MTV, (barely) dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl, gyrating viciously while asking her lover for a sign of his affection. Who could forget it: “Hit me baby one more time”?
Tempting as it was to think of Spears as an adolescent agent provocateur, though, the anonymous dance-pop whipped up by her production team suggested that, alas, Spears was just another aspiring contestant on the Who Wants to Be a Diva? show—one who should probably use a lifeline to dial up a new voice. Though she likes to claim Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey as her role models, Spears at her best approximates the clipped, staccato delivery that Janet Jackson perfected; at her worst, she sings like the wife of her former employer, Mickey Mouse.
But with Spears, her instrument hardly matters. Video is her forte, and the music she makes is mostly high-gloss soundtrack fodder: She has to have something to grind to, after all. And, like Madonna before her, Spears does offer something genuinely provocative in her visual representation. The steamy, oh-so-adult sensuality she performs with ritualistic precision would be banal if it weren’t for her innocent good looks—the doe eyes, the perfect skin, the baby fat. That juxtaposition, pushed to the edge in last year’s infamous Rolling Stone photo spread, led to hysterical charges of kiddie porn, culminating in a People magazine cover story asking if Spears was “Too Sexy Too Soon?” Well, duh. When People almost catches on, you know the fun’s nearly over, and, sure enough, Spears now says she doesn’t “want to be a part of someone’s Lolita thing.” So now she tells us. Ever get the feeling you’re being dumped?
Spears’ new record, Oops!…I Did It Again, is the sound of Britney kissing all her dimwitted Humbert Humberts goodbye, opening with a trio of songs designed to let the creeps down hard. “You think I’m in love/That I’m sent from above,” she sings angelically on the title track. But it’s just a sucker punch, a setup for the in-your-face payoff: “I’m not that innocent,” she intones, pronouncing each syllable like a judgment or, more likely, a joke at your expense. The song comes complete with spoken dialogue in which a would-be suitor offers Spears the necklace the old lady in Titanic dropped into the ocean. “Well baby, I went down and got it for you,” says the patronizing male voice. “Oh, you shouldn’t have,” comes the innocently icy response. And she means it, man. The “it” of the song’s title refers to breaking your heart. Oops!
“Stronger” follows that lead, finishing the dialogue the opening track began over a throbbing, industrial-strength dance beat. “Hush, just stop,” she says to her soon-to-be-ex-lover. “There’s nothing you can do or say, baby.” With the kiss-off complete, the post-Spice Girls chorus kicks in, all soaring anthem and lip-glossed girl power, scaled down far enough to fit neatly inside a throwaway couplet: “Stronger than yesterday,” Spears sings. “Now it’s nothing but my way.”
“Don’t Go Knockin’ on My Door” completes Spears’ breakup trifecta. It’s the album’s best track, a candy-coated wind-up toy of a song with a stuttering, stop-start beat that could inspire a resurgence of popularity for the Robot. (If Spears performs that dance in a video, I swear I’ll join her fan club.) Even though she sings the song in a cartoonish, mini-Britney voice that recalls the odd vocal effects Prince sometimes uses, it’s a powerful performance. Once again, she is Britney, hear her roar: “I am better off without you/Stronger than ever.” Getting the point yet, loser?
But the LP mostly misfires after “Don’t Go Knockin’.” There’s an ill-advised cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” that competes with (and loses to) Devo’s mechanized take on the Stones’ classic, though Spears does earn points for the cavalier way in which “How white my shirts can be” becomes “How tight my skirt should be.” Mick who? We also get a glimpse into Spears’ inner life on the one song she co-wrote, “Dear Diary.” As a songwriter, Spears apparently leans toward cloying power(less) ballads; the track nearly undoes the frothy affirmation of the disc’s earlier songs. Elsewhere, snippets of inane telephone conversations between Spears and her friends appear between tracks, in a goofy gimmick that seems designed to make Spears’ point in reverse: She is that innocent, so back off, pervert.
From Sam Cooke’s “Only Sixteen” laments to the nudge-nudge wink-wink of the Beatles’ singing, “Well she was just seventeen/You know what I mean” to Gary Puckett’s “Young Girl” troubles, pop music has a long-standing relationship with borderline pedophilia. On “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” the Police got canonical about it, wrapping their prurient interest in literary respectability by actually name-checking Nabokov, even if Sting did have to use “shake and cough” to make the rhyme work.
But interesting things happen when the object of desire starts singing the songs, particularly when she’s a genuine cultural phenom. On her second album, Britney Spears suggests that unwanted admirers are as disposable as lightweight radio pop, maybe even more so. Tough luck, sucker. CP