I never could believe the line about Madonna being an empowering female figure because she, not the Man, was controlling her sexuality. I find even less believable the line about Britney Spears being this century’s version of Madonna. Madonna wasn’t much of a singer either, but her early downtown fauxhemian street urchin chic makes her look avant-garde in comparison. Madonna wasn’t the first Catholic schoolgirl to rebel, so I hesitate to say that Madonna had ideas, or even that she deserves credit for co-opting them, but when I see pictures of Britney padding about parking lots in Uggs, Madonna starts to seem like some malevolent, mantilla-wearing intercontinental sorceress out of Henry James. Britney is a hot dog—thick, pink, synthetic, inert.
I resist the interpretation of Britney as a Site of Resistance. I resist the interpretation of her as something worthwhile because she is something mass, or something female. I resist the interpretation of her as a guilty pleasure. There is no pleasure, and nothing playful here. Even as she relentlessly feels herself up, she is still an innocent, a deeply uninteresting innocent, because she has no real compelling idea about where to put herself or who to give herself to when she’s naked. It’s why her sufferings, and her songs, can’t be rescued by application of the term Camp. She has not tried and failed to be anything other than what she is; she is still so thoroughly the girl who should have been packed off to Bible college to major in speech pathology. Britney is confused, but I don’t feel sorry for her. I feel sorry for us, because our culture seems to prefer our collective id in the form of a hot dog wearing Versace.
I’d defend Britney if she offered melody, rebellion, style, irreverence, danger, or turns of phrases that described coming of age with a little more intelligence and verve than “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” If, like Debbie Harry, she scavenged her Saturday night clothes off the streets of New York, and somehow smuggled some improvised, tough-girl panache to the top of the charts. If she did, I could understand why Pitchfork and the Village Voice ranked “Toxic” one of the best singles of 2004 and why “Womanizer” made the Voice’s best singles list this past year. Why do critics claim to get pleasure from Britney, or even pay attention to her? It’s not like she needs their votes to win. Isn’t that what TRL was for? It seems that in the ten years Britney’s been around much music writing has given up on being critical. It stalls at the level of knowing distinction. Writers may make it clear they know their buttons are being pushed, or that the next big thing is cleverly reclaiming what was once dismissed—but they hardly ever argue their subjects into a new key. Are they afraid of sounding like Greil Marcus? Or Alex Ross on Radiohead? By which I mean like someone from the sixties, bearing down on ephemera with a scholarly earnestness and devotion. Like someone who knows more than most people, or loves more than most people. Did her materialization, not too long after Nirvana, stun them into cynicism?
I keep coming back to the thought that the ascendance and persistence of Britney Spears has also coincided with the ascendance and persistence of a cynical government. I would like to say that we’ve been looking at Britney, and faces like hers—blank, and unrepentantly blank—for too long. And I’m not sure that a new president or economic hardship will give us appetites for anything different.