It was a gilded age: the commercial zenith of the music industry at the end of the 20th century. In America, its apex as a money-making force came in 1999 when – adjusted for inflation – $71 per head was spent on music, a small box set for every man, woman and child in the country. Other countries hit the summit a little later, but they hit it. Did the industry see a crisis coming? Certainly – the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed in the USA weeks after “….Baby One More Time” was released. But the biz was surely overconfident, it had seen its way through busts before. In 1981, when Britney Jean Spears was born, the industry was financially stagnant, caught in a recession-hit decline after the unsustained mini-boom of disco. It climbed back thanks to technology, and kept climbing. CD revenues rose and rose, and the machine to ensure they would not stop rising grew slicker and faster: radio, TV, promoters, manufacturers, labels, press and retailers meshing ever more efficiently in the pursuit of getting people to take home silver discs. And here we are at the top of the growth charts: peak pop.
The idea that pop had become mechanised soon became a weapon against the industry, a justification for forcibly free music. The list of those grew very familiar in the early 00s: rising CD prices, the mistreatment of artists by rapacious labels, convenient info-utopian philosophy – these reasons were regularly joined by “manufactured pop”. If the product was worthless and generic, why not just take it? And if you were to ask these pirate revolutionaries, who makes manufactured pop? Name me an act – I suspect Britney Spears would have been quick to their lips. Every ancien regime needs its Marie Antoinette.
So it’s time to dig into what “manufactured” means. Because, unquestionably, Britney was trained and raised as an entertainer from a very young age – even if the decision to make her a solo pop star was taken relatively late. And the pop world she emerged into was massive and complex and finely geared, not quite as businesslike as a Unilever or a Glaxo SmithKline, particularly at the edges, but aspiring in that direction. “Machine” doesn’t seem an awful description of it.
At the same time “manufactured” has an inevitably disdainful edge never really felt by other labels in other times who applied production-line principles to their music: Motown, most obviously, whose industrialisation of soul was generally described with purring approval for Berry Gordy’s Fordist vision of pop. And why not? The music was brilliant. Something else is happening when Britney and her peers are called manufactured. The implication is not just that the songs or playing are kit-built, but that the performers themselves are interchangeable, barely more than automatons. If millennial pop is a machine, then – according to this idea – Britney is not the owner or the operator, merely the product.
Do we need a different metaphor? Does Britney deserve one?
One hint towards an answer comes from listening to “…Baby One More Time”. Because, fifteen years on, two things jump out at me. One is, yes, how steely and immediate and effective this is compared to the (often very charming) bubblegum of Billie, B*Witched et al. “…Baby One More Time” is a ruthlessly lean, superbly constructed pop song: a track with awesome momentum earned by impressive economy, where every note or idea leads to a payoff, and each payoff sets up the next one. It’s a song with a fantastic ending – that final touchdown of “hit me baby one more time!” – but that ending is earned by the bit before where Britney drops the “I must confess / that my loneliness…” bridge, which in turn draws power from being a sneaky inversion of the rest of the song (where it’s the belief she’s confessing, not the loneliness), and so on all the way back to the iconic intro, a four-note knock on fame’s door given in full confidence it will be answered.
But the second thing that jumps out at me is that, for all the clockwork marvels of the construction – something she had nothing much to do with – what “….Baby One More Time” really, really sounds like is a Britney Spears song.
There have been an endless stream of studio leaks, abandoned vocal takes and live howlers which – apparently – prove how weak Britney’s untreated vocals are. But however they got that way, the vocals that appear on record aren’t just competent, they’re distinctive – Britney-as-vocalist may not have much range or skill but texturally her throaty southern cluck is unmistakable. It’s a percussive instrument – that first “oh bay-beh BAY-beh” and the pause straight after it is classic Britney. As of “…Baby One More Time” her voice is still the lead instrument – it’s not until the breakthrough into full-on R&B and club pop that she (and the producers) can really start playing with it, and with her role in the song. As such it has to do things it isn’t totally suited to – the melisma on “how could I have let you go-oh-oh-oh” stretches her thin, for instance. But even at this very early stage there’s no mistaking her.
So Britney isn’t interchangeable – but might she still earn that manufactured tag by being an automaton, a producer’s puppet?
Questions of agency in this high-stakes, professionalised form of pop are very murky. For instance, take two central decisions around Britney’s first single, ones that critically shaped what ended up in front of the public: what the music sounded like, and what the video looked like. In both cases, we know what Britney wanted. For the music, she would have preferred Sheryl Crow-style AOR – a good fit for her husky voice – and acquiesced to her management or label’s wish for bright, upbeat dancepop. (On the album, traces of AOR creep in – odd guitar solos here and there, though this may just be a natural function of bored session musicians doodling in the margins of a teenpop record).
For the video, meanwhile, her managers wanted something generically romantic – the singer and some hot dude or other. Britney had other ideas: she suggested the school setting and the dancing. Which, very obviously, works a lot better – it keeps the focus on her, fits the song (she’s dumped the guy, so best to keep him as a marginal presence), puts it in a setting her audience knows, and most crucially gives a better showcase for her dancing.
(Which is all the video looks like now, midriffs and all – a perpetual-motion song-and-dance number, its controversial sting long drawn by shifting standards. There are better records to talk about how the media obsessed over Britney’s sexuality – and how the Britney publicity machine fuelled that. For now, it’s enough to note that some of the Baby One More Time era coverage, like her first Rolling Stone story (“INSIDE THE HEART, MIND AND BEDROOM OF A TEEN QUEEN”, Britney clutching a plush Teletubby on the cover) surely stepped over a line into creepy Lolita territory. For me the video doesn’t get there, though the furore around it helped set the future press agenda.)
Both these decisions – the musical one Britney disagreed with, and the visual one she came up with – were the right ones, crucial to the single becoming a sensation. If we’re keeping a creative autonomy scorecard, this is a creditable tie. 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.
Pop culture’s relationship to “the system” – the societal machines it exists within – is regularly rewritten. The 21st century is a cybernetic era defined by the power (and vulnerability) of complex, interdependent global systems – the climate, the economy, the internet. So the inescapable symbiosis of human and machine – and how the doomed symbiotes cope with it – is as relevant and resonant a cultural metaphor in the 00s as ideas of “the road” and flight from the system were in the 50s and 60s. And such fusions became the dominant form of pop – singers and performers in entwined collaboration with nomadic producers who might end up superstars themselves.
The specific machine that Britney is piloting has a well-known engineer: Max Martin, writing and producing his first number one record as part of his Cheiron Studios production team. Even fans who have never begun to map the circuitry of contemporary pop have heard of Max Martin – and “…Baby One More Time” was a compelling introduction. Those big percussive chords – a statement of intent at the start of the single – became a signature trick of Cheiron and its later imitators. Martin was in a hard rock band at one point before hooking up with the late Denniz Pop and the other Cheiron boys, and you can hear the unashamed, aggressive theatricality of glam threaded through his work.
“Baby One More Time” has other debts to pay, though. It’s shot through with imagery of religious faith and doubt – “I confess”, “I still believe”, “Give me a sign” – and I don’t think it’s fanciful to hear traces of other 90s Swedish pop: the grandiose post-ABBA kitsch of Alexander Bard’s Army Of Lovers project. Their mighty and absurd “Crucified” is a prototype for the kind of fervour “Baby One More Time” trades in. Queen meets ABBA, then: not a bad marker to put down.
But the religious overtones in Britney’s song are mostly there as intensifiers for her emotional state: they raise the stakes, putting a reunion with an ex on the level of spiritual salvation, and making present despair seem starker. This is the thing about the “pilot” metaphor for 21st century machine pop: in mecha stories, the focus isn’t usually on the machines but on the young people inside them and their emotional arcs. And “…Baby One More Time” introduces a major emotional motif in Britney’s pop – doomed, melodramatic, helpless obsession. Not since some of the darker corners of the Shangri-La’s catalogue and the 60s girl group boom has a pop star been so abject, so often, as Britney Spears.
It’s the paradoxes that give “Baby One More Time” its power – a song of self-negating regret performed and choreographed as a statement of total confidence. A generational shift in pop that’s also a restatement of one of its oldest and truest beliefs – that teenage feelings matter, even the dumb and disastrous ones. An ebullient new star born at the onset of the industry’s long twilight. The machine pop age “Baby One More Time” heralds will be one whose pleasures generally come shadowed by complications. In this case – as with all her records when I listen to them now – the shadow is cast not by Britney’s youth, but by her future. The sixteen year old raised to be a star with the drive to insist that her first video be made on her terms is now thirty-two: for the last six years her life and finances have been under the total legal control of her father. Britney’s story, like the record industry’s, has so far not ended happily. Its beginnings, at least, were magnificent.
(This entry, and probably most of the Britney ones, is indebted especially to Isabel Cole’s Britney Week on One Week One Band. Thanks!)