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Sep 14

BRITNEY SPEARS – “…Baby One More Time”

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#817, 21st February 1999

bomt How was I supposed to know that something wasn’t right?

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!)

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Comments

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  1. 61
    Kinitawowi on 29 Sep 2014 #

    6, I think; the bridge that Tom so admires is for me the moment the song starts to lose its way, revealing itself to be a bit thin and barely earning that undeniable thumper of an ending.

    #2 watch; some discussion of Tender already, but let’s not forget just how big The Corrs were right about now. Runaway (a remixed version for the special edition Talk On Corners, that honestly wasn’t as good as the Forgiven Not Forgotten original) was never going to top Britney, but we’re only a few weeks away from their album chart Top Two lockout.

  2. 62
    Shiny Dave on 29 Sep 2014 #

    I want to like this less than I actually do. Piled with hooks, and right up with “Wannabe” as an introduction to the next big thing in teenpop – in fact, that feels like a pretty good corollary, thinking about it.

    The difference here is that this feels a stackload more calculating, and the production is clearly central to that. We spoke a lot about how “You Make Me Wanna” felt like the start of 2000s pop; this surely carries similar significance for a different strand of that story. I can see the products of both getting a bit of mark inflation… but only because we’re also three Popular months away from the formal unbunnying of a scarcely-still-bunnied Irish act, and some of their chart-toppers are not just 1s but probably need everything else to be mark-inflated to make those 1s have sufficient impact.

    Who knows, that might even mean Tom gets his 10 out. Not saying it’s been a while, but it’s now getting on for four *actual* years since he last gave anything a 10!

  3. 63
    chelovek na lune on 29 Sep 2014 #

    Perhaps against my will, I have to admit that this is a kind of pop genius, of a sort that Britney was intermittently able to come up with – well, ever since, more or less (emphasising the “intermittently”) – and really kicking off what was possibly the best pop year for ages (some of the drossy no 1s notwithstanding). A great piece of blatantly manufactured pop, going for the jugular, performed notably well, and v memorable. Definitely stands up proudly alongside and among the classics of manufactured pop from factories of music past. And yeah…Billie Piper kind of was there first, but hey… I’d go up to a 9

  4. 64
    Shiny Dave on 29 Sep 2014 #

    #61 Funny you mention The Corrs in this context. This is one stage of my life I remember pretty well: 12 years old, technically my second but in practice my first year at a mainstream secondary school (a huge change from a much smaller school for special educational needs, where I went initially as a result of my autism), desperately trying to work out how, whether, and if I should fit in.

    Given that I’m a cisgender man, you’d think that The Offspring would be the place to comment on that particular strand. But it’s Britney that brings back memories, as I vividly recall trying to curry something approaching favour with the students at lunchtime with impromptu renditions of this (perhaps her next bunny, when that came out), impersonating her inflected drawl with my then-prepubescent voice. I cannot recall what the reception was for this, but she’d not be the last accented teen-pop star I would mimic for lulz and a crowd. Remarkably, the second would come on the other side of puberty, but that’s a story I’ll save for the least-bad (IMHO) of the dreaded Irish bunnies!

  5. 65
    DanH on 30 Sep 2014 #

    Meh.

    Even when it was out, I heard rumblings of this being an ‘important’ song, a game-changer. When I first heard it, I thought, ‘what, this? It’s forgettable.’ But it most certainly was very important to turn-of-the-century pop. So many pop songs the next few years after this took this song’s basic template…mostly the whole pre-chorus coming back as a countermelody trick (‘I must confess…my loneliness…’). I wasn’t having any of it then, and can’t say I do now. I don’t think I need to say that 15-year old me had it bad for Britney, for non musical reasons. “Sometimes”….

    Not pleased to learn it kept Blur’s “Tender” at #2. The song that officially made me check out Blur years after the fact. My brother had their collection first, and my initial reaction was your typical U.S. one to Blur: “what, the Woohoo! guys? Whatever.”

  6. 66
    wichitalineman on 30 Sep 2014 #

    Re 61/64: Shhhhh about the bunnied C*r*s, they’ll have their Popular moment in the sun.

    My memory of this is staying up late drinking at a friend’s house, and his journalist wife bursting through the door at an ungodly hour, drunker than us, roaring “HAVE YOU HEARD THE BRITNEY SPEARS RECORD??” The name was hilariously American and very other (rather like Elvis Presley must have been in ’56); she put the record on (CD promo, still, just, back then) and it blew me away, a classic on first listen at 3 in the morning.

    The older I get, the more I realise there are a finite number of moments like this in your pop life. Terrifying to think it was 15 yrs ago. A 10 for me.

  7. 67
    Ed on 30 Sep 2014 #

    I hadn’t thought about it at all until Swanstep’s Heartbreak Hotel reference @3, but of course Britney is the female Elvis. Both children of the South; both the subject of moral panic over the sexuality of their presentation on TV; both descending into a murky later career shadowed by concerns and speculation about their weight, their drug use, and their controlling management.

    And like Britney, Elvis didn’t write his own songs, but – as Tom says of her – took possession of them, made them his own, and was essential for their success. That famous Sam Phillips line about wanting to find a white performer who could sing like a black man is a manifesto for manufactured pop if ever I heard one.

    And also like Presley, Spears divided pop into before and after, drawing from a range of existing sources to create – with her collaborators – something genuinely new. The contrast with Kravitz’s moribund rockism (sorry!) makes that point particularly acute. Boyzone and the Spice Girls – rough contemporaries of Spears – seem very dated now, whereas she still feels entirely modern. I had already been thinking of Taylor Swift before someone mentioned the connection through Max Martin – who I’d never heard of – up-thread.

    Tom’s observation about interviews not being the greatest medium for either of them is another bit of evidence that reinforces the point.

    Blackout as Britney’s ’68 Comeback Special, maybe?

  8. 68
    swanstep on 30 Sep 2014 #

    @Kat, 59. I remember Britney doing backwards walkover thingies on MTV’s Total Request Live (and her babbling about being a gymnast to the host) and see no reason to think that it isn’t her in the vid.. There’s a cut (presumably to get the right quality – maybe neither take they had was completely straight) but I think that that’s her either side of the cut. Anyhow, here’s B. practising: http://youtu.be/JMIaF4zWhzQ

  9. 69
    swanstep on 30 Sep 2014 #

    @iconoclast, rosie. I often join you guys both in lack of enthusiasm for recent offerings and depression over consistency w.r.t. game-changers from the past (e.g., almost every 7 Tom gives out makes me want to scream afresh about ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and ‘You Really Got Me’). When I score tracks I tend to think comparatively and to ask myself the following sorts of pairwise questions: Which of two tracks would I rather have written and/or performed (at the time)? Which one is it most destructive and painful to imagine removed from pop history?

    When I apply these sorts of tests to BOMT, I find it flies through. Its commercial and cultural impact was immediate and enormous – in the US, for example, it felt like it changed MTV (dropping its demographic by about a decade) almost overnight much as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ had in late 1991. I wasn’t in BOMT’s demographic but I felt the earthquake. As a result it’s almost impossible to think through what subsequent music looks like without BOMT.

    And musically, well, like early Beatles and Supremes hits BOMT sticks tight to pop formula (so one could almost imagine it being strictly artificially evolved by genetic algorithms, here from Abba and Ace of Base fragments!), but, precisely because its a perfected example of that formula (and perfectly cast w/ Britney – others passed on it and we’re very glad they did; B. herself would latter pass on ‘Umbrella’, oops) I think it’s right to put BOMT on the same shelf as ‘She Loves You’ , ‘Ticket To Ride’ (Tomscores = 8; what a hardass!), ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’, and the like. I don’t agree at all with Rosie’s idea that BOMT is unmusical or ‘plastic’ – e.g., compare its (at least) three different bass parts to the bland bass part in Armand Van Helden’s ‘You Don’t Know Me’. And BOMT is musically alive with interesting compact guitar figures in the verses, muted open hi-hats deep in the mix that suck you in as soon as you notice them, and much else. And the overall structure of starting off in a minor key and then getting more and more minor in the harmonies is friggin’ ingenious (with the bass part’s first fretless then fretted walking upwards obviating any need for a clumsy key change – nice!). The upshot is that BOMT is one of those pop songs that almost anyone who’s written songs had to at some point sit down and nut out a version of it , just to get a basic handle on what made it so great to listen to, sing along with, start off mocking then find oneself get swept up by, etc.. Britney is the luckiest girl in the world that this song found its way to her, but only in the sense that Dustin Hoffman is the luckiest boy in the world that he got The Graduate (after Redford passed on it). The upshots are now unthinkable without them and music and film history was redirected because of their participation. That’s what fantastic, game-changing success often looks like in the ultra-collaborative mediums of big-budget pop and film respectively.

    I agree with Rosie that ‘Good Vibrations’ is not only a ’10′ but some kind of miraculous, next-level achievement, as are for me things like ‘I’m Not In Love’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Rhythm Stick’. I really *would* give my left whatever to have pulled any of those off whereas I’d only sell my soul for BOMT or ‘She Loves You’. Haw haw.

  10. 70
    punctum on 30 Sep 2014 #

    Comments #16 (first part) and #47 (second part) best sum up my aversion to this…not so much a record as an event, and one that I think was, if not destructive to pop music, then certainly obstructive and in great part reductive.

  11. 71
    enitharmon on 30 Sep 2014 #

    By the way, am I alone in hearing something Bee Gees-ish in it?

  12. 72
    Rory on 30 Sep 2014 #

    @46: When I see the school setting it places this song squarely in amongst my own memories of high school, when I first started listening to pop music. There was plenty of teenage lust around there, as in any high school, and all this video’s imagery does is invoke that; as Tom says, it’s a setting her audience knows. Yes, a middle-aged man lusting after a 16-year-old specifically because she’s in a school uniform would be creepy, but how many were even aware of this video at the time, any more than I know what one of Jessie J’s videos looks like?

    To place any school setting off-limits simply because some pervs out there might be getting their rocks off is to place the entirety of children’s lives ages 5-17 off-limits to any male aged 30+ (25+? 18+?). It’s the kind of message that’s driven an unhealthy separation between family and single/no-kids life in Western culture as a whole, leading to a situation where kids can’t play outside without close parental supervision for fear of somebody calling the police out of concern for their welfare, and condemning parents to spend every waking hour watching over them like big fleshy CCTVs. Yes, Jimmy Savile; yes, Rolf Harris; but neither snared their victims at the gates of a school yard, did they? Should we stop reading Wuthering Heights (or listening to “Wuthering Heights”) because of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley?

    Re “Debbie Gibson/Amy Grant do-gooder vibe”: the US cover of her first album is distinctly at odds with the Britney we came to know (I’m used to the international version).

    Ed @67 (and Swanstep @3): The Elvis comparison is brilliant. Hadn’t occurred to me before, but the parallels are uncanny. The main difference is Britney’s previous life as a mouseketeer, but maybe even that has echoes of Elvis’s movie years.

    Swanstep @69: A great, passionate comment, which almost convinces me to bump this up to a ten. When I was considering my score I was tossing up between 8, 9 and 10, but couldn’t get past the 9 description of “A record you’d never tire of hearing. You’d certainly own it, in fact it would be one of your favourites.” I don’t own this – not even as a purloined mp3 in iTunes – so settled on 8. But I could justify a 10 on the basis of it being one of the “singles that justify the existence of pop music by themselves. Impossible to imagine ever not enjoying it. Difficult to imagine anyone else not enjoying it.” I think I’ll stick with 8 just in terms of relative placing against my own ’90s landmarks; but it does seem wrong that this is a lowly 7.4 on reader votes, and not even yet in the Reader Top 100.

    I suspect I will soon own this, as I’ll now be keeping my eye out for £1 copies of Britney’s albums in charity shops – the first three, at least, are everywhere. As with Kylie and the Spice Girls, she’s clearly an essential part of any pop education. (I gather Blackout is also an essential BS album? There are no bunnied singles from it, so it seems safe to ask.)

  13. 73
    punctum on 30 Sep 2014 #

    Alternatively it might suggest that the whole of pop music has been a grotesque mistake.

  14. 74
    enitharmon on 30 Sep 2014 #

    Kat @59, I can’t make out whether your post is straight or heavy with sarcasm, but if the former I (brought up of course mainly without intertwined song and video) don’t really get how the video might affect one’s score for the song. I know this is at least partly generational but it’s also a quirk of my psychological make-up. I often see an interesting piece offered in online newspapers and click it only to find it’s a video so it demands my full attention and imposes somebody else’s pace rather than allowing me to listen while doing something else or speed reading. I’m told that most people respond best to visual stimuli but then I’m not most people. I suspect that my dyspraxia comes into this too (so I’m not impressed by backflips!). I’m a rarity in not having nor particularly wanting a televisual device and when I do see television the headache-inducing sets for the likes of Strictly do my head in.

  15. 75
    enitharmon on 30 Sep 2014 #

    Rory @72 One of my criteria for a 10 would be that it is very easy to imagine some people disliking it intensely!

  16. 76
    punctum on 30 Sep 2014 #

    Pop music has never just been about the song. If it were my “job” here would be a lot easier.

  17. 77
    enitharmon on 30 Sep 2014 #

    iconoclast @51 Of course I’m biased towards the pop of my own teenage years! That was groundbreaking almost by definition as it helped to define the biggest social rift of the last century. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there hasn’t been some terrific pop from later years. A lot of early 80s New Wave for example, and there’s some really good stuff from the years before us that has found my way into my collection – not as it happens because it’s stuff that harked back to my youth but because it was filched from a 17-year-old’s iPod. (Though not much of it seems to have reached number 1).

  18. 78
    Rory on 30 Sep 2014 #

    Good point, Rosie @75. I wonder if the opposite is true of a 1… someone out there must love “Save Your Love”. (Not me. My personal St Winifred’s, that one.)

  19. 79
    enitharmon on 30 Sep 2014 #

    @78 Probably a given, Rory, on the basis that however loathsome we find them they get to number one.

  20. 80
    Tom on 30 Sep 2014 #

    Britney albums: Each of the first five Britney albums is better than the one before (the gap between the first two is pretty marginal, though) – there aren’t many artists you can say that about, though the starting level isn’t that high. In The Zone and Blackout are her best records – In The Zone we’ll talk about in the 2004 entries, Blackout I wrote about for Pitchfork once – http://pitchfork.com/features/poptimist/6734-poptimist-10/ – I love it. It’s not an unproblematic record by any means, it’s an album that on some level reflects a pop star’s mental health (& probably substance abuse) crisis, but there are a few of those in the canon.

    The issue with Britney – in my opinion – is that she emerged from it with her legal autonomy completely stripped away, so while I’m delighted that she’s still with us, and seems a lot more together and happy than she did in the mid-00s, her personal situation casts a shadow (and I can’t help but feel that if a male pop star had been through a similar meltdown, he wouldn’t have come out of it under the same restrictions). There are people, very smart pop fans included, who like the post-Blackout work a lot more than Blackout – I think there’s good stuff on each of the last 3 records, but diminishing returns have set in, and the only post-2007 Britney single I’m really sad I’m not writing about is “Til The World Ends” (probably only a 7, but such a good encapsulation of its era).

  21. 81
    Tom on 30 Sep 2014 #

    As for other concerns, this is probably playing my hand a bit vis a vis the overall ‘narrative’ of Popular, but I think that, if your concern is the “manufacture” of individual pop stars, Britney is as ‘bad’ as it gets.* If you skip forward a decade, and look at Gaga, Taylor Swift, Ke$ha, Beyonce, even Rihanna and Miley, it seems very hard to argue that these women have less agency and autonomy than Britney did, and tin-eared to argue that their styles and outputs aren’t individual. (Or than Elvis did, for that matter.) That is partly what the “peak pop” angle is setting up – peak biz mechanisation also meant peak biz control over individual stars. The process of pop remains highly collaborative in most cases (not all!), but that’s true of TV, film, comics, videogames, and almost every other bit of modern mass culture.

    *leaving out reality TV, which is set up precisely to ensure a Colonel Tom level of control – this is one of the issues with it. But reality TV isn’t as dominant an influence over the charts as many believe, I’d say.

  22. 82
    iconoclast on 30 Sep 2014 #

    #69: passionately argued, indeed, although you can probably guess I don’t agree with your conclusions. In my estimation, if BOMT is a game-changer, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

    And if Britney is the new Elvis, I’m the new Judee Sill: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. (hides)

    #77: my remark about “fourteen years old” was intended as a representative of a certain type of argument which is considered “rockist”, not as a jibe at you! I’ve upset enough people already as it is.

  23. 83
    Alfred on 30 Sep 2014 #

    How many of you had friends who disliked Britney’s version yet thrilled to Travis’?

  24. 84
    sukrat and the rëst on 30 Sep 2014 #

    “thrilled to Travis” is not a phrase that thoughtful people unleash into civilised conversation, Alfred :)

  25. 85
    Andrew Farrell on 30 Sep 2014 #

    #77 – you were teenage in 1976? Somehow I had that all wrong.

  26. 86
    thefatgit on 30 Sep 2014 #

    Travis doing BOMT was just a bunch of lads sniggering as though they were trying on sparkly pop pumps and tu-tus for laugh, like. I paid it no mind.

  27. 87
    Rory on 30 Sep 2014 #

    @82 – Ed didn’t even mention the clincher, which is Vegas, baby, Vegas.

  28. 88
    Tom on 30 Sep 2014 #

    I suspect, looking back, the idea of the “person who only thought Baby One More Time was good when Travis covered it” was more an ideological straw man than a real thing (Fran H excepted!). Their supposed existence was an excellent pro-pop rallying cry on one side, and a justification for endless shit Radio 1 Live Lounge covers on the other. But surely nobody actually thought it.

  29. 89
    enitharmon on 30 Sep 2014 #

    @85 no Andrew, I was teenaged in 1967 (and turned 12 in 1966, that most golden of all pop years, surely, by any standards). Pop-aware in 1963 when that rift happened. Possibly not the actual biggest rift in the last century – that would be the aftermath of WW1 – but still pretty seismic in social terms.

    Tom earlier compared BOMT to I Wanna Hold Your Hand. I think a fairer comparison would be to Please Please Me, although because Popular works with a revisionist chart it doesn’t figure in this narrative. Those of us who were there at the time know that PPM was a number one and that it and not IWTHYH was the moment that the Beatles exploded into the national consciousness and we all knew that pop would never be the same again. A song that may well be about fellatio too (who was it said that Barthes wasn’t relevant to pop?)

  30. 90
    Tom on 30 Sep 2014 #

    I was thinking of IWHYH just as a “vs Good Vibrations” – as a songwriter Max Martin is firmly in the “I Wanna” big hooks big impact camp and has never really tried “boundary-pushing weirdness”. Please Please Me would fit too!

    Actually one thing about the Beatles is they really did change the chart world extremely quickly – the Merseybeat takeover of the number one slot is pretty much unmatched as far as a single ‘sound’ flooding the charts goes. You have to wait a year or so – and several dozen Popular entries – before you get to the point where “try and sound like Baby One More Time” is any kind of default M.O. for a pop record. In this blog’s narrative terms this particular pop revolution is about to be put on hold for a while….

    (though I doubt what’s coming up will be any more to your liking Rosie!)

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