Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Second Time a Charm for Britney Spears' "3" Video?

On the morning of October 30 of this year, I shared (somewhat less than subtly) my approval of Britney Spears' newest music video, which had debuted that morning. While not immediately particularly taken with the single "3" when it first came on the scene a month earlier (at the time I was feeling Madonna's throwaway second single, "Revolver," from her own then-upcoming compilation album, but that's another story), I was impressed along with the rest of the industry when it accomplished the feat of setting the final unbreakable Billboard Hot 100 record by debuting at #1 (beat that, Kelly Clarkson!). That feat, aside from providing headline writers with an early Christmas present ("3" being the third #1 single of Spears' career), was even more glorious in that it was accomplished despite the single ranking only in the high 30s in airplay that same week, proving that every so often the monopolistic Top 40 radio industry does not in fact have final say on which songs and artists will enjoy mainstream success. Score one for the mp3/iPod generation.

By noon on October 30 of this year, however, I was shocked to discover that a good number of people - nay, a good number of self-described Spears fans, no less! - didn't care for the video at all. One commented, "Ugh. I'm so bored watching this. I love Britney but this video and the one for Radar are so bleeeeeeeh;" another, echoing what would become a common criticism, remarked, "She doesnt MOVE for any of the choreography! She sits there in one place with as much mobility as I expect of Heidi Montag during sex with Spencer." Ouch!

True, the video for "Radar," which could have been so fantastic, was a definite let-down; even I had trouble trying to defend it as a post-MTV, post-Parents Television Council nod to the eroticism of early '90s Madonna, when really it was just your standard "it's the fourth single from the album and we're tired" video, hardly the first of its kind. There was a little dancing in the videos for "Circus" and "If U Seek Amy," most of it overshadowed by spectacle or boxed into an enclosed space to take focus (and emphasis) off of it as Spears clearly had a long road back to the abilities and style she had at her peak; "Womanizer" (wisely) put more emphasis on providing blatant proof that the overweight, out of shape, scraggly, trashy Britney who'd ruled the tabloids over the previous two years was a thing of the past than Spears' ungraceful, downright awkward arm dancing.

Those who refused (or still refuse) to enjoy any of these new efforts because they held them to the same standard of the pre-marriage/babies/umbrella-wielding/head-shaving/psych ward patron Britney are probably lost causes, because for better or worse that incarnation of Spears will always be a thing of the past. That isn't to say that this wouldn't be the case had the precocious pop star not taken a couple years off to attempt a semi-normal life, apparently unaware that such a transformation hasn't been done successfully since Greta Garbo. Artists grow; female artists often make babies; voices drop or wear out; and most importantly, music changes over time, leaving some chart-toppers behind while others scramble with varying success to change along with the times. And while Spears may not (yet) incorporate her personal life and experiences directly into the content of her music the way Rihanna has done with her newest album, one of the things that was so thrilling about her marathon world-wide blockbuster 2009 tour was the way Spears' stage presence - her dancing, her spectacle, her lip-sync controversey (spiced up by the impromptu addition later in the run of a cover of Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," which by all accounts was in fact sung live), her energy, her show, both positive and negative - told her story rather than the music and lyrics.

Indeed, a retrospective of Britney Spears music videos throughout the performer's decade-long career reads like a visual biography in a way that differs from the music alone. One can see her grow from girl to very young woman literally before one's eyes, watch as she discovers and then embraces her own sexuality as opposed to the studio-manufactured sexuality of her earliest years (one can almost pinpoint right where her pledge to remain a virgin until marriage succumbed to the lure of Justin Timberlake as seen shirtless on the cover of Rolling Stone...and who can blame her), follow her reaction to the destruction of that fairytale romance, recognize as she gets burnt out from being the most recognizable icon of turn-of-the-century pop music and culture, and ultimately fizzle and collapse (the video for the third single off Blackout, released just as Spears was approaching rock bottom, does not even feature Spears, but rather an anime representation).

When viewed in this light (admittedly not something most people likely feel any urge to do), the quintet of music videos that accompanied Spears' remarkable, if not entirely complete, comeback in 2009 are worth less on their own as the sum of their parts. In other words, as I retorted to my Speidi-referencing friend, "This is America, land of the standard of 'continuous improvement.' 'Radar' video=no dancing. '3' video=some dancing=improvement. Ergo, success." A bit simplistic, but I stand by the sentiment. Another of my more loyal Spears-fan friends keenly summed up, "For me the BFD is how much BETTER she looks. I mean, she still has the dead look in her eyes and looks like she cries herself to sleep every night. But still. SHE LOOKS SO MUCH BETTER. Definitely improving."

And in that vein, this week's surprise re-release of Spears' latest video as a "director's cut" really isn't that surprising after all. Unlike the faux "director's cut" of "Womanizer" (did another cut ever exist?), the new rendition lives up to its moniker, as director Diane Martel (whose credits include Timberlake's "Like I Love You" and the stunningly sexy video for Ciara's recent single "Love Sex Magic," also featuring Timberlake) clearly managed to put more time into the piece than originally slotted, given the haste in which the original was produced between Spears' tour and the October release of The Singles Collection (because she's going to make more money than Shania this year, dammit!).

The result is a noticeably more rhythmic, watchable, active, and seamless effort that accomplishes a couple notable things: as a dance-heavy video (if not fully Dance with a capital D) the editing and pacing makes the visuals much more in line with the audio; more focus and attention is paid to Spears in motion, be it the simple but exciting "Slave 4 U"-lite choreography, the study in black and white on leotards with horizontal bar, or the new snippets of Spears writhing in a sexy, tight black ensemble, alone or with her sexy male backup dancers (who are much-deservedly given more screen time); and finally, the new element that struck this viewer the most was that Spears actually seemed moderately present, happy, and fun - a refreshing glimpse of life in a performer who may have been there over the past year, sometimes to great effect, but hasn't quite yet seemed here.

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