Saturday, February 5, 2011

Pop Goes the Dubstep (Part 1): Britney Spears - "Freakshow" and "Hold It Against Me"

As often happens, I had at one point (naturally) intended on posting on this space a deliciously erudite critical manifesto on Britney Spears' latest contribution to the ever-mutating pop music genre.

It didn't pan out.

This is Britney Spears. She is a genius. Don't worry, I'll explain.
"Hold It Against Me" is certainly worth discussing and there is plenty of fodder for analysis within those wobbling walls of bass and whooshing effects and "hay-zaaaiiiee"s, but frankly (and to the rare credit of my fellow pop music journalists) there really isn't much left to say about it that hasn't yet been said, at least in relation to the record itself. That said, if you think this particular blogger is going to allow a significant element of Britney Spears' storied career to pass without comment...well then you must be new here. Welcome!

Most of the meaty critical chatter about "Hold It Against Me" has centered on the  half-minute or so about two and a quarter minutes into the track that constitutes the "middle 8" (aka the "breakdown" or "dance break," colloquially and pop/dance-specific of course), and, to a lesser extent, the subsequent 45 seconds of the wonderfully decadent second middle 8. This is understandable, as the remainder of the record is a skillful if largely unremarkable bit of grade-A pop craft hinging on the execution of a mildly clever (allegedly derivative) pickup line that in reality would be about as likely to get one slapped as laid. Of course, this is a Britney Spears record, and that means it's much smarter than you: it is precisely the understated banality of the cookie-cutter pop songwriting in the verses and chorus that elevates producers Dr. Luke and Max Martin's wildly unconventional dubstep-inspired electro-sonic masturbation at the break from intriguingly experimental to mind-blowing genre-stretching hipster bait.

Like "irony" or "death panels," dubstep is one of those words that a lot of frightened people throw around wildly without knowing exactly what it means. I myself have been battling that last dilemma for some time now, and since I refuse to be among the loud and ignorant I have been on an unexpectedly lengthy quest to comprehend this frustratingly vague musical concept. While I'm sure it's not nearly comprehensive, I have picked up a few defining characteristics that purportedly indicate some degree of dubstep in the vicinity, mainly the "wub-wub-wub" sound in a manipulated bass line (the "wobble bass," I gather it's called), as is prominently featured in the "Hold It Against Me" break. Everywhere critics, producers, djs and snooty indie supremacists herald, lament or trumpet the coup: Britney Spears - and therefore mainstream pop - has discovered dubstep! (This is either a great step for pop-kind or a giant bummer for dance/techno/house and its defiantly exclusive studio trickery, depending on whom you ask.) Has no one realized they're a good three years and change late to this party?

Oh yes, WAY before Britney and producers did a little dubstep on "Hold It Against Me," Britney and another set of producers dove headfirst into the singer's first experimentation with the sub-genre on the Bloodshy and Avant-produced track "Freakshow," from Spears' musically adventurous 2007 dance album Blackout. It's potentially significant that "Freakshow" is one of just two tracks on the album on which Spears gets writing credit, if only because it would make  convenient evidence for a Spears apologist like me for use in arguments about Spears' debatable creative input in her music. What is inarguable is that one of Britney Spears' greatest talents has always been the ability to identify and acquire the best collaborators at the right time - Martin, the mastermind behind her first two albums and essentially her superstardom; the Neptunes, whose pair of tracks on Spears' third album said more stylistically than the entire rest of the album; Bloodshy and Avant, who engineered the Grammy-winning "Toxic" and half of Blackout; Nate "Danja" Hills, who spearheaded Blackout's other half; and the dependable team of Benny Blanco, Dr. Luke, and Martin to helm the crucial comeback vehicle of Circus.

While the Neptunes were the first off-the-wall producers to grace the Spears library, that boundary-pushing collaboration paved the way to the explorative, occasionally electric experiments on In the Zone, the best being the Swedish duo who infused their fascination with electronica and techno into a string of influential mainstream pop hits. Songs like "Toxic" and especially Blackout cuts "Radar" and "Freakshow" didn't set the trends of pop music sound (the latter two particularly still play as solid, albeit current, dance club fare rather than mainstream pop), but their influence is nevertheless majorly present in the truly trend-setting blend of '90s and early 2000s pop and European electronic/dance sounds ushered in by Lady Gaga in 2009 and '10 that now all but defines the current pop sound, from Rihanna to Enrique Iglesias to Eminem.

Although Dr. Luke's mainstream success has become so dominant of late, it seems as though he is ready to experiment and explore beyond the expert craftsmanship he has perfected with hits like "TiK ToK," "California Gurls," and "Party in the U.S.A." It's most obvious on "Hold It Against Me," but Ke$ha's style-stretching Cannibal, too, all but reeks of the beer, cigarettes and take-out of an inventive producer and singer duo spending late nights experimenting in the studio. (More on Ke$ha in Part II of this post...stay tuned.) Dr. Luke and mentor Max Martin will be executive producers for Spears' upcoming album Femme Fatale, while Bloodshy and Avant & Stargate ("Only Girl (In the World)," "Firework") are among the reported producers, and while I promised myself I would not allow myself to get swept up in (or sweep myself into) impossible expectations for Spears' upcoming album, I will say on the record that in my opinion there is a great deal of encouraging stuff going on now or recently that definitely leaves open the possibility of something truly incredible coming our way from the legendary Britney Spears.

Do I dare to hope?

Stay tuned...there's one more bit of dubstep gold from one of my favorite artists, and believe me, it's a doozy! 

To be continued...

Pop Goes the Dubstep (Part 2): Ke$ha - "(Fuck Him) He's a DJ"

Pop Goes the Dubstep (Part 3): Maroon 5 - "Moves Like Jagger" (feat. Christina Aguilera)
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