I remember the first time I heard Britney Spears’ single “I’m A Slave 4 U” with unusual clarity and detail. It was the afternoon before Spears premiered the single at the MTV Video Music Awards, clad in trademark midriff-baring top with white slacks and accessorized with a giant boa…not the feathered kind, mind you; she rocked the whole python.
It was a perfect synergy of sound and showmanship, one of the most perfectly executed performances (which you can watch below) that exemplify the confluence of the musical, the visual, and the concept of the star that is unique to the art form we generally call “pop music” (although as a defining term it is far from perfect). Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” video, Madonna’s video and VMA performance of “Vogue” (to name but one), and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” video all similarly perfected this ideal. And lest skeptics consider this a new idea born of an era devoid of “real music,” I might point to some older examples of musical and visual elements and the concept of “star” coming together: the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, Barbra Streisand’s Concert in Central Park, the Who’s Tommy, Elvis Presley in general, and let’s not forget a little festival at Woodstock, which both represented and defined the image, sound and culture of an entire pop musical era. Oh yes, like it or not, pop music has always been a visual and sociological as well as musical art form since decades before Britney Spears was even born – essentially, since the invention and proliferation of the television.
I was not terribly familiar with the visual element of Britney Spears’ career back in 2001 – it wasn’t really until college that I became exposed to music videos and the occasional clip of a live performance here and there, whatever I could find in those pre-YouTube days. That didn’t stop me from being an ardent fan of Spears: the music alone was enough to win many a follower, myself included. But Spears’ first two albums had a cohesive sound, so if you liked “…Baby One More Time,” you pretty much liked it all up to that point (and with Max Martin’s genius at the helm, a hell of a lot of people did).
“I’m A Slave 4 U” was different. Nothing in Spears’ career – or in the teen pop genre she inhabited and defined – had prepared me for what I heard from the car radio that afternoon when KIIS-FM jumped the gun and played the new track several hours before Britney’s iconic VMA performance. I don’t remember ever being as confused and disquieted by a new song, at least not one from an artist I knew and liked, as I was that afternoon. I was probably disappointed, though I don’t remember acknowledging it (unlike my brother, who described it as sounding like a Nintendo game cartridge in need of a good cleansing blow).
The Prince + Janet Jackson influence was essentially new to anyone, let alone Britney Spears, who before that point had given no indication that this pair of ‘80s pop icons – progressive ones, at that – would influence the newest music from the undisputed titan of the teen pop wave, then barely 20 years old. Even if we see Lady Gaga’s homages to Madonna as postmodern pastiche, the truth is that as a statement and idea it could barely be more obvious, and therefore is pretty weak, as postmodern statements go – especially for an artist who prides herself on her highbrow take on the historically lowbrow art form of pop music (also a postmodern characteristic). Gaga was more interesting when she referenced Blondie, David Bowie and Queen on her debut album; Spears, on the other hand, became more and more interesting – and enjoyable – as she continued to explore elements of Janet Jackson and Prince throughout her career. Now, ten years after “I’m A Slave 4 U,” Spears is set to release her seventh album, one which early buzz suggests will be her most cohesive and trend-setting dance album to date.
So let her go…and just listen.
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