Monday, March 28, 2011

Britney Spears - "I'm A Slave 4 U" (Why It's Brilliant and How It Changed Everything)

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.

Britney Spears I'm A Slave 4 U Snake VMAs

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).

I guess I wasn’t the only one who struggled with “Slave,” the lead single from her third studio album, Britney: it was Spears’ first single to miss the top ten of the Hot 100, which it did by a mile, topping out at #27, and while Britney became Spears' third album to debut at #1 on the Billboard 200, its U.S. sales (just under 5 million copies) amounted to less than half the whopping 10.3 million units shifted of her previous album, Oops!...I Did It Again. But the song scored two significant chart victories that better reflect “Slave’s” ultimate success: it reached #4 on the Dance Club Play chart, and to this day it is the only Spears track to appear on the notoriously unfriendly R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart. The Neptunes-produced record was a major step for Spears, when it would have been so easy to continue the tried and true path Martin had laid down and sell millions upon millions of albums – and disappear with the rest of the teen pop stars who vanished when hip hop took over the pop scene in the early 2000s. Britney’s continuous envelope pushing between 2001 and 2005 may be the reason 2008 comeback single “Womanizer” was only her second to hit #1 on the Hot 100, but it is also a major reason that, like Madonna, she has been able to remain current throughout a lengthy period in what is probably the most quickly evolving genre of music.

There is one more point to make about “I’m A Slave 4 U” and its importance in the pop music timeline. Recently I discussed how postmodernist theory might be applied to pop music, suggesting some key characteristics that could define postmodern pop, one of the main ones being a conscious and deliberate use of pastiche, or the use of artistic references to past artists, songs, styles and sounds not simply to honor the person or idea referenced but as a musical statement directly relevant to the work at present. It is interesting to note that Britney Spears certainly has used Madonna as a career role model, she has done so without actually using Madonna as a major musical influence, at least not in the way Lady Gaga does. Spears’ main musical and visual influence has not been Madonna but Janet Jackson, particularly in her visual element. The Jackson influence can first be seen in the video for “I’m A Slave 4 U” (watch below), and it continues through “Me Against the Music,” “Boys,” and “My Prerogative,” as well as her live performances in general. But Jackson’s is not the only influence to appear on “Slave:” the Neptunes’ minimal, electronic production and Spears’ breathy, cooing delivery create a track that smacks of Prince.

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.

Meet the opening acts on the Femme Fatale Tour
. Watch the Music Video for Single "I Wanna Go"
Read our review of "Till the World Ends."
Read Pop Goes the Dubstep (Part 1): Britney Spears - "Freakshow" and "Hold It Against Me"

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