She's announced a two-year residency in Las Vegas and a new album. Where would we be without the genius of Ms Spears?
The best thing you can say about the lowest common denominator is that it is common; it is accessible to all. How does one secure the accessibility of one’s pop-proposition? Making sure they’re attractive is one reliable method. A contemptible practise, you may say, but pop is only a disgusting as the culture which produces it. No surprise human nature prefers attractive people. And now to name an attractive person entirely at random: Britney Spears.
In many ways responsible for Spears’ initial and instantaneous notoriety, Max Martin certainly knows a few things about the lowest common denominator. He’s either responsible for many very grave offences to the integrity of art, or (and possibly and) for some of the most irrepressible pop melodies of the last decade or so. Many of the fantastically-endowed power-ballad/groove songs like Spears’ reputation-sealing hits “…Baby One More Time”, “Oops… I Did It Again” and other smashes of the day like the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” were his, and he’s also lately been a principal contributor to Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” and Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You”. His acumen is big, and without proxies like those in the preceding lines we’d likely never hear his material. This is what pop music brings to the table: superficially beautiful songs delivered by superficially beautiful people.
After a fairly concentrated and prolonged flirtation with hip-hop and R’n'B producers like The Neptunes and Timbaland collaborator Danja, Spears has lately returned to working with her first and most financially rewarding songwriter (Martin) while combining this somewhat retrospective move with more predictable forays into the vogues and vagaries of chart music. But during her more experimental and flirtatious years (when the first signs of the winks becoming more pronounced appeared) Spears made some exquisite choices. Landing perhaps the greatest of all The Neptunes’ fervid pursuits of the ultimate drumkit production in her single “Boys”, and going even further with the superlative dark dance album Blackout, which was critically praised even as it stumbled commercially It even somehow made it to fifth in The Times’ best pop albums of the noughties list, as well as (more deservedly) being on many publications year-end lists.
These facts allow me to make another general point about the utility of pop stars. Hard currency being a tremendous engine for competition, the uniquely saleable qualities of the young and attractive help bring along the talents who come with price tags. Since there are those who own up to being swayed by money (and some who actually brag about it, in the self-aggrandising elements of the hip hop world) we should celebrate the causes which bring the (accurately) self-described expensive talent to the table.
Her career arc as described above would tend to suggest an increasing trend towards the risqué but then again Spears’ stuff has always been heavy on winks and nudges. Beginning with the schoolgirl outfit and the already-mentioned “…Baby One More Time” and perhaps culminating in the cover art to Circus, which looks like a parody of the All-American sex symbol propaganda which Spears has peddled from the outset of her career. The difference is that the winks have become more knowing with time, whilst frequently straying into bludgeoning and obvious carnality along the way. This is something the honest pop fan can enjoy about the genre. In the same way that crass jokes are funnier when their bawdiness is acknowledged by the comedian with a self-aware laugh, so it is with the deliberate winks and asides of choreographed pop music.
Britney Spears album credits (like most modern pop-monoliths) approach lengths comparable to those found at the end of films, especially the more recent albums. Despite this, her name appears in the mix and could mount an argument that she is in control of her artistic destiny. However, it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s her or her puppeteers who boss things, because at bottom pop stars are cyphers; delivery vehicles for superficial and entertaining diversions. We all need a bit of diverting now and then, too much reality wearies the bones.
Superficial beauty has more value than it would seem at first glance, ironically. If it’s true that we each have this base bias towards the attractive, then the music which simulates this effect on the largest scale (to the most people) has the potential to be celebrated by the masses, and to establish a kind of communality. And is this not what we see with pop music? Who doesn’t know the words to “…Baby One More Time”? The more people who know the words, the more people can sing along, together.
Many people will complain that pop is shallow and vulgar and trades only in fashions. Many more will complain that Britney Spears is shallow and vulgar and trades only in fashions. But truly great pop (of the kind Spears has quite frequently made) carries a deeper, invisible quality. Of course it will often wear the fashions of the day, but beneath the gaudy stitching of production tricks exists the song-body, the vital organs or rhythm, melody and cadence which communicate with the buried and unarticulated parts of our being. While the shallow glance appreciates only the dress of a piece, so does that same eye miss what’s really important in great popular music: the communality that is inspired.