Not a Girl, Not Yet a Porn Star

Britney Spears straddles the line between the Madonna and the whore--and we do mean straddles

Britney Spears
In the Zone
Jive Records

Every one of the thirteen tracks on Britney Spears's In the Zone bears the scent of limos, V.I.P. lounges, unannounced entrances in Miami strip joints (the girls on the runway look up and are sunk), Gulf Stream jetlag, five-star lodgings across Europe, yawny E! Channel shoots, and just enough studio time to crank out Zone's niggardly 40-odd minutes. (You can imagine how cranky she gets if she has to stick around there too long. The gym, the phone, the boys--just leave it to those Timbaland nimrods to do...whatever.)

In the Zone is a trans-media product metastasizing outside its boundaries as "music product." It is the international effort of flacks, stylists, new-school publicists, producers consulting producers, agent-managers, personal assistant and posse, studio chiefs, and a bewildering number of black people to stick exotica, sexiness, edge, danger, the breathy nub of adult sensuality onto the voice and body of Britney Spears. And all that stuff runs down her face, down across her cut abdomen, over her shoes and onto the floor. And what's left, what we look at, is a blank-eyed, spoiled, snotty mall rat from Louisiana who won Mickey Mouse Club lotto at a moment when Teen-Everything was cresting and then peaking. (Britney's comrade in arms at the time of her first Rolling Stone cover was the equally disposable John Hughes of our era--Scream and Dawson's creator Kevin Williamson.)

Learning-Impaired Madonna, now available with detachable dress: Britney Spears
Courtesy of Jive Records
Learning-Impaired Madonna, now available with detachable dress: Britney Spears

It always galls me that the unholy trinity of female pop icons--Madonna, Courtney Love, and Britney Spears--never get their albums reviewed as music. Instead, a record review becomes an occasion for a meditation on the semiotics of the sacred monster, a yeshiva-like passing of the fingers over the dense Star Text. With a few exceptions, the interviews, failed marriages, public outbursts and betraying-feeling costume changes of Madonna and Courtney are more interesting than their creative output. But those two 40ish ladies work a knotty terrain--at least, in cultural-studies speak. There are complex contradictions in the struggle between their fitful achings to subvert and their addictions to diva trappings. And their narcissisms are sometimes adorably, sometimes horrifyingly exposed. But when critics grind their lenses and cast a Big Picture gaze on Britney, there are really only two ways to go: 1) Britney as Metaphor. Britney as George W. (An obvious one, but it gets less play than you would think.) Britney as learning-impaired Madonna. Britney as Epitome of Post-Feminism. (This one definitely gets the most hits--especially among Village Voice would-be smarty-pants.) And then there's 2). Hey! The kids are right! This stuff really isn't so bad after all! Hyperproduced non-singer-non-songwriters who don't play an instrument are people too!

Sure, everyone wants to be young, dumb, and popular. Take the masochistic psychodrama enacted by an Italian-American pop tart of a certain age, dropping to the yogic "corpse position" and kissing Britney's Uggs while maintaining that last tiny shred of dignity required not to go mad by also playing at being Britney's teacher: "Britney, can you lose control?" Madonna dares on "Me Against the Music," her duet with Pop-Chick Ascendant at the beginning of In the Zone (Jive Records). The tantric kabbalist, lover of Latin bohunks and bourgie British fake gangsters, crucifier of Aimee Mann and chickened-out Iraq War opponent shares a lifetime of wisdom with Spears on "Music," and the upshot is, It's nice to show the world your ass, but it's what's in your heart that counts.

The press has thus far spanked In the Zone (apparently a reference more to Brit's carb intake than her creative nirvana) for Spears's unwillingness to do what Madonna advises--open your heart for me, if you will. But the one truly interesting thing about In the Zone renders that tack useless. There is no exposure, no soul-baring, because there is nothing there to expose. The CD is as terrifyingly devoid of inner life as one of Andy Warhol's silk-screened Liz Taylors or Marilyns. The stamp on the coin is valid, the money is good, but the face bears no resemblance to a human being.

The one aesthetic oddity of In the Zone, which mostly sounds like what I imagine a Debbie Gibson album would sound like if you dredged it up today, is that Brit is clearly positioning herself in line as next Straight Diva for the Queer Guy. The breathy, junk-in-the-trunk "Showdown" will clearly light up West Hollywood and the West Village; and moments of "Breathe on Me" and "Touch of My Hand" access that queer-o-centric, cool-to-cold club sound of "Vogue"-era Madonna, but with a poignant difference. Britney is too thick, too slow, too homecoming queen to get over in Boys' Town. Her nemesis Christina has more legit diva feathers.

All these expensive people have been summoned to salaam and Woo, girl! and You do it, Britney!, and with all that adulation--one sometimes feels with this record that the producers are toting Spears about on a palanquin--nobody, not one high-up dude at Jive Records, could say to the willful child that there was not one radio single on the whole thing? Team Spears seems to be attempting many spins at once: to hang on to the onetime 14-year-old fan base while skewing Britney to an older crowd. Was the notion among the marketers that as Britney's teenybopper following is shrinking, aging gay club kids are the place to go next? In the Zone, which features not one distinctive song, won't do it. We know Britney is a meat puppet, a Chauncey Gardner manipulated by big-money forces, but is there any sane adult alive who doesn't fantasize that a record like this will hasten a descent that seems inevitable and, I am ashamed to add, delicious: the eventual metamorphosis of Britney of a Thousand Identical Faces into that pill-popping, waistband-busting, entourage-tormenting force of nature we call Anna Nicole Smith?

 
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