Fifth and final post in a series about current radio pop
Lightning flickers across an ominous gray sky, shorting out the image. Everything pixelates, down to microscopic levels. The earth yawns and shudders. Civilizations totter, collapse, and rise again. Heavenly choirs soundtrack epic orgies. The Demon Bitch Goddess Virgin Mother Saint lives again, with digital blood running through coaxial veins. Song of the year? Song of the millennium.
—me, at the Singles Jukebox
I. IF YOU FEEL IT LET IT HAPPEN
So Britney Spears has an album out. I’m not going to dive into and swim around in it here – I don’t have the time, space, or financial incentive to do that on this blog, and besides this has taken me so long to write that it’s got the stale must of Old News. So instead I’m going to narrow my focus to the album’s opening track and second single, the first song this year that, when I first heard it on the radio on the drive into work, made me catch my breath and grin wildly and even, toward the end, mist up a little.
Partly this is due to my own predilections. Full disclosure is necessary for this kind of thing to work, so: I really, really love the current pop moment, in which the radio is ruled by big, brash, boshy club pop that has industrial-sandblasted away all subtlety or restraint or tenderness or fine shades, leaving only caricature in broad strokes, all indistinguishable, all in-your-face, with their own lumpen rules of conduct and antisocial, even sociopathic, celebratory codes. It reminds me of the reckless, destructive snarl in 50s rock & roll, in 70s punk, in 90s gangsta rap, except today it’s almost exclusively the domain of women. (Male singers in the present pop economy tend almost uniformly to be smooth and unthreatening and personality-free, Usher and Bruno and Taio and Jason and only vaguely sleazy Enrique; even Chris Brown, the closest thing pop currently has to a bad boy, is so slickly anonymous in his singles that he could be anybody, an erasure of personality which is perhaps the only thing making him palatable anymore.) Producers like RedOne and Dr. Luke and David Guetta are such reliable creators of colorful, abstract violence—like wrestlers, or superheros—that I’m always at least interested if their name is attached to a single. Which I realize will make some people believe that my taste and sense must have suffered a catastrophic failure.
But I like this music not despite but because I consider myself a pop historian, and drawing connections with the trashy, civilization-ending musics of the past is half the fun. (The other half is surrendering to the brain-numbing, totalitarian, steroided thrill of it. Music that doesn’t make you want to move is barely music at all.) This is the context in which I heard “Till the World Ends” and got a little—just a little, I was driving and besides I’m barely emotional at the worst of times—choked up.
II. THIS KITTEN’S GOT YOU TONGUE TIED IN KNOTS
I can’t really say I’ve missed Britney, for the simple reason that I wasn’t a fan during her first imperial phase. I know the hits, of course, like anyone with a pulse who lived through the past decade—“…Baby One More Time,” “Toxic,” and “Gimme More” are all unimpeachable dance-pop, and “Oops!… I Did It Again,” “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Womanizer” only slightly less so, and beyond that my knowledge is sketchy—but I came to love them over a long period of time, even unwillingly. I began listening to the radio in earnest right about when the trilogy of hits from Circus were in circulation, and I liked them, but not as much as I liked (for example) the singles from Pink’s Funhouse or Lady Gaga’s The Fame. To me Britney sounded not only exhausted, but confused, her lyrics a meaningless babble that gestured towards indignation, or delirium, or provocation, without actually embodying them. It would take a while, and another singer entirely, before I realized that gestures are (part of) the point of pop; specificity, so desirable in fiction or poetry, only gets in the way of fans identifying with a song, filling in the gaps with their own experience, or imagination, or imagination-mistaken-for-experience, which is the way most of us live our lives.
So Britney has been less of a real figure to me, less a person with whom to identify—or against whom to revolt, violently—than a legend from before my era, a Pop Icon every bit as totemic as if she had been from an earlier generation (she is in fact four years younger than me), as if her post-Blackout renaissance had been as unlikely and as long-deserved as Tina Turner’s 80s hits or Johnny Cash’s American records. She’s achieved somewhat mythic status in my head, the way Nirvana stands in for “90s Alternative,” Led Zeppelin for “Classic Rock,” or the Beatles for “British Invasion”—an entire era in popular music rides under her banner—or anyway the banner with her name on it.
On the subject of Britney’s agency, presence, identity, etc. (or lack thereof), I am a firm agnostic. Not only do I believe the question cannot be answered until the subject has passed into history (and even then, not fully), but I think it’s the wrong question, that the constant search for clues to Britney’s inner life is doomed to failure and inconsequence.
Many of the world’s greatest singers and pop stars, from Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley to George Jones and Rod Stewart to Noel Gallagher and Dr. Dre, have had no appreciable inner life. Like many great actors, great athletes, or great politicians, a self-conscious personality, a questing intellect, is surplus to requirements—all that matters is what they can do, and how what they do makes us feel.
It’s worth noticing that the above examples are all men, that women in pop are more often required to be—or at least to seem—more thoughtful and interior. They are not allowed to put on tragedy or hurt like a costume, then take it off again when the song is over: it must be an integral part of them, they must at all times feel the pain as much as their singing suggests they do, they must in a very real sense suffer for the sins of their age. Bessie, Billie, Édith, Etta, Patsy, Loretta, Darlene, Ronnie, Diana, Tina, Dusty, Janis, Carole, Karen, Stevie, Whitney, Mary J., Rihanna—all various points on the spectrum of tragedy, adversity, heartbreak, redemption, triumph, their biography indelibly informing their music in a way that men can more often refuse, whether slipping like Dylan or Morrissey into gnomic evasion or presenting a seamless, unbroken self, untouchable and indestructible, the quintessence of varying shades of cool: Martin, Lewis, Brown, Jagger, Rotten, Roth, Shakur, Fiddy. Of course, the anguished, confessional streak in male pop is also wide, from Johnny Cash and John Lennon to Kanye West and Eminem; but that’s the point. Men have more options.
Still, Britney’s calculated exteriority is not quite something new: Madonna and Janet Jackson, for instance, have both invited and resisted analysis for decades now, and younger artists like Ke$ha and Gaga have made careers of striking traditionally masculine (i.e., aggressive, self-assured, voracious) poses in traditionally feminine forms (dance-pop, where the tradition since house has been to cast the inhuman perfection of the music against the all-too-human tragedy, or passion, or glee of the female voice). What is new (or seems new) in Britney is her abdication of personality, whether intentional or not. Like France Gall, Astrud Gilberto, or Bilinda Butcher, she’s as much muse as she is artist, the vulgar (because powerful) eroticism of her come-hither Lolita voice the canvas (or the marble, or the bedrock) on which ever more magnificent images of vulgarity, eroticism, and power are painted (or chiseled, or constructed). Does this mean the real auteurs are her writers and producers? No more than Hitchcock was the auteur of Kim Novak’s performances, or Pabst of Louise Brooks’. All collaboration is miscegeny. But more about that later.
It was Britney’s music—or the music with her name on it—that birthed the modern era of pop, in which a rainbow-colored coalition of the sexy writhes and moans to sounds that would have been experimental, industrial, or even primitivist in the less categorically fluid, more analog 1990s.
(Quick tour of the highlights of Oughts Pop: Timbaland. Blu Cantrell. Missy Elliott. Justin Timberlake. Christina Aguilera. The Neptunes. Amerie. 50 Cent. Eminem. Pink. Kanye West. Usher. Lil Jon. Alicia Keys. Beyoncé. Kelly Clarkson. The Pussycat Dolls. Nelly. Paris Hilton. Avril Lavigne. Nelly Furtado. Robyn. M.I.A. Rihanna. Ciara. Ludacris. Gwen Stefani. Lil Wayne. T-Pain. Jessica Simpson. Kelis. The Black Eyed Peas. Carrie Underwood. Chris Brown. Kid Rock. Mandy Moore. Outkast. Jessica Simpson. Lily Allen. Cassie. T.I. Amy Winehouse. Gorillaz. Shakira. Gnarls Barkley. If this isn’t a list that makes you sigh with affection and incipient nostalgia (plus, of course, several wtfs as well; we can’t all have my specific tastes), I’m not sure you can even understand where I’m coming from with any of this. But all of this was a result of the world that Britney helped to make possible, as first among equals breaking down the walls between pop and hip hop and club and r&b. Even those whose careers long preceded hers benefited from the changed game in which anything, so long as it stuck to the beat and punched in the right weight class, could be a pop song. Pop-rap was embarrassing in the 90s, as I remember. In the 00s, it was transcendent. Britney’s overwhelming success—not just commercially, but culturally—helped to pave the way for that.)
1999 was Ground Zero in this narrative, the brow of Jove from which would spring all manner of unlikely and adventurous music, little of it more unlikely and in places more adventurous than Britney’s own catalog.
This is the story I tell myself, anyway; and my lack of familiarity with the depth of her catalog no doubt makes it go down more easily.
III. DYING FOR COMPANY
But it’s her status as the foremost female pop star of the past decade—having taken Madonna’s throne (their infamous kiss, being much more than any cheap nine days’ publicity, symbolized this passing of the torch), and not yet having had it usurped from her, even by Gaga—that makes her a sort of metonymy for femaleness writ large across the modern culture, a catch-all for all negative (and, sometimes, positive) myths about girlhood and womanhood and the uneasy border between.
This is my explanation for the string of epithets I included in my Jukebox blurb; they are all Britney as seen through different lenses, lenses which also (not coincidentally) apply generally to all women. One by one:
Demon. This is obviously the worst possible view to take, the one in which women are simply evil, succubi who leech off the strength, creativity, and genius of men. It’s the kind of statement which, once made aloud, will get you ostracized from even as notorious a boys’ club as independent comic books (pace Dave Sim), but the underlying sentiment nevertheless has echoes in a lot of the unfortunate rhetoric around how “plastic” “fake” “dance-pop” “crap” has poisoned modern youth against Real Honest Music, You Know, With Guitars. In fact, the generalized anti-pop sentiment which you find expressed in every genre, whether rock, hip-hop, country, jazz, folk, and even electronic music, almost always has anti-woman or at least anti-girl overtones. Britney, in this reading, is Queen of Perversion, the Painted Harlot who ushers in a technological dystopia, herald of the Unreal, harbinger of the Matrix. Of course, woman is always the cause of downfall.
Bitch. This is, of course, code for “not all women are evil, just you.” Contrary to the first reading, where femininity itself is evil (or at least inferior), this attempts to police femininity; it is aimed at women with power, who express themselves, who behave in ways that aren’t in conformity with “traditional” norms of pliancy, exaggerated kindness, and self-sacrifice. (Either that, or it’s a woman who won’t fuck you.) Britney’s accession to bitchhood was fraught with tension, particularly as she had long typified “traditional” norms, at least as applied to a post-industrial-porn society. But when she released her inner bitch—the version of Britney who threw tantrums in public, disregarded her and others’ safety, went without the symbolic protector of chastity, and denied her femininity to the point that she shaved off the universally recognized symbol of it—it was something very like a public crisis. She was too powerful, too meaningful a symbol to be allowed to be so out of control; and the very tight control under which she has operated ever since acknowledges it.
Goddess. This is no longer derogatory, but it’s still distancing, denying the humanity of the woman who is named it, positioning the namer as a faithful supplicant whose perfect adoration the adored has no choice but to reward. Britney has rarely been remote enough for the epithet to stick very well: the sheer ordinariness of her life, mind, and supporting cast keep her firmly earthbound. Except in the actual music, where she sounds less like any specific woman (much less the particular Louisiana mallrat of interviews and paparazzi shots) than like some encoded symbol of Femininity, as unreal and as perfectly sculpted for male desire as a porn star. Gods and goddesses are, after all, symbols of what their particular cultures value: in Britney’s case, it was blondeness, youth, litheness, and ultimately and recursively, once her godhead had become a self-fulfilling prophecy, Britneyness. Today she sounds even more remote, even further divorced from the unforgiving camera image and prescriptively banal interview answers; which inspires an even fiercer loyalty in her partisans. Perfection is as Britney does; anything else is heresy.
Virgin. The crux around which patriarchy’s construction of feminine identity revolves; or less academically, The Only Thing An Asshole Cares About. Which makes America ca. 1999-2002 the textbook definition of an Asshole. (So what else is new?) The extremely public speculation on Britney’s virginity, or lack thereof—I was a dance-hating nerd whose only interaction with mainstream pop culture was through the posturing filter of a comic book message board, and I was fully aware of it—should probably be considered a low point in our cultural history. But it also points to just how important Britney was, and remains: she ranks with Elizabeth I (and precious few others) in terms of public figures whose virginity has been so hotly and publically discussed, contested and insisted upon. Britney’s importance turned the private-public discussions which would historically have been confined to high school hallways and locker rooms into a national conversation; and the fixation on her sexuality which the conversation required—the undisguised dirty-old-man-isms behind Barely Legal jokes and schoolgirl outfits and that Rolling Stone shoot—made her ever more an object of lust, especially within the unreconstructed, anonymous cesspool of internet commentary. The importance of virginity, in this construction, is not social control, or symbolic purity, or even anything to do with pregnancy: it is purely and simply giving men an excuse to fantasize about the sexuality of young women, to regard every woman in exactly the same light as a porn star. In porn the question is not whether but when; the same question was applied to Britney, and the moment it came to light (Justin Timberlake’s most ungallant act), the fury of a public that had been teasing itself with her for three years was unleashed. Because once the transaction is complete, every Asshole hates the woman who got him off.
Mother. One redemption: if she can no longer be a virgin, she must be the other permissible female role. And so even as her image crumbled the façade of normalcy was thrown up, never to be entirely withdrawn again. Wife. Mother. Daughter. Sister. All conventional roles, women we know how to relate to, to deal with, to acknowledge and ignore at our convenience. The music, that irruptive, uncontrollable force, linked so potently and combustively with sexuality, had to go away for a while, while she descended into domestic bliss, as unctuously catalogued by reality TV—and bliss descended into grainy, low-resolution tabloid nightmares, mother’s little helpers fueling paranoia and rage, that bland cheerleader’s smile gone forever, replaced by a hunted, desperate look, the Friedanite critique of housewifeliness acted out not over a period of decades but of months. Children endangered; marriage dissolving; the phrase “white trash” uttered over and over again, like a spell, like a shrug. We turned our faces away, as we did over and over again throughout the decade, from brown people dying in deserts to black people dying in floods, because what can you expect? Those people will always be like that.
Saint. The ultimate whitewash, the final write-out. The natural end of motherhood, as not only sexuality but personality is covered up by reverent memory. She has already reached this point for many, of course: saintliness is only divinity under a more rigorous theology, and loyalists will attribute all manner of miracles to their patron. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see parallels between the secretive, highly organized hierarchy which manages the most commonly-recognized stable of saints, and the similarly secretive, organized, and oversensitive-to-criticism entourage around Britney; there’s even a built-in Augustinian (or Alcoholics Anonymous) narrative arc, from carefree youth to enmeshed sinner to spotless lamb, saved by the power of capitalism. Hallelujah.
Finally, there was one epithet I overlooked, one which slots nicely between Goddess and Virgin:
Queen. Overtones of the Virgin Mary and of (again) Good Queen Bess intended, but beside the point—the real point of comparison is with that other member of pop royalty, the King. (R.I.P.) Which King? Whichever, Elvis or Michael, both (also) kids shoved into a machine, kids whose raw talent, charm, and massive accreted symbolism ended up destroying not only all that had come before—which is merely the mandate of pop, to renew the earth—but more crucially themselves. Both also criminally dependent on loathed father figures, both also attempted to rebel against the mounting pressure of commercial, personal, and society-wide expectations by physical transformation that was read as self-destruction. Both canonized during their own lives and even more so afterward, not necessarily by critics but by the people (and so necessarily by critics, given time). If this is not particularly pleasant company for Britney to be keeping, her story is not yet done.
But regardless of whether she is now or ever was the Queen of Pop in the sense that Madonna arguably was 1985-1999, she is much more importantly a Queen in the broader symbolic sense, an image of her people. Like a demon she has been a symbol of rebellion against an established order, like a bitch she has been a symbol of forthright, unapologetic womanhood, like a goddess she has been a symbolic repository of her culture’s meanings, like a virgin she has been a symbol of purity—and subsequent lost innocence, like a mother she has been a symbol of order and normalcy, like a saint she has been a symbol of perfected (erased?) humanity. And like a queen she is all of that, plus a repository for the hopes and dreams of her subjects. If it’s too facile to suggest that she died for our sins—particularly as she’s still very much alive—it is perhaps not to suggest that her particular travails are exactly those of her era, that hypersexualization, the difficulty negotiating the transition from childhood to adulthood, the difficulty establishing boundaries between the private and the public, the culture-wide fears of loss of identity, of absorption by technology, of female sexuality, of loss of control, of loss of choice, of voice, of the failure of the body to be what it once was—that all of this is not just Britney’s story, but all of ours. If her struggle has been the most visible, the most widely broadcast, it is because that is what monarchs are for, to tell the stories their people need told.
What’s striking about all of these images (mother excepted) is the suggestion of solitude, of being exceptional and therefore apart. Which is another reinforcement of traditional views of women (women who lived alone or had power were witches, consorted with demons, etc.), and in light of recent analyses of her actual life—a nearly thirty-year-old woman, supposedly managing a career, but under the sort of legal arrangement usually reserved for minors and the mentally disabled—is almost terrifying in its accuracy. Whether or not she actually is, or feels, alone, the popular perception is that she is, that even recent collaborations with Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Ke$ha are the result not of choice or aesthetic sympathy but of financial calculation and technological duress.
All of which brings us, in an extremely roundabout way, to the actual song.
IV. DJ WHAT YOU WHAT YOU WAITING FOR
When Britney sprang into sudden vivid pop relief in 1999, it was with a stuttering, springy beat, an industrial-scale version of new jack swing, and a playful, pouty kittenish delivery that belied her age. The man behind that music is the same man behind her music now. The full story of Max Martin’s relationship to modern pop has yet to be told, largely because he avoids saying much in public, but it’s hard not to picture him (not least because of all the pictures of his forebears we have, Phil Spector and Ike Turner and Owen Bradley and Berry Gordy and Nile Rodgers and Mutt Lange) as a wily Svengali deftly orchestrating not only the synth sounds and rhythm tracks but the emotional journeys of his singers, in single-minded pursuit of the precise sound that will pop on the radio, that will flash and soar and snap attention away from all the many distractions competing for pop’s place.
Those distractions have only increased in the intervening years, and his music has grown more direct, more insistent, and more overwhelming in response; the jumpy syncopation of “…Baby One More Time” and “Oops!… I Did It Again” replaced by the monster steamroll of pounding 4/4 beats, Britney no longer cooing above the electronic tangle but crying out from within the machine, her voice another electronic element in the glistening rush of disembodied sound and timbre.
But still she pouts, still she gives the kittenish moans and gurgles that, though processed into so much fine electronic treble-dust, still echo back to the object of lust she once was—and perhaps still is. (The Internet seems to keep quieter about this stuff nowadays, or maybe I’m just hanging out in politer circles.) The ritualized provocation in Ke$ha’s lyrics are a good fit for her, since she’s never been able to invest her lyrics with meaning, so they might as well be a collection of signifiers, a script, a line of patter that she can run while the music surges and whirls around her.
Anonymity suits the Britney who has come back from the brink, the post-2007 model. On Blackout, she surrendered to the machine; on Circus, she tried its paces, saw what it could (and couldn’t) do. Now they have become one, a digital unification that makes me think of the monstrous visions in Jack Kirby comic books in the 70s, organic computers and people made of metal and wire.
“Till the World Ends” is, in fact, nothing if it is not Kirbyesque. The thing about Kirby, if you don’t know comics, is that he was the great delineator of Power in comic book art. His figures, legs splayed at impossible distances from each other, arms and hands springing out directly at the reader, were Brutalist expressions of Will and Life-Force—and the longer he drew the more granite-like and monumental they became until at his expressionistic zenith in the mid-70s he was drawing almost pure abstraction, compositions of such stone-simple iconicity that no matter how much filigreed detail he layered on to the costumes, to the machinery, to the backgrounds, it was like adding lacework to the Easter Island statues. Kirby thought big, bigger than anyone else in comics, which meant his stories had a fevered, apocalyptic edge to them even when they were profoundly silly stories, like the ones where a talking monkey rides a red dinosaur around. But more often they were stories about gods and aliens who might as well be gods, pantheons above pantheons, walls at the end of the universe and machines that wept for self-destructive humanity because humanity refused to weep for itself.
This is what I hear in “Till the World Ends,” a starkly simple structure, the triple-throbbing synth and bass sequencer as brutally utilitarian as any Eurodance backing track has ever been, overlaid with a finely detailed spray of digital noise. From a distance, it’s all just more rush, more more, but when you turn it up loud the sound glitters and fractures into sparkling slivers of electronic dust. And just as Kirby attempted to cram the whole universe into the panels of a thirty-two page comic book, Martin and his collaborators, Dr. Luke and Billboard, cram an epic, apocalyptic dance song into a three-minute pop single. The pressure builds up so much, in fact, that it buckles in the middle, almost shorting out before the refrain roils back in.
That refrain? “Whoah-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhhhh.” (Talk about abstraction, about iconicity! Back to the primitive roots of Western music, in plainsong and chant.) When I first heard it, I was certain, certain I’d heard it before, and wheeled through my Ke$ha albums trying to find which of her songs she’d lifted her chant from. None of them; it just sounded so much like Ke$ha’s mixture of generosity and defiance, so exactly like what it was supposed to be, this great call to be lifted out of yourself by the music, to be enraptured into the communion of saints or the singalong of bawds (what’s the difference, community’s community), that it was impossible to imagine it hadn’t always existed.
But trickily—and this too reminds me of Kirby, the way his compositions, though simple, are asymmetrical, weighted heavily, never light, always unbalanced, ready to spill over in explosive joy or destructive fury—that “Woah-oh-oh” refrain, though it’s the most frequently heard piece of the song, isn’t the actual chorus. That bides its time, and doesn’t turn up until almost two minutes into the song. “See the sunlight, we ain’t stoppin’, keep on dancing till the world ends” is another key change upward, and that sudden propulsion into yet another dynamic range, the heaven beyond the heaven, is not unlike soaring magnificently among clouds and then breaking through into open sunlight, perilously close to bliss.
V. WHEN I LOSE IT HARD
Yes, perilously. Because bliss is dangerous, because uncontrollable (like female sexuality, like youthful energy, like rock and roll and disco and hip-hop, all of which have their say here), and everyone from House Speakers to Times columnists to the internet mob snarl and lunge for blood at the thought of young people, especially young girls, feeling freedom and ecstasy and power. We are older, we know better, we’ve learned through painful experience that there’s no high you don’t come down from. Better never to leap, better to cling close to the earth and hum our campfire tunes and take reasonable, adult solace in reasonable, adult sentiments. Everything is unstable, everything breaks down; take shelter where you can.
But that is not Ke$ha’s way, and because she wrote the song (and because Ke$ha perhaps even more than Britney is a product-slash-animating spirit of the modern Martin/Luke ethos, bosh-bosh-bosh-bliss) she pulls the strings, making it not Britney’s way either, and rather than taking refuge she (both shes, blurred into one voice, one body by the dual magics of authorship and performance) runs out into the middle of the storm, becoming the storm, howling along with it, goddess bitch mother queen, the wind whipping her voice from her lungs and then, as she twists in the air for a sickening moment, filling them back up again. She held, and did not break, and the chorus comes in fuller and brighter than before, and when the song ends it is not with the crumbling system-death noise with which it paused, but with assurance and finality, as though from the top of Ararat.
These images are apocalyptic, and the song would be apocalyptic even if it weren’t called “Till the World Ends” and didn’t insist that we keep on dancing until that moment of destruction. The near-death wheeze inherent in the tremulous treble-shimmer of a thousand electrodes bursting around her—the death-and-resuscitation moment which sounds variously like a turntable unplugged, an Atari character-death sting, or the sound of feedback draining from an amp—the way the very angelic chorale cuts out spasmodically, rhythmically, like a shorting telephone connection or a delay-and-tap guitar riff (pace Tommy James). The pop charts have had a fascination with voices being electronically “broken” for a while now, with Lil Wayne’s patchwork AutoTuning and Ke$ha’s punch-card choruses and Lady Gaga’s stuttering, artificially elongated vowels; but on “Till the World Ends” it has stopped sounding playful, it sounds desperate: we will continue broadcasting, though we don’t know if anyone can hear us.
Granted, this is a stylized, decadent version of electronic apocalypse, a scrubbed-and-gilded Matrix in which Cool has been abandoned for Luxury; but that makes it even more destabilizing, as it’s the very technology which was supposed to make us stronger, safer, immortal, which would keep us forever young, Photoshopping away lines of age, AutoTuning away cracked voices, enveloping us in a virtual womb where we are the ones with power and nothing can ever hurt us again—it’s that technology which is failing, crumbling around us, a shower of sparks, a battery draining, a skipping disc, a scrambled algorithm.
This too is Britney, of course. Everything breaking down; even when the PR has been buffed to an impenetrable armor, we search hungrily for clues that she’s trapped, or overmedicated, or under-cared-for. A mother without her children, a daughter whose relationship to her parents is purely financial, arguably the most famous pop star in the world but she’s unable to even hit a mark, let alone bust a move.
Even at her height, her music was always about threat, about submerged or explicit violence as a metaphor for interpersonal relations, domestic violence or sub/dom play or germ warfare, minor apocalypses, loss of self, loss of control. And few recording artists have inspired as much apocalyptic fervor in their detractors; even today, it’s easy to find plenty of hysterical rhetoric about the End of Taste and the Dark Future of Music. (“And the rider was named Britney, and Hell followed with her.” Rev. 6:8) But it’s not necessary to be a clueless, still-bitter rockist to acknowledge that these years of her ascendance, 1999-present, have been apocalyptic years—if not in fact, at least in tone.
She came up in the late 90s, a time looked back at now with almost reverential awe, especially by the music industry. The money! The shininess! The spectacle! The Pax Americana had not yet been broken, we were all so much younger and more innocent then—but if you remember the time, the cultural moment, as it was rather than in comparison to what came after, it was one of apocalyptic longing. Not dread, longing. The climactic scene in the biggest cult movie of 1999, Fight Club, when buildings explode (harmlessly!) all over the Los Angeles skyline, was understood not as frightening, but as cathartic. Also 1999: The Matrix (more harmless -but-epic destruction), Magnolia (biblical judgments brought literally to life), Office Space (small-scale destruction, but no less potent or iconic), American Beauty (personal apocalypses). The year before, the earth was threatened by asteroids, comets, and Godzilla, and the apocalyptic nature of war was rendered indelibly in the opening sequence to Saving Private Ryan. The year before: Titanic. The year before that: Independence Day. Large-scale destruction was on our minds, death by fire, death by water, death by technology, death by death.
Millennial tension can be hard to describe if you weren’t there. Out of the entertainment section and onto the real-news pages, there was ritualized cult death in Japan and California; teenage riot in Colorado; panic about technological failure; and political theater manufacturing crises out of nothing.
This was the world Britney stepped into, and the spring-loaded violence and immaculate, teflon glee of her music matched its mood. This was the perfect soundtrack for the end of an overpriced, self-satisfied, dreaming-of-violence world, the sexualized chirp of a naïf who danced like a machine, who ended for good not only the dominance but even the potency of the guys-with-guitars model of pop music which had held sway since 1963. (Another form of apocalypse, at least for those invested in the model.)
And the millennium turned, and the decade wore on, and the apocalypse moved out of the theater and into the streets of Manhattan, of Kabul, of Baghdad, of New Orleans, of Tehran, of Port-au-Prince, of Sendai. (But of course it remained in the theater too—Roland Emmerich, among many others, destroyed the world in loving detail over and over again.) And Britney had her own personal apocalypses, which became all of our apocalypses, everything updated in real time now, on billions of glowing screens around the world.
This is why bliss—especially bliss as arrived at through apocalyptic imagery—is perilous. Rapture, as any fundamentalist will tell you, is the end of the story; when you’re so happy, so excited, so overwhelmed that your heart stops there’s always the danger that it might not start again. And if instead the song stops, and you look around, and everything’s still here, there’s always the doubt. Did it really happen? Was it really bliss? Can we get much higher?
VI. SEE THE SUNLIGHT, WE AIN’T STOPPIN
The thing is, the world’s always ending. Every winter, every spring. Nothing endures. We could all, any of us, die this night, in the throes of ecstasy or terror or rage or agony or boredom; and whichever way we go, for us that will be the end of the world. Personally, I’d just as soon be dancing.
In the car, listening to the radio, I punch between stations at the slightest hint of DJ chatter or a song I don’t care for. I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times by now—I’ve been writing this off and on for two month, which is why it’s so disconnected and rambling—but in the car, when I haven’t punched play on my iPod, when it could be anything else I’m hearing, Katy Perry or the Black Eyed Peas or Bruno Mars or motherfucking Train, it explodes with uncommon force, the zigzagging synths on the verses coiling up power which is then unleashed on the refrain, and soars higher in the chorus, so carefully put together that anything not so precision tooled (which is everything else on the chart right now except maybe “Blow” and—in a different way—“Rolling in the Deep”) sounds watery and ungainly afterwards.
Turn it up, and let the factory speakers’ crackling under the weight of the noise add to the crumbling-down sonic architecture. And if you listen to it hard enough, if you let the music throb through you and throb in return, you can soar up so high as to almost glimpse the lands that lie beyond the world’s end.
Who cares if they’re fictional? Good pop tells stories; great pop makes those stories real.
(Note: this was partially written and almost entirely conceived before Katherine St. Asaph wrote her own elegant analysis of “Till The World Ends,” along with much else currently on the pop chart, which you can and should read here. But much of the above came out of conversation with her, and I’m pleased to acknowledge the influence.)
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