I know I said no pop culture, but I just saw this review of Britney Spears’ latest album and can’t help myself. In it Slate writer Jody Rosen makes the claim that Spears is in fact a great artist. Specifically, while everyone rags her for sounding generic and commercial, it is this blank slate quality that makes her a perfect channel for pop craftsmen’s best material. I’ll buy this. I’ve always liked Britney Spears. “…Baby One More Time” has a minor-key stridency that gets under your skin and “Oops!…I did it Again” is a thoroughly enjoyable reworking of “Woman in Love.” (Maybe I’m just a big fan of points of ellipsis.) I couldn’t name you another Britney Spears song, but figure there’s no shame in only knowing her two biggest radio hits. That’s the wonderful thing about pop stars–they give you so much and ask for so little in return.
I never got why everyone hated her so much in the first place. Spears’ music is disposable and commercial, and beloved by callow teenage girls? So–they call it pop music because it’s popular. She doesn’t write her own material? Fabulous–that harkens back to the pre rock-and-roll Great American Songbook days when there was a clear division of labor between the singer and the songwriter, a division those of us who write songs but can’t really sing would love to see return. She uses her sex appeal to sell her music? Yeah. And? Granted Spears’ bragging on her virginity was a bit much, but the vitriol aimed her way, the puritanical leer-and-sneer at her short skirts, the collective primate howl that went up when she was photographed without underwear–that was all way more than a bit much. For me, sometime around 2005 Britney-bashing graded over from fun celebrity razzing into something unpleasant. Even if you think her singing is awful, why bring the knives out, and why with her instead of any one of a thousand other sexy female celebrities? My theory is that she’s the designated scapegoat for a lot of everyday, non-celebrity gender anxiety. The sexiest woman in the room is always going to make everyone uneasy–men are going to resent the power she has over them, and women are going to be jealous of it, fearing their own power either doesn’t measure up, or does measure up, but will be gone in the blink of an eye. But you can’t openly hate the sexiest woman in the room because she’s still a human being right there in front of you, so you displace your hostility onto a famous female who you’ll never meet. For a while it was Britney, then it was Paris Hilton, and now it’s I don’t know who. I don’t feel sorry for these women–they’re big girls, and well-compensated–but there’s something in the animosity they generate that’s icky and misogynist and best kept at arms’ length.
But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that there is a law of conservation of scorn. If you spend ten-plus years getting sneered at by everyone with good taste, eventually someone will have to say you were tasteful all along. Uniform acceptance dampens the impact of an opinion, creating the dull gray backdrop against any randomly occurring bit of contrarianism must appear as a bright flash of color. (Claude Shannon did the math on this years ago.) One day twenty or thirty years from now, Britney Spears, shopping malls, and Starbucks coffee will be remembered as the truest, warmest, most authentic artifacts of American culture precisely because no one thinks of them that way now. There’s a comfort in watching it all unfold.