mon 14/06/2021

Britney Spears (1998-present): The Video Special | reviews, news & interviews

Britney Spears (1998-present): The Video Special

Britney Spears (1998-present): The Video Special

Britney on video: 23 years of salacious self-objectification and hyper-kitsch

Britney in chains or Britney unchained?

Interest in Britney Spears has not waned.

The #FreeBritney movement, the new documentary Framing Britney Spears, and the ongoing controversy around her father’s legal conservatorship have served to put her back in the public eye over the last year. Not that she ever drifted very far away from it. She is, after all, Britney Spears. Eight years ago, theartsdesk offered an overview of her career via her videos. We now revisit it. Despite many dismissing her output as empty fluff, I argued then that “there's a rich story to be told, reflecting the paradoxical nature of the woman herself and changes in the pop culture around her”. This is still the case and an update has long been overdue...

 "...Baby One More Time" (1998)

Louisiana teenager and ex-Mickey Mouse Club kid Britney Spears burst onto the scene as the 20th century drew to a close, but she was then more squeaky clean US showbiz glitz than raunch-fest. Well, except for this jailbait-in-excelsis, desk-bound daydream which launched a song rejected by boy band Backstreet Boys to become one of the biggest-selling singles of all time. A 16-year-old Catholic schoolgirl in pigtails, gyrating, pouting and baring her abdomen, was always bound to cause controversy but the concept was the joint creation of English director Nigel Dick, whose own initial idea was rejected, and Spears' notion of herself dancing around a school "with a bunch of cute boys". Dick insists that Britney was not coerced by any stereotypical sinister music biz types into sexualizing herself and that the whole shoot was just youngsters having fun. He also told thedailybeast in 2013, regarding the weekend the video first showed on MTV, that "on Thursday afternoon she could walk into a 7-Eleven and order a Slurpee and nobody would pay any attention, and then by Monday morning all of that was gone and she could never go back."

Arcane fact: the male dancer directly behind and to the right of Britney in the locker room is Alex Estornel, brother of house music don Maceo Plex.

"Oops I Did It Again" (2000)

Apart from the outrageous "...Baby One More Time", vids for early songs, such as "Sometimes" and "Born to Make You Happy", portrayed a wholesome Britney. This was the Britney who, as she said at the time, wished to stay a virgin until her wedding night, a Britney who could grace a mythic Middle America that hadn't changed since ET or even Happy Days. Comparisons to squeaky clean teen queens such as Debbie Gibson and Tiffany came thick and fast. Then she came back with "Oops!...I Did It Again", the very title of which sounds like a line from a dodgy movie where a lady's clothes keep accidentally-on-purpose falling off. The song, a delicious pop amalgam of Rick James funk and ABBA harmonies, was accompanied by a video that had Britney, all grown up at 18, in a red spandex cat suit. Somehow, though, despite her claims that she was "not that innocent", the vid's kitschy references to the Mars Lander project and the film Titanic, all added up to something frothy rather than sleazy. All in all, a tongue-in-chic masterstroke.

 "Stronger" (2000)

 With "Stronger" Britney explicitly turns her back on the high-school jocks and goody-goodies. Dressed as a Goth as envisioned by Ann Summers, and behaving like a wicked pole dancer around her clean-cut gym-bunny peers, she's essentially a rampaging 21st-century take on transformed black-leather Sandy at the end of Grease. Britney doesn't need the hunk in the vid, anyway - "Whatever!" - in real life she's dating Justin Timberlake, the hottest member of the hottest boy band in the States, 'N Sync. She heads off into the moody, rainy night like a lacey bra-ed Mad Max, leaving behind banal teenage games and, she hopes, Debbie Gibson comparisons.

"I'm a Slave 4 U" (2001)

With "I'm A Slave 4 U", the first single from her third album, Britney, the eponymous singer, already long resident in the category of those you can refer to by their forename, asked: "All you people look at me like I'm a little girl, well, did you ever think it'd be OK for me to step into this world?" The world in question, according to the video, was one where she cavorted to The Neptunes' percussive, electronic R&B in a nightclub halfway up a concrete municipal high rise. The answer to her question remains, "Well, yes, it's mostly fine, Britney, the music has cojones, that party you're at looks fun, and you're clearly growing up fast, LA-style. Not so sure about the sweat-effect make-up and orgy." She would visit similar territory with the video for "Slumber Party" 15 years later, but it would all seem a harder-faced routine by then. Perhaps the song that best sums up where Britney's at during this period is "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" but, since the vid is a desert-bound crane-shot yawn-athon in classic power-ballad vein, we'll move swiftly on.

 "Me Against the Music" (2003)

"Me Against the Music" is the point where Britney (a) embraces European rave flavours that bled onto her next album In the Zone, and (b) faces up to the archetype behind her style of pop, Madonna. Britney famously snogged La Ciccone at the 2003 MTV Music Awards but the "Me Against the Music" video captures their ambiguous relationship better. Symmetrically attacking either side of a wall, like the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, or having an avant-garde bed-off (there's no other way of putting it), the pair are clearly equally matched. There is no "your powers are weak, old woman" moment for Madonna who, white-suited and sparky prior to her iron-body Kaballah persona, matches Britney play for play, as is made clear at the vid's very end when she's revealed to be merely a fantasy. The whole thing captures a now long-gone moment like a paparazzi snap from an old newspaper.

"Toxic" (2004)

Ah, the motherlode. Here's Britney at a peak: sexy, sassy, unpredictable, slightly ridiculous but only in the best poptastic way. The song, tinged with unlikely Bhangra flavour, is a dance-pop classic, one that will haunt discos for decades, partly written by Britain's own Cathy Dennis. The vid, on the other hand, is a joyfully preposterous outing that owes much to Luc Besson in his Fifth Element phase. Britney is a superspy, as striking as a sassy sci-fi trolley dolly as she is red-haired in leather swerving Mission Impossble-style security lasers. She looks like a woman enjoying herself, no point to prove.

 "Gimme More" (2007)

In the final episode of the cult 1960s TV series The Prisoner (spoiler alert) Patrick McGoohan as Number Six comes face to face with his endlessly elusive nemesis, Number One. He unmasks him only to find, of course, in the best schizoid fashion, that it's... himself. So it is in Britney's vid for "Gimme More". Britney had been in the public spotlight since her mid-teens, all the while under judgement every time she had a laugh or got wasted, as young women everywhere do. For a brief spell, ignoring the ingrained puritanism at the core of American culture, she went properly decadent, OFF THE RAILS, as the tabloids might have it. Doing so under an incessant media microscope resulted in her greatest album, the one that set the template for Lady Gaga, Ke$ha and the rest: Blackout. The video for "Gimme More", an appropriate title, sees blonde mainstream Britney front up to her own dark side. It's hardly subtle.

"Piece of Me" (2007)

 The phrase "You wanna piece of me?" is correctly associated with men challenging each other outside bars. Britney's song of the same name, an edgy, sneering electro number, is filled with just as much fury. The lyrics are soul-baring and raw. Perhaps the key lines are: "I'm Miss Bad Media Karma, another day another drama, guess I can't see the harm in working and being a mama. And with a kid on my arm I'm still an exceptional earner". Post-two year marriage to her dancer Kevin Federline, post-head-shaving scandal, Britney lays it down like it is, bubblegum punk. For once, all the vid can do is back up the lyrics in an almost literal fashion.

"Womanizer" (2008)

 By this stage Britney's slightly besmirched by the mud thrown her way, but she's also remained remarkably resilient, given the global media onslaught on her character. "Womanizer" sees her older, wearier, but back to her pre-crack-up subject matter. The video, however, contains self-images that are polar opposites, aspects of schizoid Britney. The singer naked in a steam room represents her Hollywood smut-pedlar side, meanwhile Britney in black-bob wig and glasses and Britney-the-chauffeur represent the frollicking, cheeky Britney of old - but grown up like she always wanted to be, keeping gormless hunks in their place.

"If U Seek Amy" (2009)

 There's no excuse for this, is there? The chorus, when it's spelt out, runs: "Love me, hate me, say what you want about me, all the boys and all the girls are begging to fuck me". Nice. Christina Aguilera was once Britney's direct competition in the naughtiness stakes and Aguilera won with the vid for "Dirrrty" but it wasn't a glorious victory, merely a downslide into the world of men's mags and porno culture. It just smelt sweaty, musky, unpleasant. With "If U Seek Amy", unfortunately, Britney enters the similar territory. And yet, and yet, the mom's apple pie scene at the end is a brilliantly subversive twist, replete with her video daughter clad a la "...Baby One More Time" Britney. And everything is propelled by the fact the song itself is one of her very catchiest stompers. So who has the last laugh? Like the lady says, "Ha ha hee hee ha ha ho!"

"Hold It Against Me" (2011)

 Britney looks weirdly hard-faced in this, oddly plastic, especially in the initial stages. The song is anthemic but not outstanding and the vid looks rather run of the mill. Then, suddenly, the dubstep breakdown drops and Britney starts kicking the living crap out of another blonde woman while squirting multicoloured laser-ink out of her fingertips. Who's she kicking in? As ever, it's Number One, herself. Britney is still a prom queen but, happily for the greater good of pop, her musical soul is spiked with pounding Euro-Hi-NRG and self-loathing darkness.

"Everytime" scene from Spring Breakers (Song - 2004; Film - 2012)

This one doesn't derive from the official canon, but sums up Britney's gradual rise to cultural signifier. Harmony Korine's striking and provocative film concerns itself with many things under the guise of the story of four college girls hooking up with a Florida hip hop gangster, played with exemplary, grill-toothed panache by James Franco. Primary among its concerns are the blind materialism of trashy American consumer culture and its relentless objectification of women. Who better, then, to sum things up than Britney (who is also referred to elsewhere in the film)? One of Spring Breakers' most extraordinary scenes sees Franco's Alien playing Britney's "Everytime", a gorgeous ballad, in any case, on his grand piano as the sun rises over beachside St Petersburg, before dissolving into Britney's version and a visceral montage of the quartet's crime spree. The fact that the girls' balaclava outfits make them look like Pussy Riot rather than Hollywood starlets only adds to its strange potency. It places Britney, if she wasn't already, firmly in the life-long superstar league.

"Work Bitch" (2013)

 Britney has long enjoyed the "B" word (see "Gimme More" for evidence) and here she pushes her agenda ad absurdum. The song takes American EDM candy-techno down the gym where Ms Spears invites us to work out so that we can obtain a range of luxury cars and a mansion in France, also informing us she's "the bad bitch" and that we can call her "the bubbler". It's so preposterous only the most stern-faced killjoy or rampant Tory narcissist could take it seriously. The video goes for a Cecil B de Mille S&M extravaganza which sees Britney and her semi-naked, black spandex-clad dance troupe working out on a giant shower tray in the California desert, as well as herself holding forth from a podium in a sci-fi swimming pool circled by sharks. Gimp imagery is rampant and, at one one point, the diva applies the whip. It's provocative, silly, and retrograde. Britney has the face of a cheerleader and the body of an exercise-obsessed Southern good time girl. There is this constant, unsexy, by-numbers focus on "sexiness", yet she has also reached her imperial stage. Blank, unreachable, plain wrong at many levels, yet still fascinating.

“Pretty Girls” (2014)

Those who consider Britney a sappy blond West Coast bubblehead, lacking self-awareness, should watch this one. The song itself, a one-off non-album single with hip hop pop sensation Iggy Azalea, is constructed with the Aussie star’s globe-storming production team, The Invisible Men, and is a stompy, shouty girl power bouncer which channels 1980s electro-R&B of the Cameo/Nu Shooz ilk. It lacks the ballistic verve of Beyoncé’s “Girls (Run the World)” or Little Mix’s “Power”, both similarly themed, but the video makes up for it. Britney turns her back on porn chic for a frothy romp, loosely based around Julien Temple’s kitsch, cult comedy flick Earth Girls Are Easy. Tipping the wink to everything from David Hockney and Zoolander to the “OMG” valley girl stereotype developed by the likes of Reese Witherspoon and Alicia Silverstone, it features a retro cheesecake Britney introducing extra-terrestrial Azalea to a girly Californian good time. It says a lot that Britney stated this was the first video in “a long time” where she came up with the idea. Which, of course, bodes the question of who is making such decisions the rest of the time.

“Make Me…” (2016) Video 1 by David LaChapelle

The song is a cinematic sex-centric, slow-banger, representative of the fare on her ninth album, Glory. The quirk is that it has two videos. There’s the officially sanctioned one by Hollywood photographic heavyweight Randee St Nicholas and the later-leaked one from nouveau pop arty phenomenon David LaChapelle. If ever there was a metaphor for the psychic double bind of Britney-world, it’s the difference between these two vids. The LaChapelle clip was filmed first and was intended to be the only video. It’s both raunchy and lunatic. It starts with Britney dragged away from her young, tattooed, topless male dancer-lover, to be pushed onto a studio set, where she performs an increasingly flesh-centric and orgiastic dance routine. This sequence moves between straight pop vid and cinéma verité at its start and finish. Then Britney and boyfriend leave, driving across the desert in a brand new BMW i8 to a sun-bleached bungalow suburb. Upon reaching their destination, there’s an eviction notice on the door, to Adam and Eve from the “Cherubim Services Division”, on pain of “death by flaming sword” (unpack that, Easter Eggers). Once inside, a high camp gymnast dancer orgy scenario follows, featuring lip balm, a leopard and poured milk. Britney wants her man to make her “oooooh”, to “raise” her “roof”, but instead electrocutes him by throwing a plugged-in flatscreen TV into the pool where he’s swimming. She then dances in a cage, topless but for red glitter paint, a Britney video first, before having sex with guest MC G-Eazy, whose rap-humping we watch from her POV, Finally, she raises her real boyfriend from the dead via mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Then bulldozes the house. It’s all very LaChappelle, pitched somewhere between Jonas Åkerlund and Jeff Koons. Ultimately, viewer response depends on whether we regard the camera ogling down on Britney, topless in the cage, as a statement of third wave female liberation or just the objectifying male gaze. But that debate will run and run. Either way, the video was regarded as too risqué by those who oversee Britney’s affairs, and pulled at the last minute, even though snippets had already been trailed.

“Make Me…” (2016) Video 2 by Randee St Nicholas

Instead Randee St Nicholas shot a new vid that’s less bonkers and more Sex and the City… although it also has a relentless softcore Victoria’s Secret “fashion show” vibe. Britney is with a gaggle of her girl buddies as it begins, and they flirt with a male model. Oddly, Britney seems awkward. Cut to the actual audition where said model will appear and the girls dance incongruously to an advert for a gym on a nearby monitor, then applaud a parade of ab-sculpted hunks, catalogue bears and Magic Mike sorts laying it on thick. The same G-Eazy clip is used as in the LaChapelle vid, but shorn of rutting, and, in the end, Britney takes one of the dancers off for special attention. As things get (a little) steamy, her girls watch on the monitor until it suddenly fuzzes out, much to their frustation, like when Roger Moore’s Bond turns off the camera at the end of Moonraker to stop M and co. seeing his gravity free missionary position workout with Lois Chiles. The curious thing about the Randee St Nicholas vid is that it’s ostensibly less contentious than the LaChapelle one, with girls jovially objectifying male flesh, yet its very politeness renders the endless interspersed shots of Britney in upmarket lingerie, dirty dancing alone in a glam shipping container, all the more disheartening.

Coda

And, aside from the 2016 one-note sex-athon mansion house party vid for “Slumber Party” (featuring Britney licking up milk), that’s been it. At the start of 2019, Britney announced her withdrawal from work, and when a court declined to suspend her father’s conservatorship last November, her attorney, Samuel D Ingham III, explained, “My client has informed me that she is afraid of her father… She will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career.” Two new versions of her ninth album appeared last year, boasting three new songs between them, none of which have had a video, only holding images that heavily feature chains.

Britney starts kicking the living crap out of another blonde woman while squirting multicoloured lazer-ink out of her fingertips

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