n+1 presents One More Time: The Britney Symposium

Posted by @ 8:55 pm on February 8th, 2009

Britney Spears’ “… Baby One More Time” reached #1 on the charts on January 30, 1999 – ten years ago this week. [NOTE: NOW A WEEK AGO; OH WELL  -JT] After her came the deluge: the end of the record industry as we know it, yes, but also the end of America as it used to conceive of itself. Five writers mark the decennial of this debatably historic occasion.

I’m not sure if anyone’s irony-sensors have triggered alarm bells already, but if they are, you should manually disable the system and give this thing a fair shot. (Also, when you have a minute, do yourself a favor and look up the definition of the word irony.) Like everything n+1 produces, the Britney Symposium is erudite, funny, and concerned–for better or worse–with an absolutely earnest engagement with the world. 

Nick Sylvester’s “Faster, More Trumpet”: an anecdote about being the horn player in a local band, and playing the then-brand new hit by request at a Bar Mitzvah. >>Toward the end of what you believe to be a perfectly executed swing medley, two girls about your age approach the band leader, and kindly request that the band play “Baby One More Time.” It is a new pop song by the American recording artist Britney Spears, they explain.<<

Christine Smallwood’s “Britney Republic”: >>Britney and I were born the same year. She’s my starlet. And her singular achievement was that she, a child, managed to sell child porn to other children.<< (BTW, if you don’t know Smallwood or her work, you should. Among other things, she writes a Q&A column for The Nation online called Back Talk, which has featured Kelly Link, Billy Bragg, and Nicholson Baker, just to name three of my own favorites. She also co-edits/ed a rad little print journal called The Crier, which may or may not still exist.)

Emily Gould advances a thesis I find highly compelling, that Britney makes >>music that sounds like it was made by a person who has never heard any other music before.<< To help solve this now decade-old problem, she offers “After The Glitter Fades: A Mix-Tape” of  powerful songs by female artists such as “Anti-pleasure Dissertation” by Bikini Kill, “Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez, and “Violet” by Hole.  >>”I told you from the start just how this would end. They get what they want and they never want it again.” If only Courtney Love had actually told Britney that in 1998. It wouldn’t have made a difference, but can you imagine the conversation? <<

Wesley Yang’s “Inside the Box” is my favorite of the lot, in part because it comes the closest to describing my own experience of the Britney Decade, and reveals aspects of that experience to me in ways I don’t think I understood (or at least did not articulate) on my own. Also, the prose is incredible. >>I would drive down a peculiar strip of Route 18 that looked like one of those long tracking shots that filmmakers rely on to establish a mise-en-scene of anonymity and cheapness—those garish colors attenuated by years of grime, those ghostly commercial icons suspended on massive pedestals projecting into the sky, and all those tons of polished metal darting around the off-ramps bearing their vulnerable human cargo. You grew accustomed to risking death at the jug-handled turn ramps that were unique to New Jersey highways. It felt like the end of the world.<< 

Last but emphatically not least, Carlene Bauer’s “A Hot Dog Wearing Versace” offers the kind of take-no-prisoners, concede-no-ground, the-author-doesn’t-give-a-shit-if-you-think-she’s-hip-or-not cultural criticism that I’ve come to expect from n+1, and always treasure when they provide it.  >>I resist the interpretation of Britney as a Site of Resistance. I resist the interpretation of her as something worthwhile because she is something mass, or something female. I resist the interpretation of her as a guilty pleasure. There is no pleasure, and nothing playful here. Even as she relentlessly feels herself up, she is still an innocent, a deeply uninteresting innocent, because she has no real compelling idea about where to put herself or who to give herself to when she’s naked.<<

n+1 are pretty much the only publication I know of that makes space for this kind of writing in their pages with regularity–as a matter of policy, I don’t doubt, and probably as a fundamental part of their raison d’etre. It is this, more than any other single thing that n+1 does or publishes, that makes them vitally important and consistently worth paying attention to. Hell, let’s have another chunk of Bauer. Play us out, Carlene-

Why do critics claim to get pleasure from Britney, or even pay attention to her? It’s not like she needs their votes to win. Isn’t that whatTRL was for? It seems that in the ten years Britney’s been around much music writing has given up on being critical. It stalls at the level of knowing distinction. Writers may make it clear they know their buttons are being pushed, or that the next big thing is cleverly reclaiming what was once dismissed—but they hardly ever argue their subjects into a new key. Are they afraid of sounding like Greil Marcus? Or Alex Ross on Radiohead? By which I mean like someone from the sixties, bearing down on ephemera with a scholarly earnestness and devotion. Like someone who knows more than most people, or loves more than most people. Did her materialization, not too long after Nirvana, stun them into cynicism?

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