NPR’s Ann Powers is out with a new book titled Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music, a history of popular music in the U.S. that deals with how music affects American ideals and social issues such as sex and race. Artists covered range from gospel’s Dorothy Love Coates to Jim Morrison to Britney Spears. The book also boasts a cover designed by Jessi Zazu of Nashville, Tennessee’s Those Darlins. Powers shared an excerpt with TIDAL today.
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In the summer of 1998, music journalists and radio programmers received a back-to-school package from the cyber frontier: an inflatable bubble backpack holding a pot of sparkly silver-and-blue lip gloss, a compact, stickers, and a cassette previewing a hot new fall release. The featured artist was seventeen-year-old Kentwood, Louisiana, native Britney Spears. The photograph accompanying the press release (“From a small town to the big time!”) showed this latest teen-pop contender in down-home denim shorts and a tank top, with a subtle red tint in her hair, wearing just a bit of lip gloss — pink, not blue. Gazing into the camera, she looked natural, not highly processed like the backpack.
Few who received this lagniappe sensed the impact Spears would make within the year. She had come up the traditional way, doing theater (she was an understudy in a play called Ruthless, about a murderously motivated would-be child star) before securing a spot as a tween on Disney’s New Mickey Mouse Club, a revival of the show that launched rock and roll beach babe Annette Funicello back in the 1950s. But Britney was something new: the first American sweetheart of the Internet. Those who popped in that cassette and listened to Spears’s first single, an aggressively catchy electro-pop come-on called “. . . Baby One More Time,” produced by an emerging studio superpower named Max Martin in a hit factory in Sweden, heard a voice equally redolent of girlish vulnerability and super-heroic aggressiveness, perfectly calibrated for a moment when robot dreams were becoming increasingly immediate.
Spears, raised on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the cosmetically obsessed beauty pageant culture of her native South, heralded a new era in which music’s body-bound pleasures would be framed by ethereal tones and mechanized beats produced in fully digitized recording studios. With her gorgeous flesh and tiny voice — its metallic tone perfectly suited for manipulation — Spears presented from the beginning as a hybrid: half shopping mall American, half creature from another planet. Her body, voice, and projected emotions were youthful but washed clean of any adolescent awkwardness. In performance, Spears tapped a sexual maturity that seemed almost perverse in its effective power. Observers weren’t sure what to call her — an “adult teen,” a “baby babe.” In an early profile, the celebrity-oriented People magazine sought the opinion of the popular sex theorist Camille Paglia, who commented, “She is a glorified 1950s high school cheerleader with an undertone of perverse 1990s sexuality . . . Britney is simultaneously wholesome and ripely sensual. She’s Lolita on aerobics.”
That last phrase nicely sums up Spears’s erotic but cold evocation of bodily perfection, achieved through endless exercise routines. Though she dutifully performed vulnerable ballads — an early one was called “E-mail My Heart” — Spears became famous for her more aggressive synthesizer-driven dance hits, which addressed romance as a sometimes violent game. “. . . Baby One More Time” disturbed many feminists because of its possible endorsement of domestic violence: Spears was asking her potential lover to “give me a sign, hit me, baby, one more time.” But as Neil Strauss of the New York Times pointed out, the reference could just as easily be connected to DJ E-Z Rock’s call to “hit it,” pushing the button on the mechanized beat that drives the hip-hop Classic “It Takes Two.” Spears was the beat, her voice as instrumental as a synth-drum. In her breakthrough video she was a dance machine in pigtails, more human than human, to quote the description of android replicants in the prototypical cyberpunk movie Bladerunner.
The business plan made Spears a virtual-reality sensation before she became a physical one: Spears’s label created a World Wide Web page displaying images, videotaped chats, and more musical nuggets. “The response was tremendous, without even having a single in the market,” Jive Records executive Kim Kaiman told Billboard. “Kids were intrigued by Britney.”
Spears’s emergence as a solo star built upon a new style of prefab pop, led by groups like England’s Spice Girls and the harmonizing “boy bands” *NSync and the Backstreet Boys. The Spice Girls, a mid-1990s phenomenon, even had doll names: Sporty, Baby, Ginger, Posh, and Scary. Spears was one shade more accessible: a girl actually born with a name that sounded like it came from a comic book, or a porn movie.