Britney Spears' "Hold It Against Me" Overanalyzed

by Phil Freeman

Despite not liking Britney Spears’ album covers, I like her new video quite a bit. Yes, I hate the lyrics just as much as you do. The joke chorus is awful, and the verses are a string of clichés. But at least they’re not “I’m rich and in the club” clichés, like pretty much every other pop song released in the last three years. And anyway, the music is good enough. It’s a nice little trance-techno track that, released as an instrumental, would make people who like to go out and dance (not me) very happy indeed.

But I want to talk about the video, because there are a few dark and tantalizing things to talk about in there.

First (after the pointless meteor-striking-the-earth opening, which just seems like director Jonas Åkerlund jacking up the budget, and the “setup” shots, where she stands there like a wax dummy as the dancers assemble and the lights are set up, etc.) there’s the opening dance sequence, which is cut at epilepsy-inducing speed to camouflage the fact that Britney can’t really dance anymore. Watch it slowly, and you’ll see that she basically does one thing each time the camera’s on her. She’ll lift her arms over her head. Or cock her hip. Or turn her head to the right and look at one of the backup dancers who are whirling and thrusting around her. But more than one movement per one-second burst of digital video is beyond her capacity.

Britney seems to really be in her comfort zone when she’s in what I choose to call the “pedestal dress,” standing surrounded by a zillion video monitors, each showing one of her old videos. It’s like she lives in a private, self-sealing universe, forever haunted by her own past. (Aren’t we all? Each of us is forever confronted by images and memories of a younger self — sometimes these are happy memories, and other times they’re horrible, awkward things you did and said when you were a teenager that can still rocket you out of sleep, coated in sweat, even though you haven’t seen those people in a decade or more and they probably don’t even remember the thing that still stabs you in the brain. Oh, but YOU REMEMBER. See, Britney is just like us.)

The introduction of Space-Mutant Britney (her eyes have two irises! She has black glittery nail-claws! She lives in a porthole made of microphones, as though Britney Spears is someone from whom journalists clamor for quotes!) sends us right into the realm of J-pop. In fact, both this bit and the pedestal dress remind me of costumes Ayumi Hamasaki, the queen of J-pop, would wear.

Within the pedestal/monitor chamber of horrors, there are blind dancers. Have they blinded themselves to avoid having to stare at a million Britneys, endlessly? I don’t know, so let’s skip straight to the Britney-on-Britney fight scene, and the way it causes pedestal-dress Britney to collapse in a heap after spraying multicolored paint from her fingertips. What does this symbolize? Neither battling Britney seems particularly identified with an earlier phase in her career — it’s not Schoolgirl Britney vs. Toxic Britney or anything like that — so this whole bit is inexplicable.

But it could be seen as the inevitable result of staring at your own refracted image for a million years (or however long Britney has been trapped on that pedestal, surrounded by monitors) — eventually former aspects of yourself will attempt to seize control of your mind, and battle for dominance. It’s happened in a zillion sci-fi movies, and probably at least once in real life.

Finally, post-battle, post-collapse, we get yet another Britney, wearing some kind of pleather minidress and “dancing” (again, super quick cuts to camouflage her general lack of affect and atrophied skills) on a flame-shooting “rock concert”-style stage. Is this her fully actualized self? The winning persona coming to full life? If so, that gives the video an element of real tragedy. All that psychic struggle — Britney’s personalities beating the hell out of each other within her mind, as she stares into a soul-crushing vista of endless Britney-ness — and this is the result? This video makes me feel more sorry for her than any TMZ footage ever could.

Phil Freeman is the editor of Burning Ambulance and a freelance writer for the Village Voice and lots of other places. He will harangue you at great length about the superiority of Japanese pop if you let him.