Each Generation Has Found They Have Got Their Own Kind of Sound
by Daniel D’Addario
Rumors have circulated that Madonna, recording artist, will sing with M.I.A. at the Super Bowl. Nicki Minaj is also implicated. Both artists have had success, but can either bring back the monoculture? Leaving the fleeting sensation of a Lynn Hirschberg truffle-fry ambush aside, if M.I.A. were interviewed by Barbara Walters, who would care? Neither M.I.A., a self-consciously “edgy” singer of extraordinary gifts of curation, nor Nicki Minaj, a self-consciously outré rapper of extraordinary gifts full-stop, have cultivated personae beyond “hardworking,” “talented,” and (in M.I.A.’s case) “prone to ignorable political pronouncements.” It’ll be a good show, but no one should expect an iconic moment on par with Madonna heaving in a wedding gown or re-enacting Versailles to the tune of “Vogue.” Having marketable personality upon which to hang a moment is, now, left to those “famous-for-being-famous.”
Madonna’s last great moment, ever, of being famous-for-being-a-famous-singer (a category no longer in existence) was in 2003. Her performance at the VMAs ended with shared kisses with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, a performance viewed then as the bestowing of the Queen of Pop crown upon the two leading princesses and most easily viewed now as the dying gasp of the monoculture. Madonna’s Super Bowl gig feels rather like charity and she no longer has the pull to recruit whatever 2012’s pop princess manqués might truly be (Adele and Taylor Swift? Beyoncé and child? Lady Gaga and a Lady Gaga impersonator?); Christina Aguilera is a tippling, toppling reality-TV Miss Havisham; Britney resurfaced this year for a zombified album and a guest spot on a single by Rihanna, which even Rihanna’s devoted fans, resilient as they are, can view as a comedown. The road from the early 2000s to the early 2010s, from ménage to Minaj, has treated none of the once world-beating trio well.
And yet none of the three have been quite as ill-served by the passage of time as Spears, whose 2006–2008 mental breakdown yielded a work of art (the album “Blackout”) beloved by those in the know; it was the only of her albums not to have reached number one in the U.S.
Said breakdown also marked the definitive end of an era in which stars could create controversy at least in part for works of art that one could name (Madonna for “Like a Prayer” and others, Aguilera for “Dirrty,” Spears for “…Baby One More Time” and others.). Once Britney was photographed in on a late-night car ride to nowhere with Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, the jig was up.
This year, Katy Perry went to number-one with a song (“E.T.,” featuring Kanye West) that was a rather racist allegory for interracial sex, and no one cared a whit. Even if one is generous, the only iconic-seeming moment of the 2010s in live pop music was Nicole Kidman singing along to a Perry song at this year’s Grammys, if only because that’s the only time a person over 14, not paid to do so, was unabashedly and without academic explanation seen to care about pop music.
In the high-decadent period of pop fame, Britney Spears was a master of executing, or having executed around her, spectacles of near-unbearable voltage. Of all of her works of art, none stands out quite so much as her work for Pepsi in 2001, resulting in ads that aired during the Super Bowl and Academy Awards. The Super Bowl ad, airing first and the more dramaturgically complex, depicts Britney Spears as the eternal pop star, traveling through eras as each moment’s most transgressive figure: dancing in her Doris Day bob at a soda counter, in a regrettable “American Bandstand” setup and a truly loathsome hippie tableau. The Robert Palmer parody is pretty good, though the fact that Britney didn’t re-enact a Madonna video to represent “the eighties” feels like negligence or revenge. As our human DeLorean whizzes back to the present day, her voice, disembodied, says “Turn me up,” as though her voice was that which made her a figure of note; she then, in the “present day,” or “future,” does a dance breakdown outside a Pepsi… Thunderdome?… that is impressive for its sheer persistence. Quick cuts reveal that each era’s Britney danced in the same way, with lots of jerky arm movements. Britney was here in the era of the dinosaurs, and so, too, the commercial implied, would she be here forever, an unsinging pair of dancing arms and a voice manipulated independent of her body.
The second ad, itself a two-parter that aired during the Academy Awards at which Julia Roberts won Best Actress, goes tangent to this theme. Sure, Britney was presaged by Sandra Dee/Robert Palmer girls/other stars like her (who are less canny about or less culturally sanctioned in the act of showing their midriffs between Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing). But the previous song’s freighted lyrics, “Each generation has found/ they’ve got their own kind of sound” here seem prophetic; they signal that Britney is the queen of but a moment. This time, the camera pans down a Pepsi factory whose “Pepsi-Cola” logo is the only retro thing in play. The dance moves (backup dancers leap out of Pepsi trucks), the syncopated boilerplate of the lyrics (“My heart / Won’t skip / A beat / I ne- / ver look / Before / I leap”) are pure 2001.
So too is the innocent, or obvious, assumption that the world was watching Ms. Spears. At various points, the dancers’ moves are intercut with doctors in scrubs watching her on TV blankly (shouldn’t they be in surgery?, Pepsi wants us to think, then chuckle, then stop thinking), old men putting on oxygen masks in response to the latest arm-jerk, a short-order cook letting his restaurant burn while dreaming of sweet, sweet… Pepsi. There are many closeups of Britney’s unblinking eyes, which she must have known were meeting the gaze of the nation of heavy-breathers this ad depicts. At the commercial’s end, no less a distinguished personage than Bob Dole mutters “Easy, boy” to his dog, or appendage, as Britney’s song grinds away. Everyone in the world paid attention to Britney within the diegesis this commercial, and so too in the world outside it. The Pepsi ad occasioned a People article about the Cola Wars’ latest staging-ground — Christina Aguilera had a contract with Coca-Cola. But at commercial’s end, after the former Senate Majority Leader has declared his allegiance and Britney has applauded herself with a barely-swallowed smirk, it’s hard not to feel like she’d won the moment, without knowing that the moment was near its end.
This was the high decadent phase of the monoculture, a period in which a pop star could have built around her by omniscient forces a soda ad proclaiming both that she was the vessel for every pop star that had ever been and that she was the most au courant figure in the world today, and, if not entirely ratifying the notion, one of the most powerful politicians in the nation would at least concede he got a boner. Britney’s 2001 went on to include, quite memorably, dancing with a snake at the Video Music Awards on September 6th. (This was the awards ceremony at which Aguilera shared the Video of the Year trophy for “Lady Marmalade.”) This year, Nicki Minaj wore a chicken wing around her neck to a concert in Las Vegas, and in a market glutted with sensation-chasing talent, it became clear that while she’s exponentially more talented than Britney Spears at making music, her times do not allow her to be as talented at iconography. Personalities and artists have cleaved.
In 2007, Britney Spears proposed, via online letter to her fans emblazoned with an image of her wearing only a wig and gloves , a number of possible album titles for what became “Blackout.” They included “What If the Joke is On You” (sigh), “OMG Is Lindsay Lohan Like Okay Like” (Spears’s sudden decision, perhaps, to distance herself from personalities through a mean-girl pity-troll — the last three words’ first letters spell out “L.O.L.”), and “Down Boy.” If the latter was a reference to Bob Dole (and all of the titles, including the tragic and tragicker “Integrity” and “Dignity,” seem oblique jibes at a culture that Britney Spears had chosen to abandon and thereby had ended), it made less impact. The venues had become smaller and sadder, the image-making so desperate and signifying so little. Britney Spears crossed everyone’s radar, then, in the diffuse way things came to apparate into the news, but no one was watching that closely anymore.
Daniel D’Addario writes about culture for the New York Observer.