Britney Spears and Madonna have made an intergenerational mutual assistance pact, sealed with a very public kiss at the MTV Video Awards this summer, and made tangible through Madonna’s vocal appearance on Britney’s current single, “Me Against the Music.”
For her part Madonna has dubbed 22-year-old Britney her worthy successor from among the variety pack of pop-tarts, while Britney conveys upon Madonna, 45, the admiration and respect of a new generation, revalidating the former Material Girl’s relevance as middle age casts a lengthening shadow across her ray of light.
Despite her youth, Britney’s fourth album, “In the Zone,” has about it the nervous atmosphere of a must-win game. As Spears has expressed her maturation with increasingly sexualized sights and sounds, thrusting herself ever more brazenly into the collective eye and ear, obliging the voracious media machinery with increasing skin and sin, she has locked herself out of her former home in the teen-pop market and has yet to prove that her music has as much appeal as her svelte midriff among adults.
The former Mouseketeer’s album sales have trended down since her 1999 debut, “... Baby One More Time,” sold a spectacular 10 million copies. 2000’s “Oops! ... I Did It Again,” and 2001’s “Britney” sold 9.1 million and 4.2 million copies, respectively, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and while no one can complain about such gaudy numbers and Britney’s sales decline has coincided with an overall industry downward trend, this is a critical juncture for all involved.
Spears’ label, Jive, recognizes this and has beaten the media bushes with all its might. “We’ve left no stone unturned,” label president Barry Weiss told Billboard. “We have tons and tons of media on a worldwide basis going into the album, and we’re exhausting every area that we can — print and electronic media, TV, radio, video — to make sure that people know this album is coming.”
With Spears popping up and out everywhere to promote it, if “In the Zone” doesn’t hit the fault will lie squarely with the music, and that could undermine her status as a media figure. The public is content to have singers become entertainment icons — Cher, Madonna, Courtney Love and Beyonce are examples — but it typically rejects those who overreach and grasp for a level of celebrity not “justified” by the quality and popularity of their music. Hype is fine, but without substance behind it, the hype itself becomes the issue and contravenes the show-biz homily that nothing succeeds like excess.
Britney and Madonna
So back to Britney and Madonna — they are partners now, strategic allies, but in a way this is all gravy for Madonna, her mark is made, her place in the popular culture pantheon secure. She has commanded our cultural center stage for 20 years now, an avatar of contemporary womanhood mutating over time from ebullient physicality to transgressive hyper-sexuality, to maternal spirituality, to a kind of fuzzy composite of the three.
Though blessed with great natural talent in nothing other than self-promotion, Madonna has nonetheless guided her own remarkably sure path through a wide range of popular dance music styles including disco (“Holiday,” “Lucky Star,” “Into the Groove”), new wave (“Material Girl,” “Like a Virgin”), Latin (“La Isla Bonita”), soul (“Express Yourself”), girl-pop (“Cherish”), house (“Vogue”), hip-hop (“Justify My Love,” “Erotica”), and electronica (“Ray of Light,” “Music”), finding and conveying the resonant sweet spot of each.
Since Madonna and Britney identify with each other, have similar natural gifts and musical styles, and appear together on Britney’s new album, how do they actually compare as artists at similar points in their careers?
Britney is 22 as her fourth album comes out, her first as a full adult. Madonna was already 25 when her exceptional self-titled debut was released in 1983, which went on to sell over 4 million copies. Her second was the career-making “Like a Virgin,” which sold over 9 million, and her third the equally fine “True Blue,” which did over 7 million. Their composite sales figures after three albums are remarkably similar, with Britney holding a slight edge at over 23 million while Madonna generated over 21 million. Perhaps they met at the bank.
While Britney holds the slight edge in sales, few would argue that Madonna didn’t accomplish more artistically and culturally with her first three albums, which helped establish her as the most important and iconic female performer of her time, challenging and largely defeating musical, sexual, religious, racial and personal style stereotypes, literally making the world a different place.
Madonna was 30 when her fourth studio album, “Like a Prayer,” largely co-written and produced by Patrick Leonard (who also contributed to “True Blue”), sprung upon the world in the spring of 1989. While age and cultural differences make a direct comparison unfair — Britney is operating in a pop environment Madonna largely made possible - a comparison is interesting nonetheless.
“Like a Prayer” generated five Top 20 hits, two that reached No. 2 — “Express Yourself” and Cherish” — and the title track that spent three weeks at No. 1. The song “Like a Prayer,” blessed with Madonna’s most angelic vocal, daringly combines spiritual and sexual imagery, and infused with pure gospel beauty, charges between lilting verses and the powerful sing-along chorus. “Express Yourself” is a rousing slab of soulful female positivity with Madonna and a full choir of sisters exhorting each other to “Don’t go for second best baby/Put your love to the test” — another standard. “Cherish” is finger-snapping irrepressible joy, with another high, clear vocal, making the term “small voice” seem a virtue — pretty great.
And how do the three best songs on young Britney’s “In the Zone” stack up? As icon-builders, not all that well, they don’t say very much; but as pure songs, stripped of all extra-musical baggage, they’re very good indeed. “Me Against the Music” — which has Madonna tagging along, mumbling “and me” every time Britney says “just me” — is just another dance-floor-as-expressive-heaven tune, but it rocks with an edgy, percussive acoustic guitar vamp that neatly balances producer C. “Tricky” Stewart’s jittery electronic rhythms, and by the time the multi-voiced chorus calls all the peeps out to the sweaty dance zone, the baton has been passed and it doesn’t look so odd in Britney’s manicured hand.
“Toxic” finds Britney and her pouty lips back in Sweden, the birthplace of her early hits, recording with Bloodshy and Avant, with the virtues of another firm acoustic rhythm guitar foundation, a great spy-guitar line in the chorus, a swirl of “Bollywood”-type strings, and a crisp backbeat in a spunky, tuneful number aimed at a certain someone: “I’m addicted to you/But you’re toxic.” Could it be … Justin? Regardless of its target, the song — with a strong, throaty vocal — is itself powerfully addicting, and could end up the album’s biggest hit.
On the opposite end of the vocal spectrum, “Brave New Girl” has a charming new wave, retro-electronic feel, with heavily processed vocals, and a very strong chorus. I love it, and while it may be too breezy for radio these days, it would have fit in very nicely on an album by, say, Madonna, back in the ’80s.
Nice job Britney, Madonna still has great taste.
Eric Olsen is the editor of Blogcritics.org and a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com.