A few months back, I was dining in a café in West Hollywood, Calif. where they happened to be playing the video of Britney Spears’ 2004 Onyx Hotel tour on the mounted TV. I found myself riveted and not just because I love watching the little corn-fed sex kitten on camera, which I do — I saw “Crossroads” in the theater. What really threw me for a loop was the way that watching that concert felt like stepping into a bygone era. The show was taped three years ago, but it may as well have been newsreel footage from World War II because so, so much has gone down in Britney’s off-stage life since the Onyx Hotel days. And not only has it gone down, it’s stayed down. And it didn’t look like it was getting up again.
So the fact that we now have a new Britney Spears single to chew on — “Gimme More” — seems nothing short of miraculous, like the face of the Virgin Mary turning up on a Hot Pocket. And what’s more, the song’s pretty good. Not “Toxic” good, mind you — even Grammy voters couldn’t resist that song — but it’s her catchiest offering since then, and that’s good news for Britney fans.
Where “Toxic” had a retro, “Hold on, let me get my go-go boots” vibe, “Gimme More” sounds like now, thanks to producer Danja, a protégé of hit-machine Timbaland. The song features Britney’s usual breathy, come-hither vocals over a grinding beat and electronic beeps that sound like they were sampled from the ’70s video game Pong, which I’m sure we’re all too young to really remember.
Given Britney’s reported work ethic issues of late — blowing off interviews, leaving photo shoots early — it’s hard to listen to “Gimme More,” without wondering how much quality time Danja actually had with the pop star. Her spoken come-on: “I see you and I just wanna dance with you” could literally be a hand-me-down from 2001’s “I’m a Slave 4 U.” And other sonically tweaked spoken interludes, like “I just can’t control myself,” literally sound like they were pulled off someone’s voice-mail. I can imagine Danja posting a panicky bulletin on his MySpace page after Britney bailed a half hour into the recording session: “Does anyone have any Britney Spears voice mails saved? It doesn’t matter what she’s saying. I can work with anything, even something like ‘It’s Britney, bitch’.”
“It’s Britney, bitch,” in case you haven’t yet heard, is Britney’s opening salvo on “Gimme More,” delivered before the song proper even kicks in. I think it’s her way of saying, “I’m back and I’m edgy and I’m dangerous,” but I couldn’t help but think that this must be how Britney starts her phone calls to her mom.
Fortunately, the hook and groove of “Gimme More” are so irresistible, it’s easy to forgive Britney’s vocal shortcomings and just be glad she showed up. Speaking of singing, have you ever seen that footage of Britney on “Star Search”when she was a kid? It’s weird to watch because she used to actually sing, like notes and stuff. She belted that stuff out back in the day, but now she’s all about less is more, which “Gimme More” illustrates beautifully. Leave it to Brit to score a comeback hit that requires her to literally sing one word and one note the entire chorus and still make you want to get up and dance.
Musically, my favorite part of the song is the super groovy pre-chorus where Britney sings, “Cameras are flashing while we’re dirty dancing…. They keep watchin’.” I like that she gives a shout out to “Dirty Dancing” but I’m not nuts about the reference to cameras. Today’s pop tarts, from Lohan to Xtina to Jessica Simpson, all love to sing about the paparazzi. These girls sing about being stalked by cameras almost as often as Cher sang about unwanted pregnancy back in the ’70s (“Three months later I’m a gal in trouble…”), but at least Cher’s fans could relate to that narrative. I worry that the paparazzi obsessions of today’s divas distance them from their fans.
I hope “Gimme More” is a big hit for Brit. The two friends I shared my headphones with could barely keep their body parts still, which is a good sign, especially considering we were in Starbucks at the time. Britney’s ex Justin Timberlake may have brought sexy back, but Britney’s letting it crash on her couch for a while. And the kiddies are nowhere in sight. By the way, is anyone else relieved that she’s singing about being a club girl and not about the joys of motherhood? That would have been insufferable, although I would welcome a hot-to-trot MILF track called “Juice Box.” Hey, Danja, could we make that happen by Nov. 13?
That’s when, God willing, Britney’s supposed to drop her new album. I’m looking forward to hearing it, but more than that, I’m dying to seeing her perform again, on stage or on MTV. I’ve always loved watching Britney more than just listening to her. This girl was born to lip sync. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.
Dennis Hensley is the author of “Misadventures in the (213)” and “Screening Party” and co-hosts the syndicated radio show Twist. www.dennishensley.com