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Industry strength
Britney and Pink sail the hitmaking machine

Pink’s left-field, quintuple-platinum smash Missundaztood (2001, LaFace/Arista) proved that the major-label system — one that, like the Hollywood studio system, utilizes networks of specialists to manufacture hits — could be exploited by a savvy stylist to yield a personal, eclectic album. Which is no small feat for a system that had been built to provide stars like Britney Spears and ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys — young singers with great charisma, whose talents were as performers rather than songwriters — with songs packed with action and melodrama. What was so important about the success of Missundaztood was that it gave her label, and the industry, a blueprint of how to convert its teen-pop dance-music factory into a teenage rock-and-roll machine. Before Pink, Arista was the label of TLC. After Pink, it was the label of Avril Lavigne.

But though the sound of pop had changed, the method remained intact. Avril’s producer/songwriter team, the Matrix, and Pink’s songwriter/producer, Linda Perry, vaulted to the upper echelon of the studio system: Perry subsequently wrote "Beautiful," a smash hit for Christina Aguilera, and the Matrix landed their first #1 hit on the Billboard album charts with Hilary Duff, who like Britney and Justin Timberlake was a refugee from the Disney television empire. The most oft-quoted line from Missundaztood — "Tired of being compared/To damn Britney Spears" — may have became something of a mantra for new girls on the block. But it has also become the unlikely mantra of Britney Spears herself; both the Matrix and Perry were asked to submit songs for Britney’s new In the Zone, a disc that continues the career makeover — more sex, fewer hooks — begun on 2001’s Britney (both Jive). For her part, Pink, emboldened by the success of Missundaztood, went shopping for a new muse: her Try This (LaFace/Arista) has just three songs by Perry, devoting most of its time to a collaboration with an even less likely, and even more heavily tattoo’d, songwriting partner: Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong.

Britney has a veteran in her corner too, and In the Zone will almost surely be remembered as the disc that produced "the Kiss." But what got lost in all the hubbub about that televised smooch, and again in the video that Madonna and Britney did for the disc’s lead single, "Me Against the Music," was how skillfully Madonna had manipulated her counterpart. You have to admire the older star for finding a way, after her own new album stiffed, to upstage a couple of girls half her age. In the MTV sketch that led to the kiss, top-hatted Madge takes Britney and Christina to the chapel and makes ’em her bitches; in the video for "Me Against the Music," Madonna takes on the role of Britney’s pimp — has anyone wielded a cane with such panache since Biggie? — and proves that soccer moms can exploit nubile young women just as pointedly as any of the black men who take all the shit for it.

Of course, Madonna could probably get away with declaring that that was exactly her point. Which brings us to the big difference between Madonna and Britney: one is always pulling the strings, whereas the other’s hits — from . . . Baby One More Time’s "Born To Make You Happy" to Britney’s "I’m a Slave 4 U" to "Me Against the Music" — have made a show of her strings being pulled. Which brings us to the quality that unites them: both denounce their audience as complicit in their illusions. For Madonna, that means we’re all voyeurs; for Britney, it means we’re the enablers of the machine that transforms her into a mere accessory of our desire.

Before the production duo RedZone brought Britney "Me Against the Music," they pitched her on a tune called "Pop Culture Whore," which she rejected: she was looking not for an ironic acknowledgment of her status as a product — that’s something Madonna would do — but for a song that dramatizes her struggle to define herself apart from her image. You can argue that Britney is a vacuum, but that’s like flagging David Foster Wallace for excessive footnoting. Britney’s the queen of empty; she does empty-and-shackled the way Madonna does content-and-control. It’s her special art, and if she ever developed views or something, I’d sure miss all that vast twinkling space behind her eyes.

The most telling detail about the list of songwriters and producers for In the Zone might be the guy who’s not on it: Max Martin, the Swedish svengali who’s masterminded some of Britney’s biggest hits. In his stead, there’s a new batch of Swedes on board: the production/songwriting team Bloodshy and Avant, previously heard on tracks by Vitamin C, Christina Milian, and Ms. Dynamite. They’re responsible for the album’s funniest couplet — if "I don’t really wanna be a tease/Would you undo my zipper please?" hadn’t worked for Britney, they probably could’ve handed it to the Donnas. And their "Toxic" is the disc’s most exciting track: Bollywood violins screech around corners at 90 miles an hour, slippery pitch-shifted vocals disappear down side streets, and baritone spy-theme guitars rumble in the alley. It’s a car chase of a song, sleek and reckless, the sound of a girl intoxicated by her own minor transgressions.

The songs on In the Zone find Britney getting drunk, hooking up with anonymous Joes, passing out on the couch, waking up alone and masturbating, calling up her ex and offering a weepy apology. (In fact, there were two masturbation songs submitted: "Touch of My Hand," which made the disc, and Linda Perry’s "Girls and Boys," which didn’t.) In other words, it’s Britney being Britney, which turns out to be fairly boring. Back on one of his best songs, the chilling, hyper-misogynist ballad "A Woman’s Threat," R. Kelly rattled off a long list of the things that make a man a man (from "my shakin’, my stress, my pain" to "my kitchen, my sink, my towels"). On "Outrageous," the Neptunes-ish two-note vamp he penned for In the Zone, the list bottoms out after "my sex drive" and "my shopping spree."

Advance billing for the album suggested it would be a trancy meditation in the vein of Madonna’s comeback album Ray of Light (Maverick), but those reports were greatly exaggerated — the closest it gets is Moby’s chillout break "Early Mornin’," which finds the singer on some Sunday morning coming down, waking up yawning in the clubby dawn, still drunk from the night before, ready to go again. Britney might have followed that vibe for the length of the disc, skirting the perimeter where hangover and twilight meet, but instead she bops from club to club, drifting from dancehall ("The Hook Up") to dirty-South hip-hop ("I Got That Boom Boom," with gravelly shouters the Yin Yang Twins) without ever finding her groove. The Matrix’s contribution, "Shadow," is an uncharacteristically traditional pop ballad that probably would’ve sounded better with loud guitars. So it’s left to a couple of unknown session cats (Brian Kierulf and Josh Schwartz) to provide the disc’s brightest, most ebullient tune, "Brave New Girl" — a punchy synth-driven ’80s new-wave anthem on which Britney’s Deborah Harry–like rap bleeds into an irresistibly bubbly Europop chorus. Its "Brave new girl/Coming out tonight" declares that she "needs to really, really find what she wants." The kicker is that when she finds what she wants, it sounds an awful lot like the carefree pop world that Britney used to rule before she felt compelled to grow up.

PINK SEEMS TO BRING OUT the best in her songwriters, and she’s had the courage to follow her muses wherever they lead her. Try This is a muscular, sinewy rock album, rougher around the edges than anything you’d find on say, a Blink-182 disc, and it’s light years away from the intense soul searching of Missundaztood. And once you adjust to the lowered emotional stakes, it’s a hell of a ride. Her chauffeur, Tim Armstrong, ought to qualify for some kind of special Grammy for screw-up-with-portfolio: in the past 13 months, he’s scored a minor hit with his hip-hop/punk side project, the Transplants (who showed up backing Pink at a radio festival last summer), and delivered one of Rancid’s most radio-friendly albums, Indestructible. And on Try This, he makes his first foray into pop songwriting and production with nine of the disc’s 14 songs.

The first single, "Trouble," proves that Armstrong knows a hook when he hears one: the song nicks its title from Elvis, its verses from Social Distortion’s "Ball and Chain," its chorus from Nirvana’s cover of the Vaselines’ "Molly’s Lips," and its coda from Billy Idol’s cover of Tommy James & the Shondells’ "Mony Mony." There’s an even better mash-up on "Tonight’s the Night," where Lou Reed’s "Walk on the Wild Side" meets Jean Knight’s brassy Stax classic "Mr. Big Stuff." And "Humble Neighborhoods" marries the ominous melody from Pink Floyd’s "Another Brick in the Wall" to the Sex Pistols’ "Bodies."

Most of the songs have Rancid’s identifiable three-chords-and-an-attitude simplicity, though they’re buoyed by dance-friendly rhythm sections, and Pink’s tough-girl delivery lights them with an aura of gospelly soul power. But the fate of "Trouble" highlighted the commercial limitations of this collaboration: it’s too heavy for pop stations, rock stations gave it the cold shoulder, and it stalled outside the Top 10. The disc’s new single, "God Is a DJ," returns to the sturdy, rock/dance crossover of "Get the Party Started." It’s got Queen harmonies plus a nasty bass lick that’s one note away from Michael Jackson’s "Bad," and its club-hippie spirituality ("If God is a DJ/Life is a dance floor/Love is a rhythm/You are the music") sounds exactly like what Arista was hoping Linda Perry would bring to the follow-up.

As it happens, she didn’t: "God Is a DJ" comes from old-school session hand Billy Mann, whose other current songwriting credits are on albums by Newlyweds Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. Perry’s best contribution, "Try Too Hard," is the disc’s hardest-rocker, with scorching guitars that sound like Appetite-era GNR covering Social Distortion’s "Dear Lover." In a year that’s seen the blurring of the lines between pop and rock — when the Matrix are writing for Liz Phair and Hilary Duff, when Perry’s teamed with Courtney Love and Britney Spears — Pink still knows what she wants, and she knows how to get it.


Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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