I have this pop-music fantasy where Vlasic pickles signs on to sponsor Britney Spears' upcoming tour. In exchange for bankrolling part of her summer extravaganza, the pickle people get to unfurl a new product called what else? Britney Spears. The deliciously scandalous thing about them, though, would be that they're not "brand new" at all: They look and taste exactly like the Vlasic pickles of old. Which would only be fitting, seeing as how Ms. Spears' new album does sound exactly like her last one.
Oops nothing! This girl knows exactly what she's doing. "... Baby One More Time" sold millions for her, and naturally she's going to do it all over again and sell millions more.
Before you cry rip-off, though, keep in mind that today's teen pop is infinitely more self-conscious than the teen pop of old. (To my knowledge, neither Claudine Clark nor Debbie Gibson ever sang as if holding on to their market share was looming in the mix.) On the remarkable first single, "Oops! ... I Did It Again" (RealAudio excerpt), La Brit hits us, baby, one more time with "... Baby One More Time"; this thing's almost a freakin' remake. But if you take it merely as a tale of how she constantly leads guys on, then you probably can't hear the sarcasm in a line like "But to lose all my sense, that is just so typically me." Oops nothing! This girl knows exactly what she's doing. "... Baby One More Time" sold millions for her, and naturally she's going to do it all over again and sell millions more. As she sings, "I'm not that innocent!" So call it a meta-rip-off and put it in its rightful place alongside such other shrewd, calculating viruses as Mariah Carey's "Heartbreaker" and the Backstreet Boys' "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)."
And girlfriend doesn't stop there. After all, she has no intention of relinquishing her position at the top any time soon. So, first, she's "Stronger" than yesterday; then she tells you "Don't Go Knockin' on My Door"; and finally, in her supreme act of hubris, she takes on yes the classic misogynist rock 'n' roll anthem, the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction (I Can't Get No)." And under them all is that same "... Baby One More Time" formula: tight four-on-the floor drumbeats, bass popping on the one, various orchestral hits and vocalist Spears providing the high end. Devotees of 12-bar blues owe it to themselves to pick apart how thrillingly she imprisons herself in this format.
The only problem is that, like 12-bar blues, this type of formalism can get wearying over a full-length album. With all the imagination of a great blues artist, she varies the rigidity with a sultry Janet Jacksony intro to "Satisfaction" (RealAudio excerpt), a bassline that sounds like it's singing doo-wop on "Lucky," and plenty of choreography-ready stops and starts. Still, clever scheming gives way to depressingly samey-sounding after the halfway mark and she still hasn't figured out how to make her ballads interesting. "Dear Diary" (RealAudio excerpt), for instance, is so undistinguished that it ends the album in a practically inaudible smear of schmaltz. Still, even at their crassest, teen poppers are more outrageous and fun and at the very least, more pleasing to look at than the modest mice of indie-grunge ever are (were?). Britney gets the edge over such divas-in-training as Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson because she sort of combines the best of both worlds: drive and ambition laced with honesty and an admirably modest appraisal of her vocal and musical limitations. And anyone who pulls off such a one-of-a-kind mix deserves her one more time one more time.