The first words Britney Spears spoke when she took the stage on her last tour were, “I was born to make you happy. Satisfaction guaranteed.” Not content to just grace the stage, the latest issue of US Vogue features Britney splayed out on the cover with the caption, “Britney Spears: Madonna’s Heir Apparent.”

Does anyone else see the discrepancy between these two statements? Am I the only one who is absolutely horrified at the thought of Britney sticking around for 20 years and being compared to Madonna?




Upon seeing the Vogue cover a friend of mine delivered a very succinct lecture on the lack of artistry in big name artists. Britney’s just a puppet used to sell clothes to unsuspecting 10-year-olds, and frankly, she’s not even that pretty, she concluded. Nonetheless, Spears is still important, if only because we all pay attention to her.

All right, so we can’t help it. She’s been on the cover of virtually every mainstream magazine. She’s constantly on all the pop stations, as well as MuchMusic and MTV. Still, I refuse to believe that we are all mindless bricks in the wall who consume anything the all-knowing (male) gods of the media mete out.

Ever since pop music became visual, ever since record covers began sporting pictures of the singers, pop music has been intrinsically linked with sex. It’s not a hard equation. The record companies want money and sex sells.

Britney is a record executive’s dream; Madonna less so. Sure, she’s willing to do a lot of things other women won’t, but she looks right back at you. She insists on taking the power.

Of course Britney is appealing. She’s hot. She wears sparkly clothes. Occasionally she sings. She sells millions of records, concert tickets, videos, books, t-shirts, key chains, lunchboxes, Pepsis, and who knows what else. But that’s pretty much where the similarities between Britney and Madonna end.

For the record, I’m not a die-hard Madonna fan, although I respect her. She gets slammed for reinventing herself every couple of years, but that’s what I love about her. While Britney is always just Britney, Madonna is whoever she wants to be. She fought for women’s right to enjoy sex, to sleep around. She had hot black men dance in her videos, dominated them and was dominated. She hung out with gay people very openly. She said, in her film Truth or Dare, “I have a dick in my brain”.

Madonna, throughout her career, has appeared open, honest, truly herself, in her interviews. She simulated sex on stage—how can you be any less guarded than that? Her fearlessness also manifests itself, crucially, in a myriad of different identities and stage personas. This in itself is a louder statement than any crotch-grabbing, bottle-sucking stunt she could pull.

I grew up understanding that everyone enjoys sex—that is to say, that both men and women. Never did it occur to me that at some point in the hazy past women were taught that sex wasn’t fun for them; that it was their duty to stop the man from having sex with her. Madonna had something to do with that shift. There she was on television and she’s having an orgasm in a church with burning crosses in the background. Madonna contributed to the movement for women to reclaim their own sexual power

Part of Madonna’s greatness sprung from the cultural context in which she performed. She was performing at a time when women didn’t have orgasms on television, when they were figuring out that careers and babies are hard to juggle, when they weren’t sure whether to wear pants or skirts to the office, when virtually all the performers in mainstream rock and pop were men.

Britney doesn’t comment on the politics of the day, loves her mama, dates the cute one from N’Sync, and is a virgin. Some people have admired her for making it okay again to be a virgin, but I don’t know where these people are coming from. Since when was it not okay to be a virgin? Part of empowering yourself sexually, as Madonna encouraged, is deciding for yourself if you want to have sex or not.

Britney’s newest video has her surrounded by a gaggle of people, both men and women, while she pants and throws her head back. It’s shocking, yes, but not because a woman’s enjoying herself, but because it’s Britney.

For some reason, we want to think of her as a sweet innocent little girl. She’s never been innocent. She’s been flaunting it from day one.

Yet we cling to the sweet image.

When Britney looks back at you in the video for “Hit Me Baby…” she needs your help, she needs your comfort, she needs your love. She’s wearing a plaid skirt and pigtails. The chorus includes the line “my loneliness is killing me.”

The first single from her second album, Stronger, counters this: “my loneliness ain’t killin’ me no more.” Nevertheless, in the video (now she’s wearing skin-tight black outfit, her shirt a little open at the top and a little open at the bottom, and her hair cascades in waves down her back) she still looks at the camera pleadingly, and after a complicated dance on top of a folding chair, she ends up under it, sprawled out, surrendering.

When Madonna looks back at you in any of her videos, she’s watching you as much as you’re watching her. There’s no shame there.

She understands the pleasure the voyeur can get just by looking. That’s why she looks back. That’s why I love her.

No matter what either of them does, it’s news. Britney swore once, backstage at a concert, and it made the papers. But she doesn’t seem to be using her power for a great deal. Obviously she has the Britney Spears Foundation, which does something-or-other for needy children, but it’s no more and no less than any other celebrity with too much money and in need of good publicity does.

But Britney will not leave the indelible impression Madonna has made on the culture because she isn’t fighting for anything or against anything very big.

Madonna was good for the culture. Britney isn’t. So, I’m sending out a plea to you nutcases at the big mainstream magazines to please stop trying to elevate Britney to Madonna’s level. It’s not going to happen. Sure, millions of kids adore her, but you know what?

Millions of kids adored the New Kids on the Block, too. You need more than adulation for staying power and cultural relevancy.

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