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Friday, March 25, 2011

Agents Of Pop: “Of What Is Past, Or Passing, Or To Come”

By Laurence Ross

Britney’s first single, “Hold It Against Me,” off of her upcoming album Femme Fatale, initially seems to be yet another song about Britney trying to seduce yet another insipid guy. “If I said I want your body now, would you hold it against me?” The lyric is so tired, so banal, that Britney is actually being sued for copyright infringement over its use (the “original” song in question produced over thirty years ago). But place those lyrics of Britney lusting on the dance floor within the context of Åkerlund’s video, and suddenly a song that I originally appreciated solely for its expected danceablity transforms under a much more complex concept.

Jonas Åkerlund, who directed the video for Britney’s “Hold It Against Me,” also directed Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” and, more recently, “Telephone.” While there are certainly similarities in Åkerlund’s latest representations of the two women, ultimately the videos for “Hold It Against Me” and “Telephone” take two prominent pop stars – and their respective songs about being in the club – and produce two widely divergent personal statements.

In the “Hold It Against Me” video, the perspective of the camera is pulled back so that the viewer can see the many spotlights Britney stands beneath. While Lady Gaga relishes in the spotlight of the camera regardless of the holder (see her indulgent performance as she poses and reposes for her mug shot at the end of the “Paparazzi” video, Åkerlund’s first Gaga production), Britney has felt trapped by this very same paparazzi. For a long time. A very long time. I’ve lost count of the songs she has sung about being tracked down and sought after (“Piece of Me”), the constant presence of the media’s circus (“Circus”), and putting on a face for the camera (“If U Seek Amy Tonight”) – all sung by Britney in anger at the constant media charade, which Lady Gaga, conversely, utilizes as a medium to construct her (many) identity(ies).

The opening scenes of “Hold It Against Me” focus on the body, as Britney and her menagerie of half-naked backup dancers clad in colorful briefs prepare for a photo shoot. The product to be advertised? Britney herself – her scent, bottled for all (which she sprays on herself, raising the question: Is Ahab, Ahab? Is Britney, Britney?). Think of this bottled scent as a type of DNA preservation, similar to a deposit at a sperm bank or freezing one’s eggs when the end of one’s youth is near; for Britney, the end certainly seems near (see the video’s opening sequence: the apocalyptic meteor that crash-lands on Earth).

This is a Britney more than a decade older than the Britney of Baby, One More Time. In short, Britney is aging. She has had two children, and look, Britney’s waist is wrapped in bullets, waging metaphoric warfare against her own body. Internet comments abound about how Britney’s dancing in this video is nothing compared to “the old Britney,” the Britney of Oops!… I Did It Again. But Åkerlund seems to emphasize not Britney’s lack of skill, but Britney’s lack of agency in the video’s initial dance sequences. Her arms are manipulated into motion by her own “backup” dancers as she applies her Make Up For Ever – a commodified representation of her desire for eternity.

Pop stars do not sing about their aging selves, their fading fame, their bodies as paltry – we do not want to see our pop stars in this light. How could we dance to such songs? How could we grope and grind with strangers in a crowded bar or make out with the strobe-lit person to our left if songs about growing old and talentless and decrepit were blaring through the sound system? We can handle songs about rejection and breakups and being lonely, because hey, we have been rejected and broken up with and we are lonely. These misfortunes may be the very reasons we are listening to pop songs in the first place, and (cue bubblegum optimism) these misfortunes of the pop star do not preclude – might even predict – a come back, a revival, a new lover, a new life. 

Writers, on the other hand, write about the end of their lives all the time and have been doing so for centuries. Some writers, like pop stars, are also concerned about their fame, their existence in the public’s consciousness even after they have died, but very few writers are prized for their bodies or bound by the expectation of pop stars to make us happy or, at the very least, hopeful. When it became apparent to me that Britney, in the video for “Hold it Against Me,” was singing about just these taboo concerns, concerns of the aging self, concerns that seem inherently anti-pop, I could not help but place the video and the song in a literary framework.

Think of “Hold It Against Me” in a Yeatsian context. Think of Sailing to Byzantium (1928), a poem written by an aging Yeats about his desire to not only leave his country where youth and sex are most valued, but also to travel back in time to a place where intellect trumped all. Britney feels that she is in “no country for old [wo]men” (Yeats 1.1.1). She does not have the youth or the body that she once had, though she is expected to live and perform to those youthful standards. Indeed, the world of pop seems eternally “caught in that sensual sound of music” (1.1.7) though each individual singer is “begotten, born, and dies” (1.1.6). Britney has become – or at least fears that she has become – a member of “Those dying generations” (1.1.3).

In contrast to Yeats, Britney does not praise “Monuments of unaging intellect” (1.1.8); she praises the body. It is, in fact, the object of desire, and the object of the song. To become bodiless does not interest Britney, though she may certainly feel “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal” (3.1.21-22). Britney wants to be eternal, though Britney is not concerned (as Yeats is) with the perpetuation of the soul. She is concerned with the perpetuation of the body. Both Yeats and Britney want to be freed from their bodies, but while Yeats wants to abandon his corporeal form forever, Britney looks backwards from her age, longing to be her younger self again.

Placed in Åkerlund’s video, the lyrics for “Hold It Against Me” take on new meaning. When Britney sings, “Wanna know just how you feel … If I said I want your body now, would you hold it against me?” we are forced to ask the question: who is the you Britney is speaking about? Where is the scruffy-faced, gym-membered, tanning-bed enthusiast we are so accustomed to seeing as the object of her desire? Britney briefly searches the online dating site Plenty of Fish, momentarily hovers over a profile picture, and then forgets about him – gone with the click of a manicured fingernail. This man is irrelevant, hardly of interest to her, and never makes a physical appearance in the video. The you Britney desires, the you whose body she wants, is her former, physical self. The aged, post-apocalyptic Britney doesn’t want another guy to dance with for a three-minute song and then toss away; Britney wants Britney.

Lady Gaga, on the other hand, is not trapped by her own body. In the “Telephone” video, the opposite is true: she is jailed, her body is detained against her will, but she is not held back by her own body. Lady Gaga is not ashamed of this body, a fact made explicit as she presses her exposed crotch against the bars of her cell for her captors and cellmates to see. While Lady Gaga strives for autonomy through escape from obstacles that outside forces have exerted on her (the fall from fame she takes in “Paparazzi,” and the jail cell of “Telephone”), Britney struggles for autonomy by trying to free herself from herself. Britney is not content in her contemporary skin.

As “Hold It Against Me” progresses, we see a Britney that is composed of both flesh and metal – in effect, a cyborg. But Britney is not proudly relishing in Donna Haraway theory. Britney is not seeking to tear down society’s constricting and reductive notions of gender; in fact, she is grasping for that antiquated image. She is no postmodern feminist looking toward the future. Much in the same way Yeats was a Modern poet who frequently looked backward to a more Victorian aesthetic, Britney, in 2011, looks backward to her self in 1999. She is dressed as a groomless bride. She wears a wedding dress, housed in a digital tower of memory she seems wedded to, accessorized and stabilized with IVs of rainbow fluids and diamond-encrusted surgical tape. The Britneys of the Baby, One More Time album dance on the many monitors that surround and encase her. She pines for what has been lost.

This pining ultimately leads to the battle Britney has with her former self, which represents Britney’s attempt to reclaim her former body. Aged Britney (outfitted with the blue train) fights Young Britney (outfitted with the red train); she upper cuts, gut kicks, and finally strangles Young Britney to the point of collapse.

During the fight scene, Britney sings “Gimme something good. Don’t wanna wait, I want it now. Pop it like a hood and show me how you work it out.” Aged Britney wants her younger self; Aged Britney wants that body now; Aged Britney wants to pop the hood of Young Britney and see just how she ticks. Perhaps swap out a part or two. There is, in fact, a mutual collapse at the end of the fight scene, and for a moment it appears the Britneys have killed each other despite the fact that Aged Britney should clearly be the fight’s victor (she delivers many more blows than she receives). When the fight’s aftermath reveals a Red (Young) Britney standing in a pose of victory with her arms spread and a Blue (Aged) Britney grabbing her skull as if she has undergone some serious head trauma, we must reconcile these images with the fight itself, a fight in which Blue (Aged) Britney seemed indisputably the winner.

The conclusion? Indeed, the body of Blue Britney has undergone serious head trauma, and Aged Britney did win the fight. Aged Britney’s fight-prize? Her mind in Red (Young) Britney’s body. And vise versa.

Lady Gaga exhibits no such body issues in “Telephone.” Gaga, in the prison, prepares for a fight as she gives her hair a slick swipe with the comb. But she is preparing for self-defense – to protect her body, not to discard it. In fact, standing right next to Gaga in the jail cell is Gaga’s little sister. They stand with no animosity between them. There is no desire from Gaga for a younger self, nor a desire for self-inflicted harm. Gaga, along with Beyoncé, acquire self-actualization through the manipulation and elimination of those who stand in their way. “Stop telephoning me,” they sing. Stop trying to hold us down. We are not yours to own. We are free to be ourselves. It is only after both men (Gaga’s lover in “Paparazzi” and Beyoncé’s lover in “Telephone”) are out of the way (granted, poisoned and killed) that Lady Gaga and Beyoncé are finally able to dance together, to dance together clad in stars and stripes, to dance together in the Land of the Free, a land of their making.

Even in prison, Lady Gaga maintains her agency. Even in prison, the prison itself is, in a way, not a prison. Lady Gaga walks into the courtyard draped in chains, but the key is right there on her chest. The chains, both physically enacting and symbolizing her imprisonment, are also rendered impotent by her access to their antidote. Lady Gaga uses her agency to obtain a cell phone, mobility behind bars, the means of her bailout/escape. The aesthetic here is one of mutability, where meaning is in constant flux.

Sometimes a telephone is a means of escape (Gaga’s text to Beyoncé) and sometimes a telephone is a jail cell (“Callin’ like a collector”). Sometimes a pussy is a cat (Gaga’s cabdriver cat suit) and sometimes a pussy is a vagina (Venus’s symbol zeroing in on the Pussy Wagon in the final shot of “Telephone”). Sometimes a sandwich is lunch and sometimes a sandwich is a bit of dance choreography and sometimes a sandwich is poison – that’s the Wonder (Bread), the Miracle (Whip) of it all. And Lady Gaga exerts this freedom, this agency, over and over again. “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” (187), Stein tells us in her poem Sacred Emily (1922), a poem that creates a world where words and phrases are repeated to diminish meaning’s stability and to emphasize meaning’s permeability. And this world is the one Lady Gaga inhabits, a world where the meaning and identity of a person/place/thing are never stagnant, always changing. If Britney’s “Hold It Against Me” possesses Yeatsian echoes of a modernist looking backward in time, Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” possesses Steinian echoes of a Modernist looking forward to the Post-Modern, the dissolving of boundaries, binaries, and steel bars.

In contrast, it is only after Britney has defeated the younger version of herself and taken her body that she regains some of the agency she had lost. The choreography no longer enacts a manipulated Britney, but a Britney manipulating. She raises her arms and her dancers follow, rising like puppets on strings. She is the conductor, the maestro, the master once again.

No more wreath of microphones framing Britney’s disembodied bust – an image distant from any physicality that seems human. No pair of red lips that exist alone in the otherwise dark void (a nod to Rocky Horror Picture Show, the humanoid, the trope of taking another’s bodily form). The double iris, with the eyelids literally pried open to exhibit the mutation, becomes single again as Britney settles into her repossessed youth.

To the left: Britney’s eye at the beginning of the video. To the right: her eye at the video’s end.

What follows is a type of celebratory funereal pyre in honor of her aged body’s consumption. Golden, glittering confetti is abundant. Britney’s dancers (and our attentions to them) have receded into the background where they presumably belong, now appearing fully clothed in black garb and covered with facemasks. Here, Britney is the one who bears new skin, her segmented dress fastened with giant golden staples, a new life and body she has triumphantly pieced together in the face of her personal apocalypse.

Lady Gaga and Beyoncé don their own funereal garb as they drive away into the sunset, though theirs is a mock-mourning, a stilted eulogy, the face of grief with no real sadness beneath the mask. They are a grotesque vision of two women veiled in sorrow, their hats overly large, and Lady Gaga’s a pastel, almost the shade of baby blue, a shade much more akin to birth than death.

Britney wants to be rebirthed, yes. But not as something to come, as something past. Not an advancement, but a regression, a return to a lost identity. Britney does not want change. Britney wants to be Britney. She is the femme fatale and she is her own enemy. She wants her name and identity gathered into eternity, even at the expense of some slight artifice – a few staples here and there, and a little mind/body swap. She wants to forever sing to the world, “It’s Britney, bitch.”

Gaga has sung a similar statement, though one that portrays her identity as far less concrete. “I’m a free bitch, baby.” Gaga is not defined or limited by her name, just as Stein’s words do not hold stable definitions. Gaga embraces the mutations of identity, which include the mutations of others and the mutations of herself. Britney longs to be forever young while Gaga (and anyone who identifies as an offspring of Mother Monster) knows she is always and continually being reborn.


Hold It Against Me. Dir. Jonas Åkerlund. Perf. Britney Spears. 2011. Film.

Lady Gaga. “Bad Romance.” The Fame Monster. Interscope Records, 2009. CD.

Michelson, Noah. “Britney E-Mails Her Heart.” Out Magazine. 7 March 2011. Web. 15 March 2011.

Spears, Britney. “Gimme More.” Blackout. Jive Records, 2007. CD.

Stein, Gertrude. Geography and Plays. Boston: Four Seas, 1922. Print.

Telephone. Dir. Jonas Åkerlund. Perf. Lady Gaga. 2010. Film.

Yeats, William Butler. “Sailing to Byzantium.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. F. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006. 2040. Print.

Writer Bio:
Laurence Ross holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama. He lives, writes, and teaches in Tuscaloosa, AL. He has recently completed a novel, Also, I’m Dying, in which characters deliver performances of crisis, education, anarchy, vanity, husband, wife, child, and alcoholism – among other things. 

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  1. What would be the significance of the dancers having no eyes before the dubstep breakdown, and then having their mouths covered afterwards?

  2. Oh shit! Best article on Gaga Stigmata we've had in a long while!

  3. Great analysis! Well thought out and written.

    I'm originally from Birmingham, so it makes me very happy to see T-Town producing some critically conscious pop analysts! :)

    Let the Britneyocalypse commence....or continue, rather.

  4. This is the only analysis I've read of HIAM that makes the least bit of sense to me. Juxtaposed against Telephone, it really brings the fundamental differences between an artist like Britney and Gaga to the forefront. Thank you so much. I got a great article and a great Gaga tune all on the same day. I am in total rock n roll hippie guitar player heaven.

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