February 14, 2011


Britney in Miniature

Over the past week or so, Britney Spears has been releasing a series of very brief teasers for her Jonas Åkerlund-directed video for "Hold It Against Me." It's easy to dismiss them as being relatively content-free—advertisements for an advertisement. But it's more fun to think of them as pieces of music in themselves: a new creative direction for Britney, as a crafter of experimental, ultraminiature works, so short they're not even ringtone-length.

Teaser #1, for instance, is a snatch of conversation and a burst of static. The great musical antecedent here is, of course, the Beatles—specifically the slightly-under-two-second loop of sound in the inner groove of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. (When the vinyl record was played on a turntable, the needle would play the inner groove over and over until somebody physically picked up the stylus.) You can imagine that particular "Hold It Against Me" preview as Britney's tribute to the avant-gardist impulse that flavors even the "toppermost of the poppermost," as John Lennon used to put it.

The second teaser is Britney's nod to industrial music, with two crashing metallic sounds a few moments apart--the sort of tones that Depeche Mode used back in the 1980s to construct songs like "People Are People," with all the intrusive hooks stripped away, leaving only the juicy timbres. On the other end of things, it might in fact be an instrumental cover of Napalm Death's one-second grindcore classic "You Suffer" in its entirety.

Perhaps the closest to the familiar Spears aesthetic is the third teaser, with a small mountain of her old hits layered on top of each other for a few seconds. As it turns out, Spears isn't the first person to think of this idea—witness the already classic “All of Billy Joel's Greatest Hits Played at Once” video, or John Oswald's 1993 mega-micro-collage Plexure—but it's fun to try to pick out the identifiable bits of her repertoire (that's “Toxic” at the top, for instance).

Teaser the fourth is more studio chat, a twinkle of electronic noise, and the universally recognized sound effect of Manifestation. The piece's rising digital mosquito-whine may be Britney's salute to the electronic avant-garde, something along the lines of the Finnish experimental digital group Pan Sonic. (Here's their piece “Corona.”) After all, contemporary dance music wouldn't have been possible without the decades of computer-music experimentation that came before it.

The fifth in the series is in some ways the most conventionally musical of the bunch: a four-note phrase, a sort of raygun noise, and an echoing loop of Britney gasping “all right, uh--.” That sort of sequential juxtaposition of tune and blurt and voice appeals to a lot of contemporary composers, too: compare it, for instance, to John Zorn's improvisation-game piece “Cobra,” in which musicians often try to play something as different from each other as possible.

Number six is the sound of one piece of gear after another revving up until another crashing sound stops them dead. It's by far the longest “Hold It Against Me” preview so far, topping out at a whopping thirteen seconds. That's long enough for an entire conventional song, if it's fast enough—the vintage Detroit hardcore punk band Negative Approach whipped off an intro, two choruses and a verse of “Pressure” in under 10 seconds.

The seventh one is a string of high-pitched, rapid-fire, trebly noises, followed by an equally rapid flapping-in-the-wind sound: the sort of effect that used to come from magnetic tape being sped up. Spears, of course, has been careful to avoid magnetic tape—the one time she accidentally got within three feet of a reel resulted in a brief, unfortunate marriage. Instead, “ ‘Hold It Against Me’ Teaser #7” has to be her tribute to the cutting edge of contemporary human beat-boxing. It's the last of Spears' new miniatures to be released at the time of this writing (by the time you read this, there may well be more); it's not yet clear whether her forthcoming Femme Fatale album will feature her familiar pop sound or continue to branch out into further adventures in extreme experimental music.