February 21, 2011


Don't Hold It Against Me

Last week, I talked about the string of teasers for Jonas Åkerlund's video for Britney Spears' "Hold It Against Me." This week, the video itself is out--and the music it's set to is not quite the same as the version of the song that's been making the rounds for the past few weeks. But we'll get to that.

The lyrical conceit of Britney's single is a very old gag, most famous as a Groucho Marx one-liner: "If I told you you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?" Britney isn't the first person to appropriate it for a hit: back in 1979, the Bellamy Brothers had a #1 country hit with "If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body, Would You Hold It Against Me?" (Those were the days when big country songs had puns in their titles a lot more often than they do lately.)

The Bellamy Brothers briefly charted again in 2005 with a re-recording of it, featuring Dolly Parton harmonizing with them and tossing in some of the corniest ad-libs of which she's capable. Lately, David Bellamy's been claiming that Britney's use of the "hold it against me" formulation rips off his use of a phrase he borrowed from Groucho. (From an article about the alleged rip-off: "He's not making a decision about whether to take legal action until he learns more about the laws involved." Yes, perhaps a little learning wouldn't hurt him.)

Of course, Groucho's joke is now part of the great well of clichés, and Britney, like every pop star, gets over by communicating universal sentiments like "would you resent me for expressing desire for you?" The video, though, is something entirely different. It's not about the relationship between Britney's persona and the world of her listeners: it's about establishing the way that persona is constructed, and showing what it's constructed from. And the component elements of Britney are, essentially, micro-Britneys—each of the teasers we saw is one of a billion homunculi that make up the collective entity credited with the song.

After some introductory sci-fi stuff—apparently this is all happening on Earth in the far-flung year of 2011—we see Britney and her dancers on a soundstage, surrounded by cameras that are filming the very video we are watching. The dancers initially appear to be getting dressed, following what we can only assume is some kind of pre-video-shoot sex-magick ritual that keeps pop stars eternally young. Over the first half of the video, we see the rest of Spears' component elements: cameras, microphones, beauty supplies (it's been a long time since there's been a video with this much product placement), desire for erotic connection through pop (the headline on the personal ad she calls up could actually be a reference to two songs from long before she was born: "Fly Me to the Moon" and "One Life to Live"), and most of all music videos. During the first two choruses, she's surrounded by a wall of screens that's showing her old hits, all at once.

The latter half of the video, though, is where that constructed persona unravels.

In the second chorus, she's surrounded by dancers with erased faces—nobody around her gets to be a person. Then she gets into a kung fu battle with another, identically constituted version of herself. The colors shooting out of her fingers are the colors of cathode ray tubes; the blood that flows through her veins is video blood.

The commercial version of "Hold It Against Me" is 40 seconds shorter than the video; one additional bit of the video mix is the introduction, but the other one is the chopped-and-skewed breakdown before the "give me something good" bridge, which is twice as long here. It's full of vocals, but not really lyrics. What we're hearing is isolated phonemes, grunts, breaths, asides, a sort of more musical version of the "Language Removal Services" recordings—stray bits of Britney snapping off of her persona.

In fact, "Hold It Against Me" is full of those weird little dub tricks and edits. It's the first we're hearing of it, and it's already been remixed, already altered—there is no original version, just as we're led to believe there is no original version of Britney. That may be the secret of "Hold It Against Me," the truth behind the trope. When she sings "I want your body now," the reason she fears reprisal is that it isn't a call for erotic gratification: it's a plea for embodiment. You, the listener, have a body of your own; she, the entertainer, doesn't, just a swirl of video colors and remembered snatches of songs.