Radiohead and Britney Spears: CD-Era Icons in the Age of the Download

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The critics' favorite and the pop princess both have new albums out this week. What they have in common--and what they don't.

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This Tuesday marks the "official" release date of new albums from two of the biggest names in music, British rock quintet Radiohead and teen-icon-turned-tabloid-mainstay Britney Spears. "Official" goes in quotes because both albums have in fact been available for some time, with Spears' Femme Fatale streaming at AOL Music and Radiohead's King of Limbs available for an advance download at the reasonable price of nine dollars. This is the point where you might expect an "Upon first glance, these two artists would seem to have little in common with one another." But the fact is that these two artists have practically nothing in common with one another, aside from the fact that they've managed to stick around since "official" release dates indicated the day you'd actually go to a store and buy a CD.

Britney and Radiohead were big deals in those pre-online download days and still are, and their impact on the music that has come in their wake is remarkable. To revisit the apotheosis of Radiohead's creative output, a run that began with The Bends (1995) and then continued into OK Computer (1997) and Kid A (2000), is to hear the shape of things to come. The Bends remains a ravishing marvel, a sonogram of mainstream rock music over the next 15 years (does Coldplay's Chris Martin blush if you put it on?); Ok Computer made art-pop cool again and gave professional validation to a generation of music critics; Kid A was the most stunning (and stunningly successful) foray into avant-gardism that a rock band had attempted in years. With these records Radiohead became the gold standard of how people talked about serious pop music. To call them "critical darlings" is clichéd and inadequate; they set the terms of the discourse.

Spears set the terms of a different kind of discourse, belonging to a side of pop music that people who like Radiohead often either proudly ignore or openly detest. She was a commodity, a simulacrum devoid of a real. If Radiohead's lineage was The Beatles and Nirvana--Bands That Mattered--Britney's was the Bay City Rollers and New Kids On The Block--Bands That Didn't. When Spears broke through in 1998 with the pedophilic titillation of "... Baby One More Time," the packaging overwhelmed any consideration of the song's merit, which was the whole point. But Spears inspired a revolution in teen pop whose aftershocks are heard to this day, and the horror of Rebecca Black's "Friday" doesn't happen without the pleasures of "... Baby One More Time." The crucial difference between the two is that the latter was dumb music made by smart people, which can be compelling on its own merits.

Spears' music aspired to an effortlessness of consumption that conceals its own craft. We weren't supposed to think about the musicians and songwriters who made the records, the calculation and, yes, care that went into their production: We were supposed to hear Britney, the brand, the icon. Radiohead made music that wears craft on its sleeve to a degree that resists consumption: We love records like Kid A because they are smart and creative and make us work for them but also because they make us feel like we are in on something that's not for everyone, in every sense of the phrase.

Radiohead's music is really obviously good, and if The Bends, OK Computer, or Kid A came out tomorrow any of them might still be the best rock album of the last ten years and maybe the next ten as well. Spears' music doesn't hold up nearly as well. "... Baby One More Time" and "Oops... I Did It Again" are killer pop songs that have aged poorly, meticulously overproduced as such confections often are, and as trends and technologies change such sounds and choices invariably stale. The one thoroughly great piece of music Spears ever made, 2001's "I'm A Slave 4 U," produced by the Neptunes at a time when Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams were giving Radiohead a run for their money as the exciting creative force in music, came when the singer was navigating the impossible transition from coquettish jailbait to adult pop star. Instead of dumb music made by smart people this was smart music made by brilliant people: edgy, off-kilter, more interesting than was commercially advisable.

"Slave" was one of the best dance-pop tracks of its era and a moment when it felt like Spears might turn into something more, or different, than we expected. She didn't, and Femme Fatale is a very strong album that still doesn't suggest she ever will. The album's lead single, "Hold It Against Me," is a blast but dumb as hell, its chorus constructed around a pick-up line so tired and awful it's not worth repeating. Its most inspired moment is a dubstep breakdown that's nominally "unexpected" but only faux-adventurous, the old Madonna trick of picking at the carcasses of musical trends while assuming your audience is too un-hip to know they're not your invention. "How I Roll" sounds a little like Sleigh Bells, "Trouble For Me" sounds a lot like Lady Gaga, and "Big Fat Bass," featuring the musical plague that is will.i.am, just sounds terrible. But on the whole Femme Fatale works well enough to return Spears to the spotlight she long ago earned. It's a good record that will sound a little embarrassing in ten years--in other words, it's a Britney record.

And King of Limbs is a Radiohead record, full of the calibrated interestingness that we've come to expect from them, following the path of 2008's excellent In Rainbows. At only eight tracks and less than 40 minutes long, it's charming in its concision. "Little By Little" is murkily pretty in that way that Radiohead gets at better than maybe any band ever, "Morning Mr. Magpie" sounds a little like "Tomorrow Never Knows" meets "Superbad" (read: yes, please), and "Codex" is lovely in that way that keeps you awake at night. It's both an arty and artful album, music you want to spend more time with if you're not sure you'll ever want to move in with it, and even if it's not quite a masterpiece Radiohead's already made three of those, which is at least three more than most bands make.

The Radioheads and Britneys need each other, or at least we need one to make sense of the other, and make no mistake that Radiohead has more in common with Britney Spears than they do with John Cage, and Britney has more in common with Radiohead than she does with Rebecca Black. But they still don't have a lot to do with each other, and even though King of Limbs is a different record with different aims than Femme Fatale, it's also just a better record on almost every level. It's easy to beat up on Spears' brand of pop for being cynical and plastic, and it's easy to exalt Radiohead's music for being virtuous and daring. It's impossible listen to "Fake Plastic Trees" or "Paranoid Android" or "The National Anthem" and not feel that Radiohead succeeded at making something more meaningful and timeless than the makers of "... Baby One More Time," "Oops! ... I Did It Again" (seriously, what's with all the ellipses?) or "Hold It Against Me" were ever interested in. And meaningful and timeless is what we should look for in great music, and that isn't something to dance around, or apologize for.

And yet, and speaking of dancing around: if you listen closely to "... Baby One More Time," that ephemeral trifle that's aged as awkwardly as such things do, you will hear a wah-wah guitar part. It shakes, it bubbles, it bends, it is played by someone whose name we are not supposed to know, and it is perfect. It's the sound of Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Prince, and it is also the sound of someone who spent untold hours of their youth in a bedroom practicing along to records, countless nights playing lousy gigs to disinterested audiences, all the while becoming one of the very best in the world at what they do. And that is something to work at revealing against all efforts to conceal it, because it too is meaningful and timeless, and great music as well.

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Jack Hamilton has written for Slate, NPR, and Los Angeles Review of Books. This fall, he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  

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