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

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.

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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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