Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Children's entertainment (or not)

Britney Spears has - oops - done it again; she has hit us, baby, one more time:

First, Britney Spears rediscovered her marbles; then she relaunched her singing career. Now she has stumbled on her old knack for offending middle America.
The singer has been forced to rename and partially rerecord her latest single from her Circus album, "If You Seek Amy", amid a scandal over provocative word play. Sung quickly, the track's title line is sexually offensive, claim listeners.
As a result, dozens of US radio stations threatened to withdraw the single from their playlists, while families have called for a "parental advisory" warning.
Two parts of the song caused outrage. One was: "All the boys and girls are begging to If You Seek Amy." The other was its chorus: "Oh baby, baby, if you seek Amy tonight/Oh baby, baby, we'll do whatever you like."
Spears announced yesterday that she will change the title to "If You See Amy" and amend the allegedly offensive sections of the track. The decision means the lyrics no longer make sense, but the realities of the global record industry mean that she was probably left with little alternative. She will release the amended version of the song in the UK in May.
The track was also attacked in Australia. A Sydney housewife, Leonie Barsenbach, described her outrage: "I was astonished when I heard my five- and seven-year-old kids singing 'f-u-c-k me'," she said. "I was horrified. I got them the Circus album but there was no warning on it... It is extremely offensive. I feel deceived."

I find this mini-hysteria very interesting, especially the last paragraph. The key assumption is that it's Britney who must be to blame. It's her fault. She is "extremely offensive", or at least her record label is for releasing the song. The parent is an innocent victim who has been "deceived". There is no use in pointing out to her that all of Britney's oeuvre has been dedicated to the apparent hyper-sexualization of young girls, who wriggle and dance and pout in their school uniform past their dowdy old teachers in videos now a decade old.

Popular music has always existed: now it's Britney, once it was songs round the communal fire. Since the appearance of rock 'n' roll in the mid-1950s, that segment of popular music inflected by it has inevitably picked up its strong sexualization too. Even if the words aren't sexualized, the rhythms of the music almost necessarily are. I'd argue that for a long period - though not at all times - rock-inflected pop achieved a level of complexity and sophistication that popular music had never previously known, lending it an unprecedented cultural profile and respectability. This period is, though, today behind us. Pure pop, if not the fourth-rate by-product of a TV talent show, has turned into, overwhelmingly, entertainment for children.

For obvious economic reasons this has to be concealed, but from time to time, like here, the truth will come out. Britney is operating according to the rules of rock-inflected pop, established for more than half a century: instantly accessible and fun music about being young and having sex etc. But the collapse of such music away from "popular culture" to a form of children's entertainment means that her main audience is probably five or seven years old, like the children of the unfortunate Leonie Barsenbach. Hence - a collision. Genre runs up against history; textual codes slam into the facts of cultural consumption.

It's not popular culture any more: that's dead. It's children's entertainment. Or not exactly!

1 comment:

  1. Yes you have a point. But I must say that while young kids are now exposed to sex and the like, they still don;t seem too interested in it until puberty hits.
    My own dughter sings all the Britney Spears music, but when her birthday party came around she told us she wanted a reptile party which indicated to me that the sex lyrics didn't mean anything to her, even though she sings them all day long.