by carl wilson

Mrs. Extra Extra

Joshua "Jane Dark" Clover sharpshooting a few days back on the improbable feat of Britney's "Piece of Me" - she takes the triple error of whining about fame, responding to her critics and tut-tutting about the tabloids and parlays it into a home run. Joshua considers its spot in her string of sadomasochistic singles (without even mentioning "Slave 4 U"): "she manages to appear, via a single phrase, as the subject and source of violence, abused and abuser, in a way that makes the distinction itself seem to shimmer and shift."

I'm less sure about the hierarchy he creates between listening and giving in: "It is a better song than 'Toxic,' less artsy, more banging, less for listening to and more for giving in to." Even granting that about "Toxic," which I'm not sure I do, is giving in automatically a better relationship to a pop song? Think of Prince: You listen to, say, "If I Was Your Girlfriend" and you give in to "Little Red Corvette," so with the latter you have a more delirious experience in the moment - but "Girlfriend" is the one that comes to mind to comfort and amuse me when I'm emotionally messed-up, never "Corvette." Being seduced versus being ravished: It seems a masochistic model in itself that it is always better to be dominated; it's a fine kink but it's not the way we all swing, at least not all the time. (Or to put it on another sexual axis: Is pop supposed to be no kissing, all fucking?)

For the record, my Britney list would probably put "Oops..." first (when I do swing that way, it's usually at the mercy of a seemingly sympathetic tormenter like the narrator of this song), "Toxic," "Piece of Me," then "Hit Me...," Joshua's no. 1.

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, November 23 at 12:17 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)



thanks, Jane, for pulling us back on point. I've been wanting to say, "guys, to some degree this is just a commonplace metaphor." still it's useful to question the misleadingness of that commonplace usage.

Posted by zoilus on November 28, 2007 5:29 PM



Well, maybe one story is in how much more aggressive those dynamics, whatever you call them, have gotten -- even compared to the genuinely masochistic "Everytime," which was lyrically sort of oblique (the video is 10x more insane than anything she's done to date, though, including the one she did for "Gimme More" in which she plays both sadist and masochist role). And I think the aggressiveness holds true across the board, to some extent, also in the stuff that is to kids/teens now as Britney was back in 99/00. (That is, when it's sexual at all in nature, and in the past few years that's been changing a little -- High School Musical, e.g., doesn't fill this role as Ashlee or Lindsay might have in 2004, but HSM's stars sometimes do in their solo careers.)

Posted by Dave on November 27, 2007 10:20 PM



I'm super into all this debating of what sadism and masochism actually are, and indeed this will always be an ambiguous matter since there is already a split between the medical and sexual understandings, which become even more ambiguous against the split between pathologizing and theorizing. I've learned a lot from, beyond Krafft-Ebbing, books by Deleuze and also Anita Phllips. And from this conversation.

But sheesh. The original post, if you read it, actually doesn't suggest either the medical nor sexual relation. It's not about that, and never says that any of the songs are about that. The post is about lyrical conceits, and maybe about vectors of aggressivity for which "sadism" and "masochism" have long stood as shorthand.

The song in question, meanwhile, is a (clear-eyed and compelling) account of the pathological relationship between celebrity and media; a relationship played out in the tropes of sadism and masochism which pointedly structure those two relevant early singles.

There's probably something really interesting here; e.g., what is the "contractual" nature of the cruel-yet-rewarding treatment celebrities and tabloids inflict on each other, in which they routinely switch roles from subject to object, villain to victim? I would note that these interesting questions have been raised, not here, but in the song. Of course, to think this would require a strong account of the economies of desire and of money, and how they map onto each other. Which is exactly the kind of interesting question raised in the sphere of culture, which is indifferent to the absolute truth of any individual psychologistic category.

As it is, this conversation risks being a bit like worrying about whether Marvin Gaye really understood the dynamics of viticulture while singing "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."

Posted by jane on November 27, 2007 9:16 PM



I stand by Brit being still only masochistic. Part of the way a masochist exerts control is through exhibition; and control, in all cases, is mutual. There are clear examples (to be found elsewhere) of "Sadistic masochism" and "Masochistic Sadism", but the root "S" or "M" is clear and immutable. The two don't even agree with each other; sadists are repulsed by masochists and vice versa.
As for voyeurism, it, too, can be as much "S" or "M" specific; the way we watch an action movie, for instance, is clearly "S" (as is the way we listen to crunk). The voyeuristic aspects of watching Brit are firmly rooted in the assaultive gaze, which is arguably more "M" because of the abrupt turnaround that tends to go with it- that is, that it is a shameful gaze.
As for mutual control- this is always the case in S&M; because the nature of Sadism is "The Law", and Masochism it is "The Contract". Communicative relationships all around!

Posted by Matt Collins on November 27, 2007 12:23 PM



Audience retains control of the song with the ability to turn it off or walk out of the club. The point Matt is trying to make, I think -- and I agree with it -- is that S & M are not symmetrical. Glenn Gould talked about performance as masochism, but the classical audience tradition allows for much more control to the performer: almost nobody boos a classical concert -- when it happens it's international news -- and it takes extreme confidence to walk out in the middle of a piece. The pop audience is more masochistic in that they retain much more control. I've wanted to walk out of and boo a classical concert (an experimental opera by Eyvind Kang, which I found horribly sarcastic; in another mood I might have found it funny, I don't know), but I didn't do it.

I don't think the S or M label really applies to pop performers, because control is always mutual.

People have often likened music to sex throughout western culture, and the "ravished" metaphor has been central. It hasn't been about S or M, but it has been about penetration, with the listener as the femme or the bottom, and the attendant anxiety that music makes people effeminate.

Posted by john on November 24, 2007 12:19 PM



Carl, you're right to wonder about the hierarchy constructed by the assumed division between listening and giving in. To pursue the sexual analogy a bit, is a voyeur (an apt stand-in for an audience, don't you think?) when watching giving in, or merely observing? Seems to me he or she can't do one without doing the other, which makes the whole either/or construct inherently suspect.

To my mind, experiencing art is a far richer experience than can be described with an on/off switch like seeing/feeling or listening/giving in. Art can be noticed, brushed up against, embraced, consumed, or ignored -- or any combination of the above. And the thing about pop is that the consumer's experience is virtually guaranteed to vary depending on context, interest, opportunity, education, emotional situation, or any number of additional factors. On a certain level, Joshua knows this, too, at least to the extent that he has talked/argued about how a song's meaning changes with the listener's perception (and it's not simply a matter of hearing a song within the context of an album, and having it come up on an iPod's shuffle rotation).

Ultimately, though, we need to remember that what's being talked about is the observer more than the art. Yes, there are certain musical and lyrical aspects to Little Red Corvette that, thanks to social conditioning and acoustic psychology, signify certain specific emotions. But those things don't define the song, they merely flavour it. To insist, as some reviewers do, that their experience is factual as opposed to preferential is a bit like arguing that, no, there is a poem lovely as a tree. Which is really missing the forest for the metaphor.

Posted by JD on November 24, 2007 11:34 AM



"It made you think that 13-year-olds want to play at the idea of giving in to the frightening power of sex, that the whole idea was like eating too much ice cream, but they really don't want to know that they're doing it."

Yeah, this is fairer to how the music is working (but I do think that the earliest Britney was actually reintroducing the FRIVOLITY, since mainstream pop had skewed older prior to her introduction...meaning that the combination was interesting, but that I think that 13-year-olds were probably getting their danger and sex from R&B; and hip-hop and dance and other pop stuff prior to the late 90s)).

I put it like this in that megamix article (opening the "fuck" mix): "One important counter-idea to note here is that teenpop is actually one of the few areas in popular music where sex can be discussed within the music itself, sometimes explicitly, as something other than an assumed inevitability -- for the most part, past a certain age it’s just not OK to say “no” to sex in most pop music. But in teenpop, not only can you say “no,” you can also figure out what kind of sex it is you’re interested in."

Excellent example of the fear/ecstasy split from this year is Aly and AJ's "Blush," which is almost naively cautious and careful in arguing against sex itself despite obvious desire to *have* sex.

Teenpop has generally gotten much smarter (and more explicit) about s&m; relationships that started off a bit more implicit/projected-by-adults-but-not-kids, so that in, say, "La La," you don't really have to "project" the issue onto the song. It's *about* an S&M; relationship between Ashlee and her boyfriend. Anyway, I think Britney is in a lonely little category by herself these days, and that the sexual dynamics in "Blackout" are just about impossible to pin down. The album makes me really uncomfortable, actually, and I still haven't articulated exactly why yet.

Posted by Dave on November 23, 2007 6:29 PM



The masochism-as-control issue is different when you talk pop, I think, Matt, and in complex ways: On one hand, as an audience member when you "give in" to a pop single, you don't literally alter and manipulate its behaviour by giving in, the way the "bottom" manipulates the "top" in a sexual relationship - the single is a pre-existing artifact. When you give in you don't alter its surface structure, although you may be switching its codes... On another level, the more the audience collectively "gives in" it does alter the behaviour of the song, causing it to play more often and in more places and to go up the charts and to soundtrack different moments. But in the moment of listening as individuals, we do ask the pop star to manipulate, to be the active force in getting us to the point of abandon, a place we may know in advance, or sometimes not know but only suspect.

The pop star's position is (at least) double - as much sado as maso since her career is dependent on reading the ways that audiences like to submit to her and making the right move next to produce their pleasure. Or you could look at the production process dynamic: In Tom's Pitchfork piece the issue of who is in control is prominent - is it Britney or her producers/songwriters, who are writing about her own life in her stead, and subjecting her voice to various forms of bondage and whipping with studio tricks - but they are presumably achieving her desired goals for her, likewise to the contractual transfer of control that Matt describes in s/m relationships. But surely she's also the boss (as Tom points out on Pfork, she's the Executive Producer of the record here).

Dave, I like all of what you're saying there but I think the s/m and the all-out frivolity *combining* in teenybopper songs was one of the really striking things about early Britney. It made you think that 13-year-olds want to play at the idea of giving in to the frightening power of sex, that the whole idea was like eating too much ice cream, but they really don't want to know that they're doing it.

Posted by zoilus on November 23, 2007 4:43 PM



(PS, "Oops!" is my favorite Britney track too, I opened the 5-disc teenpop megamix I did for Stylus a few months ago with it. Most underrated Britney song: "Touch of My Hand," also on the mix -- one of the only songs about masturbation sung by a woman that I've ever heard whose main point is that she doesn't need a lover and just does it because it's great. Masturbation-as-masturbation, not sung by bratty manboys!)

Posted by Dave on November 23, 2007 4:21 PM



Also should link to Tom Ewing's excellent analysis of the new Britney album in Pitchfork this month.

Posted by Dave on November 23, 2007 4:16 PM



Interesting analysis of "Piece of Me." I disagree with some of his points about her earlier stuff -- "sadism" and "masochism" just aren't the descriptors I think of first (I agree with the point above, though, that masochism implies control; not sure if Joshua is disallowing for the reading 'cuz he doesn't really go into it). I think you'd need to kind of actively ignore the frivolity of both tracks to read them as "about S/M." Britney was, I think, to the US as Spice Girls were to the UK (and then the US); her story is largely in her *audience* and how she was asking you to "read her" -- that is, as a teenybopper. No grown-ups allowed. This has obviously changed, and it's been really interesting to see how she did it. I mean, that story probably happened by about 2001, and at this point (in this album, anyway) I actually view her as a more autonomous artist; that is I have more of a sense of her "as an artist" than ever before. By like a mile.

Posted by Dave on November 23, 2007 4:15 PM



I identify with pop music as "no kissing, all fucking" in that I find it generally embarassing and crass if I walk in on it (eg. playing in a store) in the same way I would if I walked in on a couple mid-fuck.

Posted by d on November 23, 2007 4:05 PM



Which is to say; I am not sure about the way "sadomasochism" is being framed in this article. I am not sure that the similarities between Sadism and Masochism are clear to the writers.

Posted by Matt Collins on November 23, 2007 4:02 PM



Actually, Carl, in masochism "being dominated" actually means "holding all the cards", because it is a contractual submission where the outcome is clear, but that has been given to someone else to act out for the masochist for the purpose of pleasure-from-suspension, so in many ways Britney is the masochist: climbing the charts only to fall apart, exhibitively, in public every time. The audience seldom submits to Britney; she is always at our whim, waiting for our spanking for being so bad.

Which is hella gross.

Posted by Matt Collins on November 23, 2007 3:58 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson