Construction Literary Magazine

June 2019

I’m a Slave 4 Y’all

I’m a Slave 4 Y’all

There can be little doubt that Elvis is the most successful Southern pop star of all time: 108 Hot 100 singles (second all-time); 150 different albums and singles certified gold, platinum or multi-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America; countless tabloid covers and Vegas impersonators.

Enough said. But if Elvis is the benchmark by which all other Southern American idols are to be judged, who is his successor? Who is the biggest Southern pop star of the last 20 years?

There’s no one obvious answer. Know who tops the King for most Hot 100 singles of all time? That’s right: New Orleans’ Lil Wayne!{{1}} (It helps to start your recording career at age nine and cut guest verses for anyone who asks.) Wayne has been a hip-hop superstar for almost two decades. Still, his pop crossover is a relatively recent turn of events, and it feels somehow provisional. Hard to believe a character so raw and weird could ever decisively conquer the hearts and minds of the mainstream.

If you go by album sales—and you consider Tulsa a Southern town—Garth Brooks is your guy. In the ’90s, country blew up, and Garth’s stadium pyrotechnics lit the fuse. Album sales and packed concerts can be deceptive, though. As a teenager, I knew about the two-tone shirts and the duet with KISS, but I never once heard “Friends in Low Places” or “The Thunder Rolls” on the school bus radio, my source for Top 40. In fact, Garth’s only Top 40 single came from his eye-linered alter ego, Chris Gaines. What was that one called? Don’t remember? Exactly.

Taylor Swift—now there’s a country star who pops. One problem: America’s sweetheart lived in Pennsylvania till age 13 when her family moved to Nashville specifically so she could pursue a music career. She had country in her blood, but Southern roots? Not so much.

Allow me to propose a candidate you may not have considered. She sold more albums in the 2000s than any other woman and she has 30 Hot 100 singles to her name, including five Number Ones. Her fame is signature fragrance worthy. She’s starred in a movie and two reality shows. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Miss Britney Jean Spears of Kentwood, Louisiana!

Chances are, you’ve never thought of Britney as a Southern artist before.{{2}} There’s a good reason for that: absolutely nothing in Britney’s music identifies her as a Southerner. Stick her records—many of which actually were written and produced by Swedish pop svengali Max Martin and his partner Dr. Luke—in a time capsule, and our descendents will deduce that the thin, twang-less voice{{3}} belongs to a fellow Scandinavian, not a small-town Southern belle.

When an artist comes from below the Mason-Dixon, we expect to hear the grit (or the grits) in their songs. And for the most part we do. Elvis was steeped in Southern gospel, blues, and country. Lil Wayne’s drawling flow and the bounce style pioneered by his producer Mannie Fresh have become synonymous with New Orleans hip-hop. Garth Brooks may have looked up to Billy Joel, but his music is more Okie from Muskogee than New York State of Mind.

For years, fanboys have rhapsodized about R.E.M.’s subtle take on the Southern tradition. “You can hear the kudzu growing, man!” (Never mind that only Mike Mills and Bill Berry were born and raised in the South.) Even Britney’s erstwhile boyfriend and Mousketeer-mate, Justin Timberlake, has sprinkled his futuresex lovesounds with a pinch of down-home flavor, duetting with Rev. Al Green and fellow sons of Memphis Three 6 Mafia and dubbing his new throwback big band the Tennessee Kids.{{4}}

Britney Spears is all but unique among Southern artists in the degree to which her Southern-ness is effaced in her music. How effaced? So much so that I listened to this ravishing white country girl coo, “I’m a slave for you,” dozens of times before the racial implications of the line occurred to me. If Leanne Rimes were the one singing, it would have taken me fifteen seconds.

Of course, being Southern isn’t the only aspect of Britney’s identity her music elides. From the beginning, she’s been a blank slate for her collaborators—at least that’s the impression the songs and videos give. When she first appeared on the scene, the clothes she wore and the words she sang were largely construed as part of an adult scheme to market the virginal songbird both to teenybopper girls and horny old men. Did she even understand her own provocations? Who knew?

Nowadays, the question isn’t whether she’s too young to understand; it’s whether she’s too dumb or zonked to care. Never a strong singer, she sounds on recent records like just one more synthesized element in the Eurodisco mix, Autotune embodied, a sexbot from Poptopia programmed by her Oz-like overlords to warble smutty groaners like, “If I said I want your body now, would you hold it against me.”{{5}} To say she doesn’t sound like a girl from the South seems beside the point. She doesn’t sound like a human from Earth.

But if the image of Britney constructed by her music is rootless in the extreme, the image of her constructed by the media—the celebrity as distinct from the artist—is the opposite. Britney the celebrity isn’t just Southern, she’s a Southern caricature, a redneck with money, a Beverly Hillbilly.

There’s no shortage of examples. Google “Britney Spears hick,” and you’ll get more than four million hits. “Britney Spears redneck” yields more than a million. Internet snark purveyors the Fug Girls have been making hay out of Britney-as-hayseed for years. (I have to admit, their posts in Britney’s voice are hilarious. Sample line from 2004: “Y’all, I would actually really like to have twins like Julia Roberts and name them Kevney Cheetos Federline and Britven Red Bull Federline . . .”)

Britney, for her part, has abetted the stereotyping at every turn. When she was taken to task for driving with her infant son on her lap, seatbelt unfastened, her initial response was, “I did it with my dad. I’d sit on his lap and I’d drive. We’re country.” (She later claimed she needed to make a quick getaway from the paparazzi.){{6}}

Speaking of dad, the MTV reality series “Britney: For the Record”—a post-breakdown exercise in image rehab—features one essential performance: Jamie Spears, forbearing papa and court-appointed conservator, after fixing his baby girl her favorite breakfast of grits and Velveeta, offers his own rendition of the fizzy club anthem “Womanizer,” his accent thick as the grits.{{7}} With just one chorus of “wuhmanazah, wuhmanazah,” the distance between Britney the global pop star and Britney the bumpkin collapses.

It’s tempting to wonder what would happen if Britney sang the way she talked, if her music was as real and unbridled as her approach to child safety. What’s that, you say you’re not tempted? Fine, play it cool, but I’m in good company. Texas bard Rodney Crowell has imagined exactly that, in song no less:

[quote]It’s hard to know just how it came to pass
This dream to put her art before her ass
She who had the world tied to a string
Is giving up the bling
Who ever heard of such a thing

Britney’s got the blues
She getting good reviews
I heard it on the news
Britney’s got the blues
Britney’s got the blues[/quote]

It’s one thing to suggest Britney might channel her real-life struggles into homespun Americana, the kind critics dote on and Mr. Crowell has come to define. It’s another to describe what such a thing would sound like, and that’s where “Britney’s Got Blues” falls short. Try as I might, I find it impossible to call Britney’s hypothetical blues to mind. If the music of the ’90s—currently subject to an orgy of elegy—was characterized by a do-it-yourself spirit that valued self-expression over slickness, then Britney’s ’99 debut was the decade’s death knell. Can you imagine an artist less likely to do an episode of “MTV Unplugged”?

You might think her one collaboration with country songwriters would point towards a more authentic Britney, but no. The hit-makers in question: Shania Twain and Robert “Mutt” Lange, who were buffing time-worn Nashville tropes to a high sheen when Taylor Swift was still in footie pajamas. Before he married Twain, Lange was best known as Def Leppard’s producer. Until they divorced, the couple lived in Switzerland, for pete’s sake! They’re not Max Martin, but they may as well be. As for the song, “Don’t Let Me Be the Last to Know” sounds more like an ersatz Prince ballad than a Loretta Lynne weepie (not a bad thing per se).

Maybe the reason it’s impossible to conjure a more authentic Britney sound is that the authentic Britney is the one we already have. You know, the synthetic one. After all, why should a girl who was a Disney property by age 11 identify with her Southern-ness in a meaningful way? And who’s to say her particular Southern-ness would make for good art anyway?

Culture snobs like me and Rodney Crowell would like to believe that being Southern means being steeped in Son House and Townes van Zandt, chicken and dumplings, The Sound and the Fury.{{8}} But for a young woman growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, being Southern may have had more to do with strip malls and drive-thrus, Garth and Shania, grits and Velveeta.{{9}} And the homogenization has only accelerated. In a world where regional radio has all but surrendered to YouTube, today’s Southern tween is more likely to share a love of Britney and Taylor with her counterpart in Nova Scotia than revel in rebel pride.{{10}}

Someday, a new star will emerge from the backwoods. She will express her pain and longing in a raw, soulful voice, and the novelty will propel her to the top of the Most Downloaded list—the only pop chart left. But when that day comes, will we hear the century of tradition that speaks through her acoustic guitar? Will we recognize ourselves in her odes to blasted mountaintops, tent revivals, meat and three? Or will we raise our Cheeto-smeared devices and tweet, “Why can’t she be more authentic? Now, Britney—there was a real Southern artist!”

[[1]]If you factor in hits that predate the Hot 100, Elvis is still ahead by roughly 40.[[1]]

[[2]]It’s possible you’ve never thought of her as an artist at all. I asked my dad to read a draft of this essay, prompting the following exchange:

Dad: Is Britney an artist, really?
Me: Why not?
Dad: She can’t sing.
Me: Neither can Leonard Cohen.
Dad: She doesn’t write her own songs.
Me: Neither did Elvis.
Dad: The lyrics are vapid.
Me: So is the first half of the Beatles catalog.
Dad: Okay, but if you’re going to call her an artist, shouldn’t she have at least one of those qualities—a good voice, songwriting talent, something to say?
Me: . . .

By the way, my dad is an editor for Star magazine.[[2]]

[[3]]The closest Britney gets to twang is her trademark, “baby, baby,” best showcased in the opening bars of her first single, “. . . Baby One More Time.” But even that mannerism sounds less like the result of centuries of human migration than the Southern accent preset on a Casio.[[3]]

[[4]]Timberlake would be a promising candidate for the Biggest Southern Artist Since Elvis mantle if he hadn’t spent the past six years subordinating his career as a beloved pop star to his career as a tolerated actor. Then again, what could be more Elvis?[[4]]

[[5]](There’s been speculation in high places that she doesn’t actually appear on her latest hit.)[[5]]

[[6]]Characteristically, Timberlake is much savvier about modulating his Southern-ness to his advantage. On the one hand, he is the proprietor of Southern Hospitality, an upscale barbecue joint in Manhattan (natch). On the other, he once told a British tabloid his hometown of Memphis is good for only two things: “to get arrested or to get pregnant.”[[6]]

[[7]]If nothing else, “Britney: For the Record” will make you a Jamie Spears fan. Considering that it’s his legal responsibility to keep his unbalanced daughter from self-destructing and squandering a $150-million empire, he seems like a remarkably good-natured dude.[[7]]

[[8]]To be clear, the great Rodney Crowell and I have not discussed what it means to be Southern. Like all true fans, I believe my enthusiasm for his music gives me the right to speak for him.[[8]]

[[9]]Judging by the website, Kentwood, Louisiana, actually seems like a lovely little town, especially for golf and mountain biking enthusiasts. The Kentwood Donut Shop serves fresh donuts, biscuits, and croissants daily![[9]]

[[10]]Hip-hop, which celebrates intense identification not only with regions and cities but with specific neighborhoods and housing projects, is the exception that proves the rule. It says something about the contemporary pop monoculture that this is one of the only traits of hip-hop it hasn’t appropriated.[[10]]