britney is punk af

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It’s Friday night, and you’re heading round to a gaff with your pals from art school. It’s not your usual skeezy piss-up, it’s one of those parties where all the boys have tiny beanies and all the girls have new wave mullets. It is, for all intents and purposes, a Cool Party. It’s good fun, until you notice that the aux is working its way towards you. Christ. What will you put on? The fate of your interactions for the rest of your night rests upon this. 

You pause, and then decide to take the risk. Fergie’s Fergalicious begins to play out the speaker and agonisingly, you wait for everyone to register what’s been put on. A few excruciating seconds pass… and the party goes wild. Party-goers, regardless of their stylistic sub-genre – e-girls, skaters, punks, softbois, club kids and hip hop rats – start cutting shapes to Fergie. The queue is then quickly loaded with pop classics, Sound of the Underground by Girls Aloud, Sweet Escape by Gwen Stefani, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head by Kylie Minogue… 

Congrats mate. You’ve only gone and done it. Hero behaviour.

But try and put Dua Lipa on, currently in the charts with Levitating, a song with an equally optimum BPM for arse-shaking and fist-pumping, and watch your arty new pals filter off the dance floor. Why? Dua Lipa has the same ultra-fun quality as any of the 90s and 00s ladies that everyone in the room was enjoying just a minute before – what’s different? With just one contemporary track, it’s like everyone remembers that they aren’t supposed to like mainstream music. Pop is uncool once more.

Why is current pop music seemingly cursed by its own modernity?  By definition, pop music is “accessible to a general public”. Musicologist Simon Frith stresses the prevalence of “easy listening” and “light entertainment” as core elements of its DNA. 

Yet there’s been a negative attitude to modern pop for as long as I can remember. As an anxious and mildly unattractive preteen, I cultivated a disgust for popular music in the charts. It was, in my tiny stupid brain, a way of demonstrating that I had ‘refined’ taste. In actuality, it meant that instead of enjoying myself at school discos, I was a relentless little hater, standing in the corner and slating Justin Bieber, One Direction, Jessie J and Nicki Minaj. I would have died at the thought that someone would realise that I secretly thought that Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen was kind of good, and slagged it extra hard in case my dirty secret got out. It wasn’t until I started to chill out a bit at 15 that I let pop filter back into my life once more.

I started with Britney Spears – initially, it was done somewhat ironically, enjoying the kitschy cool of being into a washed-up pop icon. I began with the classics like Toxic and Oops!… I Did It Again, and with each saccharine track that I listened to I fell a little deeper down the Britney hole. Eventually, I’d moved completely away from her classic discography and found myself getting into her more unknown recent music. It was brilliant. I bought a Britney t-shirt that was two sizes too small, and while wearing it, began to work my way through the previous generations pop idols. Spice Girls, and then old Beyoncé tracks. Then Gwen Stefani. J-Lo, Nelly Furtado, Fergie. Unrelenting, unfiltered, fun tracks. A whole new genre had opened up for me.

So why could I get into these 90s and 00s pop superstars like Britney but not the chart-toppers of my own time? Well, the answer is pretty simple – it was safe to enjoy her tunes. Britney has been around for decades, and her iconic …Baby One More Time was in charts before I was even born, meaning that the track was old enough to be long separated from its original teenage girl fanbase, who were a generation or two older than me. Any stigma linking tune to fanbase had worn away a long time ago. There  were no social politics involved. The question was simple: did I like her music? I did. I loved it.

Discovering that my issues with pop were linked to image then forced me to confront my internalised misogyny – the thought that I was somehow ‘above’ music marketed towards my age and gender and was therefore ‘better’ than the girls my age interested in it. To be fair on myself, there was an element of self-preservation in this attitude, as it protected me from the rampant stigma against pop. Negative discourse surrounding the genre comes from every angle – the low-level negativity of boys calling pop ‘basic bitch’ music, to the more scholarly negativity of those classing the genre as ‘low art’. 

For example, Arran Lomas’s viral twenty-minute video, “Why is Modern Music So Awful?” drags pop with alarming conviction as he references science, studies, and stats, as well as employing the odd jargon-heavy bit of wank to back up his claims: “the timbral palette has been homogenised”. Although it’s basically an opinion video justifying why Lomas prefers thickly textured acoustic music, his self-righteous attitude and pseudo-academic presentation is enough to make you feel a bit stupid for being into music that doesn’t display “harmonic complexity”. Even musicologists like Frith fuel negativity around the genre – in The Cambridge Companion To Pop and Rock, he describes how listeners, “can and do despise pop music in general as bland commercial pap”, and that pop is not “aimed at elites or dependent on any kind of knowledge or listening skill”. 

As the musical zeitgeist is inherently shaped by the discourse around it, the presentation of Frith’s sneering comments in such an “academic” context portrays opinion as fact. The apparent legitimacy of Frith and Lomas’ musical elitism against pop results in teenage girls feeling shitty for listening to music aimed at their demographic, and results in a reluctance to engage with the genre . That was at the root of my issue with pop. I didn’t hate being associated with teenage girls – I just hated what liking ‘teenage girl music’ supposedly said about my intellect. I wish I’d known all of this at age twelve and had just enjoyed the music free from internalised shame because, my god, does Boyfriend by Justin Bieber fucking slap.

Misogyny underpinning approaches to pop can conversely be seen when we look at what is regarded as ‘listenable’ pop – essentially when pop is reframed by male DJs and reviewers. For example, during my time at high school, putting on an ABBA track at a party was seen as desperately uncool and the boys would usually filter out the room, grumbling as they left. Yet, at FLY Open Air music festival in 2019, French House DJ Folamour mixed ABBA’s mega-kitsch banger Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) into his Boiler Room set, and the crowd went wild. Almost every comment under the viral Youtube video singles out ‘that ABBA moment’ and Folamour is viewed as a legend for reviving the track from its Mamma Mia mumsy reputation. I’m glad that people are recognizing the track for the banger that it is, but it’s funny seeing how edgy boys who were just too good for ABBA at our parties are now the ones telling me that I simply *have* to watch this iconic Boiler Room moment…

Equally, Charli XCX, mainstream pop queen in the early 2010s, has enjoyed a renaissance of cool after receiving a glowing review on her self-titled album Charli from internet music reviewer Anthony Fantano on his channel ‘The Needle Drop’. Charli was a super formative album for the current music scene and contributed to the sudden rise in popularity of the Hyperpop genre, and so fully deserved the (rare) 9 that Fantano gave her. Charli was therefore classed as acceptable, listenable pop by Fantano, and as a result, it’s not uncommon to see a Charli XCX track crop up the Spotify playlists of people who wouldn’t be seen dead listening to her contemporaries. Fantano is extremely knowledgeable about music and of course his opinion on music is entirely valid, but it gets a little tiring when Needle Drop fanboys only trust that pop music has value if it has received his stamp of approval. Pop requires reinvention by men such as Fantano and Folamour or years of distance from its female-dominated fanbase before it is acceptably listenable.

And no, I’m not claiming that people who don’t like pop are all raging misogynists. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and for some, pop just doesn’t do it for them. No worries at all. It’s just grating when self-touted Music Fans who are quick to tell you that they ‘listen to everything’, from hardstyle techno to Japanese ambient, sampling the most ear-splitting tracks to see if it’s to taste, will openly scoff at the idea that they might expand into the occasional pop song. If it’s fine for me to ask you for your opinion on the new Death Grips album – a band that even a DG fan like myself will admit makes music that sounds like three cavemen found a mixer and made a mixtape together – then it should be fine for me to ask your opinion on Ariana Grande’s new album. Elitism in the music community shouldn’t have reached the point where you can’t admit that you enjoy accessible music.

All I’m saying is, let’s see how Dua’s aptly named Future Nostalgia album, firmly lodged in both the UK Top 40 charts, and the hearts of teenage girls, becomes cool in ten years. Give modern pop a chance, especially if you enjoy a guilty sprinkling of Gwen, or J-Lo at a party. It’s time to stop letting your cool image get in the way of a good time. In fact, there’s literally nothing sicker than unashamedly listening to music that you think is fun, regardless of what anyone else thinks.  When we get down to it, the gals who listened to Britney Spears when her tunes were topping the charts, and loved her with all their hearts despite being told that they were uncool or dumb or vapid for being into her, were the true punks all along. You ladies really were the coolest.