Snap Judgment: "Hold It Against Me" by Britney Spears
It's fitting that the latest provocation from America's sexpot sweetheart Britney Spears should surface the same week that both Jennifer Lopez and Gypsy Rose Lee are in the news. Brit's new single, "Hold It Against Me," has leaked a day before its official release. The song finds its plasticene soul somewhere between the soft sexiness Lopez employed in her vintage singles and the tough-minded wit of Lee's self-protective burlesque routines.
Think of it as a new version of the hard-soft dynamic employed by Nirvana. Instead of remaking rock by marrying punk's crashing chaos to invitingly Beatlesque melodies, Spears -- or really, her billion-dollar producers, Max Martin and Dr. Luke -- sustain her career on the cutting edge of dance-pop by blending the near-industrial beats and breakdowns of English grime music with a beatifically insipid chorus worthy of Martin's recently minted star, Taio Cruz.
How does this relate to Lopez and Lee? Both offer fine examples of what it takes to survive in the novelty-obessed pop world, a matter that's also long preoccupied Spears, and which must feel even more pressing now that the Louisiana-born proto-nubile is getting uncomfortably close to 30.
Lopez's musical efforts may have recently flopped, but her comeback via "American Idol," ramping up in light of the show's return on Jan. 19, reminds us that the right kind of female pop star -- the flexible type, with enough personality to keep her distinct from newer rivals but not so stubbornly committed to herself that a fresh context can't upgrade her -- can have a longer public life than anyone expected. And a just-published new biography of burlesque legend Lee again brings to mind the most salient fact about American sex symbols: Given the nation's repressed attitudes about genuine public displays of sensuality, the best method for mass seduction is a massive brain-tease.
"Hold It Against Me" hardly offers the most original come-on of recent years (or weeks, really; not with Katy Perry and Ke$ha bouncing around out there). But it's a classic. The song takes its title and lyrical hook from the kind of line Rose might have uttered, though it suggests a joke of Groucho Marx's, who'd wag his eyebrows at pretty female guests on the television program "You Bet Your Life" and say, "If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?" Howard Bellamy, a major Marx fan, took the sexual revolution to Margaritaville in the 1979 Bellamy Brothers hit based around the phrase, and the gentler elements of the Spears single have a similar soft-rock tinge -- it may just be studio trickery, but the chorus seems to substitute a flock of feather-haired warblers for Spears and her drawling sneer. (My excellent critical friend Maura Johnston has pointed out on the new website Popdust that the chorus' melody may be borrowed from the hard-to-take synth-pop chestnut "(I Just) Died in Your Arms" by Cutting Crew.)
Brit's sneer makes a slight comeback on the verses; Spears further proves her spiritual affinity for fellow trash icon Axl Rose when she turns the phrase "a little hazy" into a tiny heavy metal explosion. And then there are the breaks that come late in the track -- the places in a dance song where the beats turn around and take over, and which, in this particular effort, offer the promise of something more.
Finally trading in gloss for sonic adventure in the song's last few seconds, Martin and Gottwald slice and dice Spears's incitements ("drop it like a hood," she sneers, adding just a drop of hip-hop attitude to the mix) into a rapidly shifting mix of dry-ice synth lines and ammunition beats. Everything jumps. "Hold It Against Me" briefly transforms from the kind of pop smoothie whose invetable omnipresence will soon make us want to vomit into a hit that actually could take the charts somewhere new.
But it's just a couple of moments. The glove drops and Spears' latest routine ends. It's offered just enough to bring the paying audience back for more in March, when her seventh album hits retail. Nice bait and switch, Britney -- Gypsy would have been impressed.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Britney Spears. Credit: Matt Sayles/Associated Press