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The Anti-Britney Swindle

Pop music has always been a spectacle of artifice – from the Monkees to Madonna – but in 2003 it yearned for authenticity. This feature on the ‘Britney backlash’ appeared in News Limited’s Sunday Magazine on 25 May, 2003.

Poor Britney Spears. 2002 just wasn’t her year. Her album, Britney, was supposed to attract a sophisticated older audience, but ended up eroding her pre-teen fan base. Her movie debut, Crossroads, bombed at the box office. She was dumped by her boyfriend Justin Timberlake, who then went on to enjoy the ‘grown-up’ success Britney had craved. He even dissed Britney in his video for ‘Cry Me A River’. And to cap it all off, long-time sponsor Pepsi replaced Britney with the more bootylicious Beyoncé Knowles.

Pepsi’s decision is telling. Britney is no longer “the choice of a new generation”. Her fans are growing up, and they’re tired of her slick beats, her coy gyrations and exposed midriff. And for an increasing number of cynical teenagers, Britney is symptomatic of everything that’s crass and fake about the music industry.

Accordingly, a new kind of female pop singer has arisen. She won’t wear skimpy clothes. She writes her own songs and plays her own instruments. She doesn’t enjoy being pawed by backup dancers. And she’s not afraid to speak her mind, even if it means biting the hand that feeds her. In short, she’s the Anti-Britney.

The first singer to be dubbed ‘the Anti-Britney’ was Michelle Branch, 19, a guitarist and songwriter. Her first album for Madonna’s record label Maverick, The Spirit Room, sold close to a million copies in its first year of release. Branch went on to collaborate with Carlos Santana on ‘The Game of Love’, picking up a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals.

Branch’s first single, ‘Everywhere’, had critics hail the then-17-year-old as the antidote for Britney Spears’ sugar-coated pop. Branch took this in her stride. After all, she’d also heard herself called a “younger Sheryl Crow” or a “happy Alanis Morrissette”. “It’s natural for people to want to compare someone to something,” she said. “It’s just a way of asking what the sound’s like.”

Vanessa Carlton, however, is irritated by the ‘Anti-Britney’ tag. “It’s funny,” she says, “You’d never hear Rage Against The Machine compared to Radiohead. But if they were women, they’d be compared all the time.”

21-year-old Carlton was a waitress in Hell’s Kitchen when she was discovered by A&M Records. The smash single ‘A Thousand Miles’ followed, and her album Be Not Nobody sold 300,000 copies in three months. Rolling Stone magazine rated her in its “Top 10 Artists to Watch in 2002”.

Anti-Britneys have since been scrambling out of the woodwork. Reality-TV ingenue Kelly Osbourne impressed sceptical critics with her her chubby insouciance and her self-penned album Shut Up. Portuguese-Canadian Nelly Furtado burst onto the scene in 2001 with ‘I’m Like A Bird’, and won a Grammy in 2002 for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

Perhaps the most notorious Anti-Britney, however, is another Canadian: Avril Lavigne. The 18-year-old singer of ‘Complicated’ and ‘Sk8er Boi’ leaves whimsical folksiness to other Anti-Britneys, projecting a tomboyish skater-punk image. She’s also far less diplomatic than Branch and Carlton.

“I don’t like that term — ‘the anti-Britney.’ It’s stupid,” Lavigne told US magazine Entertainment Weekly. Yet, in an interview with Chartattack.com, Lavigne railed against Britney. “She’s not being herself [onstage] because she’s dancing like a ho … She’s doing one thing and saying another thing, y’know? It’s definitely not what I’m going to do.”

‘Being yourself’ seems to be the thing that unites musically diverse Anti-Britneys like Lavigne, Carlton, Furtado, Branch, Osbourne, and even jazz singer Norah Jones. They all claim to write and play their own material, to have found fame as a result of their own talents, and to express themselves through music. Yet, despite their insistence on individuality, their soundbites all seem creepily alike.

“When I sing, I have a sense of peace,” says Branch. “I become the core person of who I am – the essence of me.” Lavigne says: “I want people to know that my music is real and honest – it came from my heart. I was just being true to myself.” Osbourne’s website gushes: “She wasn’t a diva, didn’t wear belly shirts, and would not pander for the ever-present cameras. No way. She would be herself or all bets were off.”

Do these pop stars really have that much control over their music and image? Are they indeed ‘real’, or just a clever marketing exercise to woo jaded teenagers? Making arbitrary distinctions between Britney Spears (fake) and the Anti-Britneys (real), as many journalists have done, certainly won’t answer these questions.

But the Anti-Britney does reveal a lot about the roles our society allows for young women. It’s all about two ideas: authenticity and ‘girl power’.

Artists, or even entire musical genres, have risen and fallen on their ‘street cred’, and musicians despise nothing more than ‘selling out’. This issue of authenticity in pop music is still hotly debated by music scholars. Crudely, anything symbolising music as a craft, a culture or an aesthetic is deemed authentic, while anything that symbolises music as a disposable, marketable product is deemed inauthentic.

So, actually playing a musical instrument, particularly an acoustic instrument, is a mark of authenticity, as is writing songs that reflect your own experience, and performing live. Slogging it out at the lower end of the industry is also authentic, as is independent record production and a love of music for itself rather than as a path to fame and fortune.

According to these criteria, there are plenty of talented female singers who come across as ‘authentic’: PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, Fiona Apple. But it’s all subjective. Let’s take another look at Britney Spears: a singer from a very young age; a veteran of the Mickey Mouse Club; a hard worker and entertaining stage performer.

The Anti-Britney singers, too, call ‘authenticity’ into question, successfully combining both authentic and inauthentic elements. For a start, their claims to write their own material need to be taken with a grain of salt.

“I sit down with a guitar player usually, and I come up with melody and lyrics,” Avril Lavigne explains. Michelle Branch wrote roughly half the tracks on her album; her singles were co-written by her producer. Kelly Osbourne’s album was also co-written.

Because the Anti-Britneys have muddied the idea of authenticity, music industry pundits have worked overtime to separate ‘real’ from ‘fake’. In an interview with Norah Jones, the Herald Sun’s Cameron Adams lumped Avril Lavigne in the ‘inauthentic’ camp along with Britney and ‘N Sync, presenting Jones as the one, true Anti-Britney, with eight Grammys to back her up.

Other critics are calling the Anti-Britneys hypocrites. New York’s Village Voice branded Michelle Branch’s album a turkey, noting: “Only in a biz discombobulated by teenpop could an 18-year-old with an acoustic guitar be plausibly promoted as ‘the anti-Britney.’ Don’t you remember? Writing Your Own Songs means zip, zilch, nada.”

Alternative music site Anti-Music.com mounted an even more sarcastic critique, imagining the record company board meeting at which Avril Lavigne and Kelly Osbourne were ‘created’. An imaginary exec says breezily: “Let [Avril] contribute something to the songs like a lyric or two so we can tell the fans that she co-wrote the songs.” The imaginary exec adds that it’s irrelevant if Osbourne can’t sing: “Once we get into the studio we can make her voice sound like anything we want.”

In an industry that defends its own ideas of authenticity so savagely, it isn’t so surprising that the Anti-Britneys have adopted such a liberal interpretation of ‘writing their own songs’. When critics present them as pop puppets, their only chance of musical credibility lies in appearing in control of their music.

Lavigne told Us Weekly: “I started working with these really talented people, but I just wasn’t feeling it; the songs weren’t representative of me … Then they started talking about having people write for me, but I had to write myself. I had to do my music.”

There’s a much-maligned term for young women who appear in control: ‘girl power’. This fluffy, pro-active brand of feminism was popularised by the Spice Girls, another group of female singers who faced accusations of being ‘manufactured’. Girl power, also called ‘post-feminism’ or ‘power feminism’, holds that girls can dress how they want, say what they want, and achieve anything they want, if they just try hard enough.

Girl power dovetails nicely with the Anti-Britney mantra of ‘being yourself’. In her 2002 book Girl Heroes: the New Force in Popular Culture, Queensland academic Susan Hopkins describes how pop culture impresses on young women the importance of pursuing one’s own destiny. More and more, Hopkins writes, the average girl’s desired destiny is no longer romantic love. It’s fame.

The Anti-Britneys perfectly combine the twin goals of ‘being yourself’ and ‘being a celebrity’. Nobody encapsulates this better than Kelly Osbourne, who has always lived under media scrutiny, and still comes across as independent and down-to-earth. Kelly freely admits she owes her pop success entirely to her famous dad.

By contrast, the other Anti-Britneys’ biographies are a girl-power twist on the Cinderella story, with some gestures towards musical authenticity thrown in for good measure. They write songs alone in their bedrooms, or slog it out in sleazy dives and county fairs, before being miraculously discovered by the new Prince Charming: the record company executive.

Young women who grow up craving celebrity see the Anti-Britneys as proof that raw talent and chutzpah will get them to the top. After unleashing Christina Aguilera on an unsuspecting public, A&M Records president Ron Fair produced Carlton’s record Be Not Nobody. Fair claims Anti-Britney artists succeed because their audiences can relate to them. “The same kids who two years ago were buying ‘N Sync and Christina Aguilera records are responding to styles of music that are more song- and artist-driven. They’re two years older, and the realism of singers singing their own songs has a lot of appeal.”

Branch says: “There are so many ‘put together’ musical acts today, younger girls write and tell me – ‘They all dance and sing and look so perfect, and it’s hard to watch them, then I heard your music and now I’m writing songs.’”

But getting famous is never that easy. Being yourself, says Hopkins, often means reinventing yourself. And girl power is as much about canny image management as self-confidence. “In current media culture, to be ‘mere’ image is to be empowered,” Hopkins writes. “And girl-power celebrities are acquiring more control over content and delivery in the image trades.”

The old chestnut of ‘creative control’, however, doesn’t account for the fact the Anti-Britneys work in a highly structured, money-driven industry in which just about everything – and everyone – gets manipulated. You have to wonder how much they believe their own publicity. As a marketing executive famously told Fortune magazine in 1997: “If you want to sell to the girl-power crowd, you have to pretend that they’re running things; that they’re in charge.”

While girl power may make young women feel good about themselves, it definitely has its limitations. “I have a lot of autonomy – I co-produced my album, I wrote my album, I co-direct my videos,” Nelly Furtado says. “But until I have my own television network, my own magazine and my own video network, I can only do so much.”

Norah Jones adds that her own success is more about luck and timing than anything else. “I think it’s a good record,” she says, “but there are a lot of good records in the world that nobody hears.”

For now, the pop pendulum seems to be swinging in the Anti-Britneys’ direction. Former pop queens Spears and Aguilera have both turned to heartfelt, personal lyrics. Aguilera’s current album Stripped features songs about her abusive childhood and the ode to self-esteem, ‘Beautiful’, as well as the sexed-up nymphet numbers for which she’s famous.

And Britney? “I feel basically more in control, and I think it shows in my music,” she said recently. “I’m just trying to do the kind of music I like.”

Sidebar: “Who are the Anti-Britneys?”

Michelle Branch
Born: Arizona, USA
Age: 19
Songs: ‘Everywhere’, ‘The Game of Love’ (duet with Santana)
She’s the Anti-Britney Because:
She’s been playing guitar and writing her own songs since she was 14. She understands that she’ll be pigeonholed as an artist, and rolls with it. But she won’t dress ‘sexy’. “I write music, and that’s why I’m here. … I never want the way I look or what I’m wearing to be the focus.”

Nelly Furtado
Born: British Columbia, Canada
Age: 23
Songs: ‘I’m Like A Bird’, ‘Turn Out The Light’
She’s the Anti-Britney Because:
She could sing in Portuguese at age four, was a rap MC at 14, and has collaborated with both Portuguese folk singers and hip-hop stars including Missy Elliott and Jurassic 5. She plans to follow Whoa, Nelly! with a world music-influenced album.

Vanessa Carlton
Born: Pennsylvania, USA
Age: 21
Songs: ‘A Thousand Miles’, ‘Beautiful Day’
She’s the Anti-Britney Because:
She’s a trained pianist whose songs are influenced by Beethoven and Debussy as well as Pink Floyd. She refuses to categorise her music. “I think once people listen to the record, they’ll realise I’m just me.”

Avril Lavigne
Born: Ontario, Canada
Age: 18
Songs: ‘Complicated’, ‘Sk8er Boi’, ‘I’m With You’
She’s the Anti-Britney Because:
She’d rather hang out with the guys than flirt with them. She’s full of skater-punk attitude, wears singlets, jeans and men’s ties, plays guitar, and writes biting songs from her own experience.

Kelly Osbourne
Born: London, UK
Age: 18
Songs: ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, ‘Shut Up’
She’s the Anti-Britney Because:
She’s not skinny and blonde, she swears like a trooper, wears eccentric clothes, and has an alt-rock boyfriend called Bert. What’s more, she doesn’t shrink from attributing her success to her famous dad.

Norah Jones
Born: Texas, US
Age: 23
Songs: ‘Don’t Know Why’
She’s the Anti-Britney Because:
Her jazz-flavoured album Come Away With Me wasn’t even supposed to be a pop hit, yet she won eight Grammys (count them!) in 2003. She sings like an angel, and plays piano like a charm, yet her music baffles radio stations.

Sidebar: What’s next? The anti-Anti-Britney

Former Bardot member Tiffany Wood is well known to readers of Ralph magazine. She appears, bikini-clad, on the cover of this month’s edition, rebranded as Tiffani.

Tiffani is busily working on a solo album, and has written or co-written 22 songs. Sound familiar? Well, she describes her guitar-based album as “pretty much a cross between Michelle Branch and Avril Lavigne.”

Tiffani seems to be following the path beaten by former R&B star Pink, who also reinvented herself as a rock chick. But while Tiffani may be aiming for Anti-Britney attitude, stripping down for an audience clearly doesn’t bother her. Contrast this with Vanessa Carlton: “I can wear clothing on every part of my body and feel just as sexy as if I was wearing a bra and panties.”

Hardened by her time in the pop machine, Tiffani also doesn’t spout platitudes about authenticity. She says of her experience with Bardot: “It taught me to treat the music industry as a business and, much as it’s something you love to do, everybody is out there trying to make money out of you.”