Guilty Pleasures, Round One: Britney Spears (1) vs. Pussycat Dolls (16)
EW’s Music Mix is searching for the Greatest Guilty Pleasure Musical Act of All Time. With 32 seeded contestants (see all the matchups), this tournament is sure to change hearts, minds, and lives for weeks to come. Read/listen to the following, and then cast your vote in the poll after the jump; reader comments will be used in subsequent rounds, so we encourage you to also explain to the group why you chose the way you did. Note: In case of a tie, please select the artist you feel more ashamed to adore. Thank you.
It was just a white oxford shirt. But when Britney Spears decided to knot it above her midriff — and according to legend, that was all Brit-Brit’s idea — she turned her “…Baby One More Time” video into the apotheosis of the naughty-Catholic-schoolgirl dream. The year was 1998, and our planet hadn’t yet been taken over by text messaging, TRL, Twitter, Twilight, or the rest of the teen/tween culture bloc that now dominates the days and nights of every human being, regardless of age or general crabbiness. She was the Mouseketeer made good, the Mouseketeer gone bad. She was carefree existence personified. And she was irresistable.
Based on EW reader response to this Guilty Pleasures project, she is also the artist that we feel the worst about loving, by a wide margin. Mostly, detractors brought up her voice — less “bubblegum” than “bubblegum burnt to the bottom of a frying pan being wielded by an evil robot” — and the fact that she is almost entirely built on artifice, a little girl lost inside a pair of hot pants stitched by a bunch of middle-aged marketing geniuses. Her short-lived reality series, Britney & Kevin: Chaotic, was a comical attempt at revealing the “truth” behind her confectionary existence; it turned out to be a complete sham of a TV show that also managed to be compulsively watchable in the same way people stare at zoo webcams, hoping the polar bear will do something cool. The same goes for every barefooted, Cheeto-soaked tabloid exploit in the years to come, from her wide-eyed flirtation with straight-up child endangerment to her viciously hairless attacks on the paparazzi who’ve stalked her to the ends of the earth. We watch Britney Spears so closely we’ve damn near killed her, and if that’s not something to feel guilty about… Okay, so that’s a different essay.
Ultimately — and speaking only for myself — I keep coming back to this girl not because she represents the kind of values (musically or otherwise) I’d want for myself, but because by allowing herself to be a blank slate on which my wildest pop culture fantasies could be projected, she has burrowed into a corner of my lizard brain and persuaded me that learning the choreography from a pop song’s video is both okay and slightly life-affirming, if not something I’ll tell my friends I spent all day Saturday working on. In my heart she shall remain, until the day I no longer find solace in the faux-exotic slither of “Toxic” or the desperate latter-day seductions of “Me Against the Music” (hey Britney!). I know it’s not “real music.” I know she’s more machine than man. But pleasing all of us is the only job she’s ever known. She has risked life and limb and strangulation at the metaphorical hands of giant snakes for the sake of that employment. And she does it so, so well. After all, we didn’t start watching Britney because she was a spectacle. She became a spectacle because we couldn’t look away.
As I sit here writing this ode to the guilty pleasure of the Pussycat Dolls, not-so-secret evidence of my love for PCD lays nearby in an office cupboard: a PCD hoodie that I often wear around the offices of EW. But it’s not just a black cotton sweatshirt. Embroidered on the top right corner is “PCD,” and along the hood are the words “Loosen Up My Buttons.” And since most PCD fans are female and under 18, I’m forced to wear a young girl’s size XL. Again, to be clear, I wear this at work… with zero shame… and I will be turning 30 in a few months. That’s because I’ve embraced the pop-tart pleasure of the Pussycat Dolls.
Senior year in college, my roommates and I dressed up as a fictitious rock band whose name is too crude to mention here. We all concocted our best rocker ensemble — mine was leather pants, a sequin-encrusted black tee, eyeliner, and blue hair. And I had a blast. If memory serves, I actually wore the outfit to two separate Halloween parties on different nights. It was cheesy, kinda garish, and sublimely awesome at the same time. I could describe the Dolls with the same adjectives, hence my utter love for anything and everything they do. Speaking as someone who was hardly a rebel growing up, they’re total “bad girl” (or boy) wish-fulfillment: a real-life version of Rizzo and the Pink Ladies, Jem and the Holograms, or, more appropriately, Josie and the Pussycats.
Then, of course, there’s the music. I’m partial to the seductive, Middle Eastern charms of “Buttons” (as my tacky hoodie clearly shows). But then there’s “When I Grow Up,” “Don’t Cha,” “I Hate This Part,” “Elevator.” All totally silly, but so what? I don’t need all my music to move me to tears. Sometimes I just want some sassy ladies singin’ about how hot they are. I see no problem with that, because I think secretly we all wish we had that kind of confidence.
I must confess that I spent a good portion of my 2007 work year at EW shadowing PCD lead singer Nicole Scherzinger as she attempted to launch a solo album. It was a slightly frustrating experience — release dates for her proposed album kept changing until the project sort of disappeared altogether. But it oddly never stopped me from loving the Dolls. And I won’t. Not as long as I can still fit into my hoodie. — Tim Stack