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I’m Not There: Where’s Britney Spears in ‘Hold It Against Me’?



Britney Spears' team primed fans for her new "Hold It Against Me" video with 14 teasers -- disconnected snippets of footage that provided split-second peeks at the clip's look. It turned out to be an apt marketing plan, because that's exactly what the finished product is: a rapid-fire montage of images designed to sell products and obscure the fact that Britney Spears no longer dances like Britney Spears.

Britney Spears hasn't been "Britney Spears" for a long time now -- beginning in 2004, when she showed the first signs of rebellion by marrying a hometown friend for 55 hours -- but since her 2007 album "Blackout" was released during the height of her haziest period, her career has been a pop-star version of "Weekend at Bernie's." Britney Spears the brand is too valuable to waste, so her team has had producers craft incredible songs and continued to sell concert tickets, perfume, and albums, propping up Spears in public only when absolutely necessary. While she no longer resembles the sad zombie who stumbled through her so-called "comeback" performance at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, Spears has never again looked like the determined, hard-hitting, passionate artist who pulled double duty on "Saturday Night Live" in 2002, or tangled with Madonna in the 2003 video for "Me Against the Music." In "Hold It Against Me," she's practically a mannequin -- a shell whose job is to sell, sell, sell everything from her latest fragrance to Sony TVs.

"Hold It Against Me" has no plot, which isn't a crime, but it also has no internal logic. Spears dances on a soundstage in front of cameras, floats above the ground in an extravagant wedding dress while surrounded by a ring of monitors playing her old videos, sings in front of a comically gigantic ring of reporters' microphones, engages in hand-to-hand combat with herself, and sprays neon-colored paint over her white dress and the video screens. The clip wraps with a big choreography sequence in which Britney executes her moves with slightly more energy than she did on her 2009 Circus tour, which is to say, not much.

Music videos don't always make sense, but this one (directed by frequent Madonna and Lady Gaga collaborator Jonas Åkerlund) seems deliberately pointless. There are visual cues borrowed from other artists' work -- a meteor crashing into the earth recalls Kanye West's "Runaway," a disembodied lipsticked mouth comes from "Rocky Horror," tubes on Spears' hands previously appeared in Robyn's "Indestructible" -- and devices we've seen in Britney's own videos many times, like the overbearing media, a trope that appeared in "Overprotected," "Everytime," and "Piece of Me."

The most fascinating parts of the video are its most masochistic. While the whole clip feels claustrophobic, trapping Spears in dark, confined spaces, the scene in which she's outfitted in a wedding dress is most striking -- Spears' two marriages both ended unhappily, and she famously didn't wear a gown to the first ceremony. She's simultaneously completely surrounded by images of her former, stronger self in what's almost a psychological torture chamber. The image of two Britneys fighting each other is poignant considering it's a near-literal representation of what she's been doing for the past seven years -- battling her own success, her own image, her own instability in front of an audience of millions.

"Even when you go to jail, y'know, there's the time when you're gonna get out. But in this situation, it's never ending," Spears said in 2008 as she prepared for the release of "Circus," her first album under the strict conservatorship that grants her father legal control over nearly all of her personal and professional affairs. If Spears is more engaged in her own career today, the "Hold It Against Me" video doesn't show it. "Britney Spears" is still a powerful name and a powerful idea, but as a vessel for capitalism now, not as a pop artist.

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