Icon Aughts :: Britney Spears and T.I.: Southern Phoenix

Round 4 of “A Dime, A Dozen” finds its focus on The South –– and the two who proved that it could indeed rise again: Britney Spears and T.I.

Britney Spears and Tip Harris: these two from the belly of the map went from trendy to trendsetting in two tales of pop glory that had many Northern Aggressors fearing a second coup d’etat from below. However, both Spears and Harris tumbled before reigning triumphant. It’s only a loss if you lose the lesson –– or weapon.

Straight shooter Lil’ Wayne once said, “This is Southern, face it. If we too simple then y’all don’t get the basics;” if nothing else, these two embodied the two most basic elements of American Pop this decade: “Sex Sells; Crime Pays.”

Britney Spears: This one I’ve followed since, well, since she became as much a part of American culture as apple pie (read: American Pie).

Spears began the millennium with 2000’s Oops!… I Did It Again – and further solidified her place as the commercial mouth for corporate America’s message; acting as the shadow of our human nature, and thus self-prophesying the decade that would follow. Like the original Little Red Riding Hood, Spears walked that path of pins and needles that those pop godmothers before her did – and as she led the way, we couldn’t help but follow – denying it all day.

“Oops” is another example of how you can in fact bring the future back. Politically, it foretold what we would be saying in 2004, and repeating over and over again throughout the years between then and now. That mentality was more than a moniker; it was a motto, mindset, mantra, and message that almost perfectly summarized this, the Rolling Stone “Decade of Lost Chances.” We hadn’t been this content with clumsy (read: careless, reckless, negligent, downright apocalyptically audacious) since we allowed Urkel to keep asking “Did I do that?” Yes, you did it and you knew what you were doing, as you were doing it –– but, spilled milk, sunken city: we all make mistakes… eight years running.

Just like a mini-machine, Spears kept churning out splendific –– artificially sweet in every way, sugar-based-but-not-quite-the-real-thing-who-cares-it-still-tastes-great –– pop hits. In a decade that saw a peak of “that” pop, Britney reigned as the ultimate passive pipeline. She was a channel for neo-con veils, and distorted and false ideals in theory and greater impact; even on an immediate level though, she was a channel for the likes of Joseph Kahn, Max Martin, Pharrell Williams and the Neptunes, Wayne Isham, Hype Williams, Madonna, R. Kelly, Diddy, and countless mini-Brits. People used Britney as a footstool to boost themselves up a few inches higher and remain relevant –– while letting her forever dwell in the eternal vapid void of the du jour, the moment (in dissimilar fashion to another artist of the decade –– watch this space). While it worked for the short term, this inch-by-inch boost was done at her –– and our –– expense. Beyond her music and career, we all used Britney for a quick pick-me-up-by-knocking-you-down.

Take 2000’s “Oops” performance at the VMAs, and 2001’s “Slave” show: MTV dictated the growth of a superstar, and we were happy to oblige. Then something happened: 2003’s Toxic kiss of death. Britney was at her peak when Madonna took her breath away in more ways than one. Britney had shed her virginal facade –– so we thought –– and at her peak in 2003, she was in her zone. She was comfortable with herself and in her skin. However, the moment that happens, the comfort zone disappears. Ms. Mainstream Maestro herself, Christina Aguilera, saw her career soar after the VMAs. However, the road got rockier for Ms. Spears. Xtina’s road-tripping partner in crime, Justin Timberlake, propelled his career from footstool Britney by spearheading his debut album with the epic single: “Cry Me a River.” By the end of the decade, Britney cried the Pacific. First, the kiss; then, the River; then, Jason; then K-Fed… then: K-Fed. Spears’ life went from Chaotic to catastrophic to borderline criminal.

We all know what happened between 2005 and 2007, for all intents and purposes: she died –– well, Blacked out for sure. Then somehow, she came back to life. Not in a special or miraculous way, but in an I’m-not-dead-but-you’re-blind-if-you-can’t-see-that-I’m-damaged way. As such, MTV obliged and Britney took home her first three (yes, all it takes is 7 years of blood, sweat, chewing gum, Marlboro Lights, and tears –– a river of tears, mind you) VMA Moonmen at the 2008 show. She didn’t perform, she didn’t do anything crazy or mind-blowing –– but she was there, clear and present, and that was the David/Goliath move of the year in and of itself.

You all –– we all –– know Britney, this wasn’t even necessary to elaborate on high and low lighted events of her career thus far. Why she remains iconic though, is because she was the pre-eminent sacrificial lamb on the American pop/media altar; at a time when we were all bootmakers to the kings, we had this girl lick ours. She was the not-so-virgin-only-in-an-alternate-universe-where-lies-are-veils-to-deter-reality-or-what-some-call-America given to the gods. We may have a recession now, but there was a time when plenty of paparazzi made a killing off of killing the bubblegum icon that popped. Now though, in this crazy Circus called America, now all eyes are on her again. However, now she is the ringleader – kinda, sorta, in a way.

T.I.: Pretense: OutKast notwithstanding, Tip Harris turned the whole country into his own personal trap this decade; just as he rose to the top of the Bankhead ranks, so Tip did to become the King of the South and the Billboard charts. He took the throne and then the pedestal fell out from under, Harris went from the patriarchy to the Pen.

His discography illustrates –– more perfectly than most –– the ascent, quick but catastrophic descent, and the slow steady climb back to the top. He did not project a future self or false portrayal onto the pop landscape, he merely recounted his glory tales and let the world know who indeed was the King of the South –– no, not Flip.

T.I. began the decade with 2001’s I’m Serious; though he may have been, the sales weren’t, and neither was L.A. Reid (yes, that L.A. Reid –– watch this space) who dropped T.I. after the debut flop. So, T.I. did what he did best: grand hustled. What more apropos way for Harris to step onto the music scene independently than with an album entitled: Trap Muzik. That’s exactly what it was, and so broke T.I. onto the mainstream music scene with his first hit single: “24s.” Trap Muzik saw Harris flip the sophomore slump, and spit with the swagger of a brand new college kid. In 2003, we ate those tracks up like crackcakes. Continuing to write his own history, T.I. followed up in 2004 with Urban Legend –– the underrated, but quite solid third effort. T.I.’s release titles became his nametag, so it shall be written and so it shall be done. So, it should’ve come as no surprise that 2006’s King solidified his place as rap royalty: what you know about that? Tip knows all about that. As the tale goes though, heavy is the head that wears the crown; and 2007’s T.I. vs. T.I.P. reflected the inner turmoil between the two sides of Harris –– the gangsta and the gentleman even further distanced after the death of his best friend and bodyguard Big Phil. That death turned Mr. My Love (watch this space) into Macbeth. The increased paranoia –– and guilt –– led Tip to hoard an arsenal of weaponry in defense of his own self, and those close to him. Yet, so full of artless jealousy is guilt; it spills itself in fearing to be spilt. The amount of guns T.I. had stocked away for a rainy day, brought a deluge of Feds one fateful October afternoon. Tip was arrested on machine gun charges and sentenced to 366 days in federal prison. Again, writing his own history, Tip released his most recent studio release to date, Paper Trail, before serving his sentence.

Harris is a changed man though, and like a grown man he blames no one but himself. We went on that entire journey with him, in real time –– but more importantly, in real life. When he gets out, we will no doubt continue along with him where we both left.

Tip is a martyr, as is Britney. They are on this list because they ripped the veils off assumed celebrity this decade –– assumed celebrity detachment from real problems, and real consequences. These two from below the Mason-Dixon gave us the living breathing novel of how one can propel to prominence higher than the Georgia Pine, only to fall back down to the belly of the map –– and beast –– and claw their way back with a Sherman-like fervor; but also a sapience, over shock value. Sex eventually sells out, and crime’s paychecks bounce at some point. Brit and Tip were our reminder that you can always bounce back and become a better version of yourself – no matter how burned. As Sunday Palms are sacrificed to the fire for Ash Wednesday, so these two were sacrificed to show that, even after Hell on Earth, your purpose remains – even if your shell doesn’t.

South: risen again.


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