Under The Covers: Britney
nder the Covers is a fortnightly column concerning the packaging, artwork, and design that goes into albums. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.
The Queen of Pop? Since 1999’s …Baby One More Time, Britney has quickly elevated herself to pop royalty via a conflicting series of psycho-sexual messages to a mass of sex starved male fans and self-empowerment messages to her female admirers. Meanings have been transmitted in a variety of ways: interviews, song lyrics and music videos. But what about the covers? Aside from the infamous kiss with Madonna, the covers to each of her studio albums have emerged as the barometers of how Britney wants, and is, defined. Let’s take a look at them.
…Baby One More Time
Iconic after the fact, Britney’s first album cover plays teen ingénue to the hilt, echoing Ingres’ Odalisque perfectly. Along with the schoolgirl outfit of her first video, it screams conflict: you can look, but you certainly can’t touch—the myth of availability. She has a bright smile, is leaning towards the camera and tilts her head in a questioning way, as if to ask the viewer if they are interested in one more time. She pulls back with her legs, clearly not open for any sort of business, reinforcing her chasteness. It couldn’t have been known at the time, but this was the perfect image for the burgeoning teen pop movement’s largest star. It gave her a place to start from and to gradually transform her identity. Unlike, say, Jessica Simpson, Spears crucially never painted herself into a position that she couldn’t get out of.
Oops…I Did It Again
As Britney admits in the title, the sequel is similar in tone and in sound. The cover image, however, reveals Britney as slightly more vampy, upping the visual ante. The skin-tight red cat suit of the title track’s video being the obvious signifier of this advanced sexual state. On the cover of the album Britney is now standing, more in control of her situation than the sitting posture of One More Time. The main differences are two-fold: the twirling or pulling of her hair and the exposed midriff. Both direct visual attention to places that weren’t necessarily accentuated last time around. Unlike major moves in the careers of contemporaries such as P!nk, Xtina, Jessica Simpson, or Mandy Moore, this is a consolidation rather than a transformation.
But what of her best record, the most revealing and conflicting height of her career? The one in which she seemed to come out of her handler’s grip into the world? Britney’s cover contains all of the same mixed messages as the album, naturally. Here we have Britney attempting to make a nod to her past—sitting down with her knees defiantly closing off the view to her nether regions, but in so doing allows us a surreptitious view of her breasts that nearly spill from her top. Unlike any other cover before, Britney is also placed in a strange light that doesn’t seem to correspond to reality very well, drawing attention to the artifice of the photographic image. Here Britney is moving towards what’s plain on her next album: that’s she not of this world anymore, that she is only known by her first name; that she is image, rather than person. Her face is blank, ready for you to project whatever you like upon her.
In The Zone
There seems to be a clear linear movement throughout Britney’s first three albums and their covers. As much as In The Zone is a musical move from her bubble-gum past to a techno-pop future, the cover to the record is the analogue—a dollar store late 80s airbrush that doesn’t say much, but doesn’t need to. That’s because Britney is now secure in the fact that she is just that: Britney. No longer having much to do with her last name, Britney has become iconic image, only having to induce the idea of her body, rather than showing it. As such, Britney has become more than a celebrity, she has become something far less human—something approaching Warhol’s conception of Marilyn Monroe, which the cover does an exceptional job of evoking.