1998. A man in black walks along a dark street on the outskirts of a metropolis. The spotlight follows him. He stops and recites a mantra, over a steady house beat:
This is my church,
This is where I heal my hurts.
It’s in natural grace,
Or watching young life shape.
It’s in minor keys,
Solutions and remedies,
Enemies becoming friends,
When bitterness ends.
This is my church.
The monochrome cityscape falls away to a Technicolor crowd of hundreds, hands outstretched, jumping and clapping to the same steady rhythm. He repeats the mantra and then the final word: For tonight / God is a DJ. The crowd thumps along. This is my church.
2003. Pink, styled as a glam-rock blonde Bowie, turns Faithless’s recitation into a conditional: “If God is a DJ, / Life is a dance floor, / Love is a rhythm, / You are the music.” Pink has described herself as an “Irish-German-Lithuanian-Jew,” professing a fondness for “Native American spirituality” and an aversion to “organized religion.” Here, however, she saves herself from sacrilege with a supposition: if.
If, indeed, as Pink says, “God wants you to shake your ass,” the dance floor must be the house of worship. God is a DJ, the church is a dance floor, that dance floor is life. Church is life.
This is profane. And yet, churches of all kinds have been the gateway to sinful music since the dawn of religion. Marvin Gaye, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, John Legend, Katy Perry, Whitney Houston, Lou Rawls, Diana Ross, Jessica Simpson, Usher, Avril Lavigne, Faith Evans, Kristin Chenoweth, Beyoncé, Ethel Merman, Tina Turner, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake: all of them started in the church, in choir, on keyboard, as a soloist, each in their own way. All have been touched by the sacred. But few chose to stay when it came time to decide how to bring their voices forth into the world. How much and in what ways the church—as a physical place, as a memory, as a method—shaped their sound we may never know for sure, but if you listen carefully you can hear it. All good secularisms hold a bit of the sacred inside. And sometimes the sacred breaks free.
“Let Me Be”
Though her following is thought to be waning, the ministry of Britney Spears is still in session, with services being held the last Sunday of every month in Chicago at the legendary Boystown capital Roscoe’s Tavern. “Slave 4 Britney Sundays” they’re called, a name that, perhaps cleverer than intended, makes for a playful mash-up of the lead single (“I’m a Slave 4 U”) on her first eponymous album (Britney), while also reminding attendees where they ought to expect to find themselves in the general hierarchy once they step inside.
Not that anyone would walk up and dare request “a little J.Lo maybe.” Britney’s aura is so ever-present in the space, on the many flat-screen TVs transformed into testaments to her greatest hits, that not even a sane non-believer could want for anything—anyone—else. For those who hold up their nose to such satellite ventures, a pilgrimage to Vegas awaits, where travelers can find a Britney impersonator almost anywhere on any day of the week.
Britney has always been the child of a God above herself. Born in a historied Southern town (is there any other kind?) named McComb, Mississippi and raised in Kentwood, Louisiana, church and God were not just a birthright but a culture. She was raised Baptist, Southern Baptist. “Baptist-isms” are like breathing in the South, such that that it can be hard to distinguish the true Sunday regulars from the “Chreaster” folks from the folks who know and love God but prefer to experience His glory at their own personal temple. Britney, from what anyone can tell, is something of a combination of the three, attending regular services until circumstance relocated her prayer to tour buses and hotel rooms. (Back in 2013, she was snapped by paparazzi rocking a mini-dress and thigh-high boots to church.)
In Kentwood, “one can feel like a Satanist just for living in the wrong ZIP code,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Steve Daly in Britney’s first cover story for the magazine. “A local high school has a sign outside: DRIVE CAREFULLY, LIVE PRAYERFULLY.” Kentwood, like McComb, like much of the South, is very black. I, too, was born and somewhat raised Baptist, in a Northern church populated by individuals whose parents and parents’ parents migrated from such places. I doubt Britney or her mom, Lynn Spears, sat in pews with black people, prayed with black people, or sang together with them. As James Baldwin told Dick Cavett, quoting Malcolm X, “The most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.” But white culture is hardly self-contained, despite its best efforts: Elvis, Dolly and Justin Timberlake could hardly exist if it were. Britney may not have attended the black folks church, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t touched by it.
Out of the hundreds of magazines Britney has covered—willfully—that April 1999 issue of Rolling Stone will forevermore remain etched in pop-culture memory. “Britney Spears: Inside the Heart, Mind & Bedroom of a Teen Dream,” the magazine copy advertises. “Teen” is no exaggeration—Britney is seventeen at the time. Her body takes up the vertical length of the cover, cropped above her knees, against a silken hot-pink cloth, a bedspread. Britney wears a white button-down shirt folded above the elbow, an echo of the debut number-one single and video that got her there—only this time splayed open to the midriff revealed by a black satin bra and polka-dot boyshort underwear. Her belly button is nearly dead center. She holds to her left ear a chunky, light-pink corded phone, reminiscent of somebody’s adolescence to be sure (certainly adult readers old enough to purchase Rolling Stone for themselves). In the crux of her right elbow she clutches a plush—the controversial, allegedly gay purple Teletubby, Tinky Winky. Her eyes look off page to the unseen viewer, mouth slightly agape, as if having just been served some slice of juicy homeroom gossip.
The cover and the story underneath only enhance the biblical contradictions dreamed up by the general public ever since it first glimpsed Britney’s choreographed movements in a facsimile of a Catholic school uniform. In the profile, Britney sounds more like a teenager raised on faith than a teenager engineered to give adult men guilt-free hard-ons. But her virginal, Mississippi-bred anecdotes are undercut within the feature by Daly’s sinful suggestions: “…Baby One More Time” is “a strutting statement of intent,” “a masochistic come-on,” says Daly. To which Britney responds: “It means just give me a sign, basically. I think it’s kind of funny that people would actually think that’s what it meant.” According to Daly, the debut video “shows the seventeen-year-old singer cavorting around like the naughtiest of schoolgirls,” but Britney insists, “All I did was tie up my shirt!” The budding star, who “cleaves to the Baptist faith,” who finds South Park sacrilegious and prays nightly, also “extends a honeyed thigh across the length of the sofa” and cocks her head with a smile, “an image that hints at … bubblegum jailbait.” She’s a pop profanity: not a person, not yet a persona. But “if you’re standing in some bar ten years hence and ‘…Baby One More Time’ comes on the jukebox,” Daly prophesied, “you will smile. And you will move.” He was right about that.
By 2000, Britney’s razor’s-edge balance between the sacred and secular had lost its novelty and became simply Britney, as known and beloved. She turned eighteen, then nineteen, a male-wide countdown that (“finally!”) afforded guilt-free desires in all fifty states (previously just forty). She made Oops… I Did It Again, again with that suggestive ellipsis and again with a lead single that also blended girlish sincerity with cheeky lyrics. And she began dating boy-bander Justin Timberlake, following a publicly established promise to stay a virgin until marriage.
It is easy to dismiss the songs on her second album as maudlin break-up music, particularly given the very public break up that followed not long after their release. But the self-titled album is better understood as a reintroduction and a transformation, the words and sounds of a woman whose belief in God might be the only thing keeping her from becoming one. Britney wrote five songs on Britney, and with titles like “Lonely,” “Anticipating” and “Cinderella,” these tracks are singular, evincing a Britney newly reflective of the Britney she’s become. “Think that I might have doubts but I don’t / No insecurities,” she sings on “Let Me Be,” slyly dragging one line into the next: “Won’t you just let me, let me be?”
What happens from here is the stuff of infamy. Those are the years when the paparazzi followed Britney as she “went crazy.” Mental illness need not have a nameable cause, but I cannot help but wonder if the competing iconographies impressed upon her identity since age eighteen—America’s Madonna and whore—didn’t drive her a little mad. Maybe she couldn’t handle god status. Maybe we couldn’t.
Britney fell but she also rose—triumphantly, miraculously. Never again the Britney we once knew, but all the more loved and worshiped for her glorious victory over bad relationships, disorder, childbirth and the celebrity-gossip machine. Like any true Southern woman, it was God and family that brought Britney back to herself. As I’d imagine she’d say, she doesn’t need soul-searching albums, she has children. “My kids shaped my personality and filled me,” she says in a recent interview, eighteen years after her debut. “They made me not worry about what was happening to me.” On Mother’s Day last year, Timepublished an open letter from Britney to her sons Sean Preston and Jayden James. It is titled “You Are My Masterpieces.” She writes:
God always comes to us in tiny whispers. I pray you always find his whisper and understand the true meaning behind following your inner voice as well.
Beyoncé sang “Resentment” the first time I ever saw her in concert. It was not the first time I ever heard the song, but it may have just as well been. She wore a white jumpsuit and a white headdress with a white veil and white stilettos and sat on a second stage separated by a matter of a hundred feet or so from the main stage upon which she’d stomped, jumped, grinded and sweated my life out for the last hour or maybe two or three (time became hard to track in her presence). She was very still now. My seat was not good enough to make out her expression without the assistance provided by the two Jumbotrons behind her on the main stage. I hated them as mediators of my spiritual experience much as I was thankful for a closer look. I could see her sway, see her hair and veil lift and fall with the wind or maybe a fan placed just out of sight. And I could hear. Boy, could I.
“Resentment” is slow but not patient, sentimental but resigned, demanding—vocally—but without the dramatics that turn ballads into karaoke hits. The narrative is straightforward and regular: the speaker, “I,” Bey, or Beyoncé in White, has been cheated on by her lover, “you.” As the song crests, near its end, she sings gently, “Been ridin’ with you for six years / Why did I deserve / To be treated this way by you, you.” On the recorded version, at least. For live performances spanning that summer (this one included) that number increased from six to twelve—the length of time she and Jay-Z had been a couple, at least as far as the public was concerned. Throughout the concert a singular phrase flashed on-screen, a caution sign: this is not real life.
Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter is a Christian and a black Christian at that, which, all due respect to all other Christians, is an important distinction. Black folks with a love for God—or a fear of God—just aren’t the same. We love a little harder, praise a lot harder, and know Jesus to be both local and up above. “I grew up in the church,” Beyoncé told rapper Fat Joe in an MTV interview in 2003. Ten years later, in her own documentary Life Is but a Dream, she is more candid: “My mom always told me that my grandmother was in the church lighting candles for her and…” She pauses and looks down, nearly tearful. “I am a result of my grandmother’s prayers and—” Another pause. “My mother prays for me all the time and I pray for my daughter all the time. And God is real and God lives inside of me and inside of all of us and it doesn’t matter where I am, I know that and I feel it.”
Like Britney, Beyoncé grew up in the public eye, starting in her early days with “the hip hop rappin’ Girl’s Tyme” and then as the frontwoman of Destiny’s Child. The naughty-choirgirl tightrope act that broke Brit down was never on offer for Bey, whose black girlhood barred her from the chance to even try. (In white America’s America, black girls are considered grown by age five.) Beyoncé and Britney are kin in faith but foils in how faith empowers them. Both know the church, both know God, both necessarily reconciled the sacred-secular within themselves. For Britney, femininity and pop power came with the price that her good nature and sexual expression would always be contested—only motherhood and recovery could be her salvation. Beyoncé, raised on soul and blackness in and out of the black church, has long known and needed these traditions.
You can hear and see Bey’s sacred filiation everywhere in her music. The church choir accompanies her every note. Beyoncé is a diva—she’s told us that more than once. She belts, she growls, she changes key, floats an octave, and then does it another time and dares you to keep up. Then there’s her signature melisma, usually tagged to the vowel sound “o” as in “oh” or “bo(!!!)y.” It was that touch which, in the spirit of Whitney and Mariah, transformed the “Star Spangled Banner” from pomp and circumstance to a thing of glory at Super Bowl XXXVIII. What is all this if not praise? It’s hand waving and heel stomping, eyes closed, sanging a song and sending it up to the high heavens. Place a steeple around her and only the stuffiest, most saved soul would know the difference.
Such gravity can be a problem, especially for someone raised in the church. Especially for someone raised black in the black church. Take an audience to church in spirit enough times and the matter of the messiah becomes a little sticky. No secret that Beyoncé inspires a mighty and active congregation of souls who will debate, claw, maim and maybe murder in Her name. And while few stars shower love on their fans like Bey does, her thoughts on the matter are concise and clear: “GOD IS GOD AND I AM NOT.”
A choir coos in the background. Just can’t seem to get over / The way you hurt me. In previous renditions, Bey’s all guttural hot fire, pouring angst into notes that sound pulled from the innermost depths of her body. But not this time. She is quiet, even as her voice echoes around the stadium turned amphitheater, and almost serene. No fire, no brimstone, yet this “Resentment” makes itself hard to bear. It is a sermon, on unfaithfulness, on untruthfulness, and perhaps the greatest sin of all—unforgiveness. It delivers no remedy, no ease, no salvation. The closer the song comes to its close the more Bey deviates from the script. She rocks, hums into the mic, shakes her head. “I gotta look at her in her eyes / And see she’s had half of me,” she sings, pausing as the cheers of the crowd wash over her. She allows herself this one sacrilege.
I want to close my eyes but I don’t want to miss anything, even as my keenest sense in that moment doesn’t care if they are open or shut. My relationship with religion is fraught and whisper thin, usually, but not in that moment. I’m in church, after all. And it feels wonderful.
Art credit: R. Luke DuBois, “Pop Icon: Britney” (courtesy of the artist and bitforms gallery).