By: Maria Kaestner
Of the many forms of rhetorical discourse, one most often hears about influential speeches or critiques on current events. Sometimes their messages can be conveyed to an audience subliminally or through a medium with which they are already familiar and therefore will accept before even knowing the content. This medium is of course music, which is universal and can be understood throughout the many subcultures of society. The message does not always have to be life-changing policies or soliciting persuasions. In 2007, in her album, Blackout, the pop-culture singer Britney Spears released a song that attempted to change the way people perceived her as well as others in the media.
In her song, “Piece of Me,” Spears sings about her experience dealing with all the paparazzi and the sensationalism about her life. This was the exigency for the discourse. While in the public eye as a pop singer, Spears found herself in questionable situations all of which were exploited by the media. Her “scandals” included a three-day marriage, engagement to a man expecting a child with his ex-wife, delayed marriage, motherhood, posing for nude photos, divorce, drug rehab, shaving her head, custody loss, a suit from Louis Vuitton, and a banned music video. After much negative press and negative talk about Spears spreading around, her songwriters came up with a song to attempt to revitalize her image. The task would not be easy for her very public meltdowns filled the pages of magazines and the screens of entertainment television. The media portrayed Spears as a volatile, neurotic, irresponsible mess. “Piece of Me” stands as a response to all of the obsessive media attention.
Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg, the producers and co-writers of the song clearly had the intent to revitalize her image. They had a clear writer’s orientation. In fear of losing the respect of fans and consequentially sales, they had to find a way to address the media’s perspective of Britney. Throughout the lyrics of “Piece of Me,” Karlsson and Winnberg highlight Spear’s powerful feminizing fierceness while criticizing the media industry’s strategies. They attempt to challenge listeners to view Spears’s portrayal in a different way— a woman who has been treated unfairly after going through a rough time and yet who stands strong.
This message that Spears and her “people” are trying to convey seems to be directed at followers of pop culture and pop music listeners. Since most of entertainment media focuses on well-known culture, this is where the scrutiny of Spear’s private life thrives. In order to send a message to those in pop culture media and those who follow it, Spears released a pop song. This would be effective in reaching the desired audience and getting the attention of music listeners by sending the discourse through song.
The title and the most used line in the song is “You want a piece of me?” This line is purely emotional and does not have anything to do with the central message about the press’s negativity. It does not offer any rational argument. Therefore, its purpose is merely to appeal to the emotions, or pathos. “You want a piece of me?” is a phrase one would associate with a fight. This implies that Britney is prepared to stand her ground against the paparazzi. This extends to the entire song being a metaphor for Britney fighting back.
The rest of the chorus mocks the headlines that would come up such as, “I’m Mrs. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” “…Oh My God, that Britney’s shameless,” “…Extra, extra, this just in,” and “…She’s too big, now she’s too thin.” Each stems from rumors and things that people were saying about Britney at the time. Making fun of them in this reinforces the central message.
The first line of the song, which is repeated in the bridge, refers to Britney as “Miss American Dream” since she was seventeen. This sets up her verse describing the status quo. These three words say, “a lot was expected of me, there was a lot of pressure for everything be perfect and for me to be what girls strive towards.” The rest of the verse states that whether she is in the spotlight or not, the paparazzi will put revealing pictures of her in magazines. Therefore, the opening of the song essentially describes the rhetorical situation and previews the absurd tactics of the paparazzi that she will be singing about in the rest of the song.
The song then goes on to mock the tabloids version of her faults. She calls herself “bad media karma; another day another drama; guess I can’t see the harm in working and being a mama.” These are phrased and presented so as to make them seem like ridiculous accusations.
This tactic is continued in the second verse when she says “I’m Mrs. Most likely to get on the TV for strippin’ on the streets when getting the groceries, no, for real…are you kidding me? No wonder there’s panic in this industry I mean please…”
By saying it like this, the accusations do seem ridiculous, and they try to point out the frivolity in the media. She calls the industry out on its motives when she says,
“I’m Mrs. ‘You want a piece of me?’ tryin’ and pissin’ me off. Well get in line with the paparazzi who’s flippin’ me off, hopin’ I’ll resort to some havoc and end up settlin’ in court. Now are you sure you want a piece of me?”
The language is phrased so that the tone comes off powerful, emotional, and attacking. She references court where the media jokes that her dramas end up. By singling this tactic out, she makes fun of it as well as criticizes it. Her suggestive and explicit choice of words evokes hard emotions.
The song is composed of synthesized pop chords and electronic fusions. Vocals lead and backup are heavily distorted and electronically altered. The back-up vocals sound robotic. This most likely was intentional to reflect the characteristics of the industry that Britney is up against: the characteristics being cold, insensitive, automatic, emotionless, aggressive, etc.
Because Britney is talking about herself, she has ultimate credibility. Her ethos is that she mentions her personal experiences. Although many artists use the word “I” in their songs, it is mostly not the singer who is speaking or telling the story. Just as in literature, the author is not always the narrator. In many cases the artist uses non-specific language to generalize the message and make it relatable. Britney’s song is rare as she is specifically referring to her life.
Many artists have attempted to critique society as Spears has. However, classic songs such as “American Pie,” “American Tune,” “Young Americans,” and “We Take Care of Our Own,” reflect only the general status quo and use metaphors to describe their stances. Spears cited actual examples and stated her position outright. Pink’s song, “Dear Mr. President” was directed at President Bush, but it was not released for fear of criticism and consequently was not well-known enough to have had an impact. Some rap songs try to critique society, particularity poverty and racism. These are mostly underground works and are common in that specific subculture. What made “Piece of Me” stand out was its uncommon design. Britney’s song was very different from what pop listeners were used to. This time marked a resurrection. Britney’s point of view was shared and her popularity and respect among pop culture listeners were restored.