I've found myself listening almost obsessively to Richard Thompson's accoustic guitar version of "Oops! I Did It Again!" (see the NPR story for the link and some background. WireTap makes me very happy on those times when there's a bit of streaming audio I want to listen to offline). Thompson deconstructs a song with the same sort of imagination and skill Tori Amos demonstrated, first with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and, later, with everyone from Tom Waits to Eminem.
"Oops! I Did It Again!" is part of Thompson's show 1,000 Years of Popular Music, which I saw Saturday night with some friends, and which was one of the best concerts I've ever been to. There were numerous songs, particularly the older ones, that I found mesmerizing, sometimes deeply moving, sometimes very funny (Richard Thompson doing Gilbert & Sullivan!). Of "Oops! I Did It Again!", which was, of course, a hit for Britney Spears, Thompson says: "Taken out of context, this is a pretty nice song." He certainly makes it more interesting than it was originally. Live on stage, he performed it with a phenomenal drummer, who was also one of the two background vocalists, and the added instruments and texture gave the song a bit more energy and humor than the NPR version has (I haven't heard it on the album offered from Thompson's website -- yet -- but expect that recording is similar to what I heard Saturday night). It was just immensely amusing to see Richard Thompson doing Britney Spears, or, rather, making a Britney Spears song sound like one of his own. If it had appeared on Rumor and Sigh, it wouldn't have felt out of place.
Throughout the show, I kept thinking about how well the old music worked, and how contemporary the songs felt in Thompson's versions. It didn't feel crassly contemporary, like some of the more thoughtlessly modernized productions of Shakespeare's plays can seem. No, the concert reminded me how fertile are the various arts of the past, and how much can be learned from playing around with once-popular forms and styles. It also reminded me -- because I do need to be reminded now and then -- that the popular arts can be, under the right conditions, as invigorating and beautiful as their more academic or elitist cousins. A performer who can easily move from rounds to madrigals to opera to music hall tunes to operetta to blues to rock, infusing it all with both sensitivity and delight, does us a great cultural favor by demonstrating what various forms of one art (music) have in common. Hooray for genre hopscotch and stylistic promiscuity!