The week in audio: Pieces of Britney; Elon Musk: The evening rocket; Human resources and more | Radio


Bits of Britney (Radio 4) | BBC sounds
Elon Musk: The Evening Rocket (Radio 4) | BBC sounds
Human ressources Broccoli productions | Spotify
The essay: Voices of the Caribbean (Radio 3) | BBC sounds
The experience of kindness (Radio 4) | BBC sounds

Britney Spears has been in the news a lot in recent weeks. His recent plea to be released from legal guardianship was horrific and shocking; and also rejected. Judge Brenda Penny ruled last Wednesday that the current situation – where Britney’s father Jamie is co-curator, even though he is ill – should remain in place. Pain, when expressed by a woman, is often unrecognized and ignored.

Which brings us to Bits of Britney, a new eight-part Radio 4 series released in one go on Thursday, hours after the judge’s ruling – which must have been an editing nightmare at scrabble. Do we need another Britney Spears show? After all, there has been a New York Times documentary and another from the BBC in recent months. I would say yes: we never tire of it. Plus, presenter Pandora Sykes is trying to do something different with this podcast: present a likeable portrayal and put Spears in a cultural context. An admirable ambition.

As Sykes points out, … Spears’ Baby One More Time – released when Britney was just 16 – landed when the United States was obsessed with abstinence as a solution to underage sex. But the United States was also sexually obsessed with teenage girls. What happens when a beautiful teenage girl who calls herself a virgin becomes extremely famous in this environment? Spears’ obsession with sexual “status” was pervasive and revolting, as Sykes reminds us. She also remembers the immense power of the paparazzi during this time, as well as gossip magazines.

There’s a great archive, including a gruesome section where 10-year-old Spears is asked about boyfriends by a 70-year-old male talent show judge. Oprah Winfrey isn’t always doing well either: while interviewing Britney, she, too, joins the push to find out if Spears and her then-boyfriend Justin Timberlake are having sex. (As always, the acting parts – real life reimagined and performed – are squeaky, mainly because they’re tame. The next BBC podcast to use this technique should just go completely passed out, chewing on the dramatic furniture.)

It’s a compelling podcast, and I recommend it. But I wanted Sykes to darken, get angry, not just ask reasonable questions. After all, Spears’ life is all about physical control. Who owns her body: is it she? His fans ? Those who staged it? Does she have the right to use her body to express herself, whether it is dancing, shaving her head, making love or making babies…? Or is she only allowed to live when her body is legally controlled by others? Spears as a person is elusive because his body is not his, and his mind has always been treated like second best.

Rocket Man: Elon Musk. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters

It’s interesting to contrast Bits of Britney with another new Radio 4 offer: Elon Musk: The Evening Rocket, presented by American academic Jill Lepore. Lepore delves into the childhood of the tech millionaire and makes interesting connections between Musk’s family moving to apartheid South Africa as a child and his (and others’) approach to the place and of the way we should live today. Musk is obsessed with creating a new community on another planet. Watch the rocket man go! And when he creates this brave new world, only special people will be allowed to join him. Its space colony is a new place of life for exceptional people. It is, as Lepore points out, a form of apartheid. Musk is discussed in terms of his mind, rather than his body, automatically awarded more dignity than Spears.

Moya Lothian-McLean.
Moya Lothian-McLean.

Body ownership issues are still relevant to slavery, of course. Human ressources, a weekly podcast since May, examines how slavery, directly or indirectly, created contemporary British life – used to create our buildings, our leisure activities, our food and drink, our cultural institutions. Presenter Moya Lothian-McLean grew up in Herefordshire, the daughter of a white British mother and a black Caribbean father who died young. Over the past few weeks, she has examined Robert Peel, delved into the early days of the Greene King Brewery, and examined how Liverpool grapples with their slave trade past.

In the final episode, the second of a two-part, Lothian-McLean discusses Welsh uni fabric. This was woven from Leicester wool, spun into yarn by Welsh women and children, and exported to be worn by slaves in the Caribbean and the United States. Human ressources wonder why the fabric was used in this way? There are a lot of things that don’t make sense, little evidence to back up accepted facts. Later we learn how Jamaican slave women made lace from bark, reinvented dull fabric by dyeing it in bright colors, figured out how to wear their long skirts shorter so they could get away.

What’s great about this podcast is its nuance. Lothian-McLean, a smart and engaging presenter, simply uses her interviews as a way to get us to reconsider our assumptions. All teens frustrated with taking WWII history lessons, or even the American Civil War, should give it a try. Human ressources for another approach. By the way, Radio 3’s The test reviewed old BBC radio show Caribbean Voices last week, including a cold reassessment of writer Una Marson by Sara Collins. Another enlightening listening.

The experience of kindness is a short, sweet and straightforward series in the 15 minute after lunch time slot of Radio 4. Ella Scotland-Waters, who lives in St Werburghs in Bristol, decides to see what a few kind deeds could do and cheers on other locals to join them. They love it: you can hear the delight of a man, James, when he brings gifts around a cranky old lady who had growled at him before. It is adorable. Currently, kindness is a popular emotion, although it seems to me that Scotland Waters is just a good neighbor. More power for her.


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