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Uh, Miss?

By playing a waitress in a video, Britney Spears tries to connect with a great rock tradition. Check, please.

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By Alex Pappademas

Sept. 17, 1999 | Waitressing, as Harvey Keitel told remorseless non-tipper Mr. Pink in "Reservoir Dogs," "is the No. 1 occupation for female non-college graduates in this country." That makes it a classic symbol of struggle, of shorts taken and dues paid, of inner strength in a greasy-spoon world. And it crops up even in songs and videos by artists who didn't actually wait tables while waiting to be discovered. By playing a waitress who sheds her apron for a big production number in her "(You Drive Me) Crazy" video, Britney Spears joins a star-studded wait staff in the grand rock 'n' roll canon. Her forebears: new-wavers the Waitresses, Chrissie Hynde, playing the server most likely to hawk in your tuna melt in the Pretenders' "Brass In Pocket" video, "Gina" in Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" (who "works the diner all day"), Courtney "hooker/waitress, model/actress" Love, Tori Amos, contemplating waitricide on "The Waitress," and Donna Summer, whose '70s stage-wear included a rhinestoned waitress's uniform.

Spears' problem, in donning the symbolic apron, is that she's too fresh-minted a star to have "early years" to dramatize -- her first job, after all, was "The New Mickey Mouse Club." Not exactly hard labor. She can't bring to her waitress performance the day-job-punk frustration of Olympia, Wash., riot grrrls Heavens to Betsy's plate-breaking news flash "Waitress Hell," or evoke the poignancy of the waitress "practicing politics" in a room full of cryin' drunks in Billy Joel's "Piano Man." And because the video's about waitress-Britney transforming into sexy-Britney in front of the makeup mirror, there's no celebration of the unrecognized beauty of the ordinary waitress. That tends to happen more often in customer's-perspective songs by men, like Tom Waits' 1974 "The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House)," which moons over a waitress with "Maxwell House eyes" and "marmalade thighs," or (more recently) murmuring synth-playa Jimi Tenor on "Love and Work," telling his girl, "I want to be every customer in the diner where you work." (Supertramp, whose "Breakfast in America" album cover depicted the Statue of Liberty as a matronly Edie McClurg type serving a giant glass of O.J., basically invented putting waitresses on a pedestal.)

The best waitress song of all time, however, remains Prince's "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker," from his 1987 funk classic "Sign O' the Times." Parker turns up as "a waitress on the promenade." Prince says, "Let me get a fruit cocktail, I ain't 2 hungry." Parker questions his manliness, and the whole story bounces out the window in a whirl of bubble baths, Joni Mitchell quotes and teasing did-they-or-didn't-they narrative confusion. Next to that sexy lyrical scramble, Spears' over-easy clip looks about as compelling as an "Alice" rerun.
salon.com | Sept. 17, 1999

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About the writer
Alex Pappademas is an editor at Student.Com.

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