I don't know about you - but sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night unable to sleep. I wonder about how a God could allow so many of the world's children to suffer as they do; how an all-good, all-powerful God could permit so much evil and violence, so much disparity in wealth and opportunity? Forget God for a minute - how do so many of us trick ourselves into believing that most of our good fortune is in fact a deserving matter of hard work? Recently, my insomnia has gotten worse. I lie in bed, turn off the TV, put down the murder mystery but can't fall asleep. I lie awake for hours pondering what I have come to view as the great mystery of our times: Britney Spears.

Remember the theistic argument for evil: Without Evil, we would have no concept of Good. Disparities in wealth, the existence of suffering; these are the products of God granting us free will. Look, I'm a philosophy professor. These are awful arguments, but at least they can be presented with a straight face. There are no arguments to explain Britney Spears - at least none that can maintain a straight face. It's not like the argument for evil. Evil is necessary to explain good, therefore Britney Spears is necessary to explain the possibility of talent. Not. Even if we cannot understand good without evil, I am quite certain that we can understand talent without Britney Spears. Britney doesn't sing on her records. Her voice is more processed than the pressed turkey breast sold at Stop'n'Shop. She doesn't dance. She does aerobics and acrobatics. She's a cheerleader in front of a camera. She plays no instrument. She's not attractive. So why her success?

Shouldn't the market have flushed her down the drain by now? That will come in due course. Britney Spears is not a person. She is a role. The person you hear on the radio, see on TV and billboards all over America is not, in fact, a person. Don't get me wrong. There is a person who plays the role of Britney Spears. But Britney Spears, the American pop culture icon, is not a person. She is a role in an ongoing TV, radio and distinctively American infomercial. Right now the role of Britney Spears happens to, coincidentally, be played by someone named after her - but that's subject to change. Apparently, the Britney Spears playing the role needed breast implants to get the part. That's because it's the role, not the person, that sells. And it's the role of Britney Spears that's so frightening, not the actor playing the role.

The role? 17-year old virgin/nymphette; girl next door; works at GAP during the summer, maybe after school or on weekends during the year and between cheerleader practice. Saves herself for marriage but dresses and undresses in front of her bedroom window, smiling out as all the middle-aged fathers in their bathrobes head outside to pick up their morning newspaper. She's wearing a randomly and only occasionally buttoned longish collared shirt, perhaps her boyfriend's or her father's? Now don't you get the wrong impression - she's saving herself for marriage. She told me as much during a day-long interview and commercial on MTV. Very moving interview with her mother. They share everything. I am sure their relationship is as good as Jon Benet Ramsey's is with her mother.

She may be saving herself for marriage, but as the song says, she's not that innocent. And when she sings "Oops, I did it again", is she talking about a fall from grace; a weak moment when she gave in to desires and broke her vows to her future self and the as yet unknown lucky fella: a moment of unbridled passion? Certainly not. Just what was it that she did - and more than once? Have sex with the neighborhood's Kevin Spacey? Nope. What she did was intentionally mislead every male on earth that she might actually be interested. She isn't, of course. But then again, she's not that innocent. In other words, she's manipulative. Hey, no big deal. She's a saleswoman after all. Geez, could have fooled me. And there I thought she was a singer/songwriter, a veritable Joni Mitchell.

It's not the tease or manipulation that troubles me. It's how it's reducible to a universal all-ages show for men and boys. For Chrissakes, we're talking about a 17-year old girl. Isn't there something just a little bit pornographic about the whole thing? Now add half the teenage girls in America who want to see themselves and be seen the same way. Bring back the GAP heroine adds. Where's Vince Gallo when you need him?

I guess what upsets me most is not the pornography as much as the fact that music plays no role other than to move product. It's an unholy alliance. The whole commodity thing sickens me. Being a musician shouldn't be a role you audition for. It shouldn't be one of many career options. Yo, I think I'm headed for the Tisch school to maybe intern as Britney Spears or NSYNC. Actually, I was really hoping for a role as Backstreet Boy or new Monkee. There's another abortion. The original Monkees were a group put together for a TV show. Peter, Mike, Mickey and Davey never knew each other before they passed the Monkee audition. Now there's a new show group being formed to play those Monkees, called, naturally, the new Monkees. It doesn't have to be this way. It wasn't always this way, you know?

Chuck Berry didn't pursue music as a professional career choice. Neither did Elvis. Chuck was a hairdresser. Kept his license in case things got bad. Elvis drove a truck. The devil made them do it; not the promise of a home in Antigua. And the devil was in the music and in their lives. Chuck had an arrest or two for violating the Mann Act and filming women in the bathroom of his theme park home outside St. Louis. Elvis was driven to drugs and voyeurism of the history-channel sort.

Yesterday, I was looking at the bulletin board outside the Registrar's Office here at Yale Law School. Thought I'd look to see what the other professors were assigning their students to read for the first day of classes. I looked under Constitutional Law. Didn't see any teacher requiring students to run to the video store and watch Hail, Hail, Rock'n Roll. Don't know why. It should be required viewing. Want to know about race relations in America before Brown vs. Board of Ed? Watch the movie. It's Keith Richard's homage to Chuck Berry. I can't watch anything on MTV. VH1 is only marginally better. Recently there was a show of the hundred greatest rock artists, as voted on by the musicians. Which musicians?

Chuck Berry barely made the top 20. I think he fell somewhere just below Fleetwood Mac. Don't get me started on that. Fleetwood Mac once was a band, long before you ever heard of 'em. That was the real Fleetwood Mac, formed and fronted by Peter Green. Peter Green replaced a guy named Eric Clapton in an outfit called John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. Mayall had a pretty nifty rhythm section - Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. The three split the Bluesbreakers, and there you have it: Fleetwood Mac. Green went nuts on drugs in the fashion of the brilliant Syd Barrett who founded a once-great band called Pink Floyd. Want to hear Pink Floyd when they were brilliant? Listen to Umaguma before Barrett, as it were, disappeared. "Wish you were here" is Floyd's ironic epistle to Barrett. The "here" is ambiguous. Syd Barrett isn't here. He's so far gone, he's nowhere to be found.

Peter Green is back, but the Mac is God knows where. They've morphed into the band that played the Clinton bash. Sure, they did Rumours, a pop classic with lots of hits - but then there was nothing and Fleetwood Mac became a soap opera. Not a good one. Still hasn't recovered, either. Back to Chuck Berry. The guy wrote one phenomenally important song after another. He invented rock and roll. He took the guitar styles of Charlie Chritian, Hogan and my all-time favorite, T-Bone Walker, added a backbeat, changed the shuffle feel to straight eighths and invented the genre. And he is perfect rock and roll. Why? Because even though he invented rock and roll, he stole every song from his piano player, a Mr. Johnson, without ever once giving the guy song credit. Okay, so you tell me how it is that every song's written in B-flat, the classic piano player's key? No guitar player writes in B-flat; just horns and pianos. That's what I mean - perfect rock and roll, down to stealing the licks from someone else. Can't beat it. In any case, there on TV was Chuck, languishing somewhere near the bottom of the top 20. Ridiculous. Somewhere below Elton John. Elton John for Chrissakes. Don't get me started.

In any case, Keith Richards had seen Chuck perform several times live. Each time, according to Keith, Berry sucked. And with good reason. Chuck had no band. Didn't even bring an amp with him. Just showed up with an attache case and his hollow-body Gibson 335. Picked up a band right there at the concert. Didn't rehearse with them, just walked on stage and played. No playlist, doesn't even tell the band what song he's playing. It's their job to figure out;. And figure it out they better did 'cause Chuck paid them according to how good a job they did that night. No union scale for Chuck.

So Keith Richards decides to put together a grand concert, film it for posterity. He'd put a band together. They'd rehearse, then they'd perform. Guess what? The film is extraordinary on several levels. The only negative? Whenever Keith Richards speaks, you keep wishing for subtitles to translate his English into English you can actually understand. Beyond that, the film's flawless. It captures Chuck Berry perfectly. The most moving part for me was Chuck walking in front of the Fox Theater in St. Louis, which was to be the venue for the concert. Out front, Berry tells the story of how forty-or-so years earlier, he tried to get into this very same theater for a movie but was denied admission for being black. The movie he wanted to see didn't reach his neighborhood in St. Louis until two years later. Helps you get a feel for just how bad race relations must have been way back when, doesn't it?

But of course that was before Brown vs. Board of Ed. Couldn't happen now, could it? Well, it's here where the movie proves a real eye opener - at least for me. About two thirds of the way through, the camera pans over the audience, wildly enthusiastic and lily-white; not a black face in the crowd. The only thing that's changed in forty years is the law. Now they can't keep you out just because you're black. Still, in order to get a Chuck Berry concert ticket, you need connections. You need money. Guess what. Still no blacks. How much difference does the law make? I don't know; but it would be as dangerous to overestimate as to underestimate it. So you'll learn a more significant lesson watching this film than reading all the learned essays you can consume on the impact and importance of Brown vs Board of Ed. Trust me.

You'll also learn a lot about pride and self-respect. Throughout, the movie intersperses an ongoing conversation among Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Didley. At one point, the three are discussing how black music made its way into American white popular culture. I loved Little Richard's imitation of Pat Boone doing Little Richard tunes. The highlight however comes in the discussion of Alan Freed, Cleveland's disc jockey who gave the name Rock'n Roll to the music and played the real stuff on his radio station. He was of course ultimately brought down by the payola scandals and Dick Clark who put these giants of music on his TV show and change everything. Sort of.

You see, his all-star guests could sing in front of the audience, but unlike other invitees, they couldn't sit with the all-white audience - or, heaven forbid, dance with the white girls or boys. In the film, Bo Didley comes across as an absolute Dick Clark apologist. Not so Berry. As Chuck puts it, the corporate suits upstairs would have permitted intermingling if the Dorian Gray-like New Year's Eve host would have requested or demanded it. He never did, though. Chuck takes no prisoners.

That includes Keith Richards. Like every guitarist my age or younger, I learned to play Chuck Berry songs by listening to the Rolling Stones. I learned "Oh Carol" off the greatest live rock album of all time, Get Yer Ya Yas Out, which means I learned it in the key of A. Well, during rehearsals on this video, Chuck allows Keith to play the famous intro - but he's gotta do it in Chuck's favored key - B-flat. Okay, no big deal. Keith must have played the song a thousand times. All of sudden, we get to the double stop bend at the end of the intro and Chuck keeps telling Keith he's doing it wrong. Tells him to just watch how it's done. Even condescendingly asks him whether it matters to him whether he gets it right. He's obviously driving Keith nuts. Keith has played it as often as Chuck has - and Chuck knows it. By the time rehearsals end, Chuck has imposed the greatest imaginable insult on Keith: He lets Keith play everything right up to the bend, then plays the bend himself. If you know the song, you understand the depth of this insult. And here he was insulting the very guy giving his money and time to pay back a debt he felt he owed to Chuck Berry; a debt he felt every rock guitarist owes Berry. But Berry -- himself the sloppiest and most carelessly excellent guitarist imaginable -- insists on putting Keith in his place. Why?

It's obvious. Of course he's grateful for all the Stones did to make his music available to the public. Of course he appreciates what Keith is doing by putting the film together, assembling a band of stellar players. But he doesn't want anyone to forget that "Oh Carol" is his song, not Keith's. It was written and performed by Chuck Berry, not the Rolling Stones. And there's only one way to do it if you're going to do it right. Only Chuck Berry has earned the right to do it wrong. That's not a privilege Keith Richards enjoys.

Now, lots of people audition for the part of Britney Spears. In time, several will get to play her role. Chuck Berry, however, is not a role. No one else gets to play his part, ever. Thank God!