Britney Spears is one of the most critically underrated and unfairly maligned artists in history. Fact. Don’t @ me on this, don’t enter into discussion, don’t try to argue otherwise. Debate is for ideology. Statement is for truth. (Can you handle Britney’s truth?)
Within fan circles, less so to the public at large, Britney Spears’ last album Britney Jean (named in this familiar way because it was billed prior to release as her “most personal album to date”) was a disappointment because it failed to deliver on its promise to reveal an insight into the psyche and persona of an artist who, to put it gently, has been somewhat distant as a human and popstar in recent years.
Fair enough. But also… question: has there been a Britney Spears album – to date – that hasn’t been personal? Sure, on the surface it all seems like hyper-sexed bubblegum pop that Britney doesn’t write or engage with, but that’s a lazy argument made by primarily stupid people. I have been a Britney fan since I was 10-years-old and up until the release of Circus in 2008, I have never felt like the narrative of Britney’s discography has been out of sync with the narrative – both explicit and implied – of Britney’s personal life story. Even the songs where the meanings were not clear to me until I reached adulthood rang with something of an authenticity in my pre-teen years. It’s also not really an argument to say that Britney records are not personal because she didn’t write them. She still has to choose and sing them. And performance is half the weight. Let me show you.
Firstly, …Baby One More Time and Oops!… I Did It Again. This was Britney, just before the very peak of her fame, pre-sexual awakening, before she had any idea she could really call the shots. Written and released between the ages of 16-19, the songs on these albums are reflective first in …Baby One More Time of any normal teenage girl in the dial-up era and second in Oops!… I Did It Again of any normal teenage girl at the beginning of the milennium who had just achieved more fame and fortune than it is feasibly possible to imagine.
In ‘…Baby One More Time’ you have the yearning angst of the title track and debut single – both singularly devotive and uttely dysfunctional – a theme which carries through on tracks like ‘(You Drive Me) Crazy’, ‘Born To Make You Happy’, ‘I Will Still Love You’ and ‘Thinking About You’, the 1999 pop song equivalents of reading the Twilight series. Cast your mind back to your emotionally frustrating teenage years and how lyrics like “I hope that I’m not wasting my feelings on you / loving you means so much more / more than anything I’ve ever felt before” or “I don’t know how to live without your love” and “I spend my days with you / I spend my nights thinking about you” resonate with the experience of crushing on boys and never knowing if they like you as much as you like them or how thinking about them could be all-fucking-consuming and try to tell me these song are less relevant to Britney’s lived experience (or that of any teenage girl) just because she didn’t personally write them. There is a pervasive duplexity to …Baby One More Time, at times earnest but always with dark dramatics underlying. See ‘Sometimes’ for this writ large – it’s a love song on the face of it all, a girl who so wants to love and be loved, but the flip message of “you don’t know or understand the real me and when you do it’s going to ruin it all” is so fiercely youthful in its adamance but inexperience it’s almost unsettling.
The Oops!… album manages the double of being infinitely relatable for girls who are not famous, navigating puberty and learning the power of their sexuality but also stirring empathy for the Teen Queen experiencing the same, but from an elevated place of isolation. The title track succinctly, but with laser precision, details the struggle of maintaining platonic relationships with boys, and how every word and movement must now be measured for fear of leaving the wrong impression, while ‘Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know’ deals with the uncertainty of knowing where you stand and wanting to “go steady” with fuckboys that can’t just man up and tell you what they want. Meanwhile ‘Lucky’, ‘Can’t Make You Love Me’ and ‘Girl In The Mirror’ speak directly to the uniqueness of Britney herself. The lonely girl who has everything, who can’t make her sweetheart see past her new found fame and cries in front of the mirror because she’s confused and overwhelmed by her own emotions.
Oops!… is also home to the first indications of Britney’s struggle with her own identity and the control she has over her life. ‘Stronger’, ostensibly a break up song, can also be read as a subtle attack on those around her who think they call the shots. The line “I used to go with the flow / didn’t really care about me” is a sentiment echoed even recently by Katy Perry on ‘Roar’. The idea that falling in line to make others happy is applicable to both her professional and personal life, and you can take “here I go on my own” as Brit’s first declaration of independence. Independence she was perhaps not granted, but let it not be said that Britney Spears is willingly a passive spectator within her own life. Oops!… was Britney’s most successful album, still almost 15 years later, holding the record for biggest opening week sales from a female artist. Now ageing out of her teens, her next album would have to prove that her career could be sustained into adulthood.
So, a year later, Britney was back with her first self-titled record. It was harder, more urban, and explicitly more sexy. Now in a highly publicised relationship with *NSYNC member Justin Timberlake, the (gross, invasive) question of whether or not Britney was going to stay a virgin until marriage was definitively answered with the lead single from Britney – ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’.
[Sidebar: It was common, during the early stages of Britney’s career (before she pulled ahead – the clear winner), to compare her to fellow Mouseketeer Christina Aguilera, who was generally perceived as being more talented. Even now, the perception lives on that Christina was the first to shake off her tween idol persona and while it’s true that Britney’s ‘Dirrty’ moment came a whole album later than Christina’s, her moment still came first. ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’ released in September 2001 dropped a full year earlier than ‘Dirrty’, not long after Christina was guesting on a track with Ricky Martin and still presenting a fairly wholesome image.]
The new “mature” Britney showcased on ‘…Slave’ was a statement, though, not a treatise. For the main part Britney was grown but not overtly sexual and Britney in a relationship is in many ways just like any girl in first love. ‘When I Found You’ and ‘Bombastic Love’ are grandiose declarations of feeling (the kind we feel somewhat embarrassed by in retrospect) while ‘Before The Goodbye’ speaks to anyone who has endured a long distance relationship as Britney and Justin, as two high-profile and hard-working teen idols, would have had to. There are the ever present differences, however, between Britney Spears and “any girl in first love”. ‘What It’s Like To Be Me’, the one song that Britney and Justin worked on together, deals with the idea that no man is on Britney’s level enough to understand her and illustrates how the gulf of Britney’s isolation widens as her celebrity grows. If even her famous boyfriend, who wrote the song with her, couldn’t know what it’s like to be Britney, how could anyone ever?
The Britney album also deals with some left over hang ups from Oops!… the melancholy generated by her celebrity now turns to resentment on ‘Overprotected’ and ‘Let Me Be’, both tracks fraught with hair-pulling (or indeed, shaving) frustration about being unable to choose her own path, make her own decisions and make her own mistakes and then to still be scrutinised and second guessed for all that she does or doesn’t do. Even ‘I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman’, on the surface a song where Britney is more introspective and understanding of the motivations behind limiting her freedom hinges on that defiant flip in the bridge: “I’m not a girl / but if you look at me closely / you will see it in my eyes / this girl will always find her way”. With hindsight, of course, these songs take on a new clarity.
It is Britney’s fourth album, In The Zone, released just before her 22nd birthday, that could be truly considered “personal” from top to bottom. Britney was heavily involved in the process of creating the record and with 10 co-writes in 14 tracks it is the most she has contributed to the authorship of her music ever. Coming off the back of a tumultous break up (to say the least) we see in ‘The Hook Up’, ‘I Got That Boom Boom’ and ‘Early Mornin’ that Britney is ready, willing and sometimes maybe even able to have meaningless flings and one night stands. The flipside, shown in tracks like ‘Touch Of My Hand’ and ‘Don’t Hang Up’, is majorly reflective of a newly single woman beginning to approach her sexual peak and be more fully understanding and accepting of her own desire but who doesn’t have the same time and freedom as her ordinary civilian peers to engineer social situations that might lead to casual sex. These telling odes to masturbation and phone sex provide a sexed up insight into the life of the Most Famous Woman In The World at that time and makes you wonder what else Britney felt deprived of on the road.
As mentioned before, it is very easy to think of Britney Spears as a product or an avatar or a robot or anything other than a person. Her vocal is a mixture of performance and computer-aided artifice, her hair, face and body hyper-accentuated and almost out of this world. Avatars can for the most part be infallible and for the most part, In The Zone was Britney at her most invulnerable. The tunes were slick, she seemed in charge, the narrative was that of a strong, sexy woman who made the transition from child star to bonafide star… but then there was ‘Everytime’.
‘Everytime’ was a weakness in Britney’s powerful image. The one weakness. It was her response to Justin’s aecerbic takedown ‘Cry Me A River’, recorded and released instead of ‘Sweet Dreams (My LA Ex)’ which went on to be a hit single for Rachel Stevens. In axeing ‘Sweet Dreams’, a decisive kiss off, in favour of ‘Everytime’ which chronicalled her regret and loss, Britney allowed us to see her damaged. It was obvious that she was shattered by her relationship ending – it was visible, but unspeakable. When Britney gave it a voice on ‘Everytime’ she gave it power. Two months after ‘Everytime’ was released, Britney injured her knee and was forced to cancel the remaining dates of her world tour. Having shown herself to now be both emotionally, and physically, very human, it was easy for the media to begin dismantling her.
In the four years between In The Zone and her next full studio release, Britney married (twice), took part in an ill-advised reality TV show and had two children. There was music, of course. ‘My Prerogative’, a Bobby Brown cover that speaks for itself to promote Britney’s first greatest hits package, the fabled Original Doll project that was shelved by her label after she dared to go off script and premiere material on Ryan Seacrest’s radio show without permission, and an EP called Chaotic led by ‘Someday (I Will Understand)’ that ran alongside the reality show, also called [Britney & Kevin:] Chaotic. That ‘Someday…’ a song about finding clarity in motherhood could come from the Chaotic EP (by name and nature) just highlights the schiz of Britney’s life during this period. It doesn’t do particularly to rehash old history, especially as this history was so unpleasant, but those four years really were a slow steady climb up a mountain of bad choices, tabloid headlines and character assassination to a spectacular plummet to rock bottom. And just before she went over the edge, came Blackout.
Ah, Blackout. The Britney Spears fandom is composed of people who consider this album to be her finest work and people who are about to be routinely attacked for having an opposing opinion. Britney wrote nothing on Blackout (she is credited, however, as executive producer) and there are plenty of innovative and forward thinking yet nonetheless throwaway cuts that make the throwaway, but the handful of tracks that do offer a glimpse into Britney’s reality during this time follow her life story so closely – through the bend before the snap – that it doesn’t even matter. Firstly the brilliant, ‘Gimme More’, a masterclass of “for the club pop” but not merely that shallow. When you remember that as vocodered Britney mused that “it feels like the crowd is saying / gimme gimme more”, many publications had her obituary updated and ready to go, it can now be almost galling to listen to. From there is the confrontational ‘Piece Of Me’ which systematically dismantles the ludicrous and often contradicting labels stuck to Britney by the media, ‘Toy Soldier’ which laments her need for a man not a boy in the wake of her divorce from Kevin Federline and ‘Why Should I Be Sad’, the telling of why she needed a divorce from Federline in the first place. It’s Britney at her most literal. Blackout is the first album where there is no need to decipher or draw conclusions because the message is clear. The pressure cooker is primed to explode: enough, Britney says, is fucking enough.
It was enough in January 2008, 3 months after the release of Blackout when Britney was put on involuntary psych hold, lost custody of her children and power of attorney of her own life. By December, she was releasing her sixth studio album Circus, which followed an hour-long documentary designed to draw a line under previous events. The documentary would be the final personal word we would get from Britney to date. Only the title track of Circus, appeared to even hint at what had transpired in the preceding year, serving as a metaphor for the “circus” of Britney’s life but presenting her once again as ringmaster, in control and “running this”, even though the legality of the situation is that she has no more rights than her children.
The lack of agency within her personal life is reflected in the lack of agency in Britney’s artistry now. The three albums released under her conservatorship – Circus, 2010’s Femme Fatale and the promised but undelivered “most personal album yet” Britney Jean – reflect nothing of a 30-year-old woman with two children and as much lived experience as Britney… or do they? How can an adult woman with little to no autonomy present what could be dictionary defined as merely “existence” as a life? Is the very facelessness of Britney’s recent output performative in and of itself?
Well, no. It’s probably definitely not that deep. But it is telling about our expectations of popstars in the social media age that even though, as I have just discussed, Britney laid herself bare for five albums of material, people can consider her such an enigma, who needs to serve up a “personal” album in order to satisfy. It is telling, also, that Britney’s discography in the hands of a different type of artist (male, or perhaps just not so overtly pop) would already be considered as personal as it is. Pop music is still not taken as seriously as it should be – indeed the only time it seems to trigger anything more than surface level analysis is when the findings can be used detrimentally – yet it can be as deeply complex (sometimes more so) than anything alternative or rock that would tend to see more praise – or criticism – for its intricacies.
As for whether I would like to see a “personal” album from Britney… for me, the parts of Britney’s life story that needed telling have already been told between …Baby One More Time and Blackout. I think anything that reflects her life now would be pretty boring – hello, ‘Chillin With You’ anyone? – and I guess I’m comfortable in not being part of the crowd demanding “gimme gimme more”. Britney Spears has given quite enough.