Britney Spears is the princess of pop, there is no denying it. When she was still in her teens she became the bestselling teenage artist of all time. Her name is still as relevant today as it was when she released ‘…Baby One More Time’ in 1998. She is a cultural icon and idol to millions.
When it was announced that Britney will be bringing her Vegas show ‘Britney: Piece of Me’ to Dublin this summer, my twitter feed almost imploded. Godney was coming to Ireland. Much like the Virgin Mary’s appearance to the children in Fatima, Britney was making a rare appearance to her devoted followers. The well-reported fact that Britney does not actually sing live is but a mere quirk to her devotees. Britney is about much more than vocals. This is a chance to see a truly holy figure and to be witness to her divinity.
However, I found myself somewhat lost on the morning of the announcement. Britney has had a lot of great songs, but I personally only really know the big hits. And apart from playing ‘Work Bitch’ at numerous prinks, I don’t think I’ve ever gone out of my way to actively listen to Britney’s music. I’m something of an anomaly.
Recently I was doing some research on Kylie Minogue’s albums when I came across a music website which did a retrospective of her albums. Very simply someone would listen to her albums, one a week, and write about each in retrospect. It was such an entertaining read. Then I thought, well I’m pretty much a clean slate when it comes to Britney, I could do the same. So I am.
Starting from 1999’s …Baby One More Time and working my way through to 2016’s Glory, I will listen to and review all of Britney’s discography. It’s an endeavour that I am titling ‘Britney: In Retrospect’. I won’t be doing it weekly like the Kylie reviewer, but I am setting a window to have this task completed by the night Britney dons the stage in Dublin on August 20th.
And since there is no time like the present, let’s begin with Britney’s debut album …Baby One More Time from 1999.
The album cover features teenaged Britney sitting in a position that can only be called uncomfortable. In fact the longer I stare at her the stranger it becomes. The background is a cutesy baby pink and Britney’s name is handwritten with typical teenage girl flourishes. She smiles up at the viewer, her teeth and eye whites unnaturally bleached to contrast her tanned complexion. It is a classic Lolita image. However, Britney rejected the nymphet image, unlike her French counterpart Alizée who essentially adopted her whole persona around being a Lolita. To judge …Baby One More Time by its cover, I’d be expecting some fairly generic teen pop fare. And I’m kinda right.
Track one. There is it. ‘…Baby One More Time’. Those three chords. DUM DUN DUN. That motif has become one of the most identifiable openers to a pop song ever. You already know exactly what song this is just by playing the very first second. ‘…Baby One More Time’ was Britney’s first single and what an impact it had. In every country it charted it in, it went to number one. Do you know how many singles were sold? Over ten million. It’s one of the bestselling songs of all time. And rightfully so.
When was the last time you actually listened to ‘…Baby One More Time’? As in, put on your good headphones and listened to that song? That’s your homework. You’ll notice some interesting things. Through the drum machine and the wah wah guitars you’ll hear what sounds like carnival horror music. I’m not sure of the exact instrument, it is clearly a synth of some sort which gives the impression of a pitched-up harpsichord, that punctuates nearly every one of Britney’s syllables. It’s most clearly heard in the chorus. Try to ignore Britney’s vocals. Just what is happening in the background of that chorus? It’s like the heavens have opened. Sustained synths of angelic choirs, that harpsicord thing going full whack, all of this overlaid with the song’s main harmonies. It’s a masterclass of wall of sound production. None of the other songs on this album have anywhere near that same about of production on them. Every layer of ‘…Baby One More Time’ is finely-tuned pop brilliance. The song is a masterpiece. There’s no other way to put it. It’s hard to think of a more perfect way to begin a career.
The album’s second song, ‘(You Drive Me) Crazy’ was another sizable hit, mainly due to the fact that it is ‘…Baby One More Time’ but with the electric guitars amped up and a whole lot more cowbell. It is a song in which Britney explains that she is so madly in love that it drives her crazy, so-much-so that she can’t sleep because thinking of him keeps her up all night. This is one of the most extreme messages on the album, of which there are many (we have yet to get to the truly astonishingly titled song, ‘Born to Make You Happy’).
When I was listening to this album in preparation for this project, I couldn’t help but think what would Mary Wollstonecraft think of all of this? Many of the songs on …Baby One More Time describe Britney’s absolute head-over-heels infatuation with men. Songs about love are a dime a dozen in pop, but only two of …Baby One More Time’s eleven songs aren’t about Britney’s almost dependent relationship with men. They are also the album’s weakest tunes.
‘Soda Pop’ is possibly one of the worst songs of the 1990s, which is impressive when you recall that the 90s was the decade that gave us both Limp Bizkit and third-wave ska. It is a bright, pop-y number that makes Len’s ‘Steal My Sunshine’ sound like ‘Marquee Moon’. It features vocals from ‘Mikey Bassie’ who allegedly also wrote the song, but any attempts to find information on Mr. Bassie on the internet are utterly pointless as he appears to have fallen off of this planet.
The other absolute stinker on …Baby One More Time is Britney’s cover of Sonny & Cher’s ‘The Beat Goes On’. I absolutely love the original ‘The Beat Goes On’, it is actually my favourite Sonny & Cher song for any of you compiling a dossier on me. Cover songs are nearly always used as filler on albums, especially during this era of music. Ignoring the somewhat ballsy move to even attempting to cover Cher, Britney’s ‘The Beat Goes On’ sounds like bad karaoke at best. The musical accompaniment is literally the same couple of notes over and over and over again. It’s musical migraine.
But let’s get back to the positives. ‘Deep In My Heart’ was not included in the original North American release of …Baby One More Time, which is truly mystifying considering that it is by far a standout track. It’s bubblegum at its most bubblegummiest. ‘Sometimes’, ‘Born to Make You Happy’ and ‘From the Bottom of My Broken Heart’ are all perfectly serviceable ballads. However, when the album feels like it is grinding to a mushy ballad-y halt, a nice up-tempo number quickly sweeps in. ‘I Will Be There’ and ‘Thinkin’ About You’ are some of these antidotes.
‘I Will Still Love You’ is a schmaltzy duet in which we finally get to hear the voice of the man that many of the album’s songs are written about. Honestly, I don’t know what Britney sees in him. Is it the falsetto?
One of the most fascinating oddities on the album is the uber-90s ode to the internet ‘E-Mail My Heart’, a song which the NME called ‘Britney’s weirdest’ and was also the basis on which one of Britney’s best interviews was born: ‘”E-Mail My Heart” is a song everyone can relate to… Everyone has been doing e-mails… and it’s “E-Mail My Heart” so everyone can relate to that song.’ She’s such a champ.
Perhaps we’re being cynical about ‘E-Mail My Heart’. Maybe in twenty years’ time we’ll all being laughing at Rihanna’s ‘stay up off my Instagram, pure temptation’ too. I also wonder how we would have viewed ‘E-Mail My Heart’ if Y2K did actually happen. Would it be like that ‘here come the planes’ line in Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ which gives the song an even eerier prescience post-9/11?
I’m not sure how I’m meant to rate albums. Pitchfork’s ratings tabulations make about as much sense as Tom Waits at a wake so I’ll just stick to the classic stars out of ten formula.
…Baby One More Time is a surprisingly coherent album. Nearly every song on it is generic fun and not much more. Practically every listicle which ranks Britney’s albums places this at the bottom. I don’t really have much to judge it against, however. Its title track is one of the highest peaks of pop and it has a couple other tunes which I would listen to of my own accord. However, its lows really are the absolute pits and the majority of its tracks are almost instantly forgettable. I shall therefore rate …Baby One More Time a 3 out of 10 rating. I’m aware that things are about to get so much better.
Overall score: 3 out of 10
Best song(s): …Baby One More Time, (You Drive Me) Crazy, Deep In My Heart
Worst song(s): Soda Pop, The Beat Goes On
Next time, Britney hits the millennium with her sophomore album Oops!… I Did It Again, which I’m already not looking forward to having to type out every time.