Saturday, January 26th, 2019

Britney Spears: A Mid-Career Retrospective


 

Twenty years ago, in January 1999, Britney Spears crashed into the public consciousness with the album …Baby One More Time. To call the album and its titular single a “smash” is an understatement. “Baby One More Time” captured the world’s attention and sold 10.6 million copies as a single in a time before easy access to music on the internet. Her music changed the pop landscape for good. She gave us iconic imagery in a way that had rarely been seen in teen pop: the Catholic schoolgirl uniform of the “Baby One More Time” video, the red “Oops!… I Did it Again” jumpsuit, the snake on her shoulders at the 2001 VMAs. She provided Max Martin’s first international number-one hit with her debut single, cementing a new era of Swedish songwriters working at the pinnacle of pop music. Perhaps most importantly, Spears headed an entirely new wave of pop music that shaped the sound of the next two decades to come, with artists from Charli XCX to Taylor Swift to Grimes to Beyoncé expressing admiration for Spears’s music. She’s proved to have a chameleonic career, ranging from the bhangra-inflected “Toxic” to the electro-pop feel of “Gimme More” to full-on EDM with “Till the World Ends.” Previously it was difficult for teen pop stars to have sustainable careers without critics writing them off as vapid and unsustainable, but Spears has made it work and paved the way for other young stars — particularly young women — to do the same. Spears was one of the first millennial pop stars who made people take note, and a whole generation of musicians remain in her debt.

It has not always been an easy road — tabloid hyperawareness of Spears’s personal life and a highly public personal breakdown in 2007 were things that could have killed a lesser artist’s career and drive to perform. Not Britney. She’s made of fire. She’s come back from some of her darkest hours with a bright smile and some truly banging tunes in a way few people expected. Spears has spent much of her career remaking pop music and making it exciting in the 21st century, and we couldn’t be more grateful for her presence. To celebrate her legacy, we’ve written about 59 of Spears’s greatest hits and deep cuts. We hope you love her just as much as we do.

Alex Clifton on “…Baby One More Time” [9.07]

“…Baby One More Time” begins with the three most iconic first notes in pop music; I’d put it up there with Beethoven’s 5th in terms of worldwide recognizability. It’s a song that both instantly transports the listener back to 1999, but feels classic in a way I can’t fully put my finger on; even now, in 2019, listening to “…Baby One More Time” still feels as fresh and exciting as it did when I was seven years old. Somehow Britney managed to bottle the feeling of teenage loneliness and lovesickness with the tone of her voice. The way she drew out certain words contained worlds within themselves: the “and I” of the chorus is so full of longing that it’s impossible not to feel what she sings. “I must confess! That my loneliness! Is killing me nooo-oooo-ooow,” I’d warble, not entirely sure what the phrase meant but full of emotion. In retrospect, I had never loved the way Britney had in the song, but “…Baby One More Time” gave me something else. Britney was the first musician I really, truly fell in love with — the sort of love where I blared her CDs on my family’s stereo (to the point where my parents gave me my own, presumably tired of bubblegum pop) and where I read the unofficial fan biography books in the supermarket. I’d never had that before, although it was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with pop music. I’ve fallen in love with other artists since then, but Britney and her music are truly forever, and a small piece of my heart will always live in this song.

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa on “…Baby One More Time”

Yes, it’s the tune that kickstarted the career of an era-defining superstar, and consolidated the Imperial status of the most influential producer of pop music in the last 25 years, but its most important contribution to pop culture is that it created a landscape; “Baby One More Time” made teen pop — however you may define it — a powerful concept again, both sonically and commercially. Many musical movements that made waves on the charts during the 90’s — of course, grunge and alternative rock, but also gangsta rap, several dance music trends, trip-hop, the lounge revival, the swing revival, the Lilith Fair scene, the Macarena — but Britney’s thunderous entry into the pop world felt like a sea change, one that would bring joyful, “pure” pop back to the forefront.

This was completely by design; Max Martin and Rami’s gargantuan, in-your-face production, from those piano chords that grab you by the throat from the first second, down to the complementary chorus at the end, meant for this moment to be Historic. It ticks all boxes of what POP can and should be like — young, exhilarating, both sensual and tongue-in-cheek, but above all, inescapable. But we wouldn’t be talking about it, a wonderful 20 years later, if there wasn’t such a brilliant song underneath. My main job is as a live musician and I’ve been playing in bars, pubs, clubs and parties all my life, and have heard countless performers of all genres do all kinds of renditions of any song you can imagine. Of course I’ve played “…Baby One More Time”; I’ve played it with a metal group, I’ve played it with an acoustic guitar, I’ve played it as a reggae tune, I’ve even done a Regional Mexican arrangement with it. I’ve heard it from soul and gospel singers, cumbia bands, and a cappella ensembles, in every tempo and key imaginable. It always, ALWAYS sounds great. And the crowds always love it, and they know every word. The song’s malleability and universality amazes me to this day. It feels as if it’s always been with us, as something you learn as soon as you begin to talk and sing. Every song ever written aims at that.

Joshua Minsoo Kim on “Autumn Goodbye” [6.14]

Any song that served as the B-side to “…Baby One More Time” would forever live in its shadow, but “Autumn Goodbye” plays the part exceptionally well. The track was recorded in 1998 with Eric Foster White, the songwriter and producer who trained Spears to make her voice “distinctly, unmistakably Britney.” And indeed, one can hear the beginning stages of an already-developed vocal style in the gnarly wavering of her throaty voice. While White was behind half the tracks on Britney’s debut album, it was Max Martin’s two big hits that epitomized the sound of Britney’s early work. In hearing “Autumn Goodbye,” it’s obvious as to why. The song doesn’t contain the punchy drums and anthemic singing of “…Baby” or “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” obviously, but it also avoids the necessary melodrama that established Britney’s persona from day one.

“Autumn Goodbye” thus sounds most unlike Britney for its lyrics. The entirety of the song’s sentiment is expressed in the first couplet: “I never promised you a happy ending/You never said you wouldn’t make me cry.” The second line elegantly reveals the “levelheaded,” understanding contentment of a relationship’s end; in any other Britney song, the first line would be a ferocious kiss-off. The beat’s perpetual, feather-light bounce helps project this impossibly optimistic attitude — how can a song that evokes the same feelings as “Together Again” be about breaking up? In an alternate universe, “Autumn Goodbye” would be Britney’s only single, functioning as an apt beginning and end to her career: a complete narrative in miniature. As such, “Autumn Goodbye” channels a different type of teen pop: one that paints singers as juvenile not for their hormone-fueled hysteria, but for purported naivety about the real world. But if the longing found in “…Baby” is more aligned with experiences and expectations of teenage romance, then “Autumn Goodbye” is an astounding B-side because it’s the hidden, oft-unspoken ideal one should hope for in their dealings with ex-lovers.

Katherine St Asaph on “Sometimes” [6.80]

Only in retrospect do pop stars’ careers seem like sure things. For every meme volcano like “Thank U, Next,” there’s a single five years ago by a Victorious alum, not even that year’s only single by a Victorious alum, derided by the lower half of the Internet as obvious kids’ fluff. Britney’s ascent looks inevitable in hindsight, but in another world the victorious Mickey Mouse Club alum might’ve been Christina Aguilera. In another world the Britney-esque breakout might’ve been Solid HarmoniE, teenpop impresario and noted creep Lou Pearlman’s answer to ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys, or Jessica Folcker — E-Type and Ace of Base backing vocalist and Denniz PoP’s then-girlfriend, whose Max Martin-produced “Tell Me What You Like” is the “Already Gone” to Britney’s “Halo.” In yet another world, “Sometimes” might have hit instead of TLC castoff “…Baby One More Time,” and Spears might have gotten her teenage wish to have Sheryl Crow’s career. Though part of the Cheiron sessions, “Sometimes” wasn’t written by Max Martin but associate Jörgen Elofsson. Martin loved the song, Denniz PoP less so: “Great, but perhaps a bit too nice?

Nice it is, but flighty, romantic but skittish, about a lover but a hider–basically, it’s Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” for a PG audience. It might even have purposefully been that — in 1998, emulating Meredith Brooks was still considered a viable pop trajectory, and Brooks herself would soon write for aspiring starlets. The songwriting is thoroughly of its time melodically — down to the now-so-dated key change — and lyrically. The “move slow” prechorus is a dog-whistle at a chastity moral, when teenpop (see Amanda Lameche’s “Everybody Doesn’t” or Play’s “I Must Not Chase the Boys“) still did that, designed to be grown out of. Elofsson would go on to write for Westlife, Il Divo, former A*Teens, and other a-bit-too-nice artists. Britney would go on to be Britney.

Thomas Inskeep on “(You Drive Me) Crazy (The Stop! Remix)” [7.79]

For some reason — I’ve never been entirely sure as to why — during the years of “peak TRL,” I went along for the ride. I’m not a big teen-pop fan, and traditionally have never been, but there was just something about the excitement, the vibrations, the jouissance of Total Request Live as the most exciting television program in America, from roughly 1999-2001. (The recording industry certainly felt it.) And as we all know — right? — the kings and queens of “peak TRL” were Backstreet, *NSYNC, Christina, and Britney. As Chris Molanphy documented in the “Give Me A Sign” edition of his Hit Parade podcast, Spears came along at the perfect moment to benefit from the added push that TRL could provide an artist, especially a teen-leaning pop artist. I found her debut fine, disposable pop that’s since proven indispensable to most. Its follow-up single did nothing for me. But come this punched-up remix of single number three, wowza. While I don’t generally care for Max Martin and his Swedish hit factory, this mix is him at his best, pneumatic to the nth degree. It helps that Britney re-sang her vocal for this version; even just six months into stardom, she already had a feel for what worked best for her voice (and that vocal fry, oh that vocal fry). There’s just as much excitement in this remix of “Crazy” as there was in TRL at the time, so pump it up.

Jonathan Bradley on “(You Drive Me) Crazy (The Stop! Remix)”

It’s called the pop industry, and like all good manufacturing concerns, when a good product comes along, the smart purveyors keep making it. The Supremes knew it; The Four Tops knew it; The Jackson 5 knew it. (OK, Berry Gordy knew it.) And Team Britney knew it: if the same old song has that good a feeling, then do it again and again. Spears introduced herself with “…Baby One More Time” and as America remembered how much it loved a teen starlet, especially one who seemed so happy to occupy that quaint combination of celebrity and girl-next-door, she did it again. Single after single from this first act of her career was designed to accentuate her debut track in mode and in theme, finding variations to fill it out. So “Oops!… I Did It Again,” “Stronger,” and “Overprotected” wrote and rewrote “…Baby,” maintaining the core brand but building it out and re-examining it and recontextualizing it. “(You Drive Me) Crazy” — it’s the single version, the “Stop! Mix,” with which we’re concerned — might not be the best of these songs, but it is the most perfectly machined, the one that shears away extraneous elements to realize its concept in its purest and most efficient form. People then — or now — did not notice how avant garde the Cheiron sound could be; “Crazy” is built from the popping bass and piano pounds that belonged by right to Britney from day one, and the scaffold that supports them is not really music: it is a song of bangs and whooshes and whirs and a delirious ringing sound that co-producer Max Martin would resurrect for Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” another track that toys with the apparent sanity of a singer growing bigger than the world. “(You Drive Me) Crazy” is, textually, about a crush, but Spears doesn’t put any romance into her delivery; this is not a song of frustration or anxiety. Rather, it is a song of pop itself, defined by the clarity with which its performer fixes its melodies and ignites its sparks. The video even had Sabrina the Teenage Witch in it, as if Spears could now best be understood as if her interactions were cast by magazine cover. Britney would be more than this, but this version of her was never more finely tuned than it was here.

Anjy Ou on “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart” [4.57]

Coming back to this song about 19 years after I bought …Baby One More Time on cassette (my first ever music purchase), it doesn’t sound at all like I remember. The parts that rooted in my memory are also the best parts of the song: the sparkly chimes that give the feeling that you’re trying to preserve a moment in time, and that great first/last line “Never look back, we said/How was I to know I’d miss you so.” Those are the parts that perfectly capture young love and young heartbreak — the gold at the bottom of the pan. The parts I didn’t remember — the too loud guitars and the mediocre background vocal inserts — are the sediment I could do without. It doesn’t help that the writer, Eric Foster White, was an okay pop songwriter attempting an R&B ballad for the artist who he trained to sing less like an R&B singer and more like a pop star. It’s kind of sad coming back to this knowing that five years earlier, Britney would have run circles around this track. But she still rocks it, and we’re left with a cute breakup song and a glimpse of what Britney would have sounded like if she hadn’t gone pop.

Edward Okulicz on “Born To Make You Happy” [7.07]

When I listen to this song, I can’t help but call to mind something written by Nick Cave about Kylie Minogue’s “Better The Devil You Know,” in which he called it “one of pop music’s most violent and distressing love lyrics.” Like in the Minogue song, Spears is bound to a concept of love that has no hope of bringing joy, she goes along as she has no other choice, doomed, perhaps to be broken up with and then broken over and over again. And despite the moody touches in the verses, this song is almost chirpy about its narrator’s fate. There’s a heartbreaking pivot in each verse — “If only you were here tonight” — just before the chorus, and an even more heartbreaking cry of optimism — “always and forever, you and me,” as if Britney-the-character has idealised a life of romantic hurt. It is kind of distressing, but I can’t look away, or stop listening, because the hooks are butter-smooth and Britney is a captivating figure while she tells us that love is kind of terrible, but it’s all she — we — are made for. It’s a top-tier piece of melodrama, and as it was never a single in North America, doesn’t get the attention it should.

Iris Xie on “Soda Pop” [5.33]

I adore “Soda Pop” for so, so many reasons. First off, it was on the Pokemon: The Movie soundtrack, arguably one of the greatest compilations for any movie, in terms of the sheer perfection of the timing. It also fits the bubblegum pop genre definition perfectly. But I miss being so emotional as a 7-year-old kid and feeling how perfect, warm, and sunny and perfect the pop music of the soundtrack accompanied the heartfeltness of the movie, and then going and immediately purchasing the soundtrack because it had all of my favorite pop stars. I actually destroyed the CD due to playing it so many times, the CD player ripping one of the plastic tracks from the CD.

Getting to the actual song, the frothy bubbliness of the song still comes through. Listening to Britney sing with a heartiness from her chest voice, similar to first-album Christina Aguilera, takes me to a place of contemplating another timeline, or another alternate dimension. What if Britney Spears never became the sex icon with the sexy songs? What if she leaned into a more heartfelt career, less vocal fry and a deeper voice where she sings more runs than actual running during he dances?

Well, we’ll never know. I have to say though, the mysterious, uncredited “Jamaican” guy to accompany her on the hook, and the strangely watered down dancehall is strange. As a kid, it just seemed exciting and happy to me. As a jaded 26-year-old, I’m upset at uncredited people of color contributors to songs and how that’s always been a precedent since I was a kid. I remember looking for the other singer’s names in the credits, but it just kept saying only Britney. There’s a lot of alternate timelines I’d like, including for one where the music industry does a fairer job treating their backup singers as well.

Iris Xie on “E-mail My Heart” [5.00]

“E-Mail My Heart” is what I’d call “bubblegum dirge.” It’s a mawkish tune that honestly is the dark side of glimmering sincerity in pop music. It’s an easy tune to dismiss at first, and I know I definitely laughed so hard when I first listened to it. I mean the title “E-Mail My Heart” already sounds so dated, because who can e-mail when you can send a text or a passive aggressive Facebook status or dramatic blank Instagram image to telegraph to all your followers that you are very upset about what happened?

But I appreciate Britney’s commitment to expressing emotions and despair, in a dedicated and relentlessly productive teen idol kind of way. But combined with the tinny piano and how it never seems to take off, it starts to sound extremely disorienting, plodding, and slightly maddening. The more I personally start questioning and mocking this song, the more I become disoriented and start questioning myself when I read the lyrics. This is an Edgar Allan Poe story of a pop song.

Is this a song of sincere expression? Despair through text communication is still a constant theme in today’s music, and one of pop music’s main traits is being able to connect and communicate relatable feelings back at its audience. I know I’ve sent some sad, desperate emails before.

But wait! is Britney supposed to act as a tortured acolyte, a type of sprite to channel such sadness? Does such sadness have to be written so directly like this?

Fuck, maybe she’s right. Maybe this song is right? Desperation for a broken or unrequited love is what pop music feeds on as fuel, like a sonic trash compactor of one’s teenage souls, that gets spit out to folks who need affirmation of the pain they go through. I’m usually chill, but suddenly the subject of this hits a little too close to home, to the point of discomfort. I mourn the fresh heartbreak of anyone, but I wince at the time that I’ve sent emails like this. And I wonder if Britney has too. So, a bubblegum dirge — for all those with broken communications, due to broken relationships. I lick my wounds in embarrassment for dismissing this song so early in the first place. I feel read, thanks Britney.

Anjy Ou on “Oops!… I Did it Again” [8.47]

I wasn’t surprised to find out that Britney Spears has Libra as her rising sign. “Oops!… I Did It Again” is my favourite Britney song, and it’s largely because it’s the embodiment of Peak Libra Energy™. Stereotypical Libras are charming, flirtatious, and eager to please, meaning we can lead people on without intending to. An old school sun signs book characterized Libra as “wearing the pants in the relationship.” So of course in the video for this song, Britney colonizes Mars and has men literally risk death to bring her legendary jewels that she treats as mere trinkets. It’s not that the gesture isn’t appreciated (“awww, you shouldn’t have”), but the things that truly move her are harder to grasp at — winning her over is like trying to balance scales with feathers or grains of sand. The tragedy of it is that nothing really lasts or solidifies into love. But despite the loneliness — or maybe because of it — Britney plays the game and clearly has lots of fun doing it. She isn’t ashamed to admit it and never apologizes. She keeps her standards and her confidence high, so you’ve only got yourself to blame if you get caught up in her. I want to be this Britney when I grow up.

Anthony Easton on “Lucky” [8.07]

Everything that a pop album could do, …Baby One More Time did. It sold ten million copies, sold out arena shows, got Britney on the cover of Rolling Stone, yielded five singles; it grounded a new voice and a new aesthetic, and it must have been hell to try to repeat. I keep thinking about the weight of that success, that money, and the mythology of the virgin queen of a pristine new pop sound, and also of her as a doll. Critics can be cruel, and marketing folks can be even more cruel, and there was dispute about how equitable the record companies or the producers were in all of this. At its worst, any of Spears’s autonomy, any of her skills were erased, or absorbed into that of Max Martin, as if she were not viewed as human.

Her follow up record, Oops!… I Did It Again, doubled down on her first album’s excess, but it also functioned as a kind of fuck you. It claimed her autonomy. “Oops,” a bit coquettish, is also a direct and explicit claim of authorship: I did it — not Martin, not the other producers or writers or record companies. Britney as diva, Britney as auteur. Usually you don’t get imperial statements of purpose on the second album, but with how successful her debut was, it made sense.

“Lucky” is a story about two figures — a famous woman, and an ordinary woman (they are doppelgängers in the video) — and it has everything: a foreshortened spoken introduction, a brief sketch about winning awards, robotic vamps that she would update for “Toxic,” some glistening sound effects, and a melodramatic chorus with lines that scream to be read as autobiographical — “She’s so lucky, she’s a star/But she cry, cry, cries in her lonely heart, thinking/If there’s nothing missing in my life/Then why do these tears come at night?”.

The genius of “Lucky” was how it slipped out from the narratives constructed for her, and by extension making the subtext of perils of fame into text. People ask all the time where the ’90s A Star Is Born was, and listening to this, it is an ironic, almost camp, deeply self-aware three-minute pop song, one where the media and the message are similar, a text that did not need to be expanded into a 90-minute track on authenticity.

Edward Okulicz on “Stronger” [8.20]

The hook, of course, was the lyrics being a kind of sequel to “…Baby One More Time” with Britney’s loneliness no longer killing her. But “Stronger” functions less as sequel and more as consolidation, as consummation, as a colossus. It’s everything Britney had done up until that point, but all at the same time and condensed into three minutes. Max Martin is in his castle, surveying the land he conquered — the opening foghorn blast is nicked from one of his first international hits, Herbie’s “Right Type of Mood” from 1995 and suggests nothing other than complete victory. The rest of the song delivers. At this point, anthemic choruses with big ABBA chords, then a middle-eight, then a slightly deformed version of that chorus was Britney’s thing, so of course “Stronger” would make it three singles in a row using this delightful, thrilling trick.

But before you get to that, you have verses where Britney’s robot-frog voice is at its barely human peak, each word sounding as if beamed in from another universe if not performed by another species, and the timing on each thrust of the verbal dagger is spectacular. Struggling for an adjective to go a level above “spectacular” to do the chorus of “Stronger” justice seems futile, but the best I can do is “celestial” — it’s just a massive rush of the type we’d come to expect from Britney, but seemingly at fifty times the speed (it’s only 15 bpm faster than “…Baby One More Time,” mind you, but the force comes from mass as much as speed). The final chorus where Britney stretches out “I’m” so it’s “I-I-I-I-I-I-I’m” is such a perfect pop moment. This song took everything that was great about what Britney had already done and turned it up to maximum, befitting a star on top of the world. The video out-hyped Williams Hype Williams and if not for a slightly dubious shot on a rotating chair (edited out on the cut on Britney’s VEVO), it’d also have out-Janeted Janet Jackson. Nearly two decades on, “Stronger” hasn’t lost any of its decadent grandeur — it’s Too Much Britney, but it’s great because it’s Too Much Britney.

Julian de Valliere on “Walk On By” [5.79]

“Walk On By” may be about unrequited love, or a not-so-secret crush, but at its core it’s also a song about being completely unremarkable – or feeling it, in any case. It’s about a dual obsession with the infinite charms of another, and the lack of any to wield as your own. It’s about stuttering, hiding, being completely incapable of taking any first step – just one of the many humans left devastated in the wake of an otherworldly being, with nothing to differentiate yourself. This passive but persistent self-criticism is what truly makes “Walk On By” the juggernaut that it is, injecting both humanity and theatrics into the song until it sounds over-the-top and yet somehow exactly right – for how else do you capture the feeling of a heart that hurts in every corner, a crush that’s far too self-aware, a nagging that you’ll never be enough? And in the end, it’s these emotions that take over instead, spilling out like a cry of defeat – perfectly and painfully encapsulated in just that one, incredible line: “I’m not the only/feeling lonely/every time you walk on by.”

Rebecca Gowns on “The Joy of Pepsi” [3.91]

I was a sheltered child. We did not have cable TV, we did not listen to the radio. We listened to old jazz records and watched PBS. But the power of Britney was inescapable. In 2001, she was suddenly everywhere — in malls, in roller rinks, her choruses passed back and forth between the kids in middle school. I was in 6th grade when I saw this commercial on primetime television and it hit me like a truck. Like BOOM: there’s the new millennium. The song was discordant and strange in the verses, then suddenly jubilant in the chorus (bubbly, really!). Every time this commercial would come on, my head would swivel around to watch it, no matter where I was in the room or what I was engaged in, my face like the diner cook in this commercial who slips into a dead-to-the-world hypnosis from seeing her on TV.

Oh, that’s another thing that was mesmerizing about it: you were mesmerized, and it showed you everyone else in the world who was watching this commercial, also mesmerized. It’s like “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” except the message is, “I’d Like the World to Sit Here and Watch Britney Spears Dance and Be Hypnotized into Buying Pepsi.” There’s only one person who could get away with that, and that’s Britney Spears. In fact, her idiosyncratic pronunciation lends itself to the subliminal messaging: what everyone on the playground sang as “buh buh buh buh buh The Joy of Pepsi” was really “buy buy buy buy buy The Joy of Pepsi”! All along! That refrain pops into my head to this day when I see the Pepsi logo. It will always be there. There’s an entire groove in my brain dedicated to Britney Spears sticking her tongue out and laughing after taking a cool refreshing sip of Pepsi.

Now I have a kid. I’ve caught my mom’s squeamishness around new technology. We do not watch TV, we do not listen to the pop music stations. I’m trying to retain her attention span as long as I can, to keep her careful curiosity. But there’s no doubt that one day she’s going to have that Joy of Pepsi moment — a popstar will catch her eye, and she’ll just stare, mesmerized, as the pop hook grabs a hold of her brain and shakes her to her core.

Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy on “I’m a Slave 4 U” [7.73]

“Sllllaaaaaaaaaaaaaave….!” she sings, purrs, drawls — all at the one time — making sure to finish with a syllabic shrug. The delivery of this one word is Ms Spears playing with fire, far more than when she demands a dance partner disregard her (teen)age. It’s a charged word, placed in the hook for a pop juggernaut in waiting, uttered by a blue-eyed, blonde white chick and written by two men of colour (The Neptunes in their imperial era of hitmaking). That very lyric, as well as the one about age, would have — obviously — felt totally different sung by Janet Jackson, who allegedly rejected the song yet seemed tailor-made for its choreographed raunch. Janet surely would have found something uncomfortable in the track’s unresolved mix of desire, surrender and sex; Britney wasn’t one for such a forward provocation, claiming in interviews that she was beholden to the rhythm while literally asking if her paramour wanted to dance upon her. There’s a lot of effort on show, from husky, theatrical vampishness (“What the hell, who cares!”) to ecstatic panting over something that sounds like a fula flute stuffed through MIDI. But it’s not quite anybody involved functioning at the height of their powers, the song’s provocations left toothless and unexplored by the wrong artist, the discomforting allure softened.

Stephen Eisermann on “Overprotected (Darkchild Remix)” [7.00]

Britney’s entire third album era was an incredible shift in her career. Gone was the young girl that so many comfortably relied on as a prim, proper, and perfect role model, and in her place rose a young, complex, and flawed woman. On the Darkchild remix of “Overprotected,” Britney takes an already declarative track and runs it through the I’m dating a guy my dad totally wouldn’t approve of filter. The song is riddled with electronic sound effects that were present in most of the early-2000 huge R&B hits, along with some more rapid percussion and one hell of a breakdown, but at the core of the song was the message that Britney was sick of being so bogged down by expectation and, frankly, excess protection. Her staccato phrasing and vaguely R&B inflections work well with the song’s beat and create a very loud, if a tad noisy, hip-hop adjacent pop track. That this track managed to hit as well as it did is a testament to the power of Britney because it didn’t align much with the material from prior albums, but it did create a perfect segue for the music, and person, that was still to come. And despite some darker times that did follow, we are better for the woman that Britney is now, as we came away with some incredible music, this song included.

Tara Hillegeist on “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” [5.79]

I didn’t know who Britney Spears was when “I’m Not a Girl (Not Yet a Woman)” was released. It was the first of her ballads to actually be granted a lengthy stay on any of the radio stations or music video channels I listened to and watched at that age, and it may very well be the last of those as well; certainly, it’s the only one of Britney’s most popular ballads I remember hearing at the time of their actual release, instead of years later. It’s hard to believe this was such a part of the sound of the summer of 2002; it feels out of sync with that timeframe entirely. But it makes sense that “Not a Girl”, a song about owning your transitional states as valuable and worthy of love in their own right for what they are, fell into a transitional lacuna in its own right, at least for me. As I said, I didn’t know who Britney Spears was in 2002. I only knew the pop star she lived inside. The idea of that girl being capable of gentle melodrama was a hysterical prospect; she was the “it” girl of the millennium, no one could take her seriously as a sappy lovestruck wannabe.

Funny how hard it is to see a real person when you’ve been fed an image, sometimes. It’s not just about the struggle of being one of the most famous pop faces on the Western side of the planet, this: depending on when “Not a Girl” was recorded, Britney would’ve been between 19 and 20 years old. So, roughly headed into the same age range as Carly Rae Jepsen was when she first wrote “Call Me Maybe,” and Britney, too, found herself articulating a young adulthood that most of us — I do use “us” deliberately — interpreted as something far more indecently childish. Of course, it didn’t matter to the wider public perception that surrounds popular music and film that a movie directed by one Tamra Davis, whose preceding credits included the Drew Barrymore movie Guncrazy, about a teenage girl who murders her abuser, became the vehicle through which this song was given the excuse to exist; that wasn’t a context anything with Britney Spears could exist within. I wonder if I could have seen the pattern then, had I been older, myself? But of course I was too young to see it, a girl fresh into my first year of high school and living fiercely closeted even then. It would be a year before my own uncomfortable transitory state would truly connect itself to words I could speak, and years till I found myself at the same age as Britney Spears was when she sang about how she used to think she had the answers to everything. It wouldn’t be until years after this song that Shonda Rhimes, who wrote the screenplay to the movie “Not a Girl” featured in, would receive the first unshakeable hit of her career in Grey’s Anatomy. But the trademark fingers of her melodramatic sensibility are all over Crossroads, with its heightened approach to teenage miscarriage and abusive fathers and its complicated tangles of past selves hanging over a changed and charged present. It makes sense that “Not a Girl” soundtracks this intersection, charged as it is with the kind of sentimentality that makes its home in melodramas of the kind Crossroads is, the kind Shonda Rhimes has made millions creating, the kind that many casual listeners of Britney Spears realized far too late that Britney excelled at voicing.

I realized it late, too. But like a lot of other realizations in my life, my body knew the answer already. Something arrested me about “Not a Girl” that I couldn’t identify, its ache to “find the woman in me” resonating such that if it was on a station I was listening to or watching, a small part of me felt betrayed by pretending I didn’t care if it had to be changed so we could do something else. The piano, drums and strings producers Max Martin and Rami provide to underpin Britney’s characteristic thin delivery are as multitracked as her voice, creating a subtle nervous tension within the song that belies the meaning — a plea for recognition of the very real universality of this very real period of uncertainty in every girl’s life as she grows older and realizes not just that she’s being looked at, but that no one is looking at her. Its simplistic, gently vacuuming lyrics, so easily mocked for their lack of specific and disarming detail, felt like the open arms of an embrace within which something more specific might yet come along and fit inside. So Britney Spears stepped inside it.

It’s her delivery that makes “Not a Girl” more than the sum of its parts, the human being at the heart of it that takes a basic refrain and makes it vulnerable and hesitant and confident and alive. I hadn’t heard “Lucky,” to have seen this brave anxiousness coming. No one had even conceived of “Everytime” then, to predict the murky disenfranchisement of where it was going. But I couldn’t understand how this song was supposed to be awful then, and I still don’t. There is a hope in this song that is absent in “Lucky” and “Everytime,” a certainty that she truly is on a path to becoming the everyperson she sings about being, that she is capable of not having to be more than that for anyone. She could be Britney Spears, gently warm-faced star of young adult melodramas. She could be Britney Spears, collaborator with trip-pop singer Dido. She was in transition, between who she’d been and who she’d become. Anything could be possible. I haven’t forgotten the tension and desire that simple message made me feel.

I didn’t know who Britney Spears was when I first heard “Not a Girl (Not Yet a Woman)”, and I didn’t know her after I heard it. But I knew what I needed to know, to make it possible that one day I could. Britney Spears is possessed of such a powerful, direct, confidently stated understanding of her own capacity for yearning that there’s no distance that she can’t reach for.

All she needs is time.

Nicholas Donohoue on “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” [4.13]

This wasn’t as big a mistake as history has made it out to be. That can be said about Britney’s cover of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” but it also can be said about her foray into film: Crossroads. They were both ill-conceived, I would not argue against that, but there is a level of chutzpah in both that speaks to me. Britney has almost always given everything to an objective. She wanted to star in a teen movie with some commentary on issues affecting teens, she did just that. It’s not her fault that the issues presented were easy to ridicule because they were mostly over-heightened and primarily focused on and for teenage girls (most notable to me due to its banality: An uncomfortable moment where Britney and the girls have to console their male driver’s fragility over music he considers “girly”).

The placement of this song in the narrative is a gem of insight. Britney has to sing to a bad backing track of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” in some random bar to win a karaoke contest. She is rough, but the superstar Britney mode just can’t help but peak. It’s clear that this isn’t her song or her place, but there is something here that is her calling.

The object lesson from this cover comes from contrasts, what Britney isn’t more than what she is. Britney is about bombast, but not Joan Jett’s gruff command. Britney is about an approachable appeal, but not one where she is coming down to our level, she’s all about aspiration. Britney is a legend, but her origins aren’t in invoking the old, it’s in a blend of her own making that always set her apart no matter what the surrounding music scene was doing. In that way, the wrongness of this cover makes the craft of the Britney oeuvre glow.

Anjy Ou on “Boys (Co-Ed Remix)” [5.86]

The album version of “Boys” is forgettable because of all the things it doesn’t have that the Co-Ed remix does: the toy keyboard melody in the chorus, the breaths as percussion, and the very necessary addition of a bass guitar. The remix is really more of a rework, then, and in my opinion one of The Neptunes’ best productions considering how spare yet irresistibly danceable it is. It doesn’t have much of a chorus but it almost doesn’t need one — in my experience, you’re too busy dancing to sing along, anyway. The Britney era was basically Britney’s Janet Jackson phase (both this song and “I’m A Slave 4 U” were written by the Neptunes with Janet Jackson in mind) and this track leans into the homage with the “get nast-ay” in the chorus, and a fire dance break replacing the bridge of the original. It’s also probably Britney’s most “urban” single. I can’t say much for the rest of the world, but I can definitely say that in my corner of Nigeria, this was the song that made us love Britney. Without this song filling dancefloors and ruling music television in 2001, we wouldn’t have rocked out to “Toxic” at our high school dances three years later.

Edward Okulicz on “When I Found You” [5.43]

This is not the Britney of “Born to Make You Happy.” Her affirmations about love are different here, not just because of different songwriters, but because she sings them (lines like “I believe for every door that’s closing/for every heartbreak, there’s hope for something new”) with awed fulfillment, as if she’s experiencing something she’s known all along was possible but can’t quite believe it’s happening to her. It’s the difference between your high-school crush and then being shocked by a real intimate personal connection with a lover. Except to explain that is just pretentious dissection; the actual words flow more smoothly out of Britney. She thought love “was just a tingling of the skin” but she’s experiencing it now, in song form. There’s something slightly amateurish and corny about this one — that watery middle eight is cheesy, cheesy, cheesy — but this is the first on-record apperance of Brit’s Ethereal Floaty Love Pixie persona (which she’d perfect on “Heaven on Earth” and “Trip to Your Heart”). Tacked on to the end of one of her underrated albums (albeit one muddled at times by “I’m Britney and I’m an adult now, let me self-consciously tell you about maaaaay“), it’s on the album proper on Spotify these days, and it needs to be there. I like its aspiration to universality in contrast to the rest of the album, and the simplicity of its key line: “I found myself, when I found you.” Sometimes, you find yourself not in self-conscious adulting, but following your heart and instincts.

John Seroff on “Toxic” [9.40]

In the late nineties, I was working as a restocker at a big box media center… remember them? After Christmas 1998, the predictable rush of returns led to an ocean of exchanges for copies of Prisoner of Azkaban, preorders for the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium, and …Baby One More Time. The endless whack-a-mole hunt for scattered Britney plastic longboxes squirreled away across the high-school sized store and the near-constant replay of the album on the loudspeakers enforced a chip on my shoulder against bubblegum pop in general and Spears in particular. I felt safe ignoring Britney and her fragrances for many years thereafter, until “Toxic.” The single, even with a too-hot-for-primetime video, was blissfully unavoidable on its release: a strange bolly-surf watersnake of squealing strings, fuzzy feedback, clipped guitar jangle, and extremely hard-working bass; a bit of Aphex, a lot of Timbaland. Britney never sounded better produced to me than here, as the ghost inside the machine, occasionally breaching the gears with croaking wails and entreaties less sexy than damned. “Toxic” remains a sort of self-realizing, pop platonic ideal for me, a demand that guilty pleasures be acknowledged and embraced. It’s the song that shredded my music snobbery and resurrected my appreciation for the less-than-subtle ecstasies of pop music for the past decade and a half and running.

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa on “Everytime” [7.47]

The piano and music box intro — specifically, the way the latter breaks into the former’s cadence — has always struck me as a faithful representation of innocence lost, of how trust, in one self and in the people you form bonds with, breaks from within’ and distorts your life’s flow and even the way you perceive yourself. “Everytime” is the song in which Britney confronts the very public and highly dramatic end of her relationship with Justin Timberlake, the tune in which she comes to terms with heartbreak, with her own mistakes, and with the consequences of facing this ordeal in front of the entire world. Such a naked display of vulnerability, especially by way of a self-penned single, should be — and in 2019, it is — an astonishing, admirable feat (last year, we witnessed Ariana Grande address the trials and tribulations of past relationships to universal acclaim), but at the time, the pop world took JT’s side and condemned Britney. He controlled the narrative in such a way that his tune about her, “Cry Me A River,” remained free of scrutiny for a very long time; hell, he controlled it so well that, even after exposing Janet Jackson in the Super Bowl, the public went after her. Let’s face it: the pop universe in the early 2000’s fucked that one up completely. We shamed Britney incessantly, and there’s no doubt that it contributed to her meltdown a few years later.

It took Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers — itself a take on female power amidst a culture of materialist excess, overexposure and debauchery — to restore, in the minds of many, the song’s dignity. Through its use in that iconic scene, “Everytime” became, once again, a meditation on loss, on how exhausting it is to carry such a weight and just keep going, keep dealing with whatever the world throws at us. It’s a song that works much better now, in a time where anxiety and depression are routinely part of the pop conversation, where there’s a Drake that bares his soul and it gives him hit after hit. We just weren’t ready for pure, unfiltered Britney in 2004. “Everytime” is beauty in darkness, and should be remembered as what it is: an act of pure courage.

Katherine St Asaph on “Outrageous” [5.80]

“Outrageous” is an R. Kelly song. It is a vision of outrageous sexuality as imagined by sexual predator R. Kelly, and unlike Lady Gaga’s much-maligned duet he wrote the whole thing. It’s an R. Kelly song that came out the year after he was indicted on 21 counts involving child pornography, and also the year after “Ignition (Remix).” The public may now give a reluctant damn about R. Kelly’s misdeeds, but the industry does not give a damn, then or now. If Britney’s career was transplanted into the 2010s and In the Zone came out in 2018, it would probably feature XXXTentacion.

The industry can be fought, though. Supposedly Spears vetoed “Outrageous” as a single twice. Like many things in celebrity profiles, this may or may not have actually happened. And if it did it could have been for any number of reasons not involving R. Kelly’s deeds — and, given that her second veto made “Toxic” a single, one might be Britney’s instinct for massive hits. But you have to wonder, right? By now Spears has known unending creeps, like reporter Steven Daly, who wrote the infamous “honeyed thigh” profile for Rolling Stone when Spears was 17, or the aforementioned Lou Pearlman, alleged to have secretly recorded Spears’s old group Innosense topless and sent the footage (unsolicited) to a member of Take 5, to the thousands on thousands of sketchy everymen who haunted her fanbase.

The easiest explanation is that “Outrageous” simply isn’t great. Like 10% of the early-’00s pop industry as mandated by law, it features cod-Middle Eastern flourishes, the same ones that’d later be heard on Beyonce’s “Naughty Girl.” The frantic timbre of Britney’s verse vocal comes from songwriter/demo singer Penelope Magnet, who cowrote much of In the Zone (not this, though) and whose solo work has that unmistakable breathless clench. (A full album was on her SoundCloud once, but it was taken down before I heard it. This parenthetical is a hint-hint wish to the universe.) The lyrics are functional but vaguely off, as if a non-songwriter, writing for some A Star is Born-esque film, had to write a song given one word and a story beat of tabloid-defined sleaze, where sex is as bad as parties are as bad as shopping. Parts of it — “outrageous, my sex drive,” “jumped over drama and I landed on my feet” — come off like R. Kelly was actually writing about himself, a la “Heaven, I Need A Hug,” but thought it best to retool the lyrics for another singer. Getting “Outrageous” shunted to the soundtrack of Razzie Award-winning Catwoman, then quietly downgraded in Britney canon, is not a total victory, maybe not even intentional. But it is a victory.

Nortey Dowuona on “(I Got That) Boom Boom” (ft. Ying Yang Twins) [5.50]

When hip hop and Britney Spears met, it was a turgid, bland relationship. She didn’t know what to do in the situation and neither did hip hop. So when this odd, dated piece of crunk featuring the Ying Yang Twins from 2003 careened into my ear, I was kinda confused.

In so many pop/rap collaborations, the rapper(s) are walled off into a 16 bar structure while two perfunctory verses are performed by the singer with the hook. However, Ying Yang Twins dominate the track completely for the first bars, and even drop a banjo over the stabbing, nipping synths and tumbling drums, as Britney plays the simple opp playbook while sounding completely out of place (even as the Ying Yang Twins brag about getting crunk with Britney, which Waka would brag about 10 years later).

It feels strange, especially since Britney is completely sidelined in her own song, but actually seems to like it, gamely conceding space and time as the Ying Yang Twins excitedly pimp up the lofty song with childlike excitement, obviously enjoying themselves. Otherwise, Britney is basking in a well-earned vicotry lap, one which would be marred by tabloid fodder and fickle time.

But that’s another story for another time.

Matias Taylor on “Breathe on Me” [7.43]

In the Zone marked a period of artistic maturation for Britney. Gone was the bubblegum teen pop of her early records, replaced by electronic and hip-hop influences over lyrics that spoke openly about sex and desire. “Breathe On Me” is one of the crown jewels of her fourth album: it’s entirely a song about sex, but between the elegant production and its unique take on the subject, makes its own thesis statement about what sexy really is with restraint as the ultimate aphrodisiac. Flanked by waves of warm synths, a pulsating groove, and Britney’s phenomenal performance exhuding pure desire, “we don’t need to touch” and “monogamy is the way to go” end up sounding like anything but the chasteness they would imply. It’s a refreshing approach to the subject and one that demonstrates a principle informing the best pop music: always leave them wanting more.

Joshua Minsoo Kim on “Don’t Hang Up” [7.15]

Where “E-Mail My Heart” failed was in its inability to romanticize and essentialize the actual act of emailing. To shoehorn a particular means of communication into a standard song of love lost is to disregard the nuanced rules and exciting potentialities that characterize any instrument for human contact. “Don’t Hang Up” doesn’t make the same mistake — Britney spends every line aching for a lover to stay on the line, using phone calls as an incisive metaphor for a dissipating relationship. In the process, she reveals how talking with someone over the phone is inherently intimate, but still beholden to its limitations.

The opening image is stark: Britney lying alone in bed, clutching her pillow tightly. She turns to her phone to mitigate any loneliness; closing her eyes and reciting hopeful phrases, she wants to be convinced that this lover isn’t (long) distant. “I’m not alone, I can still feel you,” she sings, and it’s suffused with an assured sense of this palpability as much as a knowing fraudulence of its claims. While the instrumentation firmly places “Don’t Hang Up” in 2003 — the slinking R&B percussion, the retrofuturistic sound effects, the effervescent synth notes that resemble The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” — it sounds suspended in time due to its insular nature. And in the song’s final moments, Britney asks a question that she knows won’t be answered: “Do you feel it too?” Nestled at the end of In The Zone’s international discs, “Don’t Hang Up” leads into silence. Even with no one on the other end, she’ll still wait for a response.

Joshua Minsoo Kim on “Over to You Now” [7.36]

When Guy Sigsworth reflected on producing “Everytime” with Britney, he stated that he “wasn’t quite sure what to do because she’s famous for her more dance-y songs, and [he’s] not.” “Over To You Now” was written shortly before that single, and one consequently suspects that such feelings of uncertainty led to him creating the most blistering of dance-pop for good measure. To be sure, “Over To You Now” sounds little like the tracks that comprise In The Zone, but it’s also more energetic than anything Sigsworth had written for other pop stars (or Frou Frou) at this point. What makes it so exhilarating is how its laser-like synths have such a grand sense of movement — one feels as if they’re in a wind tunnel when turning on the track. While the lyrics could very well be describing anal sex as much as a hidden nightclub, the song is able to conjure up such a rush of energy because it creates a space for listeners to envy Britney’s manipulated vocals. More than just a propulsive bit of production, the chopped up “Yea!”s find Britney subsumed into the music. She’s already lost in the moment — where are you?

Ryo Miyauchi on “My Prerogative” [6.33]

It took me more than a decade since I first heard “My Prerogative” to learn the single was not a Britney Spears original but actually a Bobby Brown cover. Bloodshy & Avant updated the production by digitizing the New Jack Swing beat, and her team applied a minor edit on the lyric sheet to fit a female perspective as they did for her cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” But Britney’s singles were already part meta-commentary by 2004: each announced itself like an annual state of affairs in the Life of Britney Spears, the Pop Star, building off what was addressed in the last hit. So the direct, self-referential response to being under the microscope in “My Prerogative” suited her almost too perfectly. One of the aforementioned lyric edits, a switch from “brother” to “sister,” even revamped the source material to fit closer to Britney’s autobiography as the older sibling to Jamie Lynn — who would star as the titular character of Zoey 101 a year after the cover’s release. No one’s life story represented the dark, merciless side of pop culture better than Britney’s during 2004. To this day, I’m convinced “My Prerogative” is hers and nobody else’s.

Isabel Cole on “Do Somethin’” [5.86]

A party, an assault, a joke, my Britney holy text. Like on so many tracks, her voice sounds simultaneously instantly recognizable and totally new, from the sarcastic atonal scraping of the verses to the gleefully bratty shout-whine of the chorus; it remains astonishing to me that her versatility of affect has so often been made out to seem like a defect when of course it’s one of her greatest delights. And we must appreciate her pronunciation of the title phrase, perhaps the greatest in a long line of Britney idiosyncrasies: do suh-ehn, a marvelously unholy mixture of her native Southern twang and arch valley girl parody. This song is funny, digging into the cliches of stardom with a knowing silliness that makes it clear what side of the joke she’s on (somebody grab my guitar so I can look like a star — authenticity is a scam!). But the real thrill is in its crackling aggression, which burns through the harsh static fizz playing around the edges and that muffled fuck! at the end and most of all in the chorus. If the foundational truth of the Britney narrative is her status as looked-upon — the sheer magnitude of the eyes on her, in numbers and years and desire and viciousness — her most significant intervention in it is her insistence on looking back. I see you looking at me doesn’t subvert any gaze or carve out an imagined liberation; it simply makes explicit what those looking would prefer remain a silent act, a private violation. And what follows is brutally astute: both like I’m some kind of freak and like I got what you need, repulsion and desire inextricably linked, a clear-eyed view of the dance of hunger and shame that propels the endless desire to consume. The hunger to touch, possess, be, fuck fuels the shame which creates the distortion of a person into a freak, object, creature that must be blamed for our own distasteful appetites; and as the internet was already teaching us when this song was released in 2004, there is no hunger like the hunger for rage. Some kind of freak/got what you need: the ultimate Britney thesis, and a succinct statement of what it feels like some days still to be even a very lucky woman in America. Why don’t you do something? is both futile — a challenge she knows will never be met — and necessary: a way to remind everyone of exactly where the shame belongs.

Edward Okulicz on “And Then We Kiss (Junkie XL Mix)” [7.23]

This was recorded for In the Zone, but left off. I’m not sure why, my first guess is that the original (never released, but leaked) version was a bit too similar to “Breathe On Me” (later, I’m sure she relegated one of the coolest Blackout-era tracks to a bonus track because it sounded the same as “Gimme More” x “Break the Ice”) but not as good. The Junkie XL remix though, is good. It’s so good. Released as the promo track for the otherwise completely un-promoted remix album B In the Mix, “And Then We Kiss” is heaven from its New Order-esque bass to its synths, which sound like ascending through clouds on the way to Heaven itself. Where the song diverges from “Breathe On Me” (which is about intimacy, yet boasts the line “We don’t have to touch”) is its yearning for the consummation that comes with touch — Britney sounds as if she’s completely unable to think about anything other than touching, as if she’s faint from deprival. “Take me/Touch me/Won’t you hold me close?” is nothing less than a plea to be made whole, but there’s also a plea to be made calm, to be made still. Junkie XL’s dream-scape production fits the words and melody and the ideas they are communicating so snugly that it’s hard to believe it’s not the original version; it perfectly evokes the twin pillars of anticipation and satisfaction.

Thomas Inskeep on “Me Against the Music (Justice Extended Mix)” (ft. Madonna) [6.21]

The original of this song was recorded for and the lead single from Spears’s In the Zone in 2003, this remix was released on her B in the Mix remix album in 2005, and then another two years later, Justice sampled the original song on their own “D.A.N.C.E.” I mean, c’mon. And the song wasn’t even a U.S. pop hit, sputtering out at #35 on the Hot 100! (It did hit #1 on the Dance/Club Play chart, which was perhaps the point anyway.) And the original is fine, a semi-basic pop record with an R&B bent (The-Dream and “Tricky” Stewart had a hand in it). But this remix? Oh, Lord. It’s the height of ridiculousness, which is precisely why it bangs so hard. Justice took said semi-basic pop record and C&C’d it to hell (if you don’t know what I’m referring to, this is what I’m referring to), because, well, they’re smart guys and they know that “Gonna Make You Sweat” is one of the pillars of early ‘90s pop music. But it’s also completely ridiculous. Much like this song, and Britney especially. (I mean, she actually sings the line “My hips are moving at a rapid pace” on this song. Thanks for the exposition, Brit.) And every time she sings “let’s take on the zone,” I imagine she’s referring to the fad diet called “the Zone.” The issue with the original song is that it wasn’t nearly over the top enough; Justice took it there.

Katherine St Asaph on “Guilty” [5.42]

What Britney has lost in hits and autonomy, she’s gained in meme: Facebook filters immortalizing her Blackout breakdown, or puff pieces about being a boss icon, despite still being under a conservatorship she likened to prison, where several men are the literal bosses of her life. If “Lucky” was about a beloved pop star who’s secretly depressed, this is its grotesque mutation: a pop star lauded as queen of empowered #goals, who for years has had the opposite of power. But her story’s been told for her grotesquely at least since “Cry Me a River”: Justin Timberlake’s alternately vicious and maudlin song implying that Spears cheated, since hammered harder into canon with interpolations from Halsey to Rosalía. Spears’ official answer to “Cry Me a River” was the soppy “Everytime” and its accompanying video, in which she simulates soft-focus suicide. But dozens of songs were pitched as (Neil Strauss’s words, not mine) “sassy answers,” one of which was probably “Guilty.”

Two versions of “Guilty” exist. The version that leaked first is terrifying: a cold beat, Hitchcockian strings, a melody that takes Max Martin’s idea of “melodic math” and grinds a protractor through it, Britney’s vocal frantic and clipped as if at knifepoint, or perhaps holding the knife. The lyrics are unflinching Aldonza-level bitterness: “It’s true, I’m nobody’s angel — convict me, I’m guilty”; “you say I’m filthy, but you’re the one who made me guilty.” A few years ago another version, presumably the original, leaked. This version samples Prince’s “Kiss.” It highly samples Prince’s “Kiss.” (Yes, that part too.) If it came out in 2018 every single music writer alive would lose all of their shit, plus every single tabloid, because sampling Prince has semiotics. Sampling Prince is implicitly saying sex is fine, affairs are whatever, and shame is orthogonal to it. All of Prince’s songs about feeling guilty (the closest fit is “Electric Chair“) are about feeling extremely not. That one change — the “Guilty” remix sped Britney’s vocals up a bit, but otherwise they really did sound that tense — turns Britney’s delivery from anguished to taunting, but still remorseless. Did Britney really prefer the limp capitulation of “Everytime” to this? Did Prince, possessive of his music to the point he wanted covering it to be illegal, decline permission? Or was it just too much for Britney Spears in 2003 to slink over a Prince beat and implicate everyone in her tragedy?

Matias Taylor on “Gimme More” [7.87]

I heard “Gimme More,” the first single from Britney’s 2007 comeback album following a period of personal turmoil and upheaval, while I was living in Peru and listening to the radio in the car on my way back from school. The announcers said there was a new Britney song out and introduced the track by stating that “they wanted to avoid her return, but this (bleeped out expletive) always wins.” It didn’t surprise me to hear her insulted so casually: in the two years prior, the then 25-year-old had been subjected to the cruellest aspects of modern media culture, particularly its gleeful disregard for the humanity of its subjects at the expense of an eye-catching headline. During the writing sessions for this record, there had been an unofficial mandate to abstain from making songs about her personal troubles, but it’s hard not to hear this song without thinking about those issues and the media feeding frenzy around them. From the opening line — the now iconic “it’s Britney, bitch” — to the mixture of dark synths over an unapologetic pop banger about nightclub debauchery, “Gimme More” can be easily constructed as a defiant response to the situation she found herself in, revelling in the image of the pop-princess-gone-off-the-rails and turning powerlessness into power, taking the torment into her own hands and turning it on its head.

The lyrics may be almost nothing but come-ons, there are constant references to her position relative to the crowd (“they just keep watching”, “centre of attention”) and the title line itself comes from the crowd’s perspective; they want more, so she’ll give them more. The song also wildly succeeds without this context as a pure pop club jam, with producer Danja laying down a series of hypnotic synths and sinister, meandering sound effects that build up into a syncopated frenzy as the track progresses. Then there’s Britney’s performance itself: simultaneously playful and sneering, starting out a thin, clear falsetto before completely surrendering herself to the production by the time the chorus demands “more” of her. At some points, one can barely tell where she starts and the studio trickery begins, but this is no case of production trying to hide an incapable vocalist; it’s completely to the benefit of the track and brilliantly captures both an eerie, decadent club atmosphere and the tension and release at the heart of the song’s subject matter. The anti-Britney bandwagon would subside within the following year, but this song remains a fascinating product of that period of her life. Much has been made of the recovery her career went through after this, but surely the quality of the material she was releasing played a part. At the end of the day, even in the darkest hour of her person life, thanks to songs like “Gimme More” it was really all about the music.

Kat Stevens on “Piece of Me” [8.27]

A crunch of a photographer’s smashed lens. A pair of Clint Eastwood cowboy boots with clanky spurs. A handful of chain lengths idling at the thigh, ready to strike. With each beat Britney gets angrier, an anger that’s been stewing since she was Miss American Dream, aged seventeen. Back then, I was jealous that seventeen-year-old Britney could do backflips and I couldn’t, that I’d never make a music video that good. Twenty years later, I feel relief that I am never going to be that famous, that I can make mistakes and be forgiven, that my exes won’t sell their stories to the tabloids, that I can be a human woman in the 21st century and dick around on the internet without my typos appearing on BBC Breakfast. I am allowed to be shameless. I can call my album whatever I like. I can shave my hair off and only my Mum will disapprove. Britney has borne the brunt of the world’s disapproval. Within the space of a year Britney finalised a divorce, lost custody of her children, was involuntarily sectioned, and released an amazing album. Britney was twenty-six. Britney was deemed incapable enough to be put under permanent legal conservatorship but also deemed capable enough to subsequently star in four world tours and a four-year Las Vegas residency. I am still angry with them on her behalf. I am angry that she was so normal and young and bright and it happened to her anyway. When I listen to “Piece of Me” I’m rooting for Britney with my entire being, because it feels desperately unfair that being temporarily ill can leave you permanently without legal rights, that being a woman and having a body could ruin your career, that a slip of the tongue or a misplaced tweet could mean your kids get taken away again. This could happen to any of us, and it’s only because we’re not under the microscope that we’re getting away with it. Britney still has no control over her own finances, but with “Piece of Me” she is using the one weapon she has left. She is fighting back in the best way possible, by doing her job and doing it damn well. She is coming for them, slowly approaching the shoot-out with her cowboy spurs clanking. “Don’t matter if I step on the scene or sneak away to the Philippines…” Her sing-song taunt, circling round them as they beg for mercy, is the stuff of cartoon villainy and I am here for it. Britney is thirty-seven and cannot apply for a credit card without her father’s approval. She’s twirling the chain around her fingers and grinding their camera lenses beneath her boots. “Are you sure you want a piece of me?”

Andy Hutchins on “Piece of Me”

“Piece of Me” is at once one of the least human and most personal songs in the Britney catalog. There is no doubt that it is one of the most important. Recorded last in the sessions that birthed Blackout, it breaks an unwritten rule that Britney songs should be largely unspecific and impersonal while also sounding in its verses — thanks to alarm bleat synths and drums that sound like chains clinking — like Bloodshy & Avant tried to soundtrack an assembly line for pop stars. Yet Britney, who does not have a writing credit on “Piece of Me” and sounds practically like an android under thick layers of Auto-Tune, is as vital and potent as she had been in years, and maybe ever: “You want a piece of me” works with any punctuation mark and as a triple entendre at minimum, and is probably best read as deliciously haughty assertion of her status, given the flawless “Guess I don’t see the HARM in workin’ and BE-in’ a MAM-a/And with a KID on my ARM, I’m still an ex-CEP-tion-AL EARN-er” couplet and the acid sarcasm that eats through the track throughout.

That refrain is easy to read as an invitation to fisticuffs, too, given the maybe-not-idle threat to “resort to some havoc” — and knowing that Robyn was involved enough to do backing vocals (though not enough to get a writing credit) helps wishcast “Piece of Me” as a Britney song from the career she might have had with a little more agency and self-awareness, and a bit less goofiness. “It’s Britney, bitch” may have been an in-joke on “Gimme More,” but “Piece of Me” imagines a world in which she asserted that as a mantra, the “You’re gonna have to deal with that” implied; that thesis, while arguably not backed up by much of her catalog since, was enough to get the song title attached to a Vegas residency and a tour several years later. But “Piece of Me” is also just a jam that revels in its weirdness, whirring off into the skies in its hook and verging on chiptune in its bridge — and Britney delivering that at a time she needed it most and in the form of telling the world exactly why it needed her was a tour de force.

Lauren Gilbert on “Piece of Me”

“If Britney could survive 2007, you can survive today.” It’s a meme now, the kind of thing that you can buy on a coffee mug. But there’s some truth there; 2007 was perhaps the nadir of paparazzi culture in the US, particularly for Britney. In 2019, she might be a survivor, dealing with mental health issues in public and the very real pressure put on women in the public eye; in 2007, she was just proof that money couldn’t buy class. Lifestyles of the rich and famous and all — she didn’t even write the song about her supposed empowerment, just another vapid bitch with too much money and too little sense. It didn’t matter where she went, what she did; her face and her (endless) failures sold magazines. No matter how terrified/exhausted/fucking done she was, she was trapped in the prison of the public eye. She was just tired of everyone touching her, still staying on script and acting out the comeback she didn’t feel. And “Piece of Me” is undeniably a banger — a banger I wish she hadn’t had to make.

William John on “Break the Ice” [7.67]

In the year of Blackout‘s release, Tom Ewing mused that one of its tracks could be construed as “good art about Britney as much as good art by her” (emphasis added). The spectre of her unfortunate, very public breakdown loomed large over the release of that album, and the fact that it turned out to be such a triumph from a musical perspective complicated the narrative for listeners — could we allow ourselves to bask in the beauty of Danja’s synth textures while armed with the knowledge that Spears’s autonomy at the time was potentially compromised? Ewing’s piece cites the complex nature of Spears’ vocal work on Blackout as the premier exhibit of her agency, and “Break The Ice” is full of extraordinary examples: the desperate panting to end each chorus, the bridge’s quickening pace, and, of course, the rupturing of the fourth wall to introduce the mind-bending instrumental break. The dexterity displayed accentuates the convoluted emotional charge present in an encounter with someone new and thrilling. It’s a subject as rote as any in pop music but Spears approaches with inventiveness, and, in spite of odds that for most would’ve been insurmountable, genuine humanity.

Gayathi Sundaram on “Break The Ice”

Have you ever been so turned on that you sucked your teeth? Not kissing your teeth in annoyance, but that sound you make when you are grimacing in pain and make a wrong move. That sound you also make when you are so aroused you can’t stand it.

Of all the sexy sounds we hear made in music — moaning, panting, gasping, groaning, squealing, whispering, giggling, the list could go on — the sucking of teeth is most definitely underrated, which is what makes “Break The Ice” so refreshing, and possibly the only time when Britney might lose control.

(That this sound may actually be a hiss, to match the voiceless “s”-sound in “ice,” is a possibility. But when you have listened to this track as many times as I have, there is no mistaking the lack of sharpness that would accompany such a hiss. That is also the point at which you almost realise that you have listened to this song waaaay too many times. Almost.)

Another feature that makes “Break The Ice” a standout is its breakdown. There are many who miss the beat that runs through the rest of the song, but how can you say that when in its place you not only have Janet Jackson references but also peacock calls? Fricking PEACOCK CALLS. Along with the scattering of cascading synths, that breakdown turns into a lush paradise, an oasis in a steel desert. Even the squelching synths call to mind frogs and other wildlife that indicate bounty, a wonderful and calm base from which the song ascends to its final, soft climax.

The rightness of this change is only highlighted by the accompanying music video. I remember smugly telling everyone that it was animated because Brits was avoiding the limelight after being mocked for her weight after that performance. I was a stupid 18-year old, barely into uni, and it was only later that I appreciated the genius of this anime-inspired clip.

Britney descends like an angel, a choir accompanying her apology: “It’s been a while/I know i shouldn’t have kept you waiting/but I’m here now.” Many have pointed out the double meaning of this message as being not only for her lover, but to her fans for her prolonged absence. But with the video showing us her clone, this also feels like an apology to herself. Then the siren synths come in, a subtler version of those heard in Kill Bill, and we realise that this is, in fact, an angel of death who has come to us, apologetic no more.

That knowing smirk never leaves Britney’s face as she completes her mission, because of course she’s going to succeed. And as much as I like to joke about the scene being a rebuke to the future whitewashing of Ghost In The Shell, there is no denying how Britney is shown moving on from her past. She destroys the creature created by committee, by men; she may have been a victim of circumstance but now she emerges as the controller of her own destiny. And that final crescendo fits so perfectly with the image of anime-Britney leaping to her escape after breaking everything.

How is she going to land safely? Where will she go next? What consequences will she face? Who cares? At that moment, Britney Spears is free and in control (save for the odd sucking of teeth), and that is all she needs everyone to know.

Iris Xie on “Radar” [6.47]

“Radar” was the first song where Britney’s sexy, dominant attitude became accessible to me. Before, her songs were so aggressive in a way that it honestly made me blush, like she was always ready to declare to the world that she was incredible and an embodiment of sexiness, but it never felt very intimate to me, like she came out fully formed and ready to be that person, but it was for an audience and not the specific person she is seducing.

So when I first listened to “Radar,” I was surprised. The way that the word “radar” is interleaved with that crunchy static and sonar *ping!* that bounces in and out of the song is so unbelievably hooky that I find myself muttering “Radar!” like a fan-chant if I hear my alarm go beep. But Britney’s attitude is what sticks out to me the most. In comparison to “Gimme More” or “Circus,” “Radar” takes on a more languid pace, where she works her way into building up heat with an extremely assertive gaze, and the song eventually concentrates her gaze so much that you get the feeling that as the subject of the song, if you are the “man with a Midas touch,” that in reality, you’d be a fool to not submit to her. Her outro with the Auto-Tuned “da da DA!” parts is her asserting that she is the radar, and you need to be aware of that now, before the radar comes back in, and fading out. Like the reverse of a heart rate monitor, except that with the radar gone, you are now in Britney’s clutches now. I’m chill with that.

Kat Stevens on “Freakshow” [7.20]

In October 2007, while the rest of the world assumed Britney was as detached from her music as she was from reality, Tom Ewing’s Poptimist column explored what her “executive producer” credit on Blackout could mean. ‘You might look at the public Britney and see someone who can barely string a sentence together, but even so that sentence could have been “I want an album that doesn’t sound like anyone else’s.” Or “I want an album people can party and fuck to.” Or “I want an album with goofy voices my kids can imitate.”‘ The 2-step striptease of “Freakshow” ticked all those boxes, robo-dance-pop with an deliciously unsteady wobble beneath it. At the time, dubstep was only just hitting the mainstream, and Britney became its unlikely trailblazer. The commenters on www.dubstepforums.com were both impressed and appalled that she had dared venture into their patch. “Sounds like mainstream music is jumping on the bandwagon once again”… “Blatantly just been done to seem up to date with the music scene innit”… “What fucker produced that for her? Death to the culture snitches”… “This tune is well Vice Magazine though”… “Large up the crossover!”… “Excellent – fuck the purists”… “Not as good as SLAVE4U”… Maybe not! But “Freakshow” is a weird track on a weird album, and I’d argue that its inclusion is a convincing piece of evidence for Britney’s creative agency, goofy voices and all. Would a team of managers and label execs have taken this culture-snitching risk by themselves, on an already fraught project? In a recent retrospective, Britney cited “Freakshow” as one of her favourites, while collaborator Keri Hilson described Britney’s decision-making during recording: “She had what I call the ‘fuck it factor’… when an artist does something bold, it’s like, ‘I know this is not conventional, and I know this is not why they love me, but fuck it.'” How liberating that must have felt, after years of running on the teenpop treadmill. If you thought this might be your last album, then why not trust your instincts, let your inhibitions go, and give ’em an encore?

Alfred Soto on “Heaven on Earth” [7.43]

Beginning with a rattling sequencer out of 1977 that signals Brtiney’s intention to feel love, in the flesh or cybernetically depending on her mood, “Heaven on Earth” ravishes praise on a guy whose taste, touch, tongue, his big toes too, I’m sure, evoke what it must be like to see the face of God. Had Robyn released “Heaven on Earth” in 2005, we’d have praised the expression of man-machine lust. With Britney Spears there’s always a sense in which we expect such lasciviousness. “Fall off the edge of my mind,” she coos in the last third before the beat returns for a last round of thwacketing. The pleasure of her text should have set Barthes studies alight.

Isabel Cole on “Get Naked (I Got a Plan)” [7.50]

On a dark, dark record from a dark, dark time, pulses a dark, dark song. Nestled in the middle of Blackout, “Get Naked (I Got A Plan)” takes that record’s heady signature cocktail of sex and danger to its fullest extreme. Textually, it’s the same old pop story: girl meets boy, girl approaches boy, girl takes boy home to fuck his brains out. And yet it sounds like this: a beat sinister in its insistence, droning baseline sketching out some dank cavern illuminated by screeches like a flock of bats at nightfall, synths that warble and throb with dread — The Phantom of the Club, as performed in an abandoned funhouse. In the verses melodies appear for a line or two before vanishing, like consciousness when you’re several drinks past your threshold; the most solid melodic turn is the chorus, if it can be called that, delivered by Danja with his voice processed to sound like a malfunctioning carnival machine. Britney weaves in and out, drunkenly, spectrally: sometimes as a collection of breath, sometimes more instrument than voice, sometimes toying with an uncanny valley of sexuality that straddles the line between hot and unnerving. If I get on top, she sing-songs like a creepy doll, before letting the rest fall out in a half-forgotten sigh–you’re gonna lose your mind; her next line dissolves into the gears. This is the world of Blackout: nothing is real; nothing is safe. Sex or its performance suffuses the air; closeness is impossible in a place, for a person, so destabilized. In the bridge Danja morphs into some robotic presence to assert I just want to take your hand, a sweet sentiment turned skin-crawling; meanwhile Britney at her most human rings out, oh–please! A cry of escape, but there’s two minutes to go. An ever-present threat, a self flickering out of solidity like a poorly programmed hologram, a blur around the edges of reality that makes it impossible to discern the intentions of others and even ourselves–remind me again, why do so many of us still hold this album about partying as a text about survival?

Brad Shoup on “Why Should I Be Sad” [6.54]

They couldn’t believe I did it. Blackout really did beggar belief: a concise, freaky collection of bangers, tracked during a world-witnessed span of pregnancy, divorce, and anxiety. But that’s not what Spears was referring to on “Why Should I Be Sad,” the album’s Neptunes-produced closer. At the time, a lot of folks — I was one of them — glommed onto the vocal fuckery within the album’s dark dance heart. We spent less time wondering how she (instead of the songs, or the producers) was deploying those voices — and even less considering the crystal-clear declaration of the last track. It’s the closest thing on Blackout to a ballad. Pharrell’s the sole credited writer, but he’s adapting Spears’s story, and her fingerprints are all over the text. (No one else could — maybe even would– deliver a phrase like “stupid freakin’ things that you do”.) It is, essentially, a closing argument: an exquisitely rhymed, delicately delivered kiss-off to Kevin Federline. Paradoxically, she flexes her power by listing concessions (magazine shoots, luxury cars): when she sings “I sent you to Vegas with a pocket full of paper/And with no ultimatums on you” it sounds like she’s reprimanding a child. “Britney let’s go!” Pharrell keeps shouting, like he’s pulling her away from a street fight. Instead of hornet synths and menacing claps, there’s just a heavenly keybed, clipping percussion, and a resolving three-note figure. Ultimately, pop performers get into the game because they want to be heard. “Why Should I Be Sad” is the message from her I’ve replayed more than any other.

Anna Suiter on “Womanizer” [6.87]

It’s amazing what ten years can do. In 2008 I was in the throes of high school angst. Even though I listened to the radio when I was driving myself or my friends around, I wasn’t really paying attention to what was playing. I certainly wasn’t paying attention to Britney’s personal life. Knowing now that she was struggling with the custody of her children and that it was her first number one in the Hot 100 since 1999 makes the whole thing feel a little bit different. More than just an “iconic bop” kind of rejection of the whole narrative that goes “oh you’re so bad but I wanna get with you anyways,” it meant something at the time. Coming out at approximately halfway through her career at this point, it seemed like a turning point at the time. The beat goes on, though, and almost ten years later it’s hard to believe that this had any context besides having been something that you just want to dance along to. This song is still so sure of itself, and has still managed to stay strong regardless of what came after it. The bridge might be the only bit of respite you get, but it’s not very much when you get thrust right back into being told how awful you are.

Nicholas Donohoue on “Circus” [7.20]

Looking at the career of Britney, you find a huge variety of turns of presentation. Schoolgirl, spy, apocalypse drifter, etc. These are all presentations of similar ideas of lovelorn emotions, passion expressed through dance, sexuality from teenage to parent. This is to me why “Circus” and its ethos provide a stable point of reference to my affection for her. “Circus” is specifically the boiled down comment on what she is: a performer. This was the case in 1999, is the case in 2019, and will be the case forever. The story matters, but Britney’s power lies in how she expresses and builds on the story. “Circus” then becomes its own showcase of what a Britney song does; it grows, it turns primal, yet maintains control because most importantly it has Britney’s charisma and vocal coos to tame it. But the imagery within and beyond the song makes it clear, Britney is here to put on a show, every time she is present be it mind, body, or spirit, she is THE performer.

Katie Gill on “If You Seek Amy” [6.53]

Some of Britney’s songs are deeply personal, emotional ballads about her relationship with herself, the media, or others. Some of Britney’s songs are fun party anthems, killer dance tracks designed to get your blood pumping and your feet moving. And then there’s “If U Seek Amy”: a song built entirely around a joke. The lyrics and bridge are written to justify the chorus, a bit of wordplay that’s the sort of thing that middle school students would whisper to each other on the playground. This song so desperately wants everybody in on the joke that the video is bookended with a fake news report that explicitly calls out the wordplay in question. And honestly? It’s good that it does. You need to know the joke, as that takes the song from a middle of the road dance track to something beautifully subversive and slightly scandalous. Because overall, it’s a damn good joke. “If U Seek Amy” is somehow immensely clever and so damn stupid, a fun yet kind of trashy dance bop that shows Spears at her dance music best. It’s clever, fun, immensely catchy, and rags on Megyn Kelly so it would be a worthy entry in the Britney Spears Top Songs Pantheon on that alone.

Stephen Eisermann on “Unusual You” [7.08]

Britney’s most beautiful ballad(esque) track manages to also be her saddest. The lyrics are quietly devastating and although she didn’t write the track herself, it isn’t hard to see why she connected with and chose the song. Britney’s relationship history up to this point had been very tumultuous, and prior to her breakdown it was becoming increasingly clear that she wasn’t happy with many aspects of her life. On this track, Britney’s cold, robotic voice plays well with the icy production and if you close your eyes as the track plays, you can almost see Britney peeking out from behind a tree explaining how she doesn’t understand this ‘normal’ love, stopping barely short of saying she doesn’t deserve it. And when someone as famous Britney is that vulnerable on a beat that bangs this hard, it’s hard not to feel broken with her as you listen to this on repeat for hours on end.

Jonathan Bradley on “Amnesia” [6.00]

An outtake which finally found a home as a bonus track on some versions of Circus, “Amnesia” is a spare Spears cut that’s so fun and frivolous — a combination not incidental — that it ended up one of the best things she would ever record. A murky mix suggests the song was never properly finished, but it also accentuates the carelessness central to its appeal. The story: Britney exits the club, runs into a Hot Guy™, and immediately loses all capacity to function — including to function monogamously. The lyric, performed with cheeky celebutante callousness at a time in which Paris Hilton occupied the same tabloid space Spears did, toyed with her reputation as a ditz to tell its story; “I forgot my name/I forgot my telephone number” is a relatably goofy expression of overwhelming infatuation as well as a bimbo joke. It’s also a deflection of responsibility for impending infidelity: “I forgot my boyfriend was the one who bought me this rock,” she shrugs. The melody nods at old-time girl group swoon, reinvented with the digital shards of the 21st century. The coy femininity is so fluffy you nearly don’t notice that she gets exactly what she wants — or how gleeful it is to stand by her while she does it.

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa on “3” [6.60]

In the latter half of the aughts, Britney went from pop music’s most notorious superstar to one of its most tragic casualties. She had a season in hell in 2007, and everybody at the time thought she was simply done. And that makes her return, now as a full-on Dance Music Diva, all the more impressive. She just went on and kept making consistent records, and even when the mainstream charts were less welcoming, these tracks were given a new life in the clubs. Ms Spears’s music has always been infinitely malleable, but the remarkable remixability of her singles during this time solidified Britney as a staple for every DJ on Earth. That said, she still had some pop dominance in her: “3” marked a bit of a return to form, a Max Martin production with hooks for years, a beat that both the radio and the dance floor could agree on, stadium-filling melodies that already feel like cheerleader chants, and of course, a panoply of double entendres.

I know nothing about threesomes, I don’t watch them in porn, and I’m not interested in having one any time soon, but I get the appeal. Pop music is about provocation, and these words obtain a certain power in Britney’s voice. Gone are the days where sexual references in her felt like mere suggestions, an element of Brit’s teenage image; “3” goes all the way, and cleverly to boot — the Peter, Paul and Mary shout-out is legendary. It’s a display of maturity, yes, but also a slice of pop perfection. It’s the kind of music we wanted from a renovated, adult Britney, and it ushered in a new era for the icon.

Ramzi Awn on “Hold It Against Me” [7.07]

“Hold It Against Me” sees Britney in one of the roles we’ve come to love her in most: a vulnerable woman. She doesn’t know whether or not to open her heart to her lover, fearing that her admission will cause her harm. It’s a side of Britney we’ve come to know quite well, realized fully by her 2007 blackout and the album that ensued. Ever since then, some of the most memorable moments of her career have been inspired by sadness. “Hold It Against Me” excels in the law of contrast, the pummeling verses setting the lush chorus up for extra romance, and the bridge is one of the tightest pieces of songwriting to hit American music in years. “Give me somethin’ good/don’t wanna wait, I want it now/pop it like a hood/and show me how you work it out,” Britney commands, reveling in about twenty seconds of perfect production. If the track is a reflection on whether or not honesty brings two people closer together, the bridge is the fruit of their labor of love. “Till the World Ends” may have been the longer-lasting hit, but “Hold It Against Me” gets you where it hurts: after the party, alone with the person you love, and not at all sure that they love you back.

Juan Carruyo on “Till the World Ends” [7.93]

Once upon a time yours truly was not a fan of pop music. Well, I did enjoy pop in the adult contemporary sense but pop in the 21st-century sense with shiny, blatantly fake and futuristic sounds wasn’t exactly up my alley. All that changed with Britney Spears’s “Till The World Ends.” I believe it caught my little rhythm-obsessed brain with its syncopation-as-hook method. See, the verse is very preliminary: it’s all exposition. The keyboards set up the syncopating leitmotiv with very dated dubstep patches, so it sinks already from the first note into the subconscious. Britney seduces the listener and even challenges them, picturing a murky, doom-impending situation that’s not at all clear yet as soon as the pre-chorus hits there’s a powerful tension build-up that’s all sex that’s finally released in the chorus via many overdubbed “whoa”s. So, to sum up so far: it’s three powerful hooks in succession and — this is the genius part — they’re all built on the same rhythmic cell, they only change on what’s playing behind them. However, it does the trick: it keeps the brain happy. It’s a song I’ve personally never quite shaken off. As it arrives to the coda, there’s a victory-lap to the proceeding, it’s joyous, it’s festive, but it never quite transcends the majesty reached before. It’s merely an exhortation to reflect on the grandeur and what a brilliant song it is. I usually hit replay afterward. This is how I changed forever, and I’ve got to thank Britney for that.

Nortey Dowuona on “Till The World Ends”

The year is 2012. A nameless bar in New York, largely deserted except for 5 people including the bartender, and with a functioning jukebox on the empty wall. A lithe, blonde woman strides towards the jukebox, flicking it on. No one notices, they’re drinking heavily to forget the people they’ve lost in the past year. Suddenly, prickly, crackling sound waves wash out across the bar. The woman jumps atop the bar, looking excited. She immediately starts backflipping and spinning. Everyone sighs and moves away from the bar to sit at the many abandoned tables, they’re too tired to care.

Meanwhile, a small black girl with loosely curled hair wanders in. As the woman dances, the tired bartender, a tall black woman with short twists, sighs and pours a glass of orange juice, then places it on the bar, walking into the back room. As the small girl walks to the bar and picks up the orange juice, the woman leaps to the first empty table, whirling into a buzzing ball, before unfolding and landing in a handstand. The girl puts down her now empty glass and starts applauding excitedly. The other bar patrons halfheartedly clap. Even the bartender pokes her head out from the back door to give an unenthusiastic thumbs up.

Smiling, the woman then leaps off the table and begins simply grooving. The small black girl joins in, one of the patrons jumps up to dance, with the other two joining in, with even the bartender now watching from the doorway, smiling and eating a bowl of pretzels. Suddenly, booming sounds are heard. Everyone stops and looks at the woman, even the bartender, who looks at her quizzically. For a moment the woman looks uncertain, rocked. She looks at the frightened, uncertain faces of the other patrons, the quizzical, sly smile of the bartender and the yearning, hopeful smile of the small black girl.

The woman smiles then, a big, bountiful smile that seems as if it might leap off her face and fly away into the air. She continues to dance as the bass drops, making the few folks in the bar also dance along with her, with even the bartender joining in. Another booming sound is heard, and another, but no one there cares. They dance, and dance, and dance, ’til the world ends.

But that’s a story for the next hit.

Jacob Sujin Kupperman on “Till The World Ends (Femme Fatale Remix)” (ft. Nicki Minaj and Kesha)

“Til The World Ends” is already one of the best of Britney’s second-decade singles, but the “Femme Fatale” remix, which grafts on contributions from 2011-era Nicki Minaj (in her prime) and Kesha (not quite there yet, but still a lot of fun), is even more impressive. It’s the rare song that gets to do everything at once — it’s a trend-chasing pop song that also gets to be a victory lap and a tribute to the artist’s legacy and relevance, a collab that gives everyone ample time to show off their skills and a track where Britney is so clearly in control, a club banger with enough going on lyrically to inspire a wave of apocalyptic-pop think pieces. Nicki’s the MVP, obviously– her minute-long cameo is the verse that her “Monster” verse thinks it is — but what’s most impressive is how easily she and Kesha incorporate into Britney’s all-consuming pop energy. It even makes that dubstep break sound natural — less a crammed in attempt at hipness and a full on expression of musical joy.

Ashley John on “I Wanna Go” [7.57]

Every girl has a tipping point when they realize they are a girl in a world that hates them. Britney understands this, and the weight of her girlhood and then her womanhood was heavy with the eyes of the entire world on her bare torso, ogling with shock and awe. “I Wanna Go” is Britney cutting the glossy, untenable tightrope of being a woman and leaning into her own desire. Though hinting at sex, the allusions to “taking out my freak tonight” are easily mapped to other indulgent, sometimes ugly activities — eating or drinking too much, lazying around doing nothing at all, speaking without inhibition. “I Wanna Go” names the shame in wanting but refuses to let it win.

Josh Love on “Criminal” [5.47]

A nice folk-pop palate cleanser at the end of the delightfully beat-driven Femme Fatale, “Criminal” finds Britney stepping to the fore after merging herself so physically with the music for much of the rest of the album. Not only do we get a wistful flute refrain that charmingly tries to convince us this song is far more serious than we know it is, we also get one of the loveliest bridges of her career. That leaves the spotlight on the lyrics and Britney’s delivery, which are delightfully incongruous enough as to reassure us that “Criminal” is nothing more than an idle fairytale. Britney’s lovestruck ode isn’t to some generic bad boy who maybe just drives his motorcycle too fast and has a couple harmless misdemeanors on his record. No, this guy’s not only “a killer just for fun, fun, fun,” which at least sounds kinda romantic, he’s in fact a genuinely shitty dude all the way around, an unreliable hustler who lies and bluffs… and a bona fide snitch to boot! My two other favorite lyrics-related things about this song are 1) Britney emphasizing to her own mother that her love for this guy “isn’t rational, it’s physical” (thanks for the info, hon!) and 2) Britney saying that since “he’s got my name tattooed on his arm” then “I guess it’s OK that he’s with me,” which kind of implies that maybe he just already happened to have a previous fling who was also named Britney.

Dorian Sinclair on “How I Roll” [7.29]

“How I Roll” is a patently artificial-sounding song, even by the standards of Femme Fatale, which rejoices in instruments and sound effects that have no acoustic analogue. It’s full of pops, stutters, and buzzes – so much so that they creep into the vocals, whether it’s the glitched-out gasping that opens the song or the dissonant whir on the word “speaker.” Underpinning all of that, though, is a beautifully warm piano that, along with the surprising gentleness in Britney’s vocal, stops things from ever sounding too remote or alien. It’s an impressive balancing act on an underappreciated song – it’s far from the most iconic track on the album, but to me it’s the one that most captures the overall feel of this chapter in Britney’s career.

Will Adams on “Trip to Your Heart” [7.14]

Bloodshy & Avant’s work with Britney tends toward the adventurous, with synths warping and vocals drilling as if your speakeerrrRRRRS are glitching out. While there are traces of it in “Trip to Your Heart” — trance synths with clipped reverb, the Speak & Spell bass gurgle reminiscent of “Into You” — it’s too excited to be caught up in the audio frippery, opting instead for feather-light dancepop. Britney adds to the lightness by staying in her upper register until she reaches the candy core of the song: “spread my wings out into the dark/I’ll fly away on a trip to your heart,” over a melody that dissolves like cotton candy. It’s saccharine to the point of parody – the toy piano! — but Britney’s earnestness makes it indelible.

Alfred Soto on “Seal it With a Kiss” [6.43]

Pushing the synthetic virtues of her endlessly recombinant pop to their extreme, Femme Fatale is Britney’s peak, a souped-up techno shock masterpiece whose love-you-downs contrasted sharply with Lady Gaga’s virtue signalling in Born This Way. Dr. Luke and Max Martin know their employer, understand her strengths. She’s not an erotic presence; she suggests an erotic presence like organic ketchup suggests tomatoes. Anchored to insistent ooh-ee-oohs and Spears’ electro-puckered sigh, “Seal It With a Kiss” insists on keeping its titular promise.

Julian de Valliere on “Scary” [6.10]

In an alternate reality “Scary” would be to Halloween what “All I Want for Christmas is You” is to Christmas, but the song was exiled as a bonus track to the Japanese edition of Femme Fatale and as such never received the attention it deserves. It’s quintessential Britney though — lost in its fantasies, playful to the point of silliness, but delivered with enough intensity to never come across as a joke. “Scary” immerses you in a world that’s simultaneously cartoonish and real, hilarious and horrifying, where lust and bloodlust are interchangeable and sinking your teeth into someone has just the one, literal meaning.

Claire Biddles on “Work Bitch” [6.93]

A couple of weeks ago, TSJ’s own Brad Shoup tweeted, “are there any songs that absolutely did have to go that hard?” There’s some obvious answers — “212” and Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Always on my Mind” — but “Work Bitch” is perhaps the only example where going hard is both the medium and the message. Britney convincingly assumes the positions of strict mistress, CrossFit instructor, and aristocrat; deftly switching her voice from an emotionless bark to elongated decadence. Her multifaceted motivation comes from pity: She’s already got everything you want. When she snarls “you wanna live fancy?” she means “you wanna live like me?” to which we collectively answer “yes, mistress,” before we attempt to claw our way to the top of the mountain of lesser humans that she uses as her podium; or at least add the song to our gym playlist. “Work Bitch” is simultaneously deadly serious and utterly ridiculous; an absolute masterpiece of camp.

Sabina Tang on “Perfume” [6.00]

After In The Zone, Britney released two infrequently-discussed #1 hits: Curious and Fantasy, respectively the best-selling new women’s fragrances of 2004 and 2005. Curious — a $30M first-week sales juggernaut — is a white floral, because every celebrity’s first endorsement is a white floral; whereas Fantasy (“red lychee, golden quince, kiwi, jasmine petals, white chocolate”) became to mid-oughts America what CK One was to the 90s. Today, Fragrantica.com lists 1500 or so “fruity floral gourmands,” the overwhelming majority of which were released in the ensuing decade.

Fantasy — the hot-pink, hi-potion-shaped bottle of which features prominently in the video of “Perfume” — is the Proustian context of what is otherwise a pleasantly plaintive, generically Sia-inflected power ballad. “I wanna fill the room, when she’s in it with you”: a full-body triggering of involuntary memory, whether one was once the jealous douser, the being-doused, or merely within range when Britney’s Swarovski-studded juice made a Friday-night appearance in the freshman dorm. One might note that Britney spritzed on Curious in “Circus,” before draping herself in Bulgari and putting on a show. But relatable Britney, disarmed and disarming, pleading “I’m your girlfriend?” That’s (the real) Fantasy. The Princess of Frappuccino, she of “I LOVE vanilla candles,” in being authentic to herself created the Peak Millennial olfactory signature: the lingering sillage of a tropical fruit-topped cupcake.

Joshua Copperman on “Do You Wanna Come Over?” [6.67]

How was this not a career-revitalizing smash? The obvious answer: it was never released as an official single, just a promotional one. Then again, it’s almost a little bit too crazy, with those shouted backing vocals from co-writer Julia Michaels and no-not-that-one Jermaine Jackson. (I swear I also hear fellow writer Justin Tranter, whose goofiness permeates this song — “your day was the baddest” is the kind of cheese that’s always a good counter to Michaels’s songwriterly horniness.) The guitar strums do recall “Toxic,” but where those strums sounded deliberately thin to fit with the Bollywood samples and all Bloodshy and Avant’s other antics in the song, the flamenco strums in “Do You Wanna Come Over” have so much body and force to them. Everything does. And maybe that’s why it couldn’t have been a hit: “Do You Wanna Come Over?” was too wild at a time when pop music was starting to get depressing, and the number one song of the year was about a vicious nostalgia cycle of a relationship. (“Do next to nothing”? In this economy?) Mattman & Robin’s production is a testament to how hard pop music can hit at the exact moment that pop’s power faded. Around the time the song came out, I wanted to play it for a fan of Britney’s, but he steadfastly refused to listen to anything beyond the first two records. No “Toxic.” No “Piece of Me.” Just “Oops!… I Did It Again” and maybe “Dear Diary” for good measure. So it’s too aggressive for lifelong Britney fans, especially fans of her early work, but too freewheeling to attract a younger audience. But for anyone who just likes a stellar, frankly kind of bonkers pop song, “Do You Wanna Come Over” is perfect.

Dorian Sinclair on “Man on the Moon” [6.73]

Pining is a funny thing. It’s been, fortunately, a while since I was in as deep as the narrator of “Man On the Moon”, but it captures what is probably the key to understanding the whole experience – when you’re pining you’re sad, but there’s a giddy theatricality at the same time. It’s a dramatic sadness, the kind that leads to moodily gazing out a coffee shop window and wishing it was raining to complete the scene (I have done this). “Man On the Moon” is sad, but there’s joy there too. Not just the expansive rush of the chorus, but the major scale on “I can’t compete with the stars in the sky” and even the cheesy spoken French interlude all capture someone who knows they’re being a little over the top, but is gonna luxuriate in it while they have the opportunity.

Brad Shoup on “Hard to Forget Ya” [6.00]

Spears is now at that exclusive stage where her songs — like Kylie’s or Cliff’s — contain whole swaths of pop history. It’s not strictly due to survival, not exactly. But the slide from avatar to icon takes a while, and a lot of sounds attach to you in the process; at some point, those sounds start talking to each other. So when the wingbeat of Britney’s chopped vocal descends into the first verse, you can hear the chorus of Mandy Moore’s “Candy” or Kylie’s “What Do I Have to Do?”. There’s a reference to a poker face, a term that’s Gaga’s for the foreseeable future. The roaring synths in the refrain recall a Friday-night pop station’s club broadcast. And the way she steps over those synths reminds me of Nick Jonas (for whom Ian Kirkpatrick has also written and produced). Still, this is a Spears track: the bite she takes out of “‘boutcha,” the matter-of-fact lustfulness, her awe at beholding someone beautiful. “Hard to Forget Ya” is a pop maelstrom, swirling up all these moments and scattering them on the dancefloor, all on a damn album cut.

Will Adams on “If I’m Dancing” [6.86]

Whereas the bulk of Glory’s standard edition was a downtempo, sultry affair, consistent in both the positive and negative ways, the bonus tracks are where the real fun is found. There’s slinky Latin house, spacious and slamming trap (in French!), and, of course, “If I’m Dancing.” To call it left-field would be selling it short. The production is an assembly line of earworm audio cues: synths that buzz like hornets, clipped vocal sample (DEE!), whip cracks, atmospheric synth washes, a distant “dum-dee-dum” voice, and Britney’s studio talk. And that’s nothing to say of the lyrics, which sing the praises of a man who evokes, seemingly at once, perfumed lotion, submerged butterflies, candy hearts and a beginner sitar player who’s willing to work it out despite their chakras not matching. Amidst the organized chaos, Britney’s refrain cuts through: “If I’m dancing, I know the music’s good.” Sometimes, that’s all that matters.

8 Responses to “Britney Spears: A Mid-Career Retrospective”

  1. EXCUSE YOU, IF I’M DANCING, DO SOMETHIN, AND SEAL IT WITH A KISS DESERVE 8+ SCORES. RE-EVALUATE, PLEASE. I’M BEGGING YLU.

  2. Note That if i’m dancing has brazilian-funk influences in it’s drums and the noisy synth from the begining.

  3. All the songs by ranking:

    1. “Toxic” [9.40] (In The Zone)
    2. “…Baby One More Time” [9.07] (
    …Baby One More Time)
    3. “Oops!… I Did it Again” [8.47] (Oops!… I Did It Again)
    4. “Piece of Me” [8.27] (Blackout)
    5. “Stronger” [8.20] (Oops!… I Did It Again)
    6. “Lucky” [8.07] (Oops!… I Did It Again)
    7. “Till the World Ends” [7.93] (Femme Fatale)
    8. “Gimme More” [7.87] (Blackout)
    9. “(You Drive Me) Crazy (The Stop! Mix)” [7.79] (…Baby One More Time)
    10. “I’m a Slave 4 U” [7.73] (Britney)

    11. “Break the Ice” [7.67] (Blackout)
    12. “I Wanna Go” [7.57] (Femme Fatale)
    13. “Get Naked (I Got a Plan)” [7.50] (Blackout)
    14. “Everytime” [7.47] (In The Zone)
    15. “Breathe on Me” [7.43] (
    In The Zone)
    15. “Heaven on Earth” [7.43] (
    Blackout)
    17. “Over to You Now” [7.36] (Britney & Kevin: Chaotic)
    18. “How I Roll” [7.29] (Femme Fatale)
    19. “And Then We Kiss (Junkie XL Mix)” [7.23] (B in the Mix: The Remixes)
    20. “Circus” [7.20] (Circus)
    20. “Freakshow” [7.20] (Blackout)

    22. “Don’t Hang Up” [7.15] (In The Zone)
    23. “Trip to Your Heart” [7.14] (
    Femme Fatale)
    24. “Unusual You” [7.08] (Circus)
    25. “Born To Make You Happy” [7.07] (…Baby One More Time)
    25. “Hold it Against Me” [7.07] (Femme Fatale)
    27. “Overprotected (Darkchild Remix)” [7.00] (Britney)
    28. “Work Bitch” [6.93] (Britney Jean)
    29. “Womanizer” [6.87] (Circus)
    30. “If I’m Dancing” [6.86] (Glory)

    31. “Sometimes” [6.80] (…Baby One More Time)
    32. “Man on the Moon” [6.73] (Glory)
    33. “Do You Wanna Come Over?” [6.67] (Glory)
    34. “3” [6.60] (The Singles Collection)
    35. “Why Should I Be Sad” [6.54] (Blackout)
    36. “If You Seek Amy” [6.53] (Circus)
    37. “Radar” [6.47] (Blackout)
    38. “Seal it With a Kiss” [6.43] (Femme Fatale)
    39. “My Prerogative” [6.33] (Greatest Hits: My Prerogative)
    40. “Me Against the Music (Justice Extended Mix)” [6.21] (B in the Mix: The Remixes / In The Zone)

    41. “Autumn Goodbye” [6.14] (“…Baby One More Time” Single)
    42. “Scary” [6.10] (Femme Fatale)
    43. “Amnesia” [6.00] (Circus)
    43. “Hard to Forget Ya” [6.00] (Glory)
    43. “Perfume” [6.00] (Britney Jean)
    46. “Boys (Co-Ed Remix)” [5.86] (Britney)
    46. “Do Somethin’” [5.86] (Greatest Hits: My Prerogative)
    48. “Outrageous” [5.80] (In The Zone)
    49. “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” [5.79] (
    Britney)
    49. “Walk On By” [5.79] (“Stronger” Single)

    51. “(I Got That) Boom Boom” [5.50] (In The Zone)
    52. “Criminal” [5.47] (
    Femme Fatale)
    53. “When I Found You” [5.43] (Britney)
    54. “Guilty” [5.42] (Unreleased)
    55. “Soda Pop” [5.33] (…Baby One More Time)
    56. “E-mail My Heart” [5.00] (…Baby One More Time)
    57. “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart” [4.57] (…Baby One More Time)
    58. “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” [4.13] (Britney)
    59. “The Joy of Pepsi” [3.91] (Unreleased)

  4. Read through this earlier today and it was such a great pleasure doing so. Blurbs from Isabel, Katherine, Sabina, and Jonathan were really exciting for me but it was all honestly so great.

  5. @everyone who ranked “Get Naked” above “Womanizer”: do you not have ears

    but really, this is so incredible; I haven’t had time to read all of it, but def s/o to Gayathi for the incredible blurb

  6. Glad Jonathan wrote for “Amnesia,” I thought of signing up for that but… couldn’t remember the name or album of the song [rimshot]

    Blackout is still really something, huh.

  7. Wow, loved reading through all that. All the texts are marvelous, each bringing some new perspective into these songs and their context – the result was a very enjoyable read and an awesome 20th anniversary gift.

  8. Its refreshing to read something dive so deeply into her music and artistry, especially for an artist whose validity and merit have always been called into question. Loved all the commentary but especially loved the piece on “Everytime”, my favorite Britney song. I hope in the future more weight is put on this track when Britney’s career is looked back on and disected. I still hold out hope that one day she’ll be granted the freedom to speak her truth and sing from her heart once more like she did on “Everytime”.

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