Issue #11: Britney by Britney Spears

April 11, 2016

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Britney by Britney Spears
Released On November 5, 2001
Released By JIVE Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Josh Buck

Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Britney Spears isn’t an artist. Artists have vision and messages and themes, and Britney is a laser focused project with a fully fleshed out mission statement. Blockbuster pop albums with armies of collaborators are not supposed to sound this cohesive, this dialed in. “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” is more than a song title, it’s a battle cry. Is it subtle? Elegant? Nuanced? Absolutely not. But are teenagers ever? What it is, is almost achingly sincere. This is a 19 year old, clumsily and passionately flailing against the Pop Music Industrial Complex. The depressing fact is that no matter what was pressed onto disc here, it was never going to be perceived as anything more than product.

Spears delivers a teen pop album where the first traditional love song doesn’t pop up until track 10. Instead, we get a young woman eager to explore her sexuality and broaden her horizons. It kicks off with the killer back-to-back bangers, “I’m A Slave 4 U;” (God, I love millennial/Prince pop music spelling) and “Overprotected.” The former is a masterful Neptunes joint, a track so sticky that it threatens to sweat through the speakers. It’s strikingly urgent. The latter is a Max Martin-produced temper tantrum against anyone who would seek to control the then biggest pop star on the planet.

This one-two punch shines a light on the importance of production on the album. Britney sits exactly at the Crossroads (lol) of pop music at the turn at the turn of the century. The bouncy Swedish numbers, that had defined the late 90’s with their impeccable melodies and spoken word interludes, cozy up to the grimy urban beats that would go on to dominate pop radio. It’s a time machine that, in its fusion, still manages to sound fresh.

With its goal articulated, the album whizzes along with remarkable cohesion. On “Cinderella,” the pop princess is jetting away from a long term relationship, just because she’s got shit to do. “Lonely” treads similar lyrical ground on a track that’s begging for a PG-13 lyrical rewrite and drops in a hella great “Don’t Go Knocking On My Door” callback. “Let Me Be” concludes this kiss-off trilogy, with Britney resolutely declaring her independence.

Fun fact: Spears co-wrote all three of those tracks. If not witty, she’s refreshingly sincere. Listening to her strive to explore sex and love on her terms thrills because it feels genuine. Britney lets you peer under the hood of one of the most carefully constructed pop bots of all time, if you just know where to look. Musically, Spears uses her compositions to help push the album into girl’s night territory. “Anticipating,” one of my all time riding out jams, is a breezy, sugary disco confection while “That’s Where You Take Me” is a heady trance surprise.

The disparate elements all work because they all feel like they belong to the same girl. The experience of listening to Britney is like jamming to a 19 year old’s iPod, all the way down to the random inclusion of an “oldie.” This is where I admit to fully drinking the Kool-Aid, because “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” now has DJ scratches under the chorus and I freaking adore it.

Stray Thoughts:

  • The album’s raison d’etre, “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” has aged excellently, a sincere and essential anthem, and a freaking Dido co-write on a teen pop album.
  • This whole thing closes with the only Britney Spears/Justin Timberlake collaboration, where JT beatboxes and Britney goes into full Michael Jackson territory.
  • Bombastic Love.” Such a textbook definition of a buried treasure that it sits next to a picture of Blackbeard in the encyclopedia.

So yeah, I have a lot of love for this album. But I also have a lot of respect for it. No, it’s not high art. But sometimes something can be product and still have thematic heft (see: Nolan’s Batman trilogy). Sometimes guilty pleasures are just genuine pleasures. Sometimes you just need to shift your perspective.

Josh Buck (@altq42)
Devout Pop Music Purist

Grainy photo of Spears and The Neptunes (Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams), whose two song contribution defined the record.

Before I started writing anything down, I sat around and tried to contemplate what the state of pop music was like at the start of the 21st century. All I could muster was thinking of how much the competition between most artists would alter their identities so drastically that they barely resembled their personas from even a year prior. Britney Spears seems like she existed within these pressures, but she also successfully escaped them. For her follow-up to Oops!… I Did It Again, she decided to revel in digging deeper into her psyche and explore more of what made her Britney Spears. In many ways, it only makes sense that she would name the record Britney. Not only was she exploring herself, she was also exploring what made her love music in the first place. “Anticipating” is Spears channeling Madonna as “Lonely” is her at her most Janet Jackson. Spears was inheriting the pop world that these icons had sculpted and these musical nods seem more than intentional. In her self-explorations, she displayed fascinations with what romance meant to her in songs like “What It’s Like To Be Me,” a song that she co-wrote with her then-beau Justin Timberlake. One line that is frequently highlighted is one where she declares that a man must understand her in order to have her. In these moments of honest emotional peril, it would appear that this is what sets Spears apart from the rest of the pop fold. She never steered away from attempting to be as honest and human as she possibly could be and that’s never been more true than on Britney. In the fifteen years that have passed since its release, it would be an understatement to say that Spears’ personal life took an interesting set of twists. The tolls of fame and pressures included would be things that would take her to the brink of sanity and back. It almost makes Britney that much more of a powerful release. To see how much of herself she could put out there and even in the years following its release, you never doubt for a second that what you got was always Britney Spears. And in the world of pop music which can rely heavily on saturated aesthetics, Spears was able to toy with those facets and not only be Britney Spears, the artist. She could also be Britney Spears, the human being.

Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles

These days, it’s pretty much impossible for most to separate Britney Spears the musician from “Britney Spears” the cultural phenomenon. For that matter, this separation was pretty much impossible even back when Britney, the pop singer’s third album, was released in 2001. While this album, recorded when Spears was 19, was her first step towards the much deeper emotional resonance of “Piece Of Me“‘s defiant pride or “Til The World Ends“‘s apocalypse pop, she was only beginning to strain against the tightly circumscribed borders of her early pop-star career at this point. Nonetheless, from “I’m A Slave 4 U”‘s courting of BDSM imagery to “What It’s Like To Be Me”‘s definition of relationships on her terms, this record is defined by Britney’s stronger personality and confident attitude. Hit ballad “I’m A Slave 4 U” is an exception, yet gave the world an on-the-cusp-of-adulthood catchphrase that has long since entered the lexicon. It’s the dance floor bangers that are the real reason for you to ignore all the cultural baggage and give this album a few spins, though, from the Neptunes-produced funk jam “Boys” to the pounding beats of Max Martin tune “Overprotected” and the disco spins of “Anticipating.” This record is a ton of fun if you’re looking for music to put on while you’re getting ready to go out, changing clothes a hundred times, and trying out all sorts of weird makeup looks you’d never normally mess with. Indeed, I’m sure it soundtracked exactly these sorts of early-evening bouts of hyperactivity in teenage bedrooms and college dorms all over the world. And 50 million teen girls can’t be wrong.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

In John Seabrook’s excellent book The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, we learn a lot about Britney Spears, like that when Jive first signed her, they had no idea that dancing was her passion until her A&R guy played her Robyn’s “Show Me Love” video and she noted that she would like the video better if there was more dancing. They didn’t know this about her because no one ever bothered asking. Released two short years after her debut, Britney is essentially about a pop star discovering her agency over her career. In the same year, Spears filmed Crossroads, she was exploring herself and the choices that were available to her as a superstar, and I see Britney as an extension of this exploration. I think many of the songs are very strong, particularly Max Martin’s “Overprotected” and “Bombastic Love,” but they would benefit from production that’s less “roller rink.” When contrasted with “”I’m A Slave 4 U,”” which has a more modern sound due to The Neptunes’ production, they feel very dated. If I hadn’t just read The Song Machine, I might have written Britney off as a bunch of 90s workout music, but the songs were so intricately created. In Swedish hit factory Cheiron Studios, where Martin started, employees were assigned song parts based on their skills: someone wrote bridges, another wrote choruses, lyrics, et cetera. This blew my mind, that songwriting can function in the same way as a normal job, with everyone being responsible for a specific task, or piece of the puzzle. Britney is a collection of these puzzle pieces, cobbled together to form the catchiest and most perfect songs.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

Guys, we need to hot tub time machine back to 2001 and help Britney. “I’m A Slave 4 U‘s” not so subtle theme kick starts the album that should be re-titled “A Cry For Help” and if you didn’t get it at first, Overprotected” doubles down. She was asking for space to deal with growing up in the limelight in “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” and states she’s ok with being “Lonely” for now. For act two of her cry for help, she drops “Boys, Anticipating,” and “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” to illustrate that she’s slipping away, losing control of her situation. In a last ditch effort, she tries running away from her problems in “Cinderella” and “Let Me Be.” Sadly, by “Bombastic Love” she has given in and sings about how her protective walls have been scaled in “That’s Where You Take Me.” As the credits roll, the reprise “What It’s Like To Be Me” plays and it’s way too late.

PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man

Click to watch the jam-packed video for “Overprotected.”

Lots of things to look out for here. Subtle middle fingers to paparazzi, gaudy 2000s fashion, & some foreshadowing to 2007’s…situations…

Britney Spears is an artist definitely deserving of retroactive review, mostly due to the critical press in the early 2000s largely being dismissive of any radio-dominating artist. Good or not, most were ready to write off Britney before it was even released and I’m sure those people were downright smug when “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” came on (side note: Joan Jett’s version still rules, but The Arrows’ original version definitely needs to be revisited). To be fair, Britney is not her best album — it actually falls between what I’d consider her two best records, 2000’s Oops!…I Did It Again and 2003’s In The Zone — but after spending considerable amount of time with this record, I’d have to say it might be her most fascinating one. The coming of age lyrics on display are commendable as Spears exited her teens with a deserved swagger and the music at times is even remarkable with tons of influences that would play a bigger part later in the decade — namely Europop and urban contemporary. Really though, the intriguing part of Spears’ third record is how it all comes together almost by happenstance. Multiple songs were originally meant for Janet Jackson as she enjoyed her last bit of fame before Nipplegate made her persona non grata on the airwaves (not “Anticipating” though which sounds like it was written at the same time as “All For You“) and there were collaborations with Missy Elliott (!!) and Timbaland that just missed the cut. Most importantly though, the album seems to hinge on “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” even though it was almost left off in favor of appearing on the then-planned Crossroads soundtrack. Britney had plenty of other songs to support the theme’s overarching theme like “Overprotected” and “Let Me Be,” but “Not A Girl” was clearly the emotional heart of the record even if it wasn’t the best song (my vote goes “Anticipating” since the mechanical dream “When I Found You” is only on the deluxe version). Just crazy how the third record from pop’s reigning Queen could have drastically changed with just one of these situations going the other way.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Every generation of men has hallmark moments pertaining to women and sexuality. Our dads had the Farah Fawcett poster. I’m 33 years old. My generation had the video for Britney Spears’ “I’m A Slave 4 U.” Every man, straight or gay, was on freeze whenever that video aired. The sweat. The abs. The low-cut jeans. The moves. That Neptunes beat. I’m not telling you what I think; I’m telling you what I know. However, as soon as I knew we were going to review a Britney album, I immediately consulted my good friend Richie. Richie is an unapologetic Britney devotee, even ten years after her peak and inevitable meltdown. Richie is one of the coolest people I know, a sneaky-good writer, and a proud gay man living in NYC. I defer. Take it away, Richie. (It should be noted that what I expected to be a six or seven text message exchange turned into a 1,000+ word treatise on the album. Amazing. The following is an excerpt.) “Britney” was supposed to be a warning, signaling a shift in maturity. After all, Britney was almost all grown-up (her image changed drastically as the cut of her jeans plummeted and the nakedness of her midriff seemed to be expanding); however, this album served as more of a grey area between her bubblegum pop roots and the urban booty pop with which she would later re-invent herself. While it presents itself as an emancipation album, most of the songs on “Britney” still sounded like they were for little girls. Britney’s nineteen year old attitude definitely took a front seat though, as this third album was home to the most angry tracks of her career up to that point. Art has always imitated life for this girl, and “Britney” was the promotional period where Britney was visibly fed up with industry bullshit, and the infamous rebellion of her career gained momentum. With that said, “Britney” is a high-energy, polished pop record rooted in the DNA of Britney Spears; catchy melodies, sparkly, top-shelf production, and Britney’s signature freak factor. It’s also a very cohesive album; there’s only one notable hiccup found in a shitty mid-album ballad. The timing of this true pop effort was off though, as mainstream hip-hop acts were taking priority on the charts. Overall, this album is great; not her most memorable. I would give it a B-. It was upwardly coasting into the Britney we know now, and still fun to listen to nearly fifteen years later. Thanks, Richie. You’re the best.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Being the music snob that I am, I had the hardest time talking about Britney Spears with an open mind (cue Leave Britney Alone!). There’s no denying that Spears was the queen of pop from the late 90s to early 00s. Her third album Britney was released as the trend of teen pop artists was starting to decline, but that doesn’t stop her from blowing the doors down with fantastic pop songs. I was only familiar with “I’m A Slave 4 U” (which I hated) when this album came out, but there are other fantastic songs like “Anticipating, Overprotected,” and “Cinderella,” which I wish were released as singles because they are so much better. I am now able to appreciate pop music to a better degree when looking at the work as a whole.

Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler

Immediately with the first three tracks, there’s a sense of an increased sophistication in the production relative to what I, though admittedly limited, have known of Britney Spears. I’m sure this is a by-product of all the contributing talent on this record, including Dido, Pharrell Williams, Max Martin, and Justin Timberlake. Relative to her first two records, this seems to be a turning point. While searching for herself, she channels what strikes me as vibes from pop classics like Prince and Michael Jackson. It’s less bubblegum and more self-confident. Tracks “I’m A Slave 4 U” and “Boys” are spare and snappy, with The Neptunes putting their hand into the mix. “Lonely” brings some quality funk in the verses a la Missy Elliott. I enjoy the disco-tinged aside that is “Anticipating,” maybe because it’s a bit more unexpected in style. Overall, the album expands on the formulas that made her previous albums popular, but Britney breathes much better, which for me is the road to good pop.

Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz

I’ve spent most of this week listening to Britney Spears’ back catalogue and her third album Britney, whilst not her best, is definitely the most interesting. I was actually going to spend time talking about how this record seemed like Britney’s attempt at mimicking Christine Aguilera’s Stripped album, evoking more mature, sexualized pop songs, but Britney actually precedes that album by an entire year. Go figure. I really dislike “I’m A Slave 4 U” as a song, so when that opened the album I thought I was in for a real struggle this week. But then “Overprotected” came on and I remembered what a great pop song it was, and when I got to “Cinderella” I was thoroughly drawn in. The production on the album is great and there’s such a variety to each single that you can’t help but stop what you’re doing and listen. I feel like Spears’ fourth album In The Zone is much tighter, stronger overall effort, but Britney is one of those records that’s fascinating to listen too. It’s a women no longer wanting to be burdened from her teen pop past. A women struggling with fame and the limelight. Knowing what’s to come after this in Britney Spears’ life, this album is a unique effort that’s most definitely worth of your time.

James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist

The iconic python from the 2001 VMAs letting us all know a new Britney was here.

The confluence of two things — 1. My wife taking a weekend trip to Chicago for her brother’s fiancee’s bridal shower, and 2. The fact that this is the uniquely anticipated Britney week at Off Your Radar — meant that I spent the majority of Saturday and Sunday driving around with my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, going from this errand to that playground, listening almost exclusively to Britney Spears. This scenario, while slightly absurd, proved to be instructive by way of juxtaposition. Compare my daughter: Tiny, somewhere between 25 and 30 pounds in weight, yet she’s a force of nature for whom the term willful isn’t quite adequate; and Spears in 2001: Super-duper star, chart-topping millionaire, yet she’s singing songs about the control she doesn’t have. There’s “I don’t wanna be so damn protected” in “Overprotected,” “I need to do what I feel like doing” in “I’m A Slave 4 U,” and “It’s time that I learn to face up to this on my own,” in “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman.” Lyrics like these are everywhere on the album, and while it’s tempting to dismiss art that famous people make about the trappings of their fame, the whole thing cuts to the very center of what success really is. Was this album a success because is debuted at #1, or was it a failure because its Metacritic score is a lean 58? I’d call it a success because Spears was able to speak publicly and defiantly about the self-determination she was yearning for. Then again, maybe Britney’s is the only opinion that matters.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

Over a decade before the three year olds dancing to “Happy” were born, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, aka The Neptunes, were two of the most dangerous men on the radio. Applying their whip-crack, stuttering beats, odd voicings, and fragmented keyboards to a variety of hip hop and R&B songs, they transformed the sound of the radio, creating ear candy with musical depth and staying power. So as I plunged into the morass of Britney with severe concerns about listening to a fifteen year-old pop album, imagine my delight at hearing a fantastic Neptunes jam on the first track. Against all odds, “I’m A Slave 4 U” still sounds terrific, with instantly recognizable Neptunes trademarks. I won’t make any grand statements about Britney’s voice but she did put in the work, recording a dizzying array of criss-crossing vocal lines and even imbuing the twisted harmonies of the chorus with a hint of mature sexuality. “Slave” was a Janet Jackson reject as was “Boys,” which also has a nasty Neptunes groove. They just could not do wrong back then. Another high-ish point, despite its grammar-murdering title, is “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman,” which has a nice little soul ballad at the center of its crunchy candy coating. As for the rest of the album I’ll simply say that, like many at the peak of the CD era, it’s way too long, opting to exhaust rather than tantalize. I’ll likely never listen to most of it again, but I will dance to “I’m A Slave 4 You” without hesitation.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

When I saw the album Britney by Britney Spears on the upcoming list for reviewing, I was filled with what can only be called trepidation. Britney struck first struck it big at a time when I was personally rebelling against what was filling the UK charts. With the exception of a penchant for Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5,” my high school years were geared toward the Chili Peppers and the fading energy of Brit Pop. On first listen, what surprised me most was that I actually don’t recollect any of the tracks being played to death, or even in some cases at all, as was the case with “…Baby One More Time, Oops!… I Did It Again,” and “Toxic” later on. This strikes me as odd because songs like “Overprotected” and “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” are artistically light years ahead of any massive hit that Britney had produced to that point, with perhaps only “Everytime” from her following album approaching that level of pop mastery again. Whilst I probably will never revisit this album, there is enough with in its contents not to because bored or wearisome about. There are experiments with disco-esque track “Anticipating” that are endearingly cheesy and it doesn’t grate on the senses. All in all there, is a depth of quality that goes beyond bubblegum pop, making this record worthy of more than a scathing cynicism that most people would bestow upon Britney Spears as an artist.

Matt Green (@happymad1986)
Fiery Orator Of Nostalgia

There are many songs on this album that have sort of the same vibe to them. Namely, “I’m tougher than I look. I’m not just a teen pop sensation. So take me seriously, because I can rock it on the dance floor.” Which is fine. Thinking about where she was in her life when this album came out, it’s super easy to understand why she would make the decision to have a bunch of those songs on there. The songs that stand out to me, though, are the ones that fly in the face of this sound. I’m thinking specifically of the balled “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” and the, dare I say Abba-esque?, disco jam “Anticipating.” Thinking about it now, they may have been placed where they were placed (Tracks 4 and 6, respectively) to be palate cleansers for what would have been considered the thesis sound, if you will. “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet a Woman” is a song that I had heard more than once on the radio, but not really listened to, you know? It’s telling the same story as a song like “Overprotected,” but it’s doing so with a little more sugar and a little less sass, which makes the whole thing hit me a little harder. With “Anticipating,” you just have a chance to stop thinking about Britney’s situation and how maybe she was starting to feel a little trapped her role as a product or brand that she had been stuck in since she was 16 (or younger if you count Mickey Mouse Club). It’s a song that is just fun, with little to no agenda, and sometimes you need a song like that in the middle of an album. So the main lesson I’m leaving “Britney Week” with is that Britney Spears albums, though not necessarily my cup of tea, are not the stuff of nightmares that some people would have had us believe at the time. Maybe nothing is as bad as some people would have us believe at the time.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

Next Week’s Selection:
Me.Me. by Plushgun
Chosen By Andrew Cothern

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Josh Buck, Shannon Cleary, Andrew Cothern, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Matt Green, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, James Peart, Jeremy Shatan, & PJ Sykes

Logo By Matt Klimas


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