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Britney Spears’ title as one of history’s prominent pop stars is unquestionable. She has emboldened herself as a veteran in pop music with over 15 years of grabbing performances and music videos, including the now-infamous high school damsel of ‘Baby One More Time’ and the anti-heroic escapades of ‘Toxic’.
Despite the many feats of her career, her singles history has often shied away from the more experimental elements of her discography. Buying each of her records on the back of its lead single, I have often felt let down by some of its single choices — knowing that the record contained more innovative songs.
Acknowledging her level of notoriety and mainstream positioning, there is a particular tension between her album’s radio-friendly material and its more adventurous material. With news of a forthcoming collaboration with Giorgio Moroder and a studio album in progress, which she promises to be more ‘arty’ and diverse, I have handpicked one song from each of her albums (from 2003’s In The Zone to her most recent Britney Jean) to give light to the music that lies beyond her singles.
Breathe On Me — Album: In The Zone
In The Zone marked Britney’s move away from her teen pop image and sound to more adult-oriented music. Reaching her mid-twenties and a widely publicized break-up with Justin Timberlake, the album featured more mature themes as she reached adulthood. The album is a pic’n’mix of powerpop, R&B, electronica, dancehall and trip-hop, including signature-song ‘Toxic’, Moby collaboration ‘Early Morning’ and the self-penned ballad ‘Everytime’. Nonetheless, it was the effervescent synthpop of ‘Breathe On Me’ that sparkled amongst the pack. Over a writhing baseline, Britney’s whispery vocals recounts her nocturnal desires to mesmerizing effect.
And Then We Kiss [Junkie XL Remix] — Album: B In The Mix
2005 brought two Britney retrospectives: a singles collection and a remix collection. The latter, B In The Mix, compiled some of her best remixes of past singles. Although no single was officially released internationally to promote the collection, it was clear which song would have been the one. Musician and producer Junkie XL took this unused song from the In The Zone recording sessions and worked his magic on it. ‘And Then We Kiss’ is a song about imagined love. Fittingly, he gives the song windswept synthpop treatment with a moving string arrangement and ‘80s new wave guitar. It’s like stepping into a dream.
Get Naked (I’ve Got A Plan) — Album: Blackout
From the moment she defiantly exclaims “It’s Britney Bitch!”, it was obvious that 2007’s Blackout had a blatantly different energy to anything she had made before. For the first time, she took the executive producer’s chair over the album as she created a body of work which sonically bended genres and brought them into her world. The album brims with hooks and melodies that bubble in the album’s concoction of electronic pop, dance and R&B. It breaks away from the typical verse-chorus-verse structure, favouring a more off-the-cuff approach to form and mood. It distinctively uses her voice as one of the album’s instruments. The songs feature her voice being warped, vocoded, pitched and deconstructed which made the album feel alarmingly futuristic at the time. ‘Get Naked (I’ve Got A Plan)’, the album’s centrepiece, encapsulates everything the record aims to achieve. Building on sinister dancebeats, droned vocals by its producer Danja and an endearing robot monologue, it sounds like Britney pummelled ‘the club’ into deep space. Blackout lives as her pièce de résistance as she boldly worked off a new palette with precision and intensity.
Unusual You — Album: Circus
After her personal and professional turmoil, which manifested during the Blackout era, Britney came back a year later to reclaim her spot. To the baited breath of longtime fans and wider public, she released Circus; an album that feels tepid after the heights of the album previous. It was clear that those involved in the record’s creation were more focused on radio-friendly material to make a successful return. The video for lead single ‘Womanizer’ was a reheat of ‘Toxic’, reintroducing the singer some came to love and extinguish the media fire around her. Even so, there were still some brilliant moments on Circus. ‘Unusual You’ heralds as the record’s striking moment. The mid-tempo electro ballad describes the feeling of damaged goods and the impossibility of trusting again. What sets the song apart is that it possibly paints the most accurate picture of her life and upheaval on the album.
Inside Out — Album: Femme Fatale
Britney’s seventh album, Femme Fatale, was created with the intent of bringing her early teen pop sound into 2011 with today’s production capabilities. Max Martin, the man behind those ‘classic’ Britney songs including ‘Baby… One More Time’ and ‘Oops… I Did It Again’, was brought on board to create this modernised sound. Their renewed partnership brought the apocolyptic pop of ‘Till The World Ends’ and lead single ‘Hold It Against Me’. Another fruit of their labour is ‘Inside Out’ which took a blockbuster instrumental by Billboard and turned it into ode to break-up sex. With her tongue-firmly-in-cheek, Britney adds her pop sensibilities by referencing her first two hit singles written together with Martin.
Alien — Album: Britney Jean
Before its release, Britney and her team dubbed 2013’s Britney Jean as her ‘most personal album yet’. Fans surged with excitement with news of William Orbit and Sia’s involvement, however, what emerged was light years from the truth. Will.i.am was invited to executive produce the album after working together on one song for Femme Fatale. The album was comprised of generic pop, with several songs being vacuumed of any unique identity. As the album hardest to choose an alternative single, it’s the opening Orbit produced ‘Alien’ that could have promoted the album. Its metaphor for feeling like an outsider elaborates on the celebrity bubble she grew up in which has both made her and caged her in life. Orbit’s production is atmospheric, as it swirls with alien-sounding vocals and the deeply catchy refrains of ‘I’m not alone’.
So, there you have it! Whether you want a piece of her or not, you may find more creative and progressive pop songs in Spears’ repertoire than what some of her charting singles have offered. Time will tell whether her next studio album will live up to the more alternative route she has pledged. Regardless, this is just one example of a big pop star whose discography still has several treasures just waiting to be discovered.
Andrew Darley is a Senior Writer at Polari Magazine and a researcher in Dublin, Ireland. You can find more of his writing and read more about him here.