[4 December 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
For awhile there, Britney Spears was in the unique position of being able to choose how she was going to be remembered. Unfortunately for her, that moment has long since passed.
It all started with the Nigel Dick-helmed clip for Spears’ debut single “... Baby One More Time”, which—according to Dick—was originally going to feature nothing more than Spears singing the song on a giant rotating turntable (yikes). Instead, Spears was able to convince Dick to modify the promo so that it was now set in a high school where lots of dancing took place and Spears herself would get to dress up as a naughty Catholic schoolgirl. The result? Spears scored a massive #1 single, inadvertently started the late ‘90s teen pop boom, and created a public persona for herself that was simultaneously kid-friendly and pure male fantasy. Her videos got played on both MTV and the Disney Channel at the same time, showing just how well Spears (and her armies of PR handlers) managed to walk that fine line between family-friendly pop idol and unabashed sex object.
Yet in late 2000, Spears unleashed an erotically-charged/clothes-ripping performance of the cringe-inducing bubblegum single (and painfully-obvious “Baby” sequel) “Oops… I Did It Again” during the MTV Music Video Awards, shedding the cute girl-next-door image in a nanosecond to instead become the pop-culture pin-up she was destined to be. From that point on, her videos got decidedly sexier (Britney‘s lead single “I’m a Slave 4 U”), her songs got blatantly dirtier (In the Zone‘s “Touch of My Hand”), and then she met Kevin Federline, and we all know the rest. At one point, Britney’s head-shaving, mental breakdown, post-divorce behavior got so radical, the Associated Press began prepping an obituary for her at the start of 2008.
Even though there was a brief period of time in late 2007/early 2008 where it was nearly impossible to go a whole day without hearing some random tidbit of Spears-related news, it’s amazing how well Spears was able to get back on the wagon and deliver two delightfully hedonistic (and remarkably well-received) club-centric albums as the decade drew to a close, pulling off one of the most incredible U-turns in pop culture history. With The Singles Collection, Spears’ handlers take even more corrective action, releasing a greatest hits album (her second) that side-steps some of her most glaring embarrassments to try and portray Spears’ as a genuine artist, one who helped completely redefine the notion of what “dance-pop” was in the new millennium.
Of course, Britney Spears didn’t do anything innovative at all. She was, is, and always will be considered product: a manufactured teen-pop star that just so happened to go through the single nastiest public meltdown in the history of modern-day celebrity. Some articles that came out at the time even went as far as to say that her bitter ride to rock bottom was an unintentional form of revenge on a fame-obsessed society that robbed her of having a real childhood. Yet, being how Britney Spears was the de facto pop sensation for the longest time, she got one thing that few stars are ever afforded: true star treatment. The top songwriters. The best producers. The hottest beats. No matter how carefully managed Spears’ material was (her latter-day tracks frequently had separate producers for her vocals alone), there was still always a bit of a guilty-pleasure sheen that rode through these songs each and every time.
Hence, The Singles Collection improves on 2004’s Greatest Hits: My Prerogative by cherry-picking Spears’ best tracks instead of just listing the singles in complete chronological order. Gone are such vapid entries to Spears’ canon as “Lucky”, “Sometimes”, and her downright painful cover of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”. In fact, between her first two albums (aka the Innocent Years), only five tracks wound up making the cut: “Baby One More Time”, the lightly dorky “(You Drive Me) Crazy”, the forgettable one-two punch of “Born to Make You Happy” and “Oops… I Did It Again”, and the surprisingly fluid thump of “Stronger”. These tracks—as innocuous as they are—remind us of a simpler time when boy bands seemed to be multiplying every day and Top 40 radio had turned into a clean, sanitary realm where acts like Mandy Moore and the Backstreet Boys could thrive on whatever tune Max Martin felt like writing at the time. No, it wasn’t the greatest period in the history of rock music, but history tends to be circular, and teen-pop was due for its revival. The first act of The Singles Collection plays homage to that.
The second act (aka the Naughty Years), though far more promiscuous, didn’t really up the artistic stakes very much, despite the more “open” nature of the subject matter. The sweaty, sensual video for the Neptunes-produced “I’m a Slave 4 U”—the lead single from Britney—marked the time when the Disney Channel officially cut themselves off from Spears, and, as such, from much of the tween audience that helped turn Spears’ debut into a Diamond-certified album. Most of her major songs from this era—“Boys (feat. Pharrell Williams)”, “Me Against the Music (feat. Madonna)”—though upbeat and erotically-charged, didn’t really do too much to expand Spears’ new core audience: they were all variations on the same theme. Even with that Madonna collaboration and its obvious connotations, it never truly felt like Queen Madge had relinquished her crown as the Queen of Pop—it instead felt like a desperate grab for publicity for both parties (something that was solidified by the “kiss heard ‘round the world” that they shared at the 2003 MTV Music Video Awards).
Yet, none of this takes “Toxic” into consideration.
A pop star will always remain a pop star as long as they keep churning out hits, but pop stars come and go every year, and very few of them make truly lasting impacts. Although the video for “... Baby One More Time” made Spears’ a star, no song since then had matched it in terms of cultural impact. What was remarkable about the Bloodshy & Avant-produced “Toxic”, however, was that Spears’—for once—actually had a good song under her belt. Scratch that: “Toxic” was a great song, a string-laced guilty-pleasure that was upbeat, catchy, and so intoxicatingly over-the-top that it wasn’t long before rock bands of every ilk began covering it ironically, the track eventually scoring Spears’ her first-ever Grammy win to boot. “Toxic” is that rare kind of pop song that—like Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”—achieves a sort of ubiquity that transcends genre boundaries. A perfectly-executed pop song is a hard thing to pull off, but with “Toxic”, Spears’ was finally able to deliver that track that would define her latter-day legacy.
Yet all the good cache that “Toxic” generated was not enough to save Spears’ from the “Federline period” of her life. Though drenched with negative publicity for her increasingly-outrageous behavior, the eventual “comeback” that she staged—starting with a humiliatingly-bad performance of Blackout‘s lead single “Gimme More” at the 2007 MTV Music Video Awards (notice how that show keeps popping up?)—was just not enough to lift Spears’ out of her doldrums. The funny thing about this time in Spears’ career (aka the Club Years), however, was that the songs that she was making were… good. “Gimme More” was the best dance track she had done since “Toxic”, and the self-referential “Piece of Me”—which, in a delightfully ironic turn, was written entirely by other people—only further showcased Bloodshy & Avant’s claim to the title of “the best pop producers working today”. Bloodshy & Avant produced other stellar songs on 2007’s Blackout (most notably the shoulda-been single “Toy Soldiers”), but even some great songs and solid album couldn’t break Spears’ streak of bad luck. In short, her public persona and her musical identity were no longer the same, and the former was completely obliterating the latter.
So, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that The Singles Collection rounds things out by including four songs from her recent disc Circus, ranging from the synth-heavy “Womanizer” (only her second #1 hit following “Baby One More Time”) to the fame-drunk Dr. Luke stunner “Circus” to the controversial “If You Seek Amy”. These tracks (and Spears’ subsequent tour) were problem-free, extremely fun, and imbued with a new sense of urgency. Spears was now using her musical identity to comment on her public persona, giving the tunes both personality and baggage—something that’s sorely missing from the pop landscape these days (although Spears’ is still a far cry from reaching the catharsis-through-music cleansing that Rihanna attempted with Rated R). In a way, the longer that Spears has gone on, the more interesting her tracks have been, largely due to the fact that when we hear a Britney Spears track, there is now much to read into and dissect—something that could be said about, say, “Lucky”.
Throw in a new high-energy throwaway track about three-ways (titled, um, “3”), and what do you get? You get The Singles Collection: a high-gloss collection of tunes that selectively sums up the career of one of the biggest female pop singers of the past decade. It’s a disc that’s light on filler (do you really miss “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart”?) and heavy on Spears’ more high-energy cuts, which, without question, play to her strengths as a performer. Yet is it perfect? Of course not: stellar tracks like “Toxic” only come once in a lifetime, and some of Spears’ biggest earlier hits (see: “Oops… I Did It Again”) suffer from those late ‘90s production techniques (see: wah-guitar) that sounded dated just two years after they were released. Although Spears’ high points remain as guilty-pleasure thrilling as they get, no pop star has ever survived a decade without at least a few missteps, and Spears is no exception.
Although The Singles Collection is an admirable attempt to expunge Spears’ worst songs from the public’s consciousness, Spears’ legacy isn’t as controllable as it once was. Even with her public follies and failures (many of which later bled into her music), she’s still just a pop star surrounded by some great producers, albeit one with more notoriety and identity than most. Does it make for some interesting music down the road? Definitely. Does it make the case for Spears’ being the greatest pop star since the inception of popular music? Probably not. If you’re a casual fan, would buying The Singles Collection likely satisfy you with all the important Britney Spears’ songs you would ever need? At this point in time, absolutely.