January - March 1999: Britney Spears to Blur

PopMatters turns 10 this year and to celebrate we are looking back at the popular music that defined the year of our birth. Today we kick things off with albums from January through March, highlighted by Eminem's debut and stellar pop from Wilco and Blur.

Artist: Britney Spears

Album: ...Baby One More Time

Label: Jive


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12 January 1999

Britney Spears

...Baby One More Time

We all know this album is paper-thin wank. Rolling Stone and NME railed against it when it was first released, and, even when praising it, AllMusic called it a "piece of fluff" with "its share of well-crafted filler". But the more one researches Britney Spears's debut album, the more one fact becomes clear: Britney was exploited, and few of the bad things that have happened to her since were entirely her fault.

Britney tried out for The New Mickey Mouse Club at eight years old, but was considered too young. She then performed as an understudy in off-Broadway shows, lost in the second round of Star Search in 1992, and returned to star on The New Mickey Mouse Club at age 11. She left the show a couple of years later, spent a year in high school, landed a major label contract, and recorded her debut album in the same studio that gave us *NSYNC, Five, and Ace of Base. She was hardly allowed a real childhood, and she went through puberty under the glaring eye of the ravenous public.

Sure, Britney's career path looks great on paper. Her debut shot to number one on the Billboard charts, where her subsequent three albums would also premiere. She remains one of the highest selling female artists in history, with over 83 million units sold worldwide. And yet, much of this was achieved through the calculated, intense sexualization of the underage girl via a performer that was not legal herself. The video for the title track from ... Baby One More Time put Britney in a school, in the requisite uniform with her hair in pigtails, while she sings the word "baby" an astounding 22 times in three minutes. Some four months after Rolling Stone gave the debut two stars, the then-17-year-old Spears appeared on the cover in her underwear, clutching a Teletubbie to her right breast.

Sure, Tiffany had gone on mall tours in the early '90s, but Britney's debut marked a significant moment in the pop culture sexualization of the young girl image. The American Family Association recognized the "disturbing mix of childhood innocence and adult sexuality" and organized a boycott of any stores selling the debut, and a boycott was exactly what Jive Records wanted. The Backstreet Boys were going the way of the New Kids on the Block, and they needed a controversy to sell records. Who better to exploit than an underage girl with a great body, a modicum of talent, and a "For Sale by Parents" sign around her neck? Since the debut still holds the Guinness World Record in the "best-selling album by a teenage solo artist" category, the hype worked.

Britney, herself, has since paid a fantastic personal price for that record-setting controversy. Constantly hounded by up to a hundred paparazzi a day since the beginning, she got married and divorced in a 55-day span, randomly shaved her own head in a stress-induced haze, and birthed two children who were subsequently removed from her custody for months on end. She is currently subject to a court order appointing her father as the guardian of her legal and financial affairs. Britney was faced with the formidable task of becoming an adult while everyone in her life wanted her to stay the same. My heart goes out to her.

Of course, her debut album has not aged well. It was never expected to. It consisted of embarrassingly basic instrumentals ripped out of the Michael Jackson playbook, with her overproduced voice doing its best to give meaning to utterly trite lyrics loaded with banal innuendos. Still, none of that will ever change its place in history, or take away any of its reported 25 million in sales that make it her single-most successful release. This is an album that truly launched an empire. Alan Ranta


Artist: Bonnie "Prince" Billy

Album: I See a Darkness

Label: Palace


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19 January 1999

Bonnie "Prince" Billy

I See a Darkness

If you've been listening to Bonnie "Prince" Billy's I See a Darkness on high-rotation since its original release in 1999, chances are that by now you're well past the point of no return on some Hogarth-like Rake's Progress, wasting away in an inevitable decline of monomaniacal introspection and intangible despair. For the slightly-rosier listener, it's a rare treat of self-aware doom and gloom that's best brought out from time to time and then quickly sent back whence it came.

Will Oldham, aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy, aka a bunch of other names, has always had an air of cultivated mystery about him -- jumping between pseudonyms, losing himself behind bushranger beards, and drowning himself in low-fi recordings . But the real question about the highly-praised I See a Darkness is whether or not you listen to it while drinking absinthe or moonshine: it's at once a weird Appalachian howl and cerebral arts-student debauchery. Ten years on, it remains the uneasy sticking point in this still undeniably great album.

Oldham may seem to channel the "high lonesome" sound of someone like Roscoe Holcombe or Clarence Ashley, but the flatly-stoic imagery of that old weird sound here often finds its way into slightly too-neat rhymes and clever resolutions, dredging up a hundred intangible resonances and anxieties only to then wrap them up just a little too precisely with a clever rhyme or turn of phrase.

The title track (wonderfully covered by Johnny Cash with Oldham on backing vocals the following year) paints a world of delicate and troubled existential pleas ("Many times / We've been out drinking / And many times / We've shared our thoughts" and "Well, I hope that someday, buddy / We have peace in our lives / Together or apart / Alone or with our wives") only to try and cohere the core of it all ("Did you know how much I love you...") into some flatly tangible psychological insight ("...Is a hope that somehow you / Can save me from this darkness").

Similarly, a song like "Death to Everyone" is derailed into a quirkily-written but fairly straightforward statement about death's presence in life ("Death to everyone / Is gonna come / And it makes hosing / Much more fun").

Like most of Oldham's work, exactly how much patience you have for the album may depend on exactly how you respond to this odd mix of intense otherworldly visions and affected statements of bohemian cleverness (before singing one of his songs in concert, Marianne Faithfull once described her friend Oldham's desire not to be famous, bringing audible scoffs from most of the audience).

But who said that gothic visions of gloom were supposed to be subtle anyway? When you're ready to sink into the solitary vice of melancholy, Oldham's soundtrack still remains as perfect a complement as half a glass of absinthe mixed with half a glass of moonshine. Kit MacFarlane

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