Any marathon runner or professional love-maker will tell you that endurance is key. I like to test mine often in hopes that I will one day have the esteem of...well, a marathon runner or professional love-maker. One day over the past long weekend, I happened to wake up extremely early, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to subject myself to the test of will that sitting through the entire 4+ hours of the Britney Spears: The Singles Collection (Deluxe Edition) promised to be. So without leaving my couch, I set out that warm November morning, and in the prideful words of Anna Nicole's cousin Shelly after being pulled from an outdoor pool in 50-degree weather, "Hey...but I did it!" I sat through what boils down to an essential, 58-song survey of the past 11 years in pop music via its least abashed vessel during that time frame. It's a journey through said vessel's highest highs (well, for the most part: "Breathe On Me" and "Kill the Lights" are nowhere to be found) and lowest lows (those early b-sides, worthless trance remixes that had my bowels emptying in response...literally). At times, I felt delirious. At times I experienced the kind of nostalgia that runs so far down, you feel it in your...well, bowels. At times, I felt amazed that such crap could be so beloved, and at others I felt stupid for ever thinking that. Britney is not someone I particularly admire or love, for that matter, but she is also someone that I find it impossible not to have an opinion on at any given point in her career. I say that with full knowledge that there's probably no greater compliment you can give a superstar in these attention-fueled times than that of fixation.
Below are my somewhat sloppy notes on each of the tracks in the box set -- listening to this thing was enough work that I'm not about to do too much work cleaning up what came out of me (except for the poop -- that's already gone). I don't know, there might not be an incredible amount of insight here -- you might want to skip to the conclusion, but again, don't expect much and you might be surprised. I sure was!
"...Baby One More Time" - That opening piano riff is, obviously, at this point iconic, but does anyone ever talk about the fact that there is what sounds like panting as part of this song's rhythm section? It sounds like an old pervert lusting after a school girl. How clever of you to play yourself, producer Max Martin! I actually hated this song at first...until I heard the bridge, and then it did its trick and everything fell into place. It still bugs the shit out of me that she clearly enunciates, "How was I suppose to know?" And no one ever corrected her borderline illiterate ass (you know the Mickey Mouse Club tutor was lacking!). That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you raise an inarticulate brat.
“Autumn Goodbye” – This is some limp house a la Whitney's "Step by Step." The only thing worse than the production is the vocal production, which can be summed up in this phrase: multi-tracked bleating. It sounds like she's sitting on my shoulder, I can practically feel the piddle running down my chest. “Summer love will keep us warm long after our autumn goodbye," she sings. But what will you do during the long months of seasonal affectation in between, Brit?
“Sometimes” – I love this song. This is when she “broke her leg” and then came back with big boobs. If only all injuries were so helpful to one's sex appeal! I wonder if pulling my groin will make my dick bigger. Hold on, let me try. It's funny that in the pre-singer/songwriter (a la Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton) world and pre-pre "Since You Been Gone" one, the default pop sound was this extremely slick and sonically packed new jack swing-lite. Well, I don't know if that's funny, but really, so many of the tracks from Brit's first two albums are like Teddy Riley babies with oblong heads from all that water on the brain. Speaking of, lyrically, this song probably accurately reflects the scribble going on in the skull of a packaged princess – she’s scared of her object of affection but she wants to hold him but she needs time. Yeah, I imagine that what was going on in Britney's head at the time was about as muddled.
“I’m So Curious” – Is this inspired by Margaret Cho's impression of her mother? And if so, does that mean that Britney, too, is so curious about Ass Master?
“(You Drive Me) Crazy (The Stop Remix!)” – You haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed a class of third graders vocally attempt to wrap their heads around, “Baby thinking of you keeps me up all night." I was a tutor in college when this was out and, seriously, they sang it like this: "Baby, baby, bubba bubba up, all right." Also, is this the “Stop Remix!” because she yells, “Stop!”? That's really creative.
“I’ll Never Stop Loving You” – God, for a virgin, she has a lot of B-sides. Sometimes Britney sounds like Debbie Gibson. I wonder how much of an influence Debbie was. Couldn't be too much, as I don't remember any overly moronic hats in Britney's public wardrobe. This is so syrupy, and yet I don’t hate it. I don’t hate any of it yet. Maybe chronic pop-listening has just destroyed me and any shred of "taste" I have left...ooh, this track just slowed down momentarily! That settles it, I want this played at my funeral.
“Born To Make You Happy" – I love this fucking song. I know it’s backwards and servile and probably sexist and terrible, but the melody is indelible. I remember seeing something on the Box or maybe on some home video of her singing this along to just an acoustic guitar and thinking it was really beautiful. It’s extremely pathetic, but it doesn't come off as completely spineless, thanks to the tempo and melody. You know, if being insipid and servile makes her happy, great. It's her right as a puppet! Funnily enough, I just read that this song initially was much more sexually suggestive. Said Brit: "This may be a little old for me. Because of the image thing, I don't want to go over the top." So, I'm guessing it was at first about blow jobs, then.
“Born To Make You Happy (Kristian Lundin Bonus Remix)” – Oooh, this is much more acoustic-guitar oriented. Yay! And she sounds particularly female-circumcised in this one! Double yay!
“From the Bottom of My Broken Heart” – OK, I hate this song. It’s so soft, it’s enough for the Jets to take her out back and jump her as a family for being such a pussy. (By the way, I typed that before I realized that Britney recorded a cover of “You Got It All,” which I obviously have to go hunt down immediately). Ugh, her upper register. She sounds like a toddler with cookie crumb lip liner imitating a music box. She just bended her voice for no reason. This song is miserable. She’s trying to belt at the end, but she just sounds like Kermit the Frog. Or constipated. Consti the Frog, that's her alter ego.
“Thinkin’ About You” – The organ sounds desperate to take this song into “I’ll Take You There” territory. That's pathetic. This song sounds like outlet shopping in Big Dogs. BRB.
“Oops! I Did It Again” – I love that everybody was OK with the first single from Britney’s second album being the same song as the first single from her first album, just in a different key. That's great. Good work everyone. Why not do the same thing over again, if you can? Saves you the work and constipation! Also, why is this song Titanic 2 (“But I thought the old lady dropped it into the ocean in the end”)? Oh, and about the whole “I’m not that innocent” thing: it's nice to see her openly working on the image thing. It makes it more real. Soon she'll be giving more blow jobs than she's ever dreamed of! Our little girl is growing up!
“Deep In My Heart” – This is the same kind of limp house as “Autumn Goodbye." God, even the fucking b-side is a replica!
“Lucky” – So, here's when she started bitching about fame, but at least at this point, her complaints were somewhat believable and worthy of sympathy, as she was still a child who’d been more or less pushed into this hellish industry. Aw, it's almost adorable, this little bleat for help. It’s so weird that we had the warning signs of her unhappiness this early, and yet we still celebrate and listen to her body of work, as though all the disposable pop made the eventual mental breakdown worth it. Fun fact: I used to be able to play this on the guitar, back when I could play the guitar. That means it is beyond simple. Also, as with "Crazy," in this song, she “Stop” and the music listens. This pops up repeatedly in future work. It's her only ostensible sign of having any control, and like everything else, it's entirely manufactured.
“Heart” – “Heart, I know I’ve been hard on you. I’m sorry for the things I put you through.” It's OK, babe, just lay off the bloomin' onions. There’s a piano and string section in this shit! “You’ll always be my friend, so keep on hangin’ in." You go, girl or vital organ or whatever you are!
“Stronger” – More "Stop!" and then stopping. Her attempt at strength is a bit pathetic -- her growl is about as intimidating as Winston’s. “My loneliness ain’t killin’ me no more,” she says, referencing herself. And, yeah, come to think of it, why aren't you dead yet? You were lying in "...Baby One More Time!" It wasn’t killing you at all! How can we ever trust you again? Meanwhile, a lot of these songs sound stuffed with whatever sounds were within reach. They are sonic peasant’s soup.
“Walk On By” – Brit says, “Every time you smile, angels cry.” I say: Why?
“Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know” – This is so slow, it sounds screwed. Too bad we're still dealing with a virgin at this point, at least as far as the image thing is concerned. I've never really understood the concept of “over-produced," but this is as bloopy as a belly full of Sean Preston. Unfun fact: Shania Twain helped write this. Maybe that's what inspired Brit to wear brown lip gloss on this single's cover.
(We entered the second hour during that song...)
“Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know (Hex Hector Radio Mix)” – Radio trance! I actually hated this shit at the time, preferring the swanker commercial house sounds of the early ‘90s, but I feel like I could get into now that it's retro. It’s just extreme hi-NRG basically. Very ugly, very extreme hi-NRG. Aw, it's kind of like the mutt that nobody loves. I'll give you a home, Hex Hector! Right after we dip you for fleas!
“I’m a Slave 4 U” – “I know I may be young, but I’ve got feelings, too,” is how this thing opens. Oh really? I never noticed the sensitivity of the youth. Maybe I should stop swinging around infants and stomping on toddlers’ toes, then? But for real, this was the first time anything Britney did struck me as artful. There's an obvious Prince homage in the title spelling (“4 U”) and the way she slings the “Slaaaaave” of the chorus. Interestingly, his former wife (or whatever -- I feel like Prince is holier than matrimony), Mayte, choreographed the video. I learned that from one my favorite information sources (second only to the Big Dogs site), Wikipedia. Can you believe this peaked at No. 27 in the U.S.? What a travesty. What a goddamn American tragedy that is. (I'm only half-kidding.)
“Intimidated” – Another gem, this time by way of Darkchild. This phase clearly found Brit getting to know that there was more to urban music than warmed-over new jack swing. The bass line of this is boogie, while the acoustic pre-chorus bridge is a salute to earlier days. Perfect, in its slight way.
“Overprotected” – I've always categorized this song in my head right alongside "Stronger." Maybe because both seem like such lesser entries in Brit's singles arsenal. Britney will definitely tell you all about growing up while her voice squeaks and chirps with the same youth it's always had. Funniest line of the box set so far: “I don’t need nobody tellin’ me just what I’m gonna do with about my destiny." [Oops!] You can say that again!
“Overprotected (The Darkchild Remix)” – It's kind of amazing that besides the skittery, synth-acoustic pop of stuff like Brandy and Monica's "The Boy Is Mine," and J.Lo's "If You Had My Love," Rodney Jerkins really has never worked in a style that's his own. He's much more about being a chameleon. With this stripped-down, highly rhythmic improvement on the original, he's doing his best Neptunes, and not failing by a long shot.
“I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” – Well, duh. She's neither because she isn't human. She's a star! "All I need is time," she says, which proves that regardless of what she is and isn't, she's matured very little since "Sometimes."
“I Run Away” – ...but not fast enough.
“I Love Rock 'n' Roll” – Well, clearly! What indication in her career thus far has she given that she doesn't love rock and roll besides, oh, every single fucking sound she or her producers have committed to tape? My favorite thing about this is that, (according to Wikipedia) "when promoting the single's release she infamously attributed the hit version of the song to Pat Benatar instead of Jett, although she claims this was a remark made in sarcasm rather than a mistake.” Is her incorrect invocation of the concept of sarcasm more sarcasm?
“I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman (Metro Remix Radio Edit)” - She's sped up and autotuned for this weird, Latin house thing. Now she really doesn't sound human. She's Robospears.
“Boys (The Co-Ed Remix)” – Ah, nice, an experiment in ringtone chic. At least Pharrell isn’t nearly as annoying as usual because he’s just singing instead of caterwauling. I love how giant the drums are – they pop right in your ears. They're like sonic caviar. It's so crazy how none of the songs on this album except “Slave” went Top 40 in the U.S., and that barely did. I know that Britney was a huge seller, but singles-wise, it looked like she was floundering. Little did we know of the greatness that was to come! (Again: only half-kidding.)
“Boys” – With this “Got Your Money” retread, this might have been the first time the Neptunes showed signs of their limitations. Plus, this track is a bit too reliant on Britney rapping. Still, that disco breakdown seems ingenious.
“Me Against the Music” – I forgot how uncrowded the production of this song is at the start -- in my head, this is just a big ball of mush. It's pretty shitty, regardless. Madonna has never sounded worse vocally. Not even on "Bad Girl" or "Oh Father." Not even live. For some reason, when this was out, I was fond of singing, “I wanna get a P’zone," in the same way Brit sings, "I wanna get in the zone." It was a reference to Pizza Hut's calzone offering. I'm not sure why it struck me to do this. I'll chalk it up to the need to make entertainment where there wasn't any. Oh, and there's more Brit rapping on this. Say hello to MC Chickatah.
“Me Against the Music (Passengerz vs. the Club)” – This exercise in trance bored me so much, that in the middle I got up and took a dump. Sorry to over-share, but it fully sums up my feelings on this and my belief in the concept of a shite for a shite.
“Toxic” – The perfection of this song is as much of a no-brainer as oxygen. You know it's great, I know it's great, so instead of critiquing, I'll pass the baton to Tori Amos:
I don't hate Tori or anything ("Cloud on My Tongue" and "Father Lucifer" still slay me...at least, in theory - it's been years since I've actually listened to them), but this is so stupid for two main reasons: 1) The song isn't even a little about toxic shock and 2) Tori "Boy You Best Pray That I Bleed Real Soon" Amos is not one to be talking about, "You can't have Tampax for a hot song." Unless, that is, she thinks bleeding freely makes for a hot song. Oh, and also, "Toxic" actually reignited Britney's hit-making, making every single thing Tori says in that clip completely incorrect. It's fine if you want to hate and think you love your twat more than another woman loves hers, but please at least attempt to be right every once in a while if you're going to be snooty.
“Toxic (Bloodshy & Avant’s Intoxicated Remix)” – This is just a slightly altered take. It's more dubby, but slightly less dramatic. It still has those huge, swooping strings, though, so the drag queen hasn’t lost his lipstick entirely.
(We have now entered the third hour of listening...)
“Everytime” – The music box twinkle that runs throughout this song is really sad! “Notice me!” That's sad, too! I know that these cinematic strings are meant to manipulate, but I’m OK with that. This is, by far, my favorite of Brit's ballads and I blame Guy Sigsworth’s genius on that. God, it’s so crazy that this came out five years ago. It seems like yesterday that I was watching the video alongside Usher's “Burn” while eating cereal in my underwear. Those palm trees and Brit's televised suicide attempt are among the most indelible images from this decade's music videos.
“Everytime (Above and Beyond’s Club Mix)” – My spell check really doesn’t like making “every time” into one word, in case you're curious. Whatever. I’m just going to look at penises while this gay shit plays. It seems appropriate.
“Outrageous” – This is my least favorite type of R. Kelly song (the sparse banger in the style of “Snake”). I would have preferred “I Believe I Can Fly By Using My Not-Girlish-But-Not-Yet-Womanly Vagina Lips As Wings."
“Outrageous (Junkie XL’s Dancehall Mix)” – This reminds me of Janet's criminally overlooked “All Nite (Don’t Stop)," and as such is a big improvement over the original.
“My Prerogative” – This sounds like Bloodshy and Avant had no idea what to do to top the original so they just made the sound of this thing change dramatically every four bars. At least it’s unexpected! This remake is nonsense. “Everybody’s talking all this stuff about me, why don’t they just let me live?” made more sense in ’88 than in ’04. In '04, you're only living if people are talking all this stuff about you.
“My Prerogative (Armand Van Helden Remix)” – Weird, the drums sound live-ish. Combined with a pronounced guitar riff, this may be Van Helden doing his best LCD Soundsystem impression. Nothing spectacular, but at least it doesn’t sound like the inside of a K-hole or a-hole.
“Do Somethin’” – This is the missing link between “Toxic” and “3,” but nothing more.
“Do Somethin’ (Thick Vocal Mix)” – Speaking of thick: more penises.
“Someday (I Will Understand)” – “Someday I will understand / In God's whole plan / And what he's done to me,” she sings in this thankfully forgotten ode to her fetus. God didn’t knock you up, Brit. This song should have been aborted, though.
“Mona Lisa” – “She’s been cloned," Brit reports. Why, so we can have more multi-tracked annoyance, without having to overdub?
“Gimme More” – Ugh, the music's getting really good now, and I'm getting tired. Another classic, in my estimation, this thing is so slick and stompy. And hey, “It’s Britney, bitch!” may have been stupid, but no more stupid than anything else she ever said. See the playing field for as level as it is, and it becomes brilliant.
“Gimme More (Paul Oakenfold Mix)” – Gimme more penises, how about?
(We have entered the fourth hour.)
“Piece of Me” – I don’t like the squawking part of the sound design, but at least it’s weird. This is autobiographical in its entirely egocentric way -- it's easy to get mad about the media when you concentrate on how much it irritates you, versus how much it keeps you relevant.
“Piece of Me (Bloodshy & Avant's Böz O lö Remix)” – This is a disco; revisioning. Bloodshy & Avant remix themselves uncommonly well.
“Break the Ice” – I don't know, this is a little less exciting outside of the context of the Blackout album.
“Everybody” – In the midst of all this Britness, a heavy sample from Eurthymics' “Sweet Dreams” honestly sounds like the most ingenious idea ever.
“Womanizer” – "Picture Page, it's Picture Page, it's Picture Page, it's Picture Page..." That's what this song sounds like. I can't remember if I thought of that myself or if Tracie did. Either way, it is true. One of us is dead-on. This song is still way too fast, but I understand its iconic status a bit more now than I initially did. I'm not mad at it for being virtually synonymous with Brit's music career at this point. It's her first Hot 100 No. 1 since "...Baby One More Time," and it's not a shabby follow-up. Not one bit.
“Womanzier (Kaskade Remix)” – The funny thing about this deep-ish house remix is that it's actually slower than the original. Hilarious, right? I'll wait for you to pick yourself off the floor.
“Circus” – I never got fully on board with this song, but I do like that it's breaky and thus early ‘90s in a way you don’t often hear. The breakdown reminds me of “Funk Boutique” or something, and I cherish the moments I am reminded of "Funk Boutique."
“Circus (Tom Neville’s Ringleader Remix)” – This has another nice breaky thing going on, albeit in a much more techno context. This is almost Amp-ish. Very nice.
“If You Seek Amy” – Props for this audacious choice as a single aside, I'm sticking to what I initially said about this ultimately very stupid song: "The bouncy, shuffling 'If U Seek Amy,' (or not-so-subliminally, 'F.U.C.K. Me') does some half-hearted wordplay ('Amy' is a character) to justify its existence, but ultimately, it's not clever enough to create a true double entendre -- the lyrics of the chorus ('All of the boys and all of the girls are begging to if you seek Amy') don't make much sense unless you read them with the 'F.U.C.K.' in there. It's just marginally wittier than when we'd ask each other to 'spell icup' in second grade."
“If You Seek Amy (Crookers Remix)” – I'm taking a moment to contemplate Crookers’ complete crossover ability (I mean, they gave Kid Cudi what will probably be the biggest hit of his career). OK, moment is over. The oscillating bass line here is so irresistible, I see why even the most mainstream audiences have been won over.
“Radar” – I understand how the single release of this song was interrupted by the influx of new material (this was supposed to be Blackout's fourth single after "Break the Ice," as it appears both on that album and Circus), but it would have been fine to take a loss on this, considering how Circus had plenty of unused potential singles (“Kill the Lights,” “Shattered Glass,” “Unusual You”). Fucking botched.
“Radar (Bloodshy & Avant Remix)” – Bloodshy & Avant really get their freaks on via the b-sides, but I wish their revisions of their own tracks would make the actual albums. If something this intensely sound-fixated appeared on a Brit album, I’d fall off whatever I was running on.
“3” – Love this love this love this. My favorite thing is the reverb-filled synth strings in the intro that halt severely when they should echo. As a song of choruses (“Are you in...” begins my favorite), this thing just goes above and beyond to be as infectious as possible.
“3 (Groove Police Club Mix)” – Ugh, barf trance. I wish it didn’t have to end like this!
And so, after about four hours and five minutes, my marathon came to a close. I didn't stop the music once, and any break from it was extraordinarily quick. Even the dump. In sum, I can't say that this wasn't without its annoyance, but it was mostly enjoyable. Going over Britney Spears' entire career, I find it strange that she embraced disco divadom over time instead of using it as an opening angle like many (including Madonna). Most who also take their time getting to the dance floor (in a major way) have virtuoso voices as their angles (think Whitney and Mariah) so it's more a matter of getting around to making dance music. Britney, while not as bad a singer as some make her out to be (myself included, at times), is an anomaly as this unabashed pop artist who was more interested in R&B upon arrival. I suppose it was just the way of the late '90s, and really, it worked out as she's as relevant as ever (whose career besides Justin Timberlake's, can you honestly say survived teen pop without a scratch?).
Of course, so much of that survival has to do with her job as tabloid fuel as much as it has to do with her music. The biggest recurring theme over these 58 songs isn't references to older lyrics or "Stop!" but Britney's frequent singing about being on display, which as a commercial pop singer is a bit redundant because, duh, of course she is on display. Singing about this is like singing about singing into a microphone. As much as she complains about fame and her lack of privacy, she owes her career to the interest in what goes on outside of the recording studio. Certainly, it gives her plenty to sing about, so that it's all one big perpetual motion machine: she sings, people care about her private life, she sings about that, people still care, she still has something to sing about. Her frequently expressed outrage at the morbid interest in her life is, at best disingenuous: if she really cared so much, she could go away. We all know the girl isn't afraid to yell, "Stop!"