BRITNEY SPEARS: ...BABY ONE MORE TIME (1999)
1) ...Baby One More Time; 2) (You Drive Me) Crazy; 3) Sometimes; 4) Soda Pop; 5) Born To Make You Happy; 6) From The Bottom Of My Broken Heart; 7) I Will Be There; 8) I Will Still Love You; 9) Deep In My Heart; 10) Thinkin' About You; 11) E-Mail My Heart; 12) The Beat Goes On; 13*) I'll Never Stop Loving You; 14*) Autumn Goodbye.
Well, I suppose we all saw this one coming, didn't we?
One thing is hard to deny: this is probably the most manipulative album sleeve in record history. Of all the people who ensured this album's 14 times platinum status, I wonder just how many slurped it off the Walmart counter, spellbound by the focused assault of eyes, lips, unbuttoned shirt, and... oh my. Whatever else one might say, the guy who took that photo was the real genius behind Britney's career, and should have earned him- or herself a lifelong pass to all of her swimming pools and barbecue lawns.
But really, there is no way one could not mention this record in one's story of the rise and fall of pop music, since it almost single-handedly transformed... Madonna into a respectable artist. Once, it used to be that people would blame Ms. Louise Ciccone for having downgraded pop to the state where sex comes first and music comes last. Britney symbolized the next stage of that development — and once you compare Madonna with Baby One More Time, it immediately becomes clear that, compared to this stuff, the former counts as a brilliant masterpiece of composition, arrangement, and artistic expression.
Every once in a while, you encounter opinions — particularly, of course, in the mainstream musical press — that ...Baby One More Time would have still been a monster hit, effective and impressive, even without the photos and the accompanying videos. I beg to differ. The only musical justification behind these dance grooves and synth-pop ballads would be a great set of catchy bubblegum hooks, and few of these songs are catchy to begin with. They aren't even particularly disgusting — most of the time, they are simply «invisible». There are no interesting musical solutions (except for one, maybe, on which see below), both the live instruments and the electronic keyboards are primitive and rote — in short, if it's dance pop we're talking about, this shit ain't no Prince, and it even ain't no Madonna.
So color me disappointed, because at some point, I almost hoped that the record would turn out to be a «guilty pleasure»: after all, there is nothing wrong per se with the very idea of bubblegum teen pop... well, come to think of it, there is something deeply wrong per se with that idea, but it was always in the power of well-paid musically-endowed corporate songwriters to make us, sometimes, forgive and forget. ...Baby One More Time does not take any chances: it wants us to love it because it is bubblegum teen pop, with a rather transparent nod to Lolita territory, not despite being bubblegum teen pop.
The one person I would completely refrain from blaming is, of course, Britney herself — who had not even turned 18 at the time and, in all of her Southern girl innocence, allowed her talents to be molded into this piece of trash. Talents, yes, because she really throws herself into this role that the producers thought up for her. She may not show much range in her singing, or any individual vocalizing techniques, but she does know how to use what she's got — be it the purring and cooing on ʽE-Mail My Heartʼ or the trademark hushy rasp on the title track. She is not quite «nothing» without the looks, and, if you ask me, given the choice between the average «diva», floating on spasmatic waves of melisma, and Britney's far more natural tones (at this early stage — fortunately, quite free from auto-tuning and other electronic treatments), I would rather have to go for the latter. In fact — shudder, shudder — I almost feel real empathy at the way she phrases "I was born to make you happy", with its little subtle mix of joy and weeping; quite professional for a 17-year old. And if you fail to feel a small jolt at the way she croons out "forever... E-mail my heart", a quick doctor checkup may be in order (maybe even if you're female).
That said, most of the songs are still atrociously bland and artificial, and the record as a whole never lives up to its opening one second of music — the three ominous piano notes that announce ʽ...Baby One More Timeʼ are arguably the finest moment on here. And while I cannot deny that the chorus of «The Song That Established Britney Spears (And Brought Down Rolling Stone)» is somewhat catchy, that does not excuse the robo-funk of the number immediately re-written as the even less interesting ʽ(You Drive Me) Crazyʼ, nor the awful title, lyrics, and hip-hop / calypso mix of ʽSoda Popʼ, nor the abundance of cheap soft / power ballads (ʽFrom The Bottom Of My Broken Heartʼ) that even Mariah Carey could never have resuscitated.
There is one exception-oddity — the last track on the album is an unexpectedly lo-fi, bass-heavy cover of Sonny & Cher's old hit ʽThe Beat Goes Onʼ, replete with «psychedelic» electronic effects, mock-drunk drum outbursts, and lite-spooky echoes. Like Sonny & Cher themselves, this song is just as bubblegummy as the rest of them, but it manages to preserve some of the original Sixties' melodic flair, and Britney certainly does it more justice — it is her element — than she could ever hope to allocate for the unhappy choice of ʽSatisfactionʼ on her sophomore effort. But it is also a song that comes after the croony «finale» of ʽE-Mail My Heartʼ, sort of as a post-scriptum specially targeted at the «purveyors of good taste», and in any case, you do not redeem an overall failure of a record by covering fuckin' Sonny & Cher, do you?
The absolute worst thing about this album, though, is the stinky flair of hypocrisy that went along with it, as the media were busy cultivating the «innocent» and even «traditional / conservative» attitude of Britney's straight in the face of all the innumerable innuendos both in these songs and in the accompanying videos — let's face it, at the very least Madonna had always been honest about her sexuality, even if, granted, she had already come of age well before launching her professional career. From this point of view, future Spears albums might have been just as comparably miserable, music-wise, but at least, starting with ʽToxicʼ and the like, they would become more balanced in the «sex vs. music» aspect. Not that the music on ...Baby is particularly sexy — no more so than an inflatable doll or something — but Britney herself is, of course.
In any case, ...Baby One More Time was a pop culture phenomenon in 1999, no doubt about that, but as of today, I would guess that it is probably one of the least listened to mega-best-sellers of the past century — and if so, for a very good reason: admit it, if you ever bought it, you didn't exactly buy it for the music, did you? You just didn't have the proper Internet access to download the album photo, or the proper color printer to zoom it and hang it in the bathroom. But in doing that, you (the «abstract» youse, that is) have created the unfortunate illusion that ...Baby One More Time had something to do with «real music», when, in fact, it had even less to do with that than Debbie Gibson in the 1980s. Rating? Forget it — I'm too bored with this stuff to actually allow myself an extra thumbs movement.