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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Britney Spears: ...Baby One More Time


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 Stoneis 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.


  1. Well I'm happy anyway. Now you only have to do the entire Tangerine Dream discography and all you're promises will be fullfilled.
    Also, Jesus Christ finally we can move on with the Recent Developments! You finished British Sea Power in what, October? People complain the modern artists only release a new album every 5 years, but considering how many of these supposed artists there are out there, I say it's plenty.

    1. I still want to see George suffers through 'Boys For Pele', which is 10 times the emotional torment that 'Little Earthquakes' is.

  2. This album not only transformed Madonna in a respectable artist, but even Donna Summer, the Queen of Disco of the 70's. Note: to me all stuff like this is just dicso. I'm really not interested in a semantic discussion about the differences between Donna Summer, Madonna and Britney Spears. I cannot help thinking of two song quotes:

    "Disco really made it, it's empty and I hate it." (my compatriots from Gruppo Sportivo)
    "Video killed the radio star." (the Buggles)

    Not that I like those two songs too much.

    "even without the photos and the accompanying videos"
    Absolutely not. Same for all the rap-crap with the numerous half dressed girls.
    I don't blame Mrs. Spears either. If it hadn't been her the industry would have found another girl.

    1. You mean Mrs. Spears-Allen-Federline, right? Just kidding. The scent of Curious, sweat, and bubblegum has me feeling light-headed...quite appropos, really.

  3. I was quite young when Britney Spears first rose to stardom. (~11 years old) I would come home from school, watch cartoons, in defiance of the girls at school I'd neglect to watch some prime time soap opera, then I'd watch the Top 5 requests of the day on the music channel. It's often not realized that all of these things are marketed and consumed largely by kids - in fact, by the time I was 13 or 14 I was horrified by my past as someone that would care whether Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears would be the top artist of the day.

    I suppose there was a more adult audience for this music too, it certainly used to be played a lot on mainstream radio channels to the effect you'd hear her songs quite often whenever you went shopping. But still, I'd say the primary audience is mothers and their kids.

    By the way, Baby One More Time has 68 million views on Youtube (maybe they rig the views, I don't know), so supposedly some people are still interested. I don't think it's that awful of a song, to be honest, there are worse things for kids to be listening to. It has a nice voice effect on the chorus part, well placed vocals and the piano notes you mentioned. It's likely the only well-known Britney Spears with any redeeming features, but then, I'm not an expert.

  4. -- a resume so evil that it would give you admission into any league of super villains.

  5. In my opinion, disco really made it, but it's not enough to say that this is disco. Disco music was open both to simple songs (even electronic noise) and to creative songs. Of course we can argue about which song was creative in disco music, but the fact is the characteristics of disco let a door opened for creativity.

    Some works of Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Rolling Stones could be labelled as disco music. But can we say the same about dance music? Any attempt to make something different or complex would throw the song out of range from the dance music style. People would just say: "we wanna dance, have fun, it's not time to study the melody/lyrics".

    Dance music is just part of disco music. A narrow part of it.

    1. But then what is exactly is Prince doing? It's not disco, it's not r'n'b, it's not pop-rock, it's not new wave, it's... it's... Superman! Or creative dance-pop.

    2. Any kind of music can be build with creativity. Even "Twinkle, twinkle, little star" can be re-mixed with a Symphonic Orchestra and electronic sounds.

      But I don't think the fans of B Spears and J Bieber give a damn about Prince. He is not part of the same universe. Sometimes we are not able to classify an artist.

    3. A little extra explanation of my point-of-view: "Miss You" (by the Stones) was played side by side to "MacArthur Park", "I will survive", "The Hustle" and "Meteor Man". Prince is not played at the same places of Britney Spears.

    4. So what? Prince is not played at the same places as Mozart either.

    5. At the other hand there are quite a few places where ánd Mozart and The Beatles are played ...
      You argue nothing.

    6. MNb, we are discussing wheather Prince is dance music or not. It's not a matter of Prince being "good music" or not.

  6. Funny trivia: J.J. Cale praised the sound engineeriment of the title track.

  7. "Rating? Forget it — I'm too bored with this stuff to actually allow myself an extra thumbs movement." Brilliantly stated. I kind of expected as much, trying to apply any kind summative judgment to stuff like this is like trying to assess the artistic merit of a two-year old warbling "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"--which is actually a lot more entertaining that hearing Britney audially grind whatever dancer/object is nearby.

  8. Ha ha ha. You've been dreading this day your whole life, huh? I know I have, and I was friggin' TWO when it came out!

  9. GS, maybe it's a nice idea to check which reviews provoke most reactions. This one might rank quite high ...

  10. Definitely the weakest Britney album. I love my pop guilty pleasures, but this ain't it (although a few of the singles are).

    That being said, let's not be ridiculous. Debbie Gibson is not, and never, better than Britney. And Email My Heart? No. Just no.

    Britney's first graduation wasn't Toxic, but I'm A Slave 4 U, which actually sounds like what Prince would release if he was born a schoolgirl cheerleader with ponytail discovering sex for the first time.

    Last but not least, as a poptimist, I'll argue that at least one Britney album is a thumb-up. If dumb but 100% fun and catchy hair metal album can be a masterpiece, surely Femme Fatale's stomping electro beats qualify as its pop equivalent.

  11. @Spymaster: that's my point. Why care? Spears is closer to PR Nelson than Stravinsky to Mozart or Mingus to L.Armstrong. What matters is that one out of six sucks. Don't need categories to notice that. Disclaimer: I'm not a fan of either of the other five.

    1. "to me all stuff like this is just disco"
      "Disco really made it, it's empty"

      I'm just trying to say that I disagree, once disco can be very creative and dance music not. So, they are not the same thing.

      If you don't like categories, then why do you say B Spears is disco? Disposable Music was not invented in the 1970s.

  12. @Spymaster: "I disagree"
    That was already clear to me.

    "So, they are not the same thing."
    That's a non-sequitur. A priori any genre can be creative. You are very close to John McFerrin's remark on Deep Purple:

    "using genre divisions as a substitute for "good" and "bad" is a just waste of vocabulary."
    Same for creative and non-creative, I'd say.

    "If you don't like categories"
    Wrong question. The question is: what sense does it make? To make you feel better that you admire Prince? Quite lame. No Medusa (first band of Glenn Hughes) can spoil my admiration for Deep Purple, including Made in Europe.
    If you want to understand why Prince and Metallica are so different, thén categories make sense. But even if Prince is creative and Spears not - we can agree on that point - shoving the two on one heap tells us exactly zero about that same point.
    That's the background of my question: so what?
    Let me provide a possible answer myself. If we assume that Prince made disco/dance indeed, Gruppo Sportivo's statement that disco is empty is refuted.
    Your approach is wrong. Fírst you define a category, at least provisional, thén you try to find out if some artist belongs to it and to what extent.
    For the record: I don't give a rat's a*s if anybody calls Deep Purple hardrock or heavy metal. That debate is about as silly.

    1. As I said: "Any kind of music can be built with creativity. Even 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star' can be re-mixed with a Symphonic Orchestra and electronic sounds."

      But: "I don't think the fans of B Spears and J Bieber give a damn about Prince. He is not part of the same universe."

      Anyway, I suppose I understand what you want to say. We can't say things like "rock is good music" because "if it's not good music, this is not rock". It would be too comfortable for the fans of rock.

      On the other hand, should we have any hope that Britney and Bieber alike will do a creative work in the future? They may have talent, but if they do something very creative, people will not say that it's their "better" work. People will say that it's a "change" in their work.

      "Fírst you define a category, at least provisional, thén you try to find out if some artist belongs to it and to what extent."

      It's the opposite. What I"m trying to say is that I'm not trying to find out which artists belong to the "dance music". I just see a group of artists in the same world and only then realize that they will not do anything creative. It was not me who put them there, they were already there. Actually, when Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer etc. started dance music more than 20 years ago (it may have started earlier, idk), I was waiting for somebody to appear with something new. Prince has been alive all these years, but "Prince is not played at the same places of Britney Spears", or of Vanilla Ice, or Justin Bieber. You can call it "dance music" or choose another name, but it's a fairly defined set of artists.

      Also, we can discuss what does "good music" mean. Actually, Britney does good music indeed. For the standards of dance music. But creativity doesn't seem to be a good feature for dance music. I wish it was, but it doesn't depend on me. Some people say that Lady Gaga is creative, but I have yet to find a creative song from her. If "Bad Romance" is considered creative for a dance song, then - you may agree with me - there is no space for creativity in that world.

      Finally, I answered your first post because I thought you agreed with Gruppo Sportivo's statement about disco. So you disagree with them, disco can be creative and it's not responsible for the lack of creativity in Britney's work, right?

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  14. Assuming that you eventually reach the Ts, do you plan on reviewing tATu? They only had three albums, and they're probably even more suited to this kind of entertaining overanalysis than Britney was, especially given your common country of origin.

  15. How wasn't Debbie Gibson "real music"? Didn't she write all her songs? They're silly and regrettably produced, but they're also completely sincere.

    1. Or were you thinking of Tiffany?