They say a well-rounded education is the key to success, and if that truly is the case, the my schooling is woefully incomplete when it comes to the subject of pop. That’s why we bring you “Popology,” the guide to modern radio-friendly stars as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up on punk and metal.
First up: Britney Spears’ sexy, game-changing debut.
Welcome to the first installment of “Popology,” where I will not only experience certain definitive pop records for the first time but also try to put some of the greats into context. For the purposes of this series, we’ll be focusing mostly on the past 15 years or so of music, beginning with the sugar-pop reinvention that the Spice Girls ushered in around 1997 and taking us all the way up to today. Why this time frame? Not only does it put the focus on people who are (theoretically) still putting new songs on the radio, but it also because it represents the period of pop music that finally put to sleep the last big crossover rock trend (the rise of “Wannabe” correlates pretty evenly with the fall of alternative rock). Also, it’s about the time I checked out on the mainstream and stuck to the fringes, so there is plenty that I missed.
A bit of background: I’ve been writing about pop music for years, but have rarely listened to genuine teen-baiting sugar as a fan. A few tracks have slipped into my headspace, and high-concept experiments like Lady Gaga will always grab my attention, but in general I tuned out most of the boy bands, R&B divas and streamlined rock of the past decade-and-a-half. I understand why a lot of this stuff is “important” (at least in an anthropological sense) and know where everything exists in context. But now it’s time to embrace some of the greats, beginning with Britney Spears’ watershed 1999 album …Baby One More Time.
The world was first introduced to Ms. Spears via the video for the album’s title track, which cast her as a rebellious, sexy-dancing Catholic schoolgirl and introduced us to her aesthetic: Keyboard-fueled midtempo dance workouts scrubbed clean and infused with soaring melodies courtesy of pop mastermind Max Martin. It was as effective as advertising gets: Here was a talented, attractive young girl who young men wanted and who young women wanted to be. Plus, these songs sounded great cranked up really loud in your car.
The album opens with the first single and title track, which surfs on a chunky, simplistic keyboard riff and features no fewer than two breakdowns. The lyrics remain confounding: Is it simply a plea from a heartbroken girl or a torrid ode to S&M? The answer is “Probably both,” which is why it was so effective as a subversive pop hit. Taken independently, the lyric “My loneliness is killing me” is pretty devastating — like something Thom Yorke would write. Interestingly, Spears seems to often be writing from the perspective of someone who is jilted or rejected — ironic considering she immediately became one of the most desired women in the world.
“…Baby One More Time” is followed by “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” a similar-sounding anthem with some streamlined rock guitar taking center stage (there’s even a solo). It’s catchy enough, though MTV News pop writer Jocelyn Vena tells me that the definitive version of this song is a remix that appeared on the soundtrack to a movie starring that teenage witch.
“Sometimes,” another single, introduces the first sorta-ballad to the album (though it’s only slightly slower than the first two songs). It’s reasonable enough, though through three songs Spears’ lyric approach appears to be entirely about guys. Like, she never stops thinking about them.
I was not expecting “Soda Pop,” which has a ska guitar and guest spot from an anonymous dancehall toaster. It’s, um, weird, though not entirely unpleasant. It’s a pretty good party song that has a similar vibe to Sugar Ray’s “Fly.” What was it about the late ’90s that suddenly made people embrace the islands? This is a great example of a song whose sound made perfect sense when it first dropped but now appears totally inexplicable.
It has been talked about repeatedly over the course of her career, but it’s incredible how submissive the lyrics are on …Baby One More Time. While she’s claimed her independence on more recent releases, the chorus of “Born to Make You Happy” is more than a little bit off-putting. “I don’t know how to live without your love/ I was born to make you happy” could be a sentiment that a lovelorn 16-year-old can understand, but it also sounds like Spears is in training to be a geisha. It’s these sort of mixed messages that made her profoundly popular and also a lightning rod for controversy.
Considering her outward sexiness (the schoolgirl outfits, the suggestive dancing, the near-nude photo shoots), the songs on …Baby One More Time are pretty chaste. Most of them talk about relationships in really vague terms and tend not to explicitly mention sex. “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart” is another rejection ballad that references kissing but nothing else.
“I Will Be There” has another guitar (this time the sort of slide variation that fans of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” will find familiar) and a sort of island-inflected rhythm section. (Those same sounds show up on “Thinkin’ About You” as well — have I completely blocked out the Caribbean-ification of pop music at the end of the millennium?) It features yet another rousing chorus about standing by your man (or a best friend or a house pet). In fact, the back half of …Baby One More Time basically hits on the same theme: Hey guys, you can count on Britney Spears, because she’ll love you unconditionally as long as you give her the opportunity.
The non-single section of …Baby One More Time is sort of a slog (the album is literally top-loaded — the radio smashes were four of the first six songs on the record), but it ends on songs that I found bizarre for two very different reasons. I’ve always made fun of the fact that Spears had a song called “E-Mail My Heart,” and while the sensitive piano ballad isn’t as silly as I thought it might be, it’s still a little goofy to passionately sing, “E-mail me back/ And say our love will stay alive.” Luckily, there aren’t any lyrics about her 28 baud modem or her trouble with attachments.
…Baby One More Time ends with a cover of “The Beat Goes On” that has an incredibly cool spy movie feel to it. It doesn’t sound like anything else on the album and appears to be influenced by the grooviness of trip-hop (interesting considering Spears’ recent fascination with the depths of dance music). It’s actually a nice teaser for what would come much, much later for her.
Or at least it would be if that’s how the album actually ended. On my copy of …Baby One More Time, “The Beat Goes On” fades out to make way for Spears to say “Thanks” for buying and listening to her album. There is then a sneak preview of some music from another group on her label … the Backstreet Boys! So there’s a great piece of trivia for you: The last song heard on Britney Spears’ debut is actually Backstreet’s “I Need You Tonight.”
With my first listening of …Baby One More Time in the books, I can safely say that I was surprised in more ways than one. I expected there to be a lot of filler (there sort of is), though I didn’t expect it to be as odd (at least sonically) as it ended up being. There has never been any mystery to why Spears became such a superstar, but these songs probably would have been huge even if Britney wore burlap sacks in all of her videos. I can’t imagine I’ll spin …Baby One More Time very much going forward (though “Soda Pop” may get some replays), but I can safely say that I get it.
What do you think? Does Britney Spears’ first album hold up? What should the next “Popology” album be? Let us know in the comments!