I assumed that I’d had a very casual ‘like’ for Britney Spears since I was little. Her songs had always been playing in the periphery of my childhood, and I danced madly to them whenever they happened to come on. But, over the last few months, I have morphed into somewhat of a Britney ‘stan’ (an avid/overzealous fan). I’ve watched just about every one of Britney’s MTV ‘making the video’ clips, as well as several in-depth YouTube documentaries about her and countless interviews with her. I’ve listened to podcasts dedicated to her and have most recently dug into her iconic discography. Call me a member of the B-Army (the term for Britney’s fans) if you will. Not only have I realised that her entire catalogue is just as good (if not better than) her chart topping hits, but that Britney has a deep musical legacy that we still hear today; her reign as pop princess has changed trends in music over the two decades she has been active. This is my ode to her wonderful discography. I will be counting down my top ten Britney songs, from lowest to highest, and trust me, after making my way through nearly all of her nine studio albums, it’s going to be a hard job!
This song is pure pop – joyful, sparkling and optimistic. As usual, it makes you want to dance. In comparison to the other tracks on the self-titled Britney album, a lot of which talk about the surveillance over her and the pressure she faces, this one makes her seem free. What she loves to do most is to dance, so this is a song dedicated to that passion. The Britney album is a nod to Janet Jackson’s profound influence on her, and this sounds like the younger sister of ‘All For You’ which came out in the same year. ‘Boys’ from Britney has a direct reference to Janet’s ‘Nasty’. The choreography and performance style also take cues from Janet, showing Janet as Britney’s primary influence at this point in the young pop star’s career. ‘Anticipating’ is fun and simple and sounds like a 2000’s edition of disco pop, with swirling violin melodies, hip-hop beats and electric guitar. It’s comfortable, nostalgic and feels like a warm hug from your best friend. What more could you ask for?
- Born to Make You Happy
This single really showcases Britney’s vocal strength. It’s a pop ballad and has hints of her original voice – powerful and authentic. Her incredible voice was suppressed throughout her career, so whenever someone says Britney can’t sing, show them this song. In fact, the whole Baby One More Time album is a testament to her powerful singing voice; it’s an album full of booming ballads and heartbreak anthems. It tells the story of a teenage girl in love with the world. The piano is the main instrument in the song, a mix of classical and pop. ‘Born to Make You Happy’ is rooted within the 90’s trend of sad love ballads – think Boys II Men, Mariah, Toni Braxton, Whitney etc. Britney has cited a lot of black women with powerful voices as her inspiration at this time, and you can see how she tries to emulate their voices in her pop ballads, especially in her debut album, where she was still finding her style. I like how she pulled off emotional ballads and catchy pop songs, and even combined them. I can’t listen to this song without singing along to the high note in the bridge – it’s iconic!
- Break The Ice
First thing’s first: the anime-inspired music video *chef’s kiss*! In the cartoon video, Britney reprises her role as the femme fatale superhero (*winks aggressively*) from the ‘Toxic’ video. It has an action-packed sequence and the music is punchy and hard-hitting. It seems hardcore, the kind of track that would accompany a badass villain walking into a room. The opening is legendary, with Britney saying, “It’s been a while, I know I shouldn’t have kept you waiting, but I’m here now” just before the music kicks in and makes me throw my head back in blissful abandon. This intro is especially cool when you think about the fact that the album the song is from – Blackout – was released in 2007, four years after her previous album. We all know what happened in 2007, so I won’t go into it, but it’s gratifying to hear her be so confident and assured in this song, coming back with a bang even while she was struggling. There are so many parts of this single that make it a feast for the ears for me, but I especially like the bit where she sings “you got my heart beating like an 808” and the music stops just for a little 808 moment and some beatboxing. She even nods to Janet’s ‘Nasty’ again, when she says “I like this part” at the breakdown. I love the breakdown; there’s no bridge, but the song mellows down a little, softening to give us time to breathe as it fades out. Once again, I must hype the animated music video, but it shows ‘to be continued’ at the end and, as far as I know, there was never a sequel, which is disappointing. Where’s the petition to make a Britney Spears anime? I will be the first to sign.
‘Showdown’ is from 2003’s In The Zone, an album which also gave us the cultural phenomenon that is ‘Toxic’. ‘Showdown’ as a song is very mature and the epitome of In The Zone’s general call to Britney as a grown woman – she is dominant here. It has a sinister, deep bass and staccato beat, with Britney slurring/whispering the lyrics. It’s quite explicit in its subject matter, but it’s a bop nonetheless, and I blare it out in the bathroom. I feel like it would work as the soundtrack to a spy movie and I have no idea why, but those are the vibes that I’m getting. The pre-chorus is bouncy, almost a reggae style, the electric guitar is subtle but impactful and the chorus comes in so well – I could listen to the instrumental alone and still love it.
- Hot As Ice
‘Hot As Ice’, as well as the entirety of the Blackout album are proof that even at the worst time in her life, Britney is able to release amazing music. I’m still pondering on how this was possible in 2007, when she was arguably the most publicly abused celebrity in America. Out of all the certified bangers in Blackout, this is the one I keep coming back to – it’s just great. It’s definitely mature; she was 25 when this was recorded, and this is really different to any of her older B-sides. You can’t NOT bop along to this, from beginning to end. The best part is when she sings the little ‘break it down’ riff, and the bubbly pops of snares and kicks sprinkled all over is the cherry on top. The ad libs and background vocals are so good – I don’t think the song would be what it is without them. There’s a reason this album is considered The Pop Bible™ – you can see the influence it had in all the music after 2007. It brought dubstep to a mainstream audience, it sparked the reign of EDM in the 2010s (which I admit got a bit overdone after a while), it had a little bit of everything, and it was truly innovative. No one was putting out music like this at the time. The melody is quite unique to me and is something I love to sing along to when I’m cleaning to motivate me, or when I’m in the ‘no thoughts just vibes’ mood. It’s a smash hit – listen to it!
- I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman
What can I say? This is a ballad for the ages. If you’re a 20-year-old child/pretend adult like me, this song is for you. The lyrics – though sung by a barbie doll in low rise jeans – are quite down to earth and easily relatable. She doesn’t have the answers to life and will have to learn about herself as she grows into a woman, but right now she’s in between. And in some ways, we all are. When do we truly ‘grow up’? When does a girl become a self-assured woman? When does a boy become a man? Is adulthood even a real thing? Okay, let me not get too philosophical on the topic of a song by a girl who once wore an all-denim ensemble. This was the soundtrack to the film Crossroads (2002) which she starred in, written by the famous Shonda Rhimes. And just to get literary on you, the video makes it look like Britney is one of the brooding Romantics. There are a lot of glorious drone shots that pan across to her standing/sitting epically on the edge of a cliff. With the beautiful, natural rocky landscapes, it reminds me of the sublime. Britney could do Romanticism, but Wordsworth could never do ‘Toxic’! Anyway, like a lot of the songs in Britney’s catalogue, this one is about wanting emancipation, being controlled and moulded, and desiring to be left alone to be her ‘true self’. It’s past irony, and at this point, it’s almost dark. Even as a 39-year-old woman with two kids, she’s still going through this predicament. I think, outside of her debut album, ‘I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman’ has some of her best singing; it may be in the highly stylised, forced voice that her label manipulated her into keeping, but she still works well with it outside of the flashy pop songs like ‘Oops I Did It Again’. If you’re feeling in the karaoke mood, this one is perfect!
- Let Me Be
The first time I ever heard this song, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I just love it so much. It has everything I want in a pop song. Great production, a catchy melody and a good beat. Speaking of, this song was produced by one of my favourite music makers of the 2000s, Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins. This man is a beast! He’s done so much: Toni Braxton’s ‘He Wasn’t Man Enough’; Whitney Houston’s ‘It’s Not Right But It’s Okay’; Brandy and Monica’s ‘The Boy Is Mine’; Michael Jackson’s ‘You Rock My World’ and Lady Gaga and Beyonce’s ‘Telephone’, to name but a few. Moving on from my fangirling, this song has a very slick hip hop/R&B feel to it, which is Darkchild’s specialty and my preferred genre. But it also maintains a cute pop vibe, even with the hints of edginess in the production. Here, Britney is singing about being misunderstood, having her opinions and desires ignored and ultimately being controlled, and she uses a relationship as an analogy. She is saying that this person doesn’t trust her to make her own decisions and assumes they know what she thinks and wants, but at the end of the day, she knows herself, and she wants to be left to stand on her own. The lyrics in the bridge – accompanied by a faster beat and a darker sound than the rest of the song – encompass this theme quite well. “Trust that I know, this is my show”. Overall, this is the best B-side on Britney for me.
Self-love. Girl Power. Independence. This really is a whole feminist anthem. In the song, Britney tells the guy she’s broken up with that she doesn’t need him anymore, and she’s not his property to lay a claim over. She acknowledges that while she could be sad and mourn a broken relationship, she’s better off on her own and she can make it without him. It’s a song where she realises her own capability, and this is a sentiment I think we can all sympathise with; when we’ve fallen out with someone we care about, it can feel like our world is going to end, but ultimately, you can realise your own strength, pull yourself up and be your own best friend. You may now be alone, but you’re not lonely. It’s morbidly ironic, though, that even with songs like this that empowered her fans, the behind the scenes was a different story, and Britney was far from having autonomy. On the sound: it begins with a blaring sort of alarm noise, almost as if to wake you up from your melancholy. Then the beat comes in powerfully and Britney shows her vocal chops with some growled out adlibs. She almost sounds like Christina here, which is not surprising at all – as I’ve previously stated, her voice is naturally powerful. She directly addresses her antagoniser in the lyrics, saying, “Hush, just stop. There’s nothing you can do or say. I’ve had enough…”, asserting herself as an emancipated woman. In the chorus, the shower-worthy lyrics are motivational and empathise with the audience’s own vulnerabilities: “Now I’m stronger than yesterday. Now is nothing but a mile away.” It might be cliché but it’s definitely a strong, much-needed message. Whatever troubles you are facing at this moment in time will only be distant memories in the future. The present does not stay that way. Right after this, she makes a cute reference to ‘Baby One More Time’; where she had previously sung “my loneliness is killing me” the year before, in ‘Stronger’ she proudly sings ‘my loneliness ain’t killing me no more.” Can you say character development?
- (You Drive Me) Crazy
This song – from her first album – is punchy, energetic and rocks you hard. Every time I listen, I’m in the mood to jump for joy! I imagine it must have been fun to learn the dance moves back when the music video came out. Britney looks like she’s having the best time in the music video, doing high kicks and synchronised choreography. While the lyrics may be simple, it’s really just a fun dance single. The song was the soundtrack to the 1999 movie Drive Me Crazy starring Melissa Joan Hart and Adam Grenier, who make cameo appearances in the music video. This was at the time when record companies decided soundtracks were extremely lucrative, so the movie was actually renamed after Britney’s song. Fun fact: Britney also guest-starred in an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch around this time too! It’s a great pop song that wraps up the end of the 90s in bow, and if you wanted to show someone what music was like in that decade, I think this would be a good contender. The fact that Britney released this mega hit when she was only 18 years old tells you how much she did at such a young age. According to my listening history, it’s one of her songs that I listen to the most, so I’m putting it right at number two!
From the twinkles of the piano, to the soft taps of the drum, to the vulnerable swell of the harp, this song is one of the most introspective and personal works she has written to date. It has been most commonly interpreted as a response to Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’, apologising to him for loving too much, wanting forgiveness and begging him not to haunt her in her dreams for her mistakes. Her dating history shows that she often fell for men who didn’t have her best interests at heart and this translated into all her relationships with the men in her life generally, with them using her fame and capital to boost themselves: Kevin Federline, Sam Lutfi, Adnan Ghalib, her own father, Jason Trawick, Larry Rudolph, Lou Pearlman and the like. Although the song was taken as confirmation that she had cheated on Justin Timberlake, causing her to be further maligned in the media, to me it only shows her fragility in the face of men and public scrutiny, and her absurd innocence when it comes to love. All in all, this is one of my favourite ballads ever in music, and definitely my favourite Britney song. Her voice is soft and ethereal- almost a whisper, as if she’s scared to divulge the deepest parts of her soul to the world. Later, her vocals become braver, as the music rises to an emotional crescendo. The lyrics “Everytime I try to fly I fall without my wings, I feel so small” are simple but hard-hitting. What stands out to me is that within all the images Britney has for each of her distinct eras, the album prior to the one this song is from (self-titled) had iconography of Britney as a whimsical fairy, in tour promotion posters and CD covers. This era of ‘fairy Britney’ was during the time of her public relationship with Justin, so it seems profound to reference that he was her ‘wings’ in a way. Once the relationship was over, and the media fully turned against her for supposedly wronging Justin, she became small in the storm of public disapproval around her as a performer and as a human, losing her wings and literally falling from grace. Even with all this – when she could have potentially clapped back at Justin and put a middle finger up to the media – she remained graceful and dignified, never speaking out of turn about him. It’s not only a beautiful reminder of her song-writing ability, but also of her character.
With that said, I think it’s easy to see why she’ll always be the princess of pop. Hopefully I’ve left you with a bit more Britney to sprinkle into your playlist. Take the chance to dive into her iconic discography like I did – you might just find an earworm!