Decades of music journalism has shunned the pop world with the perception that many of its stars are just pretty faces that sing pre-packaged, banal hits. From the beginning of her career to the present, few artists have received more criticism in this regard than pop princess Britney Spears.
However, Britney has always been involved in her career, from the iconic schoolgirl look in “Baby One More Time” to her unique and distinctive vocal performances. Few people outside of her fanbase have taken the time to look into her writing credits that are woven into her discography. But an in-depth look into these credits reveals a keen ear for melody and a talent for intriguing lyrics.
Britney’s first writing credit came from the B-Side to her second single “Sometimes,” a teen pop ditty called “I’m So Curious,” co-written with early collaborator Eric Foster White. It’s an eternal mystery why this noteworthy tune was left off the …Baby One More Time album proper, although it’s a well-regarded deep cut from die-hard fans. It’s a song about the anticipation of a crush and ultimately does the job better than Britney’s second writing credit off of Oops!…I Did It Again, the closing track “Dear Diary,” which is somewhat infamous for its saccharine lyrics. However, most tracks became a jumping off point for Britney’s venture into writing more tracks as she prepped for her third album.
Britney is the first album where we have an album’s worth of unreleased material, most of it with writing credits from Britney. Tracks such as “She’ll Never Be Me” and “When I Say So” would have been certified hits if included on the album and demonstrate Britney’s ability to write a solid pop song, deliver provocative lyrics, and play on her already controversial image on “Am I A Sinner?” These were cut for unknown reasons by her label, beginning a theme in Britney’s work with her label.
"You know that I'm one of a kind."
As it is on the album proper, Britney includes surprisingly personal lyrics for someone just shedding their teenybopper image. “Let Me Be” is an extraordinary statement of identity and defiance, themes that are also present on tracks such as “Lonely” and “Cinderella,” both fan favourites. The latter track’s spoken word middle eight is an album highlight for many fans. In addition to declaring her independence, Britney also used her writing chops on lovestruck tunes such as “That’s Where You Take Me” and “Intimidated” (sadly relegated to being the international B-Side to “I’m A Slave 4 U”). However, the highlight of the album for me is the bonus track “Before the Goodbye” – an odd tune thanks to the production by BT, but featuring a solid melody and strong lyrics that absolutely pull on your heartstrings. Give this underrated track a spin if you haven’t.
Britney truly came into her own with her fourth album In The Zone. Unreleased tracks from this era show her ability to write tracks in pop’s numerous subgenres, such as pop rock (the kiss-off “Rockstar,” allegedly directed at Fred Durst) and urban pop (“Get It”), among the numerous other unreleased tracks from this era. The album itself showcases her writing strengths with highlights such as the rapid-fire pre-chorus on “Me Against the Music” and the melody structure on “Early Mornin’” demonstrating the work of Britney and collaborators to create a vivid musical landscape. “Touch of My Hand” is an absolute masterpiece of a track – sometimes written off as “the masturbation track,” the song is simply beautiful, with a lovely melody line and lyrics that aren’t skeevy, but rather focus on the emotions of the moment. Fans will recognize “Everytime” as Britney’s first released song entirely written by her. It’s an exquisite track of asking for forgiveness, even as collaborators encouraged her to release more brash tracks regarding her break-up with Justin Timberlake (including the unreleased track “Guilty” and “Sweet Dreams My LA-Ex,” which ended up being recorded by UK artist Rachel Stevens.) The song has an enduring legacy as one of the best ballads of the early 2000s and there’s a reason for that: it’s a damn good song.
"She's the original."
In the interim between In The Zone and her fifth album, Britney released a greatest hits album, a remix album, and an EP for her reality TV show. Each of these included a track written by Britney, with Chaotic featuring two standout tracks in particular, in “Mona Lisa” and “Someday (I Will Understand),” with the latter being another track entirely by Britney herself. “Mona Lisa,” allegedly once the lead single for her scrapped album Original Doll, is well-known among fans for its intriguing lyrics – Britney sings, “She was taken under drowning in her sea/Running like an angel, she was crying and could not see/Now see everyone’s watching as she starts to fall/They want her to breakdown be a legend of her fall” in the second verse, foreshadowing her own public issues in later years, again demonstrating her ability to assert herself among controversy. The lyrics were changed (some might say “lobotomized”) for the song’s release on Chaotic. “Someday” is a much more digestible track about the birth of Britney’s first son. A piano ballad about learning to trust in God’s plan, the song is serene and a demonstration of Britney’s sincere writing style – in another universe, she might have transitioned to being a singer-songwriter after this and “Everytime.”
There’s some inclination towards singer-songwriter music in the unreleased tracks from Britney’s fifth album, such as with “To Love Let Go,” “Untitled Lullaby,” and “Little Me.” However, the album itself trends more towards Britney as the dance-pop queen. While serving as executive producer, Britney only has a writing credit on two songs, “Freakshow” and “Ooh Ooh Baby.” The former is a great track that, like many of the tracks on the album, plays on Britney’s personal life and relationship with the paparazzi at the time: “If they wanna know/Tell ’em mind their own/But if they wanna look/We can give ’em an encore.” “Ooh Ooh Baby” is classic sultry Britney, with a pleasing melody over a Latin guitar. Despite the explicit lyrics, the song never feels like it goes too far.
Circus features some of Britney’s most unique writings. “Mmm Papi” and “Mannequin” are two of the most interesting tracks in Britney’s catalogue, including an unsteady melody lines and off-kilter lyrics. Despite their unconventional nature, they’re still flawless pop songs. Deluxe track “Rock Me In” also demonstrates that even after her personal struggles, Britney can still write a sick hook. Femme Fatale featured only one track with a Britney writing credit, the Japanese deluxe track “Scary,” although I would argue that this is the album’s strongest track, featuring lines that are very Britney (“It’s turned me into a monster, like I’m Jekyll & Hyde”) and a dope hook. Not only should this have been on the standard edition, it could have been a solid single choice. Sadly, we’ll never know what lead to its status an international bonus track.
The 2013 album Britney Jean is much maligned for its production being dated on release, but Britney has writing credits on every song on the album. There are definitely instances of brilliance in the writing for the album. Album opener “Alien” is an out of this world track about finding love after a long period of loneliness, co-authored with industry legend William Orbit. The “Go call the governor” section in “Work Bitch” is pure pop bliss and clearly plays to Britney’s strengths. Second single “Perfume” is a ballad with deeply personal lyrics, playing on the common theme in Britney’s work of the pain of adultery – “Where Are You Now” and the Britney-penned “Guilty” being other examples. Numerous other tracks on the album, such as “Body Ache” and “Tik Tik Boom” would have slotted nicely in 2009, demonstrating that Britney can still write an ear-pleasing hook. Closer “Don’t Cry” and deluxe track “Brightest Morning Star” are excellent demonstrations of Britney’s potential as a singer-songwriter.
"150 miles away, singing out my lungs."
Glory features less personal lyrics, but Britney’s tracks on the album once again prove that even twenty years into her career she can craft expert hooks on tracks such as lead single “Make Me…” and “Private Show.” Even as much of the album focuses on sex and hook-ups, “Just Like Me” (a devastating track about being the victim of cheating) and the French track “Coupure Électrique” show that Britney still has the chops that made “Everytime” so memorable.
Britney’s able to function in two different lanes, as a creator of bombastic pop singles that rely on their hooks and an earnest singer-songwriter with a flair for confessional lyrics. In another universe, perhaps we see Britney exert more control, as she did on In The Zone, and receive a push from her label to transition her away from the image of a manufactured pop star. However, as it stands, we have a collection of Britney penned tracks that demonstrate her abilities and are appreciated by many fans.
Britney’s career has been marked with claims of artificiality; yet, unlike many one-and-done pop stars, she’s stuck around and developed a strong fanbase. Beyond just her likeable personality and unique vocal style, her writing shines as a reason for this. It’s no surprise that In The Zone attracted much of her adult fanbase and fans hunger for her scrapped stripped-down album The Original Doll. Her frequently excluded or demoted credits add to her allure: to knowledgeable fans, these hidden gems demonstrate her often-forgotten hidden depths that have only been allowed to shine in the public consciousness by way of “Everytime.” Britney’s underappreciated artistry creates a bond with her fanbase that keeps us fervorous between eras and among transitions in her career, inspiring dedication that few pop stars can muster over twenty years into their careers.
By Carol Scott