Britney Spears

    …Baby One More Time (Jive, 1999)
    Oops!...I Did It Again (Jive, 2000)
    Britney (Jive, 2001)
     In the Zone (Jive, 2003)
    Greatest Hits: My Prerogative (Jive, 2004)
     Blackout (Jive, 2007)
    Circus (Jive, 2008)
    The Singles Collection (Jive, 2009)

Long before she became a national joke —a wayward soul whose drug use, child custody battles, and crotch-flashing public appearances were a gift that kept on giving to tabloids and late-night TV hosts —Britney Spears was a cultural phenomenon. She was at the center of the teen-pop explosion of the late Nineties, benefitting from a bizarre but wildly successful PR campaign that cast her as a sort of chaste floozy. Every photo, video, outfit and lyric had erotic zoom, while every interview underscored her upstanding Christian values. But whatever you think of Spears, it's hard to deny have to admit that over the years Spears has managed to channel her sexuality and her tribulations into some stellar singles — "Baby One More Time," "Toxic" and "Piece of Me" among them.

By infinity-tracking Spears' thin vocals on her debut, Swedish hitmaker Max Martin made her sound like the nubile robot of every boy's dreams, and the instrumentation has the metallic crash and wind-tunnel woosh of a sci-fi nightmare. Adding in a slew of vaguely hip-hop dance beats, …Baby One More Time was full of danceable, sexy trifles that made Spears a star. The title track of Spears' next record, "Oops!...I Did It Again," almost reaches the melodic heights of "…Baby One More Time," but the whole affair sounds much more menacing. The robot is gloating, amoral, out of control. Perhaps it was to soften the backhanded apology of the song's lyrics that Britney's handlers decided she should perform it as a faux striptease in a glittering, skin-colored bodysuit at the MTV Video Music Awards. The performance remains a landmark of family-television pornography, and it did have the effect of reestablishing her as a hard-working sex object. The rest of the songs here are rather lackluster in comparison, with "Stronger," an attempt at inspirational crooning, ending up only garnering unfavorable comparisons to belt-it-out singers like rival and fellow former Mouseketeer Christina Aguilera.

Spears' third effort, Britney, was the inevitable attempt to allow her to grow up and overtly claim some of her sexuality. But in the same manner as before, handlers deemed it necessary to ensure she was still a subservient male fantasy figure. The video for the tuneless, hyperventilating "I'm a Slave 4 U" found her writhing in that Flashdance combo of pleasure and pain while making close friends with a large snake. The spell-it-out ballad "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," sounded saccharine, and her tabloid-reading fans didn't buy it.

Max Martin's hooky handiwork is missed on In the Zone, but the record, made with a grab bag of star producers from Moby to the Neptunes, has definite club cred. Bloodshy & Avant get it very right with the sexily infectious "Toxic." Moby provides a chic track for "Early Mornin," and "Breathe on Me" makes great use of Britney's intuitive breathiness. Planned stunts around this album included Spears being snapped pantless for Esquire and making out with Madonna (who is featured on "Me Against the Music") at the Video Music Awards. Unplanned ones included a shotgun annulment after a drunken wedding in Vegas. And much to Christian chagrin, tabloid readers knew that former girl Britney was a woman several times over.

Before Spears' affairs spiraled out of control, Jive squeezed out Greatest Hits: My Prerogative, which featured a middling cover of Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative" and a previously unreleased banger called "Do Somethin.'" After that, Spears married dancer Kevin Federline and gave birth to two sons; was accused of poor parenting; split from Federline and filed for divorce; partied with Paris Hilton (but without her underpants); shaved her head and attacked a photographer's car with an umbrella; and was admitted to a rehab facility. Somehow, at the height of her chaotic meltdown, Spears released Blackout, a solid album of buzzing electro-pop. Producers Bloodshy & Avant and Nate "Danja" Hills supplied Spears with grimy synths and clubby beats perfect for baiting the tabloids ("Piece of Me"), hunting for a new guy ("Radar") and insisting she's still sizzling ("Hot As Ice"). Spears' robo-vocals hint at how hard it was to pin down the struggling star in the studio, but Blackout hangs together as a statement of Spears' fierce survival instinct, from the opening lyric ("It's Britney, bitch") to the Neptunes' contemplative but defiant slow-jam "Why Should I Be Sad."

The turmoil surrounding Spears' private affairs didn't disappear after Blackout—in fact, Britney's troubles prevented her from doing much promotion for the album. In the wake of a run-in with the authorities that landed her in a psychiatric hospital, Spears' father stepped in and assumed control of her affairs. Under his watchful eye, Spears recorded Circus, an album that reunites Britney with Danja, Bloodshy & Avant, and the Swedish hitmakers who produced her earliest smashes, Max Martin and Dr. Luke. The buzzy "Womanizer" could be a Blackout outtake, and photog-taunting stompers "Circus" and "Kill the Lights" recall that album's relentless synth crush. While a pair of delicate slower-tempo tracks hint at attempts to repair her fractured personal world ("Out From Under" and "Unusual You"), Spears is still defiant on Circus, snottily singing about her enduring sex appeal on "If U Seek Amy." The album's strong sales and successful tour suggest Spears isn't ready to give up her striptease act yet.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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