Ever since Britney Spears’ demo version of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” leaked this week, fans have been buzzing. Producer Rodney Jerkins quickly confirmed that it really was Britney singing, but any seasoned Britneyologist could already identify it by ear within a couple of bars — nobody else pronounces the consonant “r” or the long vowel “e” like our girl. It has all the distinctive vocal tics of Britney, or at least the laptop that does her singing. At this point, I’ve come to love Britney’s demo even more than Gaga’s already-brilliant hit version. Even though it’s a more bare-bones production, it amps up all the seething rage in the song, stripping it down to the killer combo of a plucked harp and a jaded party girl strung out on Auto-Tune and paranoia.
“Telephone” actually sounds a lot like Britney’s 2007 hit “Piece of Me,” proving yet again how much impact Britney has had on the sonics of current pop. People love to make fun of Britney, and why not, but if “Telephone” proves anything, it’s that Blackout may be the most influential pop album of the past five years. The demo is lighter than Gaga’s production, cutting out all the rock bombast, but that just makes the song more linear and urgent. It reduces “Telephone” to a drum machine, that harp, a magic box of vocal effects, and the concept that a girl’s soul and a magic box of vocal effects can sometimes be the exact same thing.
Britney uses Auto-Tune the way Bob Dylan used his harmonica — for punctuation, for atmosphere, for an alienatingly weird sound effect. It’s a blast of vocal distortion, harsh on the surface, but expressive, capable of sounding wildly funny or abrasively pissed-off or seductive. In “Telephone,” as in “Piece of Me,” the Auto-Tune does for her voice what the harmonica does for Dylan’s in “It Ain’t Me, Babe” — a way of telling the world to keep its hands off you. Britney is talking to her phone, talking to the boy who keeps calling, talking herself out of compulsively checking her phone. The way her voice fades in and out of Auto-Tune — mostly in — is totally brilliant. Like Bob Dylan (and I swear this is the last time I’ll mention his name right now, despite the millions of things he and Brit have in common) Britney loves to cross-fade between a human voice (hey world, take a look at me, I’m a star, I’m somebody, pay attention) and a machine voice (hey world, fuck off, you can’t reach me, I don’t believe you, you’re a liar).
The point isn’t whether Britney is punching the buttons herself. (When is that ever the point with a pop star?) It’s the romance going on between the voice and the machine. Part of what makes Britney the perfectest of perfect pop stars is the way she expresses her personality most passionately when she’s turning herself into a machine — surrendering to the beat, disappearing into the thrill of the pop moment, singing like a robot. That’s what makes her sound so human after all. In “Telephone,” she doesn’t want to think any more, talk any more, feel any more — she just wants to hit the floor and dance to the rhythm machines until she turns into a machine herself.
Nothing could express the Britney cosmology like a phone song, since phone songs are usually a place where singers distort their vocals to sound like they’re on the line — my favorite might be ELO’s “Telephone Line,” Kraftwerk’s “The Telephone Call,” or maybe Missy Elliott, Timbaland and Nicole Wray’s “Make It Hot.” But it’s ideal for Britney — especially when the phone song doubles as an “I’m out on the club jumping on strange boys” anthem. She’s kind of biz-zaaay. She’s kind of biz-zaaay. You can’t hurt her, can’t even touch her, because she’s kind of biz-zaaay. Call all you want but she’s not at home, and you’re not gonna reach her telephone.
I’m definitely not disparaging Gaga’s version — I couldn’t live without it, especially not her Beyoncé video epic. But “Telephone” has so much Britney in it, it’s no big surprise to learn that Gaga may have written the song for her. Since Britney is the perfect pop star, and songs about telephones are always excellent, it’s a just plain mathematical fact that Britney’s “Telephone” is a perfect pop song, and the world is an infinitely better place because it exists.
Bizarro note: despite all the advances in phone technology over the past 25 years, both versions of “Telephone” end with the same recorded message from the Replacements’ 1984 punk rock classic “Answering Machine.” That Britney — she is so punk.