If you didn’t parade around your room in 1999 wearing blue eyeshadow while blasting “… Baby One More Time” on your stereo, you missed out. It was a golden age for girl groups and boy bands, a time when pop stars flourished and tabloids knew no bounds. The Internet was growing popular, and the fear of Y2K came with it. Oh, and Britney Spears prophesied the future.
It’s been 21 years since a girl from small-town Louisiana became the biggest pop star of her moment. Teenagers all across the world sang along to her debut album then, and people of all ages are still singing along now to the addictive chorus of its title song and the giddy, love-struck lyrics of “(You Drive Me) Crazy.” Under all the “oh bay-by bay-by’s,” though, there lies a forgotten love ballad: “E-Mail My Heart.”
This particular song is not the best of Britney’s pop anthems; any serious ranking of her discography would have to put it lower than “Soda Pop.” When the song came up on a 2018 episode of Rolling Stone’s Music Now podcast, writers Rob Sheffield and Brittany Spanos said they loved it, to which host Brian Hiatt interjected, “You do not love that song.” Somehow, they are all right. We might hate “E-Mail My Heart,” but we love it, too. Even as we’re put off by its over-the-top Nineties production, we love the way it predicted our digitally-dependent existence. Yes, it’s the most ridiculous track on her debut album, but its relevance cannot be denied. Now more than ever, this cheesy ballad about love and email is the Britney song we need most.
“And all I do is check the screen/To see if you’re okay/You don’t answer when I phone/Guess you want to be left alone,” Britney sings. How many of us find ourselves in this very same position today? (Follow-up question: Did Britney invent “sliding into the DMs”?) Here we are, two decades later, still waiting for that response, even more so now that we are all hunkering down in separate locations. We can talk to our loved ones, as long as we’re six feet or more apart, but we can’t get any closer. Videos are being passed around on social media of kids visiting their sick grandparents outside windows, unable to hug them goodbye because of the COVID-19 pandemic. An email to your heart goes a long way, these days.
Britney was years ahead of her time with this one. “E-Mail My Heart” has more or less the same idea as the 1975’s recent single “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know),” which, as singer Matty Healy helpfully explained in a recent interview, is about “getting naked on FaceTime.” Healy’s opening lyrics — “I see her online/All the time” — could fit in seamlessly with Britney’s song, right after she says, “I can see you in my mind/Coming on the line.” On Doja Cat’s 2020 TikTok hit “Cyber Sex,” she tempts her partner to “get freaky on camera.” The medium has changed, but the message is the same: When we are far apart, the internet brings us closer. Britney might not have known it in 1999, but she was right. Emailing your heart and getting freaky on camera is the best we can do in 2020.
There’s something newly nostalgic about listening to “E-Mail My Heart” now. It’s a time capsule from the late Nineties, giving today’s listeners a hint of what it was like to send an email at the turn of the century. The rest of the album works that way, too, as a glimpse into life before the pandemic, FaceTime, and Zoom. No one knew then that emailing would eventually become iMessaging, the landline would become an ancient artifact, and FaceTime dates would replace physical dates, but here we are in a time where “E-Mail My Heart” rings true around the world. Only Britney Spears could pull off a cultural reset like this one.