Britney The Songwriter

Before we begin our consideration of Britney the songwriter, there are two side-issues we need to address. One – can a singer only be regarded as an “artist” if he or she writes his or her own material? Two – is it even true that Britney writes less of her own material than many other comparable superstars?

It seems to me that to restrict the title of “artist” to those who write their own songs is the musical equivalent of saying that landscape painters are only “artists” if they plant their own trees. Or that portrait painters are only “artists” if the people they paint are all their own children.

In the world of classical music, singers are not expected to write their own operas or their own song-cycles. The great classical compositions are simply “there”, the landscapes of music, like lakes and mountains waiting to be painted. To suggest that classical musicians are not artists because they are not also composers would be regarded as a ludicrous proposition. Like painters, their job as artists is to bring all the insights of their own particular interpretative talent to throw a new light on something that already exists.

Before the singer-songwriter boom of the 1970s, this was the overwhelming vision of the creative roles in non-classical music too. The industry believed that its job was to bring together the very best songs and the very best singers. That’s what “A&R” was all about. Experience showed that great songwriters were rarely the greatest singers – and vice versa. And, lest we forget, very few singer-songwriters have been top-class in both disciplines.

To put it bluntly, the proposition about singers having to be songwriters (and preferably solo ones) in order to qualify as “artists” is rubbish. Where I would say a singer is not an artist is where he or she has little or no interpretative talent, and sings every song in exactly the same way. This is something that could never be said of Britney Spears.

Now, let us consider the other issue. Given that her great artistry is in interpreting and creating unique synergies with other people’s songs, does she really write so much less than other people? A songwriter named Heather Bright generated a lot of media interest a few months ago when she suggested that the answer may be “no”. This is what she said:

“I would just like to address one thing! The media is talking trash about how Britney didn’t write any of the songs on her album … HELLO! Wake up everybody! NONE OF THESE ARTISTS WRITE THEIR OWN SONGS!!!!!! (There are a few exceptions … Lady Gaga, Will.I.Am/BEP, Chris Brown – and now I’m running out of artists.)

Anyway, here’s my thing – and I feel VERY passionate about this issue. Britney could have come to me, like all these other A-list artists, and said ‘Hey, you wanna be on my album? I’m gonna need writing credit for that song AND part of your publishing even though I didn’t write anything! And then I’m gonna go on tour and gross $150 million in ticket sales and not give you any of that, even though I’m performing your song!’ I could rattle off a laundry list of artists I’ve had that conversation with! Britney’s one of the few artists I’ve worked with who didn’t try to take something that wasn’t hers.”

From this we can draw the reasonable conclusion that, if Britney has a writing credit for a song, she did in fact make a substantial contribution to it. I’m aware that Bloodshy (or Avant) tried on one occasion to play down her involvement, but she has been very selective in adding her name to any of their songs. And Cathy Dennis, who collaborated with B&A back then, once said that Britney often phoned in the middle of the night with ideas for songs. If Beyonce or Rihanna did that, there’s no way they’d miss out on a writing credit.
People tend to forget, or prefer not to acknowledge, that she was put together with Schwartz and Kierulf to WRITE with them, and the partnership produced an album’s worth of highly original material. In truth, Britney may have written MORE of her own material than many of her peers!

Let’s have a look at some of the songs to which she has put her name.

DEAR DIARY
Where Rihanna wants to know if a boy is big enough, and Beyonce thinks all men are as interchangeable as taxis (another one will be along in a minute), Britney takes us down the more recognisable road of anxious desire and insecurity. “Today I saw a boy and I wondered if he noticed me”. I’m still having this conversation with my 30-something FWAGs! While this song has received plenty of scorn for its alleged soppiness, I find its naive sincerity rather touching, and it does have a rather lovely melody. Jive celebrated, or supported, Britney’s first recorded composition with the most lavish production of any track she has ever made, but that hasn’t turned it into a fan favorite. It’s an excellent vehicle for the innocence and vulnerability in Britney’s youthful voice, but not likely to be covered by anyone else in this age of endless belting.

LONELY
For the “Britney” album, as I mentioned above, Jive partnered Britney with Josh Schwartz and Brian Kierulf to help her develop her songwriting skills. And they came up with some excellent results. “Lonely” is a song of female emancipation and empowerment. “This girl don’t need no man… ain’t no way I’ll be lonely, don’t wanna let you back in”. On the other hand, you could argue that she doth protest too much. “Lonely” is one of a group of rather jerky songs on the album that some fans have seen as r&b oriented, but, with their 4/4 rhythm, seem more like a form of pop-rock. The melody isn’t especially…. melodic, but the middle-eight is dramatically different from what surrounds it, and the spoken section adds some further spice.

ANTICIPATING
You’ll have to excuse me. I’m biased. I am hopelessly in love with this song, and always have been. This is another of the Spears/Schwartz/Kierulf collabs, and shows the sheer diversity of their output. When a friend described it as “merry” I was quite insulted, since it’s so much more than that! Listen to the effortless and natural transitions between double and single time, with the urgency and excitement of the girls’ night out expressed by the former and the sheer, celebratory, expansive joy by the latter. “We’re out for an all-night…. Feelin’ so crazy cool, Vibe so right, Don’t know what they’re ready for….” OMG OMG!!! The melody is so unusual as to be unique; the very opposite of generic. “Anticipating” is one of pop’s great one-offs and terribly underrated.

CINDERELLA
Now this one isn’t underrated. Most fans love it, and it is quite simply one great, great song. It’s a collab with Max Martin and Rami and possesses a soaring, building, majestic melody in the verses and a strong and assertive chorus. There’s a fascinating passage where spoken and sung sections alternate, and how about these for lyrics! “I did everything you wanted me to, but now I shall break free from all your lies. I won’t be blind, you see. My love, it can’t be sacrificed, I won’t return to thee.” Wonderful!

LET ME BE
After the mainstream excellence of “Cinderella”, it’s back to the oddities and unique weirdness of Spears/Schwartz/Kierulf for “Let Me Be”. It’s full of short, staccato phrases in verse and chorus, but the gentle melody in the verse creates space for the thoughtful lyrics (“Trust in my instincts, trust that I know what’s right…”) while the rebellious chorus has descending phrases that hammer the point home with some power. “Think that I might back down but I won’t. Think that I might have doubts but I don’t.” Another great song.

THAT’S WHERE YOU TAKE ME
This is the deceptively simple, innocent-sounding mid-tempo ballad that Britney used to launch the whispery vocal style she was to use so frequently in the ITZ era. Being a Spears/Schwartz/Kierulf creation, it has more to its craft than at first appears. It expresses the fervency of its message of love (“All things fall into place, my heart it feels so safe, you are my melody, that’s where you take me”) through a strange sense of breathless urgency that ties verse to chorus to verse to chorus to middle-eight almost without a pause.

BEFORE THE GOODBYE
A powerful song, almost a rock anthem, it was begun by Brian Transeau and finished by the Spears/Schwartz/Kierulf team. The verse is in the staccato style of much of the “Britney” album, depicting “the clock tick-tickin’ as the time goes by”. But, after a brilliantly expectant transition, the chorus gallops along thunderously, gaining momentum and drama as it lays out the grand, universal themes of lovelorn goodbyes and the inexpressible pain of missing someone who holds the heart in a stranglehold. “You’re leaving, I’m waiting, Forgive me, I’m always missing you, Before the goodbye”. Truly epic!

ME AGAINST THE MUSIC
The Spears/Stewart/Magnet opener for “In The Zone” underwhelmed the fans and underperformed in the charts, which was sad because it was full of creativity and novelty. The rhythm of the words is more important than their meaning, and it creates its continuous flow of tension and release with phrases of widely differing lengths and speeds: The breathless “I’m up against the speaker tryin’ to take on the music it’s like a competition me against the beat” and the exhale “I wanna get in the zone, I wanna get in the zone”. And there’s the visceral appeal of a kind of military bootcamp call-and-response about the verses: “No one cares/It’s whippin’my hair, it’s pullin’ my waist/ To hell with stares/ The sweat is drippin’ all over my face”. It should have been amazing, but it was let down by its utterly charmless melody.

SHOWDOWN
Here the words are important. Cathy Dennis, Bloodshy & Avant and Britney Spears provide a neat exposition on the joys of break-up-make-up sex and all the mindgames and the fighting and screaming that goes with it. Yesss – here comes the showdown!!! “It’s just a lover’s game we play, yeah/After the screaming’s at an end/Why don’t we do it all again/That’s when the fun really begins!” The song doesn’t shy away from explicit sexuality: “I don’t really wanna be a tease/But would you undo my zipper please/Uh uh, please don’t talk/Listen/I’ll let you touch me if you want/I see your body rise, rise/And when you come, don’t get too hot….” The music is like a setting for a mini-psychodrama, with lengthy spoken sections and contrasting plaintive minor-key verses alternating with exultant major-key choruses.

EARLY MORNIN’
This song is so well known as a Moby creation that the collaborative efforts of Stewart, Magnet and Spears are scarcely ever mentioned. Is this a good or bad thing? As a recorded track, it’s quite hypnotic and benefits greatly from Britney’s acting-in-song and whispered parts, but the song itself has one major deficiency – namely the melody, which may convey the feeling of a downer most expressively but is boring to listen to. The words, however, are rather wonderful! “Met a dark dude, kinda dark hair/When he walked up Tony grabbed him/But I liked him, told him “Come here”/Kinda cool/Baby, we can make plans/Where ya live?/Does your mama live there?/We can hook up at the hotel/Hands down so/I told him, “Let’s go”/What happened next, guess what?/You don’t wanna know!” It sounds exactly like the press reports on the Britney of the Wild Years.

TOUCH OF MY HAND
Britney didn’t try to evade responsibility for the unusual sexual content of this song, which she wrote along with veteran craftsmen Jimmy Harry and Shep Solomon. She featured a “touch of my hand” sequence on the highly eroticized Onyx Hotel tour. The production on the album is a brilliantly inspired setting of an unforgettable song which has become an all-time fan favorite. The melody line is strong in all areas – verse pt1, verse pt2 and chorus – and supports the lyrics with a space and clarity that allows them to be heard. And the words were the point of the song – an unashamed account of personal sexual discovery and the heavenly joys of female masturbation. “ ‘Cause I just discovered/Imagination’s taking over/Another day without a lover/The more I come to understand/The touch of my hand” and “From the small of my back and the arch of my feet/Lately I’ve been noticin’ the beautiful me/I’m all in my skin and I’m not gonna wait/I’m into myself in the most precious way.”

THE HOOK UP
Not so much a song as a series of different rhythmic sequences put together by Stewart, Magnet and Spears. It’s hard to get a handle on because its structure is so unconventional, but it’s built around the part that goes “Back it up, na/Bump ya rump, na/Grab my waist, na/Work it out, na/Grab my shoulder/Pick it up, na/Take it lower/To the floor, na” and this could be regarded as the chorus. The sweetly melodic bridge comes along most unexpectedly, like a reality check amidst all of the frantic hooking-up: “Boy, I can’t explain/What you do to me/My whole world has changed/I live in a fantasy/Tonight, I’m in the mood/Please take me by your hand/I wanna get in your groove/So, baby, take me there”. There isn’t a lot of melody to the rest of it – even the main verse (“Baby I can’t believe…”) only has a few bars repeated over and over. Still, it’s an interesting and unusual piece. One final note: even the best internet lyric sites can’t seem to get everything right about The Hook Up”.

SHADOW
The Matrix were unhappy when Avril Lavigne claimed co-writing credits for some of their songs after changing a word or two, but they didn’t object when Britney appended her name to this lovely ballad. Indeed, they had nothing but good things to say about her. Her soft, subtle vocal brings a sense of mystery and yearning to what is, on paper, quite a straightforward song. The structure is a very conventional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-chorus-repeat chorus, but the melody is ravishing and the words intriguing: “It’s only your shadow/Filling the room/Arriving too late/And leaving too soon” and “How can I tell if you mean what you say/You say it so loud, but you sound far away/Maybe I had just a glimpse of your soul/Or was that your shadow I saw on the wall/I’m watching you disappear/But you, you were never here”. This is an exceptional piece of work, built on simple but strong foundations.

BRAVE NEW GIRL
The Spears, Schwartz and Kierulf team, plus Kara DioGuardi, meshed a jaunty, rather amusing tune with the potentially preachy themes of optimism, emancipation, sexual liberation and female empowerment and thus managed to express them in a casual, lighthearted way. “She’s gonna step outside/Uncover her eyes/Who knew she could feel so alive/Her M.O.’s changed /She don’t wanna behave/Ain’t it good to be a brave girl tonight!” and “She wants a good time/No need to rewind/She needs to really really find what she wants/She lands on both feet/Won’t take a back seat/There’s a brave new girl/And she’s comin’ out tonight!” The song is not a major work, but critics at the time noticed it and approved. It’s smart, catchy, funny and original, and the craftsmanship is good.

EVERYTIME
This is the quintessential , best-known Britney composition, loved by fans and indeed by many non-fans. Britney being Britney, she shared credits with Annette Stamatelatos even though she really wrote it herself and bounced her ideas off Annette. Where some people’s confessional ballads would have been in defiant, non-apologetic style with plenty of room for a huge, roaring, bravura climax, Britney’s song almost defines fragility and genuine remorse. The apology “this song’s my ‘sorry’” is left hanging in the air, followed by a moment of silent, private regret. It’s a beautiful song, and beautifully crafted for its purpose, but almost too raw for comfortable listening. Other people have sung it, for example Paige Thomas on the US X Factor, but it sounds best in Britney’s nakedly vulnerable voice, accompanied by her little sighs.

DON’T HANG UP
The final recorded product by the Spears/Schwartz/Kierulf team, and one to be proud of for its sheer quality as well as its originality and frankness. It seemed that “In The Zone” was intended to be Britney’s “Erotica” and it explored every aspect of sexual behaviour she could think of. This one was about phone sex, and it could have been slutty and smutty. But, against the odds, the track turns out to be delicately erotic, low-key and sensitive. This is actually a triumph for Britney’s performance skills, since the lyrics don’t hold anything back: “Don’t hang up/Till I’m finished with you/I’m not alone, I can still feel you/Even when I’m lonely, and now I’m coming too”. And there’s a wealth of personal experience in these words: “Tell me, tell me what you see/Feel me, feel me underneath/Slowly, we begin to breathe/Hold on, hold on to your release”. The melody is carefully crafted, with a very pretty, legato tune as a perfect setting for the wistful verses and a more staccato, forceful tune for the assertive choruses.

FREAKSHOW
Co-written with Bloodshy and Avant, this track from “Blackout” is a polarizing one – adored by some fans, loathed by others. Purely as a song, it is difficult to argue its merits and I don’t expect to hear anyone else singing it anytime soon. The melody is rather industrial, but that rejection of anything that might have come across as remotely pretty was highly appropriate to the lyrics: “Freakshow, freakshow/We can give ‘em a/Peepshow, peepshow/Don’t stop it let it flow/Let your inhibitions go/It’s a crazy night /Let’s make a, make a freakshow” and “Make ‘em clap when we perform/Wanna see crazy we can show ‘em/Dancing table top freaky freaky /So outside the norm/On some super star ish/Pushin’ hot bugatti whips/New designer fits/We can do it if you wish.” In other words, it was gritty, it was real and it was Britney’s rebellious period, where she did her dirty dancin’, put on a public show – and contrarily fought the media and everyone else who regarded her life as a spectator sport.

OOH OOH BABY
Kara DioGuardi’s collaboration with Britney produced a song that’s brilliant in all departments. The melody is extremely strong and memorable throughout, and the tension-and-release between minor and major in verse and chorus maintains a flowing, unstoppable dynamic. The words are hardly profound, but they were probably chosen for how they would sound as much as for their meaning: “Your voice is like music to my ears/Whisper softly and the world just disappears/Take me high and just wipe away my fears/When you’re with me, oh boy/It’s my heartbeat that I hear..” and “Ooh, ooh baby/Touch me and I come alive/I can feel you on my lips/I can feel you deep inside..” And, knowing how much Britney loves the word “baby”, it’s amusing to see how often “baby” is repeated in this song!

MMM PAPI
Let’s Go To War wrote the music, and, working entirely independently, Britney and Nicole Morier wrote the words. And those words are scarcely profound, but they weren’t the offhand “written on the back of a till receipt” thing that some observers imagine. It took a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to achieve the final product. Apparently there was some debate over the advisability of using the words “freakin’ out” in the context of Ms Britney Spears. “You can come take me away /There’s no pressure play all day /Grab me tight and don’t let go/Mmm Papa love you /Papa love you /You love it when I’m freakin’ out /Things get rough and there’s no doubt /You will always be there for me /Mmm Papa love you /Papa love you.” The tune is memorable and melodic enough to disguise its repetitiveness, the production is superb, Britney’s vocal is unforgettable, but there’s no getting away from the fact that, purely as a song, this is rather insubstantial.

MANNEQUIN
This very exciting, unusual song was written by Britney, Harvey Mason and Rob Knox. Again, it’s hard to separate the song from the performance and production, especially because so much of the structure of the track depends on the incredibly complex assemblage of vocal parts, which are sometimes solo, sometimes alternated, sometimes duetted, and usually sliced, diced, copied and reinserted as required. There are 4 distinct themes – verse 1, verse 2, chorus 1, and chorus 2, plus a minimal “watch me, watch me” bridge and a long instrumental break. The melody covers a lot of territory with its extreme, almost dizzying soars and dips, and requires the singer to employ an unusually wide range. None of the internet lyric sites seem to get the words 100% right, which is basically because the copy-and-paste production slurs and blurs them so much. But here’s the flavor: “Always talking’ around this/He wants me, I get things, everything I wanted/My own way, your time, goldmines/Loose guys, on my backless dresses, excess/I cannot help myself, I’m just doing what I do/Got my heart set, do anything that I want so thank you/I like it and I do what I like/And then you do what I like then you’ll like it.” And “You can cry your eyes out of your head/Baby, baby/I don’t care, I don’t care/I don’t care, I don’t care/You can cry(-cry-cry) again(-gain-gain)/My face like a mannequin/Mannequin, yeah I did/It again and again/You can cry(-cry-cry) again(-gain-gain)/My face like a mannequin.” An impressionist picture of a mean girl usin’ and abusin’ some poor sap who is wealthy but unworthy.

MY BABY
Not generally regarded as her finest hour, Britney’s idea was given shape by producer Guy Sigsworth. The same team wrote “Someday (I will understand)”, but that was a much better song and we will come to it a little later. “My Baby” obviously reflected Britney’s profound maternal love and devotion, which is perfectly understandable, and I am all for sentimentality, but the song is overly sappy, soppy and slushy, and it seems that her tender emotions drove all intelligence out of her head. The story is that it was worked up in a few spare minutes in the studio, and that is certainly believable. Here we go: “Tiny hands/Yes, that’s you/And all you show/It’s simply true/I smell your breath/It makes me cry/I wonder how/I’ve lived my life/Coz without you/How did I get through/All of my days/Without you/Now living with you/See everything’s true/My baby, it’s you/My baby.” On the good side, this must be the purest, sweetest, most innocent lullaby in all of pop, the melody is simple but pretty and the song has a sufficiently conventional structure that it can stand, however wobbily, independent of its production.

ROCK ME IN
Like so much excellent material in Britney’s legacy, this rather brilliant song by Spears, Morier and Greg Kurstin was relegated to the wasteland of bonus tracks. But there’s nothing throwaway or disposable about it, and it’s not just a lash-up of a few spare riffs – it’s a strong, bouncy pop-rock song with a perfectly traditional shape – intro, verse 1, chorus, chorus repeat, verse 2, chorus, chorus repeat, middle-sixteen, chorus, chorus repeat, end. At the time of its release, it seemed almost like a tribute to Girls Aloud, and there was a hint of an English accent to Britney’s voice when she sang it. The melody lines are catchy and memorable and the build of tension to release is cleverly executed. People have asked me what “rock me in” means, and I have to admit, I have no idea. Unless, of course, the following verse has a double meaning: “If you want to, we can race/I’m superfast now, you wanna chase?/I can fake it because you’re mine/Double time now, so get in line/If you come over we can fly away/Together, let’s go” But Britney wouldn’t write about sex…. would she?

SOMEDAY (I WILL UNDERSTAND)
Written almost entirely by Britney herself, with some technical assistance from Guy Sigsworth, this is a beautiful, touching and sadly underrated ballad. Its connection with “Chaotic” would not have helped critics to take it seriously, and there’s a natural tendency to sneer at its content, which is both religious and, in some ways, mystical. The structure of the song is quite interesting. The verses are divided into two sections, and the melody lines in V1 Section 1 (“Nothing seems to be…”) and V2 Section 1 (“Don’t you run too fast…”) are different. The chorus occurs three times, but there are two different versions of the words. And the bridge is extremely short – a “middle four” perhaps? The tune of “Someday” is attractive, well-constructed and original; but the lyrics seem almost wilfully ungrammatical – perhaps deliberately intended to convey naivety and lack of artifice: “…somebody’s watching/Over me/And that is all I’m praying’s that/Someday I will understand/In God’s whole plan/And what He’s done to me…” But there are also words that express something that seemed to be preoccupying Britney at the time: “Nothing seems to be the way that it used to/Everything seems shallow/God give me truth.” This song has potential to be adopted as a modern hymn – if only the churches were paying more attention to Britney’s endless spiritual journey and less to the shock-horror tabloid stories.

MONA LISA
This was the song that rocked the Britosphere to its foundations when Ms Spears impulsively played a raw version over the airwaves at her local radio station KISS-FM on New Year’s Eve 2004. What did it mean? “She’s gone” – had she retired from music? “She’s unforgettable (yeah)/She was a legend though (yeah, yeah)/It’s kinda pitiful (yeah) that she’s gone/It’s kind of incredible (yeah, yeah)/She’s so unpredictable (yeah, yeah)/It’s time to let her go (yeah)/Coz she’s gone, coz she’s gone, coz she’s gone.” It all seemed very melodramatic , disturbing – and final. But she hadn’t gone – not permanently anyway – and nothing more was heard of “Mona Lisa” until a new, tamer version emerged on the CD packaged with the DVD of “Chaotic”. In this rendering, she hadn’t gone, but had been “cloned”. Later, Britney revealed the truth about “Mona Lisa” – it was an alter ego. “Whenever I feel like being mean or possibly bossing people around to get stuff right, it’s kinda easier to be called ‘Mona Lisa’ instead of Britney,” is how she explained it on “TRL.” The new “official” words are such nonsense that they are almost incapable of rational evaluation, never mind praise, and the tune is extremely repetitive. Not a great song then.

BABY BOY
I don’t know that I’ve ever had confirmation that Britney co-wrote “Baby Boy” but her fingerprints are all over the lyrics: “Some day when you see my face /You will think that you have won /And some day when it’s all away /Our love just begun /So why did you desert me, baby boy? /I thought that you, you were the one /So if you preferred the other one /She won’t bring you the sun.” Taking a swing at K.Fed, presumably. And, of course, the spoken section (about picking up some shopping on the way home, but rather touching in its sheer banality) is all Britney. It seems a shame that this song has all but disappeared, since the melody is strong and the synergy of words and music in the lovelorn verses and bitter choruses is so impressive.

That completes our round-up of songs for which Britney has claimed a writing credit. If there are any I’ve left out, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list.

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