Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda Been a Single: From the Discography of Britney Spears
Welcome back to a new edition of Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda Been a Single, a feature in which I beg of history to explain why amazing songs weren’t officially given the single treatment for the good of pop lovers everywhere. Last week, we delved into Lady Gaga’s discography. Today, let’s turn our attention to Britney Spears’.
First, a few notes. When I did this last week for Gaga, my choices felt, from the get-go, pretty clear-cut. Pretty much every Little Monster agrees that “Dance in the Dark” and “Gypsy” should have released during their respective eras. It was a bit more difficult to do this for Spears, whose discography is, for one thing, much larger, and, for another, more divisive. I did my best to reflect my own tastes as well as the tastes of Spears’ fans generally, though I know many of you will disagree with my selections. Such is the passion of the Britney Army. (Please leave your feedback, irate or otherwise, below.)
Another thing we need to get out of the way: most of Spears’ singles didn’t perform as well as you think they did. Even (especially!) the iconic ones. After “Baby… One More Time,” Spears didn’t land another No. 1 single until “Womanizer” in 2008. “Oops!… I Did It Again” peaked at No. 9. “Lucky” peaked at 23, and “I’m a Slave 4 U” only made it to No. 27 on the Hot 100, just two spots ahead of “Pretty Girls,” universally considered to be a flop. “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” didn’t even make the Hot 100. Spears fared better once digital music came into prominence, and both “3” and “Hold It Against Me” returned her, in 2009 and 2011 respectively, to the top of the chart. But are those songs as memorable as, say, “Oops” or “Slave”? Not on your life! I do not bring this up to discredit Spears or the impact of her singles; it is simply important to note that the chart performance of Spears’ songs is almost irrelevant to the formation of her legacy. Therefore, as I gave thought to the songs she could have released, I approached it less as an exercise in sussing out what songs had No. 1 potential and more as an exercise in (re)discovering what would have been pleasing to fans and/or relevant to her brand.
Because …Baby One More Time sold, like, eight gazillion (actually 30 million) copies, it feels trivial to attempt to find an unused single from that era. No song on that album that wasn’t released as a single was begging to be released as one, and none of the songs not used as a single would have helped the album sell more than it did. The same applies to Oops!… I Did It Again, which sold nearly 25 million copies. Sure, I could argue that “What U See (Is What U Get)” or “Can’t Make You Love Me” deserved some love (They did! Those songs are great!), but would they have extended the shelf-life of the album or somehow made Spears even more of a force than she already was? Negative! In short, for her first two albums, Spears selected the best available singles and sold as much as humanly possible, and there isn’t much point in arguing otherwise, especially when you’re talking about two albums that have as much filler as those two do. (Sorry, but that’s just the truth.)
So, that said, today we begin way, way, way back in 2001 when a little album named Britney came out…
Shoulda-Been Singles From Britney (2001)
“Let Me Be”
If it can be said that a unifying theme runs through many of Spears’ best songs and biggest singles, that theme would be independence. Picking up where “Stronger” left off, both “Overprotected” (Britney’s second single) and “Let Me Be” showcase Spears at her most defiant. And when Spears is defiant, she’s (usually) in top form. In the sub-canon of Britney Breaking Free, “Let Me Be” is an important, overlooked addition.
“What It’s Like to Be Me”
That this song, which features backing vocals from Spears’ then-boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, was not released just for the spectacle that would have been a music video starring the both of them is almost incomprehensible. But I did not select this song solely for that reason: “What It’s Like to Be Me” is a solid jam that sonically calls to mind both Janet and Michael Jackson. Continuing a trend that began with “Lucky,” it touches on another one of Spears’ favorite themes: her embattled life in the spotlight and the public’s perception of her as a person. She would continue exploring that topic throughout her career (its peak moment coming with the classic “Piece of Me”), but this pre-cynical, pre-meltdown glimpse at her struggle, though retrospectively prophetic, is a fascinating time capsule from a simpler era, an important puzzle piece in understanding her career (and personal) narrative.
Shoulda-Been Singles From In The Zone (2003)
For my money, In The Zone is Spears’ best album. Many fans will argue that Blackout is superior, but I much prefer this Spears, who is energized, present, and hungry. On an album full of simply, truly good pop songs, “Breathe on Me” might be the best, and that is saying a lot. It is everything a good Spears song should be: sexy, hypnotic, playful, and, in equal measure, both youthful and mature beyond its years. It may not have hit No. 1 — again, so many of her most memorable songs didn’t — but it would have, almost undoubtedly, become a classic in the vein of “I’m a Slave 4 U.” (I like to think of this song as Spears’ take on Madonna’s Erotica era, which was surely an inspiration.)
I seem to recall that before In the Zone’s release in November 2003, much was being made of “Early Mornin’,” a song that features production by Moby. (He was still kind of popular then!) Whether, at the time, the song lived up to the hype or not, I do not remember — I feel like flashier cuts, such as (the flawless) “Toxic,” “Outrageous” and “(I Got That) Boom Boom”, attracted most of the attention — but 12 years later, “Early Mornin'” holds up in a way many Spears songs do not. It is, dare I say, timeless. Spears could release it today, and I would not hold it against her. (If she can release “Radar” multiple times, why not this ultra-relatable insta-classic hangover anthem?) Low-key, reserved, and so sultry it hurts — all on top of a most pleasant pulse – this is not only one of the greatest singles Spears never released, but one of her greatest songs period.
I would like to think that this song, produced by The Matrix, the team behind Avril Lavigne’s blockbuster debut album and Liz Phair’s controversial pop makeover, would have fit in nicely at radio in 2003 – 2004. Plus, who doesn’t love a good mid-tempo Britney anthem? Surely I am not alone here.
Shoulda-Been Singles From Blackout (2007)
“Heaven on Earth”
The Blackout era is fascinating for a variety of reasons. Of course, the album was released in the middle of Spears’ very, very public breakdown. It was her first album not to debut at No. 1. (This was due to a last-minute rule change implemented by Billboard.) The promotional campaign devolved into tabloid fuel — we all remember her VMAs performance that year — effecting both album sales and single performance. Soon, Blackout became more an emblem of Spears’ downfall than a collection of music. Despite the fact that Blackout is still one of her lowest-selling offerings, it has become, for many Spears fans, her definitive work. Owing to that fact, you can find someone to argue in favor of nearly any Blackout track as a potential single. (Am I alone in adoring “Ooh Ooh Baby”? ) That said, most people agree that “Heaven on Earth” was an obvious overlooked choice, and most people are right. On an album that is often icy and emotionally distant, “Heaven” is a seductive ray of sunshine.
“Get Naked (I Got a Plan)”
Most people would call “Piece of Me” the thesis statement of Blackout, but that is inaccurate. “Piece of Me” functions as the thesis of Spears’ life at the time, but “Get Naked (I Got a Plan)” works better as the album’s thematic centerpiece. As a body of music, Blackout is far more obsessed with sex than it is with Spears’ public persona and her ongoing war with the media. Its other obsession? Autotune. In its embracing of dead-eyed sexual desire and use of distorted, barely-human voices, “Get Naked” should be listened to and understood as the black heart of Blackout. As such, it should have been used to promote the album.
Shoulda-Been Singles From Circus (2008)
The Circus era saw Spears return to her throne atop the charts. The lead single, “Womanizer,” was her first to hit Hot 100 No. 1 since “… Baby One More Time.” The album also debuted at No. 1 only a year after Blackout failed to do the same, quieting naysayers who claimed that Spears was “over.” But what could have made the Circus era even better? Single treatment for “Unusual You,” the best Spears song this side of “Everytime.” As I look back over my selections for this piece, I realize I have a preference for Spears’ dreamier, more haunting ballads. This is the best of that oh-so-specific Spears sub-genre.
A crime: “Amnesia” was a bonus track featured only on select international editions of Circus. It is easily better than several of the songs that made the standard edition, and its eerie soundscape and sexy narrative would have made for a potentially spectacular video. I will say that a few production tweaks to clean the sound up would have made it even more appealing, but even as-is, “Amnesia” deserved way, way better. (I expect many angry “What about ‘Kill the Lights’ and ‘Blur’???” comments below. Don’t disappoint.)
Shoulda-Been Singles From Femme Fatale (2011)
The best songs from 2011’s somewhat underwhelming Femme Fatale, “‘Til the World Ends” and “I Wanna Go” were officially released as the second and third singles from the album. So good work, Team Britney! Arguments can be made for a handful of other tunes from the album, but not many of them truly stand out. But I’m here to make choices, and my choice is “How I Roll.” Is it earth-shatteringly good? It is not. It is, however, breezy and light, a fun “sipping cocktails” or (definitely not and) “driving with the top down” ditty that may have fared just fine, in fact, if released at the right summer moment.
Shoulda-Been Singles From Britney Jean (2013)
Before its release, Spears dubbed Britney Jean her “most personal” album yet. Then it came out, and fans were left to reckon with the most impersonal, scattershot album of her career. Taken in full, Britney Jean is at best unmemorable, at worst pretty damn close to awful. (Nothing more than “Chillin’ With You (Feat. Jamie Lynn)” needs to be said.) We’re all friends here; we can admit this. Despite its generally poor quality, there are a couple (literally) of decent tracks. The Sia-penned “Perfume,” which was released as the second (and final!) single, is one relative highlight. The other is “Alien,” the album opener. For the latter, Spears worked with William Orbit, the knob-fiddler best known for working on Madonna’s best album, Ray of Light. “Alien” is not Ray of Light good, but it is good in the context of Britney Jean. It is inarguably the best song on the album. Not coincidentally, it also the most personal. (The alienation Spears sings of is a heartbreakingly apt extension-slash-reversal of her earlier obsessions with defiance and independence.) It is unlikely that “Alien” would have made a huge splash on the Hot 100, but fans would have loved it anyway. As we’ve learned, looking back over Spears impressive output, no chart position, high or low, can determine the worth of this woman’s work.
What other Spears songs do you think would have made great singles? Tell us! And while you’re at it, let us know which artist you’d like to see featured in next week’s Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda Been a Single.