Is Britney Spears' 'Britney Jean' Really Her Most Personal Album? An Investigation
A deep dive into the pop superstar's eight studio albums shows where her newest ranks on a "personal" level.
When Britney Spears began setting up her eighth studio album, "Britney Jean," earlier this year, the word "personal" kept popping up. "I can't believe this is my eighth studio album and I know I keep telling you that it is my most personal record yet, but its true and I'm really proud of that," the pop star wrote about "Britney Jean" in a letter to fans in October. A week later, the album's second single, "Perfume," was unveiled, and unlike "Til The World Ends," the scorching second single of previous album "Femme Fatale," the mid-tempo cut looked inward, and saw the unflappable artist "try[ing] to act natural" and waiting for calls, like any mere mortal. Was "Britney Jean" going to be a daring look at an artist who had recently turned 30 but had already survived so much?
But just as that word, "personal," made fans salivate, the promise of an album-long autobiography has bewildered many who have heard "Britney Jean." "The hype about her most 'personal' album yet begins with the album title, 'Britney Jean' (RCA), which promotes a sense of intimacy that the songs never quite deliver," wrote Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, while The Atlantic's Nolan Feeney writes that "the glimpses into Britney Jean Spears, the artist, are, frankly, neither interesting nor informative." These reactions convey a disappointment over false promises -- but to judge whether or not "Britney Jean" really is Spears' most "personal" album to date, one must dive back into her discography and see where her eighth album lacks on a relative scale. And that's exactly what we did.
Check out Billboard.com's exploration of the most "personal" points of Britney Spears' enviable catalog, from her "…Baby One More Time" teenybopper days through her "Work Bitch" womanhood. Instead of being ranked on overall quality, each album is broken down by Spears' personal "career arc point" at the time of their release; the number of co-writing credits Spears had on the album; the overarching "personal" theme occupying each LP; the most revealing song on the track list; and the overall "Personal-ney" ranking of the album, with 1 being completely colorless and 10 being the best account of Brit's point in time at that release period. Does "Britney Jean" live up to the "most personal record yet" description? Read on to find out.
…BABY ONE MORE TIME (1999)
Career Arc Point: Fresh-faced pop prospect. "Hello! My name is Britney Spears. I'm 17 years old, I'm from Louisiana, I was on 'The Mickey Mouse Club,' and I'd like to revolutionize mainstream music now," Spears seemed to be saying with a twinkle in her eye. Led by a gaggle of Sweden's finest pop producers and its now-iconic title track, "…Baby One More Time" introduced Spears as the female face of teen pop music, cozily pegged as the counterpart to exploding boy bands like Backstreet Boys and *N SYNC.
Britney Co-Writing Credits: One
Interesting "Personal" Theme: Puppy love. Nearly every song is about meet-cutes, break-ups and/or make-ups -- totally understandable for a teenager, of course. Sometimes she runs, sometimes she hides, sometimes the guy of her dreams drives her crazy, other times she has to dig deep into the bottom of her broken heart.
Most Revealing Song: "Email My Heart," in which Britney puts Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks to shame by condensing "You've Got Mail" into a four-minute ballad. It's not exactly "revealing," per se, but gaining some insight into Spears' Internet habits is certainly worth SOMETHING, right?
Personal-ney Level (1-10): 2. Although "…Baby One More Time" and its ilk endure as radio staples, even Spears would cop to her debut album lacking some space for her to convey her inner thoughts and desires. Those moments would come later, and she was undoubtedly aware of that.
OOPS!… I DID IT AGAIN (2000)
Career Arc Point: Zeitgeist-capturing superstar. Less than 18 months after the release of "…Baby One More Time," Spears had returned with another mammoth title track, and guided her sophomore album to a record-breaking debut sales week of 1.32 million copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Oops, America -- you have a new sweetheart.
Britney Co-Writing Credits: One
Interesting "Personal" Theme: Nagging dissatisfaction -- and, yes, that stands even without the dubious cover of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" included. On "Don't Let Me Be The Last To Know," Spears is worried that her man's romantic innuendoes will not coincide with those three magic words; later, on "Can't Make You Love Me," the 18-year-old superstar is bothered by a crush's changed perception due to her newfound fame ("I'm still the girl you used to know… Oh baby, I will trade the fancy cars," she pleads). There is bliss on this album -- "When Your Eyes Say It" is basically Britney in her happy place -- but more conflict than one might expect.
Most Revealing Song: "Lucky." Speaking of dissatisfaction, why does she cry, cry, cry in her lonely heart? We never get the answer.
Personal-ney Level: 4. While Spears hints at her budding sexuality and burgeoning attitude, this is still a family-friendly affair with mere glimpses of the pop star's personality. On "Oops!," Spears claims that she's "not that innocent," but fans wouldn't really understand what she meant until the following album; in that interim, she notched not one but two provocative MTV Video Music Awards performances under her (non-existent) belt.
Career Arc Point: Impossibly famous not-girl/not-yet-woman. Her bubblegum pop reign showing no signs of letting up, Spears became interested in moving beyond the genre, while also collaborating with superstar boyfriend Justin Timberlake, performing with pythons and dabbling in the film world (the 2002 release of "Crossroads" coincided with the single promotion of "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman").
Britney Co-Writing Credits: Four
Interesting "Personal" Theme: The awkward transition from child to adult -- "Feels like I'm caught in the middle," she laments on "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman." Aside from the lyrics, the music "Britney" reflects that struggle marvelously -- for every Neptunes-assisted pang of maturation like "I'm A Slave 4 U," there's a starry-eyed (and, arguably, naive) love song like "Bombastic Love," or a pop-rock breakup ballad like "Lonely." Despite the sexed-up image that Spears presented before "Britney's" release, the singer was still only 19 at the time of its release, and there are moments where it's clear that she's still getting comfortable in her new persona. Witness the giggle that she emits after realizing, "I should shake my thing," on "Boys."
Most Revealing Song: "Let Me Be," a song about trusting a young adult to make her own decisions. "Think that you know me now, but you don't," Spears sings -- which is true, because at this point, she doesn't know herself yet.
Personal-ney Level: 8. From "Overprotected" to the JT collab "What It's Like To Be Me" to even "I'm A Slave 4 U," "Britney" demonstrated that, in her words, "I know I may be young, but I've got feelings, too." Spears' third effort is a clear document of what she was feeling as she sat atop the world.
IN THE ZONE (2003)
Career Arc Point: Single, fully a woman, and ready to experiment. At 21 years old, Spears' pop legacy was already secure, and she effectively moved on from her high-profile breakup with Timberlake by… kissing Madonna at the 2003 Video Music Awards. Cut to: Timberlake's concerned reaction in the crowd!
Britney Co-Writing Credits: Eight
Interesting "Personal" Theme: Trying new things. For instance: there is definitely a reggae song on "In The Zone" ("The Hook Up"). The line "I don't really wanna be a tease/But would you undo my zipper, please?" exists on "Showdown." The Madonna duet "Me Against The Music" is immediately followed by the Ying Yang Twins collab "I Got That (Boom Boom)" -- which is followed three songs later by a song co-produced by Moby, and then R. Kelly pop ups two songs after that. We see a pattern here. "In The Zone" is a loose album that finds Spears swiping at various musical artifacts, and, for the first time, co-writing a majority of the material.
Most Revealing Song: "Shadow" starts the JT kiss-off parade, but the gentle piano showcase "Everytime" is the stunner. "Every time I see you in my dreams/I see your face, it's haunting me," Spears sings, before powering through the line, "I guess I need you, baby." Whereas Timberlake scorned Spears on "Cry Me A River," the pop diva embraced her weaknesses while working in an alien musical style.
Personal-ney Level: 7. "In The Zone" is all over the place stylistically, but the brushstrokes create a surprisingly balanced portrait of Spears when digested as a whole. The listener hears Spears deliver late-night exploits ("Early Mornin'"), a self-pleasure anthem ("Touch of My Hand") and even a clear-cut message of misbehaving on "Brave New Girl." Aldous Huxley would have approved of that title, and of this glimpse into Spears' ever-expanding world.
Career Arc Point: Mid-meltdown. The nearly four-year gap between "In The Zone" and "Blackout" is still the longest drought between albums for Spears, and in that period, the singer married Kevin Federline, gave birth to two sons, was heavily criticized for various parental choices, divorced Federline, shaved her head, and made multiple trips to treatment facilities. Spears performed "Blackout's" lead single, "Gimme More," at the 2007 VMAs, and the spectacle was perceived as a fiasco.
Britney Co-Writing Credits: Two
Interesting "Personal" Theme: Inviting the world inside her imploding private life. "Freakshow" spitefully tosses the voyeurs a "peep show" of Britney's world, while "Gimme More" acknowledges that "cameras are flashing" as she's writhing around. There's a ton of sex amidst the biting comments, but the uninhibited edginess on display almost feels like a direct result from Spears' crumbling public persona. She could not have sung a line like "I'm a freak and I don't really give a damn" (from the aptly titled "Get Naked (I Got A Plan)") on her first four albums, but on "Blackout," Spears has nothing to lose.
Most Revealing Song: "Piece Of Me"; the first minute alone might be the most revealing moment of Spears' entire career. "I'm Miss Bad Media Karma/Another day, another drama/Guess I can't see the harm/In working and being a mama/And with a kid on my arm/I'm still an exceptional earner/...And you want a piece of me," she seethes at the gawkers.
Personal-ney Level: 9. This is uncut, raw Britney Spears, and that honesty is one of the reasons why "Blackout" remains a fan favorite, in spite of the unhappy time of its birth. And to think: Danja, the album's key collaborator, once described "Blackout" as impersonal!
Career Arc Point: Full-blown comeback mode. Quickly following her last album with more bleary-eyed dance cuts pegged "Circus" as something of a sequel to "Blackout," but Spears' sixth LP was a clear-cut attempt to shift focus away from the still-sordid stories of restraining orders and custody battles, and to revive the Britney brand.
Britney Co-Writing Credits: Four
Interesting "Personal" Theme: The shackles of entertainment. Before Lady Gaga's "The Fame," there was Spears' "Circus" meditations -- inviting all eyes upon her on the title track, and sneering, "You don't like me, I don't like you, it don't matter/Only difference, you still listen, I don't have to," on "Kill The Lights." The defensiveness from "Blackout" is still present, but this time, Spears is accepting her position and trying to mold it into a benefit.
Most Revealing Song: Maybe "My Baby," Britney's ode to her children, but "Blur" is a more candid confessional: as Danja's springy production staggers onward, Spears blinks in confusion and tries to remember what she "did last night." The song can be taken literally as an account of a one-night stand, but can also be interpreted as Spears' cloudy memory of a horrendous personal stretch.
Personal-ney Level: 5. "Circus" has its share of autobiography, but it's not quite as cohesive of a statement from Spears as its predecessor. Songs like "Shattered Glass," "Womanizer" and "If You Seek Amy" are all highlights of Spears' career revival but don't exactly shed light on the person performing them.
FEMME FATALE (2011)
Career Arc Point: The survivor. Far enough removed from her personal struggles that they required no lyrical acknowledgement, the keys to "Femme Fatale" were bestowed to Martin and Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, who fueled the album up with dance-pop smashes and stomped on the gas pedal.
Britney Co-Writing Credits: Zero
Interesting "Personal" Theme: Dancing! Until the world ends, to be specific! There are some narrative motions on "Femme Fatale," and enough "bad boy" stories ("Inside Out," "Trouble For Me," "Criminal") to make Taylor Swift jealous, but for the most part, Spears just wants to find a male partner with whom she can share the dance floor.
Most Revealing Song: Ace third single "I Wanna Go," with its deadpan verses exquisitely depicting Spears' naughtiness. "Lately, people got me all tied up/There's a countdown waiting for me to erupt/Time to blow… out…," she sings, on one of the album's more provocative lines.
Personal-ney Level: 3. It's a step above the cutesy "…Baby One More Time" era in terms of personal revelation, but only slightly. There's a reason that "Femme Fatale" features no writing credits for Spears -- she left the album in the hands of a team of songwriting maestros, and commanded them to come up with some burners. They did, and "Femme Fatale" soars, but certainly not as a tell-all.
BRITNEY JEAN (2013)
Career Arc Point: An icon taking time to reflect. "Britney Jean" serves as a full-length bridge between Brit's balancing act on a multitude of platforms (the "Femme Fatale" tour, "X Factor" judging stint and hit Will.i.am collaboration "Scream & Shout") and her debut on the next one (her Las Vegas residency).
Britney Co-Writing Credits: All 10 songs! And all four of the deluxe edition songs!
Interesting "Personal" Theme: Insecurity. "Perfume," which was co-written by Sia, is the obvious siren of uncertainty (and a handy fragrance tie-in), but tracks like "Til It's Gone" ("Cause you came/And you gave me a place/Place to lay all my pain/Why'd you take it away?" she asks) and "Passenger" ("Don't know the way ahead of me/One day at a time is all I need," she admits) also find Spears confessing that she still doesn't have all the answers.
Most Revealing Song: "Alien," an interstellar tale of loneliness locked inside a pop pulsar co-created by William Orbit. This type of honesty -- being unsure of where to belong, feeling like a "stranger in a crowd" -- can be read as commentary on the dissolution of Spears' relationship with fiancee Jason Trawick, and sounds refreshing as "Britney Jean's" album opener.
Personal-ney Level: 6. Songs like "Alien" and "Perfume" serve as something of red herrings on a surprisingly short affair -- in between the momentary admissions are booming sex jams ("Body Ache"), standard breakup ballads ("Don't Cry") and a sister-sister duet, the Jamie Lynn-assisted "Chillin' With You," that sounds oddly abstract. Compared to something like "Blackout" or "Britney," Spears' latest does not fully shed light on its author's current mindset. But "Britney Jean" also possesses its merits and personal pauses -- some that take a few listens to catch. It's Britney (bitch), and she's going to make you work (bitch) for a piece of her in 2013.