I don’t know if anybody ever really put it on the record just after …Baby One More Time was released as to what they thought Britney Spears would be doing in two decades. (The album came out 20 years ago this past weekend.) It probably would have been pretty cynical; that generation of TRL-wary punkist rock critics tends to lean that way when confronted with the idea that a teen-pop sensation might have a future.
But there are worse fates — and less predictable ones — than going from a teenage megastar to a Vegas resident after nine decent-to-great albums. And even as someone who was too busy dorking out to Missy Elliott and M.I.A. to have a stake in Britney’s pop maturation process, I figure we’re in a far better place now that we’ve at least humored the idea that a former Disney Kid has a shelf life past her thirties.
Most of the real cynical criticisms of her have gone out of style, too — the concerned-dad image-shaming with terms like “Lolita” and “jailbait,” the dismissal of a young audience that’s grown up along with her, the cheap laughs at the expense of what was in retrospect a harrowing brush with mental health issues and rehab — but there’s still one left that some holdouts like to throw around: She doesn’t even write her own music.
Well, no shit, some pop star doesn’t write their own music — how’s about you have a look at Norman Whitfield’s resume sometime. I suppose where Britney’s concerned, the more pertinent question is, how does she carry herself inside the world her songwriters have helped her build?, which I think is more or less definitively a space she owns in a way that you can’t really take away from her. As showbiz goes, it’s good to see some things still work for the artist, y’know?
I’d follow up an inquiry like that with the kind of thought exercise you’re about to read, which is trying to figure out how much Britney is left when you take the Britney out of the song written for her. But since almost everybody who covers her is operating from a place of attempted Britney usurpation, commentary, or subversion, it might not actually be possible to find out. Let’s give it a shot anyways.
Fountains Of Wayne, “… Baby One More Time” (1999)
It seems like everybody and their weed guy covered this song as a half-sincere gag at some point, ranging in eyeroll-factor from Travis to Ed Sheeran to the Dresden Dolls to Bowling For Soup to Ahmet & Dweezil Zappa. But the obvious pull of the song’s re-interpretive potential — it’s pop, so why not make it power pop? — seems best left to a band that can hide its smirk.
Fountains Of Wayne are about as deadpan as you can get for a Britney cover without actually leaching any of their own sense of joy from things, and even if its original release a few months after the Spears version has an intrinsic stunt-cover background to it, time’s worn that effect away, so all that’s left is the Chris Collingwood/Adam Schlesinger harmonies and those pleasantly stoned if mildly on-edge guitars to envision an alternate universe where Max Martin handed the song off to Tom Petty instead.
Richard Thompson, “Oops!… I Did It Again” (2003)
When you ask Richard Thompson to name the best songs of the last 1,000 years — as Playboy did with hyperbolic intent expecting a largely 20th century-centric list — you’re going to get that timeframe. The man was in Fairport Convention ferchrissakes, you expect him to not know medieval music? The nudie mag never did publish Thompson’s list, so he turned it into the setlist for a live show and album, 1000 Years Of Popular Music, that put this Martin/Rami single in a vast personal canon alongside everything from 13th century round “Sumer Is Icumen In” to late Italian Renaissance composition “So Ben Mi Chi Ha Bon Tempo” to jump blues number “Drinkin’ Wide, Spo-Dee-O-Dee” to Prince’s “Kiss.”
Thompson doesn’t have that much to say in the liner notes about Britney’s first big hit of the millennium — “Taken out of context, this is a pretty nice song” — but as a tense little arrangement of just guitar and vocal with sparse percussion, he actually makes it sound genuinely regretful and angry at himself rather than the bratty kiss-off implied (or at least inferred) in Britney’s version. (That could just be some residual Shoot Out The Lights impressions at work, though.)
Mark Ronson Ft. Tiggers & Ol’ Dirty Bastard, “Toxic” (2007)
Yeah, this is a weird one. Released sometime between “Ooh Wee” putting Ghostface and Nate Dogg on the same track and “Uptown Funk” making permanent wedding DJ rotation, this cover comes from Mark Ronson’s neo-soulster phase, just after he co-produced Amy Winehouse to superstardom with Back To Black in late ’06. Summer 2007’s Version is a pretty solid concept, and at its best its covers so drastically eclipse the originals that the latter might as well have never actually happened. (I still haven’t heard the Zutons’ version of “Valerie.”) But sometimes a gimmick opportunity’s just that impossible to pass up, and so here is a take on “Toxic” that sounds like a half-formed idea of ’60s soul on some “Stax Meets Motown” shit — which, when not done seamlessly and immaculately and with an ear for each label/region’s specific sonic traits, is like “hamburger meets peanut butter.”
Does the Bollywood-sampling post-jungle/demi-Timbaland controlled franticness of the original Bloodshy & Avant production translate to half-tempo vintage R&B? I can’t answer that, because then I’d have to ask if this version of vintage R&B actually signified anything, and then I’d have to get past the obstacle of Michael Tighe (as “Tiggers”) theater-geeking it up. But at least those questions aren’t based on some kind of ethical conundrum, at least not one on the level of “do you think Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or at least his estate, would be cool with his verse from ‘Burnin’ Up’ getting repurposed here?” But sure, go ahead and put the line “Fucked the pussy till it’s orange, like Ernie and Bert” in your Britney cover version.
Franz Ferdinand, “Womanizer” (2009)
It’s time again for the Ellen Willis Test, or at least an odd inverse thereof. Usually dedicated to sussing out whether a song’s lyrics have dicey gender roles by swapping out a male singer for a female one, in this case we’re going to use it in an effort to see how it comes across to have Alex Kapranos be the one calling out an “oh-so-charming” guy for loving and leaving.
The answer: weirdly not as jarring as having the Outsyders’ beat, a hissy shuffle-electro banger that put Spears in the ballpark of peak Goldfrapp, turned into mostly-analog boogie-rock. (Not a bad jarring, per se — that guitar solo’s the best kind of scuzzy.) But it’s still funny to think about Kapranos at his most exaggeratedly, self-consciously suave singing this, especially thanks to an interesting lyrical tweak: Where the original lines use the pronoun “I” — as in “you can play brand new to all the other chicks out here/ But I know what you are, what you are, baby,” — he changes it to “they.” The change from “I know some dirt about you” to “I’ve heard some dirt about you” is just subtle enough to make the angle more oblique.
Joan As Police Woman, “Overprotected” (2009)
“Overprotected” and the rest of Britney dropped in the midst of America’s big post-9/11 “now what” panic attack. When The Onion published its famous “A Shattered Nation Longs To Care About Stupid Bullshit Again” article on 10/3/2001, a photo of Spears at the 2001 VMAs dominated the accompanying graphic. The fact that the album’s timing made things weird must have been hard to escape when the album was new, especially when paired with Britney’s efforts to transition from teen-pop to just plain pop (with hip-hop and R&B riding shotgun), and all the maturation efforts that implied. Hey look, everyone: one of her singles is titled “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman!” Snap into a thinkpiece!
Nowadays it’s easier to think about how good she sounded over a Neptunes beat, even if that “I’m not a kid anymore” theme runs pretty strongly through it and the next two aforementioned singles (NOTE: she would turn 20 that December). But the gist of “Overprotected” — that Britney feels weird about the record industry and the media being her surrogate helicopter parents — shifts to a more universal call for autonomy from the panopticon when the song’s performed at the other end of the decade by a woman just shy of 40. Like the other more contemporary-era tracks JaPW takes on in her ’09 album Cover, “Overprotected” feels a bit off as a straight-up rock song — not bad, just “off” — but Joan Wasser sings like she’s exhausted from having to go through all this shit while still remaining vibrant now that she’s got a well-known set of lyrics to express it. As Joan’s own thing, it’s solid; as an acknowledgement of what happened to Britney in the media spotlight during her anxiety-driven breakdown, it’s stirring.
Tricky, “Piece Of Me” (2010)
The last time Tricky appeared in this column, I played the “he’s not as popular as he used to be but that doesn’t mean he’s fallen off, plus he still gets some interesting singers to collaborate with him” card — and that’s still the case here with the version of “Piece Of Me” he included as a B-side to Mixed Race single “Murder Weapon.” The collaborator in this instance is Franky Riley — aka Francesca Belmonte, the singer/writer/arranger who’s had a hand (or a voice) in every album Tricky’s dropped this decade. That she works her way into a familiar mode of Tricky’s work (delicate at first impression, tightly wound and durable in a deeper listen) isn’t a demerit, especially since the Bloodshy & Avant-written song she takes on is more upfront in every way.
To cover a song that’s so distinctly and deliberately about being Britney — “Miss American Dream since I was 17,” sweating in the media spotlight and chafing at its invasiveness, to the point where she namedrops herself in the chorus just to make her ownership of the song final — seems like a weird move, especially when Belmonte (a) is not American, (b) wasn’t yet famous, and (c) wasn’t the actual Britney Spears. But going from the original’s electro-driven defiant peevishness to a more low-intensity seethe through half-blues trip-hop is a nice dose of ennui where there used to be just anxiety.
Kacey Musgraves, “Toxic” (2015)
Madonna, “Toxic” (2016)
After 20 years, it seems like “Toxic” has aged into Britney’s biggest career highlight — at least, if you ignore all the half-assed/gratuitous “…Baby One More Time” references that seem to be a sub-Buzzfeed signifier of cheap ’90s nostalgia to sell to kids too young to remember the ’90s. If you want a sort of tandem look into how it’s become (or at least approached) the status of a modern standard, how’s this: It works as both neo-country pop and downtempo torch-singer trap.
Kacey Musgraves’s ability to make country and disco-pop shake hands works both ways in her version, with some able help from a band that makes that one twangy spy-movie riff the common thread and translates the strings into a steel guitar wail like they’re the same language. Meanwhile Britney’s 2003 VMA kissing partner might’ve Rogue’d a bit of Spears’ powers, since she revamped “Toxic” a couple times: Most recently when she went acoustic (and thermal) for 2017’s World AIDS Day, but more memorably as a downtempo simmer for Art Basel 2016 in full cabaret mode. She dedicated it to that one guy that’d just been elected — you know, that dude, the shithead — and gave it an air of high camp that had her playing Joel Grey and Liza Minelli at the same time, a reminder that beneath Madonna the Pop Megastar there’s always been someone who’s been rolling her eyes at the man since the ’80s.