In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.
Here’s a weird one. Britney Jean Spears has instantly identifiable pop classics for days, but only a few of her songs went all the way to #1. One of those #1 hits is a bonus track from her second greatest-hits collection. It’s an uptempo dance-pop jam that was co-written by the same guy who was primarily responsible for most of Britney’s biggest early hits. The song in question is deeply horny and knowingly provocative. Maybe a little kid could hear that song without knowing what’s going on, but anyone older than 10 had to know that “3” is a song all about threesomes. Evidently, this did not pose much of a commercial problem.
A song like “3” has one very specific purpose: It’s supposed to build controversy, to generate attention. It’s a conversation piece. As far as I can tell, “3” was a failure on that front; it caused a whole lot less moral panic than about 15 different paparazzi shots of Britney from a couple of years earlier. In Britney’s greater catalog, “3” faded away pretty quickly. The song doesn’t have anywhere near as many streams as her better-known tracks, and she hasn’t performed it live since the very beginning of 2016. Before sitting down to work on this column, I barely remembered that “3” existed.
By just about every metric, “3” is one of those forgotten chart-toppers that fades immediately and then disappears from the cultural memory. But “3” still debuted at #1, back when that almost never happened, and it hung around the top 10 for a few months. Also, “3” is no throwaway. Instead, it’s a full-on sex-drunk banger. I might have to fuck around and argue that we, as a culture, have not properly appreciated this piece of porny provocation.
Before we get into the history of “3,” we should acknowledge that the song comes from the early days of Britney’s conservatorship. In 2008, a judge gave legal control of Britney’s financial affairs and daily life to her father and to a court-appointed lawyer — a strange and indefensible arrangement that allowed a few people to ruthlessly exploit Britney’s fame for well over a decade. Britney had no say over any of this, and she tried to get out of it, but the conservatorship remained in place until long after the general public learned the sordid details.
In the years after Britney was forced into that conservatorship, a lot of weird shit happened. Britney’s father got restraining orders against various ex-boyfriends and managers, claiming that they were trying to either disrupt or gain control of the conservatorship. Britney also started dating her agent Jason Trawick, who eventually became her fiancé and one of her conservators. When the conservatorship was supposed to expire, a judge gave it an indefinite extension, claiming that the arrangement was “necessary and appropriate for the complexity of financial and business entities and her being susceptible to undue influence.” In an MTV documentary, Britney said that she felt like she was in jail, with no release date on the horizon. Nobody listened.
The whole thing was extremely shady, and I bet we still don’t know everything that was happening under the surface. At the same time, Britney’s handlers really did succeed in rebooting her commercial career. “Womanizer,” the first single that Britney released under the conservatorship, also became her first #1 hit in the near-decade since “Baby One More Time.” Britney’s Circus album went platinum, and she spent virtually all of 2009 on her wildly elaborate Circus tour, which was her first full-scale arena trek in five years. That tour earned more than $100 million for people who were not Britney Spears.
In November 2009, when the Circus tour was on its Australian leg, Britney released a career-spanning compilation called The Singles Collection. This was Britney’s second greatest-hits album; the first, My Prerogative, had come out five years earlier. At the time, the sales pitch for The Singles Collection was that the album celebrated the first 10 years of Britney’s pop stardom. It seems a whole lot more likely that Britney’s conservators saw the record as another way to make a quick buck. It was their prerogative. They released a bunch of different editions of The Singles Collection, including a ridiculous 58-track box-set version that’s stuffed with redundant remixes and that, for whatever reason, is the one that’s currently on streaming services.
That 58-track edition of The Singles Collection is exhausting and unnecessary. But I have to tell you: If you make a playlist of the comp’s proper 17-song tracklist, that thing goes hard. It’s a real blast to hear those hits, arranged chronologically, back-to-back. There’s no fat in there, and it reveals the progression of one of this century’s great singles artists. I’d take The Singles Collection over any of the algorithmically programmed Britney playlists currently available on the different streaming services. I miss greatest-hits albums. I understand that they have no real reason to exist in the current marketplace, but when I was blowing all my part-time job money in used-CD stores, those things were godsends. I never owned The Singles Collection, and the album didn’t sell much, but I’m sure I would’ve gotten a lot out of it.
Traditionally, greatest-hits albums need at least one bonus track, to rope in any superfans who already owned all the original records. Britney’s Singles Collection only had one bonus track, and that bonus track was “3.” There aren’t many behind-the-scenes stories about the creation of “3.” Maybe Britney had some hand in deciding which songs to record, but we have to assume that she didn’t. Presumably, Britney’s father, the person in complete control of her career, decided that she should record this song about group sex. That’s gross! I would much rather not think about it, and I’m not going to let it affect my review of the track itself, but it’s part of the context.
Britney Spears did not write “3,” and neither did her father. Instead, the song came from Swedish mad scientist Max Martin and his whole camp. There’s something heartwarming about that. Max Martin started working with Britney Spears when she was a kid. He wrote “Baby One More Time,” and he wrote or co-wrote “(You Drive Me) Crazy” and “Oops!… I Did It Again” and “Stronger” and “Lucky” and “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” — all those glittering bangers that established the legend of Britney Spears in the larger cultural imagination.
After Britney’s third album, 2001’s Britney, Britney and Max Martin parted ways. Britney moved on to different collaborators: The Neptunes, The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, Bloodshy & Avant. Martin reinvented himself, working with Kelly Clarkson and Pink and Katy Perry. In 2008, Max Martin got back together with Britney for the first time in seven years. Martin co-wrote and produced “If You Seek Amy,” the most innuendo-heavy single from the Circus album. Martin famously doesn’t care that much about lyrics, but “If You Seek Amy” really just existed as an excuse for Britney to sing the words “F-U-C-K me.” That kept the song from getting any radio play, but the track was still big enough to reach #19. (And yes, her father presumably had to sign off on that one, too.)
Max Martin co-wrote “3” with two of his proteges. One of them was Shellback, the former Swedish death metal dude who’d already worked on Pink’s “So What.” The other was Tiffany Amber. This isn’t Tiffani Amber Thiessen. She’s somebody else, and I might lose focus if I think too much about that one writing a song about threesomes. Instead, this Tiffany Amber is an alias of Sophia Somajo, a Swedish songwriter who released Robyn-esque dance-pop album called The Laptop Diaries in 2008 and who later co-wrote the actual Robyn’s 2010 track “Time Machine.”
Sophia Somajo has written under a bunch of different aliases, and she’s got different characters for all of them. In a 2018 Popjustice interview, Somajo described the Tiffany Amber persona like this: “Tiffany Amber does her nails on the regular. She drinks everything through a straw, and she’s written for Britney, Christina, and Backstreet Boys — all her idols.” Tiffany Amber does indeed have credits on songs from all those late-’90s teen-pop giants. In 2009, she co-wrote the Backstreet Boys single “Bigger” with Max Martin and Shellback. (It didn’t make the Hot 100.) But “3” is the first track that ever had the Tiffany Amber credit — at least according to this fictitious songwriter’s Discogs page.
“3” is about as implicitly dirty as a pop song can be. Max Martin and Shellback’s production is extremely 2009. Those guys were fully locked in with the EDM sounds that had absolutely colonized the Hot 100. The beat is cold and clipped and fully synthetic. It’s powered by kickdrums, handclaps, and keyboard sirens that remind me of Usher’s “Yeah!” But there’s no trace of R&B in “3.” Instead, the track is icy and clinical, and Britney sings the whole thing through copious levels of Auto-Tune.
It takes a few seconds to confirm your suspicions that “3” is a song all about unconventional sexual arrangements, if only because all of the lyrics come though the Max Martin prism that often renders the English language as something like pure abstraction. Consider: “Counting one, two, three/ Peter, Paul & Mary/ Getting down with 3P/ Everybody loves me [sex moan].” That is so close to achieving a pure state of pop-music gibberish. If I understand this correctly, “3P” means “three people,” though I’m not aware of anyone ever using that abbreviation outside the context of this song. And Peter, Paul & Mary? The ’60s folk trio that once appeared in this column? What do they have to do with anything?
Presumably, the actual Peter, Paul & Mary didn’t sign off on their namedrop on this song about threesomes, but Peter Yarrow is a convicted child molester who got a presidential pardon from Jimmy Carter, so I don’t have to feel bad for them. By sheer coincidence, the “3” single happened to hit iTunes just two weeks after Mary Travers died of leukemia, which is both sad and grimly funny. As far as I know, Britney Spears has never made any comment on this bleak confluence. What would she even say? There’s really no right answer in that situation. Britney didn’t kill Mary Travers, so I don’t think she needs to feel guilty about it.
For fans of warped, meaningless Max Martin lyrics, “3” is a bounty. When Britney sings “180 degrees, and I’m caught in between,” that doesn’t mean anything. (It sounds more like “cold in between,” which somehow means even less.) But when Britney talks about lining up two partners at the same time, that means something, and you don’t need a Max Martin decoder ring to get it: “Merrier the more/ Triple fun that way/ Twister on the floor/ What do you say?” If anything, the Peter, Paul & Mary namedrop implies that Britney is describing a two-dudes/one-lady situation, though she never really specifies. At least in my admittedly limited experience, that setup is much less common than the two-ladies version, and that makes it slightly more transgressive.
Look: This is sheer titillation as pop-music salesmanship, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a time-honored tradition. I understand that there are plenty of people who don’t want to hear a former teenage pop queen, one who probably still had a sizable fanbase of actual children, singing about “living in sin is the new thing.” But I think it rules. That’s what pop is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be decadent and hedonistic and trashy. The late-’00s EDM boom had a lot in common with the ’70s disco explosion, and the success of “3” recalls the 1976 moment when actual real-deal porn star Andrea True could reach #4 with the similarly horny “More, More, More.” (It’s a 7.)
I like the playful friskiness of “3.” Britney Spears has always sounded a bit like a tiger on the prowl. She’s not flirty, exactly. Instead, she’s always direct about her thirst. On “3,” it sure sounds like she’s enjoying that directness: “What we do is innocent/ Just for fun, and nothing meant.” On the bridge, Britney briefly considers the idea that someone might not want to open things up so drastically: “If you don’t like the company, let’s do it, just you and me” — a lyric that briefly makes one-on-one sex sound somehow prudish. But then Britney stretches out her pauses, and “you and me” becomes “…or three,” and then “… or four, on the floor.” For this narrator, it’s a slippery slope. Pretty soon, the room is going to be so full of bodies that you’re not even sure whose elbow is jabbing you in the ribs.
For the “3” video, director Diane Martel made the very sane decision to avoid depicting the lyrics in any literal way. Instead, the song gets a pretty bare-bones visual treatment — just Britney and various dancers against a plain white background. There’s also some bald product placement for whatever perfume and makeup products Britney was hawking at the time. (This was the moment when music videos basically became Instagram ads.) It’s a pretty forgettable clip, but as always, Britney Spears’ hungry glare says enough to write a book.
“3” hasn’t become a cultural touchstone, the way so many Britney Spears songs have, and I’m not really sure why. Maybe the song was too cynical, too exploitative? But Britney has released plenty of cynical, exploitative tracks, and many of them have left a much deeper footprint. Whatever. It’s fine. “3” made it to #1 mostly on the strength of its iTunes sales, and radio never really embraced the song. “3” didn’t plummet out of the top 10 right away, but it only interrupted the reign of Jay Sean’s “Down” for a single week. The “3” single never went gold or platinum, and neither did The Singles Collection. But Britney Spears’ second golden age was nowhere near done.
Britney Spears didn’t release any music in 2010, but she did make an appearance on a Glee episode that was built entirely around her songs. The plot, as far as I can tell, revolves around the various Glee kids hallucinating themselves into restaged Britney videos after being gassed by hot dentist John Stamos. I’m not going to sit here and watch the whole episode, but in scanning through a few YouTube clips as quickly as possible, I don’t see the actual Britney, so her participation must’ve been minimal. Still, more than 13 million people watched that episode — the show’s biggest-ever audience to that date. The real, non-Glee version of Britney Spears wouldn’t be away for long. We’ll see her in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Sunny, a member of the K-pop group Girls’ Generation, doing an impressively elaborate and presumably lip-synced “3” cover at a 2012 live show:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Unless I have no other options, I prefer to ignore any and all Glee videos in this section. Simply put, that show is extremely not my thing. But I already mentioned it above, so I might as well throw in the video of a few random-ass cast members singing a random-ass acoustic “3” cover on a 2012 episode. Here it is:
(The Glee cast’s highest-charting single is its 2009 version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which peaked at #4. Infuriatingly, that’s five spots higher than the actual straight-up classic “Don’t Stop Believin'” charted in 1981. I’d rather not think about this. The version from the Glee cast is a 3.)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Are you game? Buying my book is the new thing.