Saturday, March 13, 2010

Britney Spears: Songwriter? or, The Age of the Bonus Track

As contract performers go, Britney Spears sure is a doozy. In case you ever wondered why a big-name record label, a great number of writers, producers, musicians and others in the industry (including more than a couple household names), big corporate sponsors and a major concert promoter would bother going through the bother (and expenditures) of attempting to revive the career of a mid-20s newly single mom with mental health concerns and a lengthy string of bad publicity built up who had fallen out of shape and even at her best was never much of a singer (in the strictly musical sense, and certainly not live) and had little to no interest in or demonstrated knack for songwriting, you're not alone. The answer, however, is simple: just look at number five on this list right here, of the top forty money-makers in the music industry in 2009. There you have about 38,885,267 reasons the 28-year-old pop royal (she exists now somewhere in between "Princess" and "Queen," despite Danja's proclamation on the fantastic shoulda-been-a-single "Kill the Lights") has proven herself to be every bit worth the trouble.

Britney Spears exists on her own plane as an act. She's not a singer, that's for sure, as some crabby Australians, Ellen Degeneres, Pink, Ke$ha, and even Lady Gaga (that hopefully was a misguided slip of the tongue, however) have pointed out with varying levels of indignance; she may once have been a dancer, but at the moment she is still in the "getting there" phase (and may never quite escape it); she isn't a "concept act" like Gorillaz, the Pussycat Dolls, the current incarnation of Rihanna, or, at times, Lady Gaga, and indeed her musical existence does not now nor has it really ever seemed like her brainchild alone; she is neither, however, a producer's instrument (e.g. Leona Lewis, the previous incarnation of Rihanna, anyone from American Idol not named Clarkson, Underwood or Hudson).

Neither is she a songwriter, the one element excluded from the Britney Spears act that could potentially prove detrimental to its success in the future, to some extent. This is not to say she has never participated in the writing of a song (that has gone on to become produced and an official part of the Spears repertoire); in fact, eight of the twelve tracks on Spears' fourth studio album In the Zone (the product of the artist's essential parting of ways with her former artistic and professional handlers and creative takeover of her material) feature Spears' name in the writing credits. In that imperfect but fascinating and timely album, it was clear Spears, much to many people's surprise, had a creative mind of her own, and one that combined impressive instinct with ability and experience earned over six or seven busy years of de facto apprenticeship to Swedish pop genius Max Martin yet entirely without any direct input at the hand of the master.

It was a good album, and it suggested greatness around the corner, but then came the knee injury on the set of the video for "Outrageous," which I still believe was the real catalyst for the 2004-2008 Decline and Fall of Britney Spears, causing her to cancel the second half of her "Onyx Hotel Tour" and allowing for the lull in production in which, no longer occupied with her career as she had been constantly since her early teens, she (and the rest of the world) discovered that Britney Spears, the person rather than the pop star, had a particular knack for making poor decisions. Cut to the present day, when the leap forward In the Zone was and all that could have been are essentially forgotten in the pop music mindset, and Spears is back operating largely as she did during her early career, which would probably be just great with everyone except that she no longer (or not yet?) has quite the spice and extraordinary talents to go with it. If Britney Spears 2009 had been making her debut in 2009, she very likely would have been all but forgotten by now as just another ho-hum pop artist, which is never enough on its own but even less so in the current world of Lady Gaga.

Yes, in many ways, the 2008 album Circus reads almost exactly the way ...Baby One More Time, Oops!...I Did It Again, and (albeit to a lesser extent, as Spears was beginning to show moments of what was to come) Britney do: several incredibly strong singles ("Womanizer," "Circus," "If U Seek Amy"), a handful of entertaining or even occasionally good non-singles ("Unusual You," "Kill the Lights," "Shattered Glass," "Lace and Leather," "Blur"), and a remainder of pointless, crappy filler ("Mannequin," "Out From Under," "Mmm Papi," "My Baby" (bless her heart)). Spears gets writing credits on only two tracks on Circus, and both are in that third category; she had the same number on Blackout, both of them thematically similar strip-club stompers that, while strong in their own right as nearly all tracks on the album are, make for a telling and unimpressive pair of writing credits.

So what, then? Has the songwriting Britney Spears, who made an impressive debut in 2004 only to be waylaid by circumstance for the rest of the decade, gone the way of the dancing Britney Spears and the knowingly brilliant mixture of innocence and sex appeal Britney Spears, never to return? Spears' upcoming album, due the middle of 2010, will make the answer much clearer, but from only the apparent available evidence, the prospect is less than encouraging.

But fret not, Spears devotees, for there is slightly more to the tale than immediately meets the eye. Circus was one of the first high-profile new releases to utilize what has become a new sales strategy in this post-iTunes digital download-ruled industry, particularly by contract artists: in addition to the universal track listing of the album (i.e. twelve tracks, "Womanizer" through "My Baby," which are included in every release of the album worldwide), bonus tracks are used as incentives to purchase the entire album when buying digitally (i.e. instead of picking and choosing specific tracks to purchase a la carte). But wait, that's not all: different bonus tracks are offered with different releases of the album in different markets, meaning the bonus tracks included when a U.S. customer purchases a digital copy of Circus from iTunes ("Phonography" and "Rock Me In") are different from those that, say, a Japanese customer receives as part of his digital download ("Amnesia"), which in turn differ from the bonus tracks included for those who pre-ordered the album on iTunes prior to its December 2008 release ("Trouble" and "Quicksand," the latter written by a pre-superstardom Lady Gaga). It's all a thoroughly confusing but ultimately inconsequential marketing gimmick that also happens to be a good way to get rid of a few of the tracks that for one reason or another didn't make the final album cut but had already been recorded and/or produced (as opposed to a song cut from or rejected for a certain album prior to being recorded and mixed, e.g. "Telephone," also written by Lady Gaga for Circus but rejected by the label for the simple reason that it already had selected enough songs for the effort); such tracks have existed as long as contract artists have existed, but prior to the digital age they usually only saw public access as B-sides to singles, if at all.

In the end, whereas upon initial release of such an album with this kind of bonus track strategy some of the extra tracks are more accessible to some consumers than others are, as the tracks inevitably filter their way through the web (which is mostly unaffected by national borders) they serve at best to enhance a recent release while at worst having no appreciable effect on it in the slightest (the whole thing exemplifies the notion of possessing one's cake and consuming it as well). Every so often, an individual will discover a preference for a certain bonus track over one or more of the main album tracks, and if so, so much the better for him; with spot-shot albums like Spears', bonus tracks can help atone for one or more of the album missteps. It is even possible that one such preferred bonus track may just happen to have a certain name in the writing credits, the inclusion of which may even offer a glimmer of hope for the future potential of a certain songwriter whose work is otherwise sub-par or non-existent.

 Is Britney Spears as songwriter finally coming out of her cage?

This happens to be the case with a Circus bonus track I discovered, or at least tried out, only recently, with unusually positive results. Admittedly, I enjoy the playful pun-stacked innuendo of "Phonography," not only is it essentially a rewrite of Kylie Minogue's "Speakerphone," which wasn't exactly Pulitzer material to begin with, I felt the production suffered from a thematic disconnect from the content and subject matter that in the end marginalized the track for me (I feel similarly about Sugababes' single "Push the Button"). But it is the other of that particular bonus pair that excites me: the energetic, compelling, entertaining "Rock Me In." Spears' vocals are as solid as they are at their best; the melody moves nicely from major to minor and back like a European techno-pop melody would; the beat is solid, strong and consistent; as a finished product, it would not have been out of place in the slightest on the final Circus track list. Best of all, though, is something I didn't know until I sat down to write this post, originally intended as a "song for the day" quickie: "Rock Me In" contains a writing credit for none other than Britney Spears herself. In fact, the song essentially comes from the team that brought us "Mmm Papi," which proves two things at once: first, the possibility and commonality of excrement and gold coming from the same source; and second, that someone over at Jive needs to get fired (or at least reassigned to the mail room) for the apparent inability to recognize a no-brainer either-or decision when the correct answer is so painfully and universally apparent.

Let me not be misunderstood: I highly doubt anyone would invest his life savings in the future Britney Spears songbook upon hearing "Rock Me In" (except perhaps the fool who selected "Mmm Papi" for the track listing). Like the recent music video for "3," "Rock Me In" is not an arrival in itself, and should not be judged with such a rubric; rather, it is merely a promising step in the right direction at a time when the next step has yet to be taken, and its direction yet to become apparent.

At least, that's MY opinion on it. What, if anything, is yours? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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