Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sorry, Wrong Number? Britney Spears' "Telephone" Demo

One of the interesting side effects of the "factory style" process of songwriting within the ranks of the major music labels (which I have previously explained in some detail), for followers of the industry such as me at least, is that the nature of the practice is such that sometimes an artist scores a hit single with a song originally offered to or even written for an entirely different artist, or even pitched to multiple others before landing on a certain singer's album. Artists participating in the practice (which has been commonplace in popular music since its modern inception a century ago, so don't bother griping about "these singers today") typically juggle several dozen songs in preparing a new album. Some are considered and passed on based on just the sheet music or songwriter's demo tape; others are discarded after the artist records a basic demo cut; and still others are cut even after full recording and production is complete, until 10-16 or so tracks remain for the final official track list (some of the tracks in the third category have lately been offered as "bonus" tracks as a marketing tool).

The songs that don't make a certain artist's album, having been eliminated in one of the first two aforementioned stages, sometimes find their way onto the album of another artist usually on the same label, especially with songs written by contracted songwriters. Sometimes a new artist on the label will inherit the castoffs of one of the established stars, as with Kelly Clarkson's first non-idol single "Miss Independent," a song that had been turned down by Christina Aguilera. Other times the stars don't align in terms of timing and bureaucratic red tape, which for instance is the reason "Umbrella" became the biggest hit of Rihanna's career rather than that of its original target Britney Spears, whose label rejected the song before the star got a chance to weigh in, saying it had enough material for brilliant if sleepy dance album Blackout (at the time, of course, Spears was in no condition to make any kind of artistic decisions); or that of Mary J. Blige, who ironically was so sidetracked with obligations surrounding the 2007 Grammy Awards, where she was a major nominee and won three awards, that she was unable to commit to the song in time.

Contracted songwriter is a job that was once held by one Stefani Germanotta, who wrote for Sony/ATV Music Publishing before she was given the opportunity to record her own debut album and became Lady Gaga. While in that position, Germanotta penned at least two songs for the big comeback album of Jive legend Spears, and although neither made the ultimate cut for inclusion on the track listing for Circus, one of them, "Quicksand," was one of two bonus tracks for the European iTunes presale. The other, "Telephone," was cut from the album much earlier in the process, and Gaga ultimately recorded the song herself for the eight-track re-release EP The Fame Monster. The track, as you know, included a featured performance by Beyoncé, in a somewhat jocular pairing with the remix of the R&B superstar's track "Video Phone" from her own latest album I Am...Sasha Fierce, which in turn featured Lady Gaga. Beyoncé, however, was not the original intended guest star on the track; in early negotiations it was actually Spears who had been tapped for the duet. But Spears, by that time nearly ready to release her second "greatest hits" compilation and therefore in need of a new promotional single, apparently had the wise idea of using the previously discarded song with her headlining and Gaga in the featured role. Gaga, who has semi-subtly made known her disdain for performance-based acts like Spears (as opposed to singer-songwriters), was predictably less than amenable to the idea, and having since bought the rights to the song (that she wrote...yes, it's an odd system) essentially told Britney to embark on a strenuous walk along a nature trail.

And that has pretty much been the extent of the story of "Telephone" up to this point; Spears hardly suffered, scoring a record-breaking chart topper in Circus' lead single "Womanizer," a fifth number one album, three more top 40 singles, and a world tour second only to Madonna's Sticky and Sweet Tour in ticket sales and gross (over $35 million) among female artists in 2009, plus a third number one chart debut for the promotional single that ultimately supported her compilation album, "3." (One might also argue that despite the "Umbrella" and "Telephone" near-misses, Spears' song karma is balanced by her Grammy-winning hit "Toxic," which had been passed on by Kylie Minogue.) And, of course, Gaga has been doing all right for herself as well in the meanwhile.

But wait...there's more! Turns out, despite how the situation has seemed based on Gaga's public explanation of the "Telephone" backstory, the song was not merely swept aside by the Spears camp without much second thought. No, has uncovered what in the pop music world is something of a rare gem: the original demo recording of "Telephone" done by Britney Spears herself! The key word here is "demo" - I wouldn't want anyone to go into it expecting anything resembling polish or production; rather, the cut is a basic run-through of the first verse, chorus, and bridge sections of "Telephone," with a bit of light harmony in the chorus (which is probably the best and most different part of the demo rendition) and some bizarre electronic manipulation of Spears' lead vocal on the verse. She doesn't sound bad at all when the distortion lets up on the chorus and bridge, so I'm not entirely sure what the goal was there, and while the general tone and attitude differs significantly from Gaga's final cut, I actually prefer Britney's playful "my telephone!" repetitions at the end of the track over Gaga's sassy monotone.

All in all, Spears' demo offers an interesting look at what might have been, and while we'll never know how the final product would have turned out and how it might have compared to Gaga and Beyoncé's, it is fun to sneak a rare peek not only at a part of the recording process not generally publicly accessible and an example of how different artists impact (or don't) the same material in different ways. And for Britney fans out there like yours truly and superstar reader Kurt, who alerted me to this nice little find, it's just fun to hear the legendary Miss Britney Spears sing anything at all.

What do you think? Would Britney have done a better "Telephone," or how at least would it have likely differed? Would the Gaga/Britney duet have worked out, better or not as well as the Gaga/Beyoncé teamwork? And wouldn't Britney have been the only person who could have possibly made the video even campier than the Queen B and her Hostess snacks?

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