A commonly misunderstood element of pop songwriting is how songs become associated with certain artists (when, of course, artists do not write the songs themselves - and before anyone gets on his high horse, this includes almost all major artists at one point or another and is a perfectly acceptable practice). Some performers are gifted songwriters: John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Carole King, Paul Simon, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Alanis Morissette, Gwen Stefani, Robyn, Pink, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and Adele are among the substantial faction. Some gifted songwriters aren't quite as successful performers, e.g. Ester Dean, Bonnie McKee, Keri Hilson, Ne-Yo, Linda Perry. Some great performers aren't especially remarkable songwriters: Madonna, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Justin Bieber... most of the major pop divas. And some remarkable songwriters aren't performers at all, like Cathy Dennis, Tricky Stewart, Max Martin, Scott Storch, and, when he's not being a weasel, Dr. Luke.
A few of the latter bunch weasel their way into writing credit on many of their songs for the artistic cred and more so for the royalty payments (*cough* Beyoncé *cough* and Dr. Luke does it too *cough*), which is either dastardly or lame, depending on your angle. The one who has always been admirably honest about the whole thing is Britney Spears, who rarely writes songs (though when she does they're usually surprising) and never takes credit where it isn't due, and doesn't rise up to the bait of those who suggest that this makes her somehow less of a true artist because she knows that she's BRITNEY FUCKING SPEARS. Every songwriter alive would eat his left big toe to write a song recorded by Britney Spears, even Stefani "Sour Grapes" Germanotta herself, and many of them have tried, most of them unsuccessfully and sometimes with premium material that occasionally finds its way to another artist's successful recording. One of the many reasons for this is that just about any song is elevated by earning a spot in Britney Spears's discography ('70s cover songs arguably excepted) because Britney Spears is Britney Spears, and there's something about Britney Spears that's magic but fascinatingly impossible to pinpoint.
While researching for an upcoming piece on hit singles that were initially written by or offered to artists other than the one(s) that ultimately made them hits, I noticed several recurring names, but none as often, on both sides of the coin, as Britney Spears. Some of the could-have-been scenarios were familiar to me, while some inspired a raised eyebrow or dropped jaw. In any event, it was clear that the Britney examples warranted a separate piece, and voila. Follow me through the shattered looking gla-hee-ass and feast your imagination on ten alternate realities in which that which we know as Britney is not, and that which we do not know as Britney in fact is.
The Britney That Might Have Been
1. "Telephone" (originally written for and offered to Britney Spears; ultimately recorded by Lady Gaga and Beyoncé)
Many people are to some extent familiar with the story of how "Telephone" became a top ten hit for Lady Gaga, its writer, rather than Britney Spears, for whom it was originally written, but for those in the dark here's the rub. Before Lady Gaga became LADY GAGA she was writing tunes for Sony, and one of them, "Telephone," was sent over to Britney Spears' team, who passed, as Spears had already recorded enough tracks for her then-upcoming comeback album Circus. Later, after Gaga became LADY GAGA and was preparing her stylistically transitional EP The Fame Monster, Gaga wisely bought the song back from Sony to record as a surefire smash single for the project, not to mention a duet - with Britney Spears. However, in a characteristically brilliant bit of marketing savvy, Spears endeavored to include the cut on her upcoming compilation album The Singles Collection. Lady Gaga, who
- Had(s) left little doubt that her oft-repeated public disdain for the practice of lip-synching in live performances were directed specifically at Spears;
- Clearly needs the world to know and appreciate the enormous effort she puts into her craft because this makes her better than the kids who made fun of her in school;
- Has always come off as somehow offended by the effortlessness with which Britney Spears retains her place atop the pop pantheon
- Was at the time still only 24 years old,
Legendary pop writer Cathy Dennis wrote this song for Spears as a response to Justin Timberlake's tell-all "Cry Me a River," but when Spears decided to go a different direction with her response ("Everytime," one of the more mature moments in her career) Dennis and producers Bloodshy and Avant eventually offered the song to former S Club 7 member Rachel Stevens for her debut solo single. It did OK.
3. "Whiplash" (Originally written by and for Britney Spears; ultimately recorded by Selena Gomez and the Scene)
During writing sessions for Circus, veteran Spears songwriter Nicole Morier sat down with Spears for a few uncharacteristic writing sessions, and the two ultimately crafted a track by producer Greg Kurstin into "Whiplash." The record didn't make the cut for Circus, but found an eager fan in Selena Gomez as she prepared her 2011 album When the Sun Goes Down. According to an interview Vertigo Shtick recently did with Morier, the absurdist/avant garde pre-chorus came entirely from the brain of Spears, who during the session retired into a room alone in the writing studio and emerged with it scribbled on her pad.
4. "Milkshake" (Originally offered to Britney Spears; ultimately recorded by Kelis)
This one was a bit of a head-turner. The Neptunes wrote "Milkshake" around 2001-02 and initially, or at least at one point, suggested it for Spears, but ultimately used it for the lead single off Kelis' third album, Tasty. It hit number 3 on the Hot 100 and made Kelis a household name, while it probably would have been a moderately embarrassing filler song on Britney and wouldn't have fit at all on In the Zone. The pop gods are happy with this one.
5. "Umbrella" (Originally written for Britney Spears; offered to Mary J. Blige; ultimately performed by Rihanna)
The "Umbrella" saga is somewhat well known, perhaps because it so dramatically exemplifies the soap opera moments behind the emerald curtain in the creation of pop music album; if you don't know it, though, let me relate to you the tale using a technique I used to use in college when studying for history exams: colloquialized storytelling.
In January 2007, producers Tricky Stewart and The-Dream were messing around in the studio and came up with the famous beat and subsequently the remainder of a song called "Umbrella," which they correctly predicted was a surefire smash hit. They thought about who to offer it to, and immediately thought of Britney Spears, who at the time was recently divorced and at the head-shaving point in her nervous breakdown. The thinking was that Spears, whom the producers loved dearly, needed help, and a smash single might do some good in that direction.
Alas, Britney's people sent it back unopened, saying they had enough material for Blackout. So, the demo was sent to a few others, including Taio Cruz, but he wasn't yet big enough to have the clout to convince his label to release it. L.A. Reid, of Island Def Jam and now X-Factor, opted it and eventually someone thought it might make a good single for Rihanna. But it was Grammy season, and Mary J. Blige was having a big year (she had eight nominations and ultimately won for Best R&B Album, R&B Song, and Female R&B Performance), so Stewart and The-Dream sent it her way. She listened, she liked, but she just didn't have much time at that moment, so L.A. Reid stepped in and made the producers a killer offer (as he does) to buy the song for Rihanna's upcoming album, Good Girl Gone Bad. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Britney That Might Not Have Been
1. "Toxic" (Originally offered to Kylie Minogue)
This is one of the classic "what were you thinking?" seeming-blunders of pop history, although since fans of Kylie and Britney largely overlap, it's hard for fans to see this as anything less than win-win. It was certainly a win for Spears, including at the Grammys, where she collected her first (and so far only) award, for Best Dance Recording. Ever classy, Minogue has never said much about why she passed on the hit, written by "Can't Get You Out of My Head" scribe Cathy Dennis, as if content to have given Spears the opportunity to make arguably her best record to date.
2. "Trouble for Me" (Originally written by and for Livvi Franc)
Arguably the best cut on Femme Fatale was written by Heather Bright and Livvi Franc on acoustic guitar and intended for a project by Franc, but when Britney Spears comes a-knocking and says "I like your song, and I'd like to put it on my album - and NOT totally screw you over with royalties by giving myself writing credit," well... Bright posted a very insightful blog post about the song and Britney's business manners, which you might find interesting (I did) except that it's been taken down, which is a shame. Here's a summary.
3. "I'm a Slave 4 U" (Originally offered to Janet Jackson)
4. "Hold It Against Me" (Originally written for Katy Perry)
Given that they share writing teams and had albums in development at roughly the same time, it's not shocking that "Hold It Against Me" was initially intended for Teenage Dream. That album didn't need another sexual pun song ("Peacock" more than suffices), and Dr. Luke, Max Martin and Spears recognized the potential in the song (co-written by hit-maker Bonnie McKee) and worked with hot new producer Billboard (responsible for most of the breakdown that changed pop) to make it into the trendsetting milestone it ultimately became. Perry, for her part, already had her two big singles for Teenage Dream (and, we would learn, several more too), which would have been nearly finished when Spears was still in early-ish stages of recording Femme Fatale, and "Hold It Against Me" would likely have been far lesser, by design, on Teenage Dream than it became.
5. "...Baby One More Time" (Originally offered to TLC)
This is like when Lady Jane Grey was Queen of England for about 2.5 seconds because someone thought she'd be better than the semi-bastard 20-something who would become Elizabeth I. Max Martin, who had already created the Backstreet Boys and Robyn by the time Jive sent sixteen-year-old former Mickey Mouse Club star Britney Spears to Sweden in search of, well, something (no one knew what to do with her at first, actually), but he wasn't perfect (nor is he now, although he's much closer than anyone else). Fortunately groundbreaking hip-hop/R&B group TLC had their wits about them and rejected "...Baby One More Time" while preparing mega-hit comeback album FanMail, and then a light bulb went on when Max met Britney. Thank GOD.
Freaky, huh? Fortunately, everything turned out the way it did. Or is that fortunate? Let me know in the comments what you think!
And just in case you're still a little unbalanced, allow me to reassure you that all is as it should be.