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.
Don’t call it a comeback. The word “comeback” is simply insufficient to describe what was happening with Britney Spears in 2008. Britney’s whole saga is a wild, twisty, depressing ordeal that indicts all of Bush-era American culture. Britney Spears, Miss American Dream since she was 17, was idolized, demonized, and broken by the celebrity-industrial complex when that whole machine was operating at its dehumanizing peak. She never had a chance. When Britney returned to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time since her epoch-defining 1999 smash “Baby One More Time,” she was already operating as a human ATM machine for the people who’d assumed total legal control of her life.
And yet Britney Spears never stopped making hits. Even when she was in the deepest depths of her personal problems, Britney held pop music in her thrall. Britney only notched a few top-10 hits in the ’00s, but that’s not really a reflection of her music or of its popularity; it’s simply a sign that she was succeeding in metrics that the Hot 100 wasn’t properly equipped to measure. Britney’s return to the top was partly the result of a canny publicity campaign, but it was also a sign that Billboard had finally caught up to Britney. When Britney released “Womanizer,” she didn’t have to rely on radio or on sales of physical media. Instead, our new century’s ultimate digital diva could surf a tide of iTunes downloads, as the public consumed her hyperreal dance-pop blasts one tidily packaged three-minute MP3 file at a time.
“Womanizer,” the song that returned Britney Spears to #1, is not one of the woman’s canonical classics, but it did its job. After selling hundreds of thousands of iTunes downloads in its first week, “Womanizer” surged from #96 to #1 — at the time, the biggest Hot 100 leap in history — and temporarily dislodged T.I. and Rihanna’s “Live Your Life” juggernaut. That kicked off a whole new run of Britney smashes, as her various handlers presented her to the world, once again, as an efficient vessel for hooks and beats and choreography and catchphrases. As always, the real story was a whole lot more complicated.
Within the first few seconds of her first video, Britney Spears captured the world’s fascination. “Baby One More Time” was the song that changed everything, the Armageddon comet of the TRL era. Britney Spears went on to sell 14 million copies of her debut album in the US alone. She kicked the tabloids into a feeding-frenzy fervor when she started dating the ramen-haired *NSYNC heartthrob Justin Timberlake, a fellow former Mouseketeer and a figure who’s already been in this column a bunch of times. Britney was still just a baby, but she’d spend her next album trying to convince the world otherwise.
In the summer of 2000, Britney Spears released her iconically titled sophomore album Oops!… I Did It Again, which sold more than a million copies in its first week and which eventually went diamond. Once again, Britney worked primarily with Swedish pop mastermind Max Martin, who understood how to write melodies that hit like sledgehammer to your ribcage. On the album’s title track, Britney insisted that she was “not that innocent” — not a girl, not yet someone who had to deal with a womanizer. (“Oops!… I Did It Again” peaked at at way-too-low #9. It’s a 9. Follow-up bangers “Lucky” and “Stronger” didn’t even make the top 10, which does not reflect well on Billboard‘s early-’00s tabulation methods.)
Eventually, the world came to accept the notion that Britney Spears was not that innocent, and she steered into the eye of the storm. In 2001, Britney released the Neptunes-produced single “I’m A Slave 4 U,” and its video was the closest thing to an orgy that MTV could air during daylight hours. The song didn’t quite earn Britney the futuristic R&B cred that she might’ve been chasing. Instead, it worked as a signal that Britney’s hyper-glossy artificiality would follow her into any and every genre that she might attempt. “I’m A Slave 4 U” only reached #27, but the image of Britney with the python at the VMAs is forever.
Over the next few years, Britney Spears was one of the most exhaustively documented people on the planet. She broke up with Justin Timberlake and served as the target of his petty masterpiece “Cry Me A River.” (“Cry Me A River” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.) She starred in her own B-movie vehicle Crossroads, which was directed by Tamra Davis, Mrs. Mike D, and written by a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Shonda Rhimes. She made out with Madonna during the opening of the 2003 VMAs, and the camera missed the Madonna/Christina Aguilera makeout moment to catch Justin Timberlake’s reaction. Britney was everywhere. MTV was hers.
While all this was happening, Britney continued to crank out albums, and those albums didn’t sell as well as her first two. Even at her lowest, though, Britney reliably did platinum numbers. She didn’t land another top-10 hit until the busy, claustrophobic “Toxic” made it to #9 in 2004. (It’s a 9.) On that track, the Swedish producers Bloodshy & Avant went for a kind of Basement Jaxx-esque joyous, discombobulating maximalism. I remember this as the moment that rock critics started taking Britney seriously, though it was more that we took the song seriously. Britney herself would not get credit as a cultural game-changer for a very, very long time.
Whether or not she had a song in the top 10, Britney Spears was an overwhelming presence, and she did not always react well to all that attention. The wilder she got, the more voracious the attention became. In 2004, Britney married some rando at a Vegas chapel and then had the marriage immediately annulled. Later that year, she married Kevin Federline, the dancer who’d been the best-looking of the Orange County bad guys in You Got Served. Federline loved the attention that came with being Britney’s husband, and the two starred in Chaotic, a reality miniseries with serious car-crash appeal.
Britney Spears became a mother at 23, and she took a couple of years off of releasing music, but the attention didn’t go away. Whenever Britney went anywhere, paparazzi would mob her. Photographers would pray for the opportunity to catch Britney doing something ratchet, and a few of them had their prayers answered when Britney drove with a baby on her lap or went clubbing without wearing underwear. She divorced Kevin Federline soon after the birth of her second son, and their bitter custody battle was probably the root cause of a very public 2007 meltdown.
If you were alive in 2007, if you had any access to the internet at all, then the details of Britney’s dark period don’t even bear repeating. We all lived through it. We couldn’t escape it. Britney shaved her head. She left a rehab facility after less than a day. She bashed a photographer’s car with an umbrella. Most of her worst moments came immediately after she was prevented from seeing her kids. The tabloid press documented all of Britney’s struggles with gleeful schadenfreude. People like Perez Hilton made fortunes by exploiting this young woman’s personal crisis. It was gross.
While all this was going on, Britney Spears kept working, and she drew on that chaos for her 2007 album Blackout. For my money, that’s Britney’s masterpiece — a sleazed-out electro-pop opus that directly addressed the untenable reality of Britney Spears’ life. When Britney performed lead single “Gimme More” at the VMAs that year, she seemed robotic and barely present, which makes perfect sense in retrospect. But even as people rushed to pass judgment, the record and its attendant publicity shot Britney right back into the pop zeitgeist. “Gimme More” peaked at #3 — her biggest chart hit since “Baby One More Time.” (It’s an 8.) Britney also got to #18 with “Piece Of Me,” an amazing song that turns the hell of Britney’s life into a sleek, ingenious jam. It might be my favorite Britney Spears song ever.
Britney didn’t tour or do press for Blackout; she didn’t need any help generating headlines. Britney wasn’t involved in writing most of the songs on Blackout — she’s almost never been involved in writing her songs — but I still think of Blackout as the moment when her authorial voice came through most clearly. The album dug into the murk of her public life while still functioning as big-tent pop music, and it anticipated the coming EDM boom. There are deep cuts on Blackout that, at least to my mind, should’ve been huge hits. (“Heaven On Earth“? That’s a song.) Within a few months, Britney would lose whatever control she’d won over both her career and her life.
Two months after the release of Blackout, Britney refused to send her kids back to Kevin Federline. Police, called to Britney’s house, hospitalized her involuntarily, and a court granted a temporary conservatorship that gave complete control of Britney’s life and finances to her father and a court-appointed lawyer. That kind of conservatorship is a drastic step, one that’s usually reserved for elderly people who can’t look after themselves. In Britney’s case, the temporary conservatorship lasted for more than 13 years.
Britney’s father and her handlers put her to work and built a whole comeback narrative around her. MTV was only too happy to help out. The year after the “Gimme More” debacle, and a few months after she guested on an episode of How I Met Your Mother, Britney returned to the VMAs, opening the show by doing a comedy sketch with Jonah Hill and then accepting every big award for her “Piece Of Me” clip. All of this was intended to set up the arrival of Circus, the grand-return pop album that would come out on Britney’s 27th birthday. Circus sold a half-million copies in its first week, and “Womanizer” was its first single.
“Womanizer” came from an Atlanta-based songwriting and production team called the Outsyders. The Outsyders were total unknowns before making “Womanizer”; their only previous credit was a Keyshia Cole deep cut called “Oh-Oh, Yeah-Yea.” They wouldn’t make anything big after “Womanizer,” either. Nevertheless, “Womanizer” was aimed straight at the zeitgeist. Britney had already messed around with Euro-club music on Blackout, but “Womanizer” embraces that thumping electro-pop sound with single-minded focus. On the hook, Britney repeats one word so many times that it loses all meaning: “Womanizer woman womanizer you’re a womanizer oh womanizer oh you’re a womanizer bay-beh.” She sounds like Siri glitching out.
On paper, “Womanizer” is an empowering song directed at a cheating man. That’s how Britney described the track: “It’s a girl anthem. That’s why I like it.” But “Womanizer” works less as an anthem, more as a mantra. The production is minimal and maximal at the same time. Synths strobe around a four-on-the-floor house beat while Britney diagnoses the guy who just can’t stop messing around. Britney’s Auto-Tuned drawl, the sound of honey-dipped microchips, always had a vaguely predatory air, and “Womanizer” takes advantage of that. There’s no brash attitude to Britney’s “Womanizer” delivery. Instead, she sounds like she wants to eat this guy and spit out his bones. She knows what you are, what you are, bay-beh.
Even beyond that wildly repetitive chorus, “Womanizer” has extremely silly lyrics. Britney refers to the titular womanizer as both “superstar” and “daddy-o,” which is funny. The Outsyders stretch and torture the syntax: “Lollipop, must mistake me, you’re the sucker/ To think that I would be the victim, not another.” Maybe if you both lived in a different world, it would be all good, and maybe Britney could be your girl — but she can’t, ’cause you don’t. The one “Womanizer” line that really sticks is the moment where Britney achieves full self-awareness: “You say I’m crazy? I got your crazy.”
“Womanizer” is nowhere near Britney Spears’ best song, but it’s a song that understands Britney Spears. Britney is a brute-force performer, a singer who functions best when she shows absolutely zero vulnerability. As the Hot 100 swung around from rap and R&B to down-the-middle mega-pop, Britney was ready to take her throne back. Her old collaborator Max Martin was enjoying his own resurgence, and Britney Spears sounded like she belonged. Maybe it took a targeted cruise missile of a track like “Womanizer” to remind everyone.
The “Womanizer” video helped. Joseph Kahn, who’d already directed Britney’s live-action cartoon “Toxic” video and the hyperactive Fast & Furious ripoff Torque, opens the “Womanizer” clip with the image of a naked, oiled-up Britney in a sauna. In the moments that follow, Britney cooks a polygonal egg for her boyfriend, who then ventures out into the world and happily accepts the advances of three different women, all of whom are quite obviously Britney in different wigs. Nobody ever accused Kevin Federline of being a genius, but I would hope that he would know better than to cheat on Britney Spears with a waitress who’s clearly just Britney with red hair. At the end of the video, this goober is shocked to return home and realize that all his affairs are with different Britney alter-egos. And then Britney kicks him in the dick.
Britney had more hits on deck. She followed “Womanizer” with “Circus,” a Dr. Luke/Benny Blanco track that also worked as a kind of meta-reflection on being Britney Spears: “All eyes on me, in the center of the ring, just like a circus.” “Circus” made it as high as #3. (It’s an 8.) Britney followed that one with “If You Seek Amy,” which reunited her with her old collaborator Max Martin. That song couldn’t even really get radio play, since its chorus was just a clear excuse for Britney to sing the phrase “F-U-C-K me,” and it still made it to #19. Britney was fully, undeniably, back.
This big Britney return happened in deeply strange and fucked-up circumstances. Britney was making hits again, and she was projecting a tough sexual ferocity, but she had no control over her own career. Instead, the people in Britney’s life were using her for their own financial gain. They would keep doing this for many years, and they would make a whole lot of money from her. But those people did manage to package Britney effectively. Britney Spears was back on top, making hits, and we’ll see her in this column again.