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Feb 15

BRITNEY SPEARS – “Born To Make You Happy”

Popular27 comments • 2,491 views

#846, 29th January 2000

britneybornThere’s a lottery aspect to number ones: some acts routinely end up here with second-rate hits, others hardly appear at all. Britney Spears is a rarity: an artist whose less interesting singles are the ones that miss out – since “Baby One More Time” we’ve had the winsome shy-girl ballad “Sometimes” and “Crazy”, a less demure Cheiron stomper which – even three singles in – isn’t showing us anything new. “Born To Make You Happy” is showing us something new, though. The question is whether it’s something you want to see.

There might have been hints of it in “…Baby One More Time”, but the hunger and confidence of her debut turned them into red herrings. “Born To Make You Happy” is almost as striking a performance, but it’s also the first of Britney’s singles where she sounds abject, where romance is imagined as something dangerous, self-negating, even poisoned. This is an idea her songs keep coming back to – and the ones that dwell on it most are often her most famous. The Britney Spears discography is few people’s idea of a healthy relationship manual, and “Born” delivers the desperate self-denial its title promises. An argument against becomes easy to make: if Britney is any kind of role model, then this is a perilous way for her to operate. Is she, though?

I’ll put that thought aside and listen. “Born To Make You Happy” may introduce one of Britney’s most consistent themes, but it’s an outlier in terms of her sound. Scrape back the late-90s production Cheiron have skinned it in, and it’s the star at her most classicist – Brill Building heartbreak only lightly updated. It’s one of her most songful hits, asking her to carry a track rather than mesh with one. And in fact, she can do that very well. “Born To Make You Happy” lacks the technical pizzazz a more on-trend singer might have brought to it, but rather than fireworks Britney offers a different, older kind of spectacle. Her gulping, pleading, breathy vocal line on “Born” is pure melodrama, and it’s what makes me love the record even as I shudder at it. For a verse and chorus it’s pretty, but nothing more – the emotional heat is turned up slowly, but by the time we get to “so forgive me if I do”, Britney’s abjection is uncomfortably full-on. The arrangement reacts, rising, like “I Want It That Way” – whose co-writer Andreas Carlsson gets a credit here – to meet its inevitable key change, by which time Britney’s falling to pieces. Once again, the Cheiron way is to have enough faith in its hooks to build a pop track up rather than front-load the excitement, so the song hits harder the more it goes on.

If the basic song is as classicist as Britney gets, the over-the-top drama of the single’s second half also reminds me of 60s girl pop. Specifically the way that the hits of Lesley Gore, or the Crystals, or the Shangri-Las are best understood as a kind of ultra-stylised ritual drama, a pop equivalent of Kabuki or Greek tragedy. Rather than attempting any sort of naturalistic exploration of an emotion or situation, they’re all about focus and unnatural extremity, crushing the coal and grime of lived emotion into the diamond perfection of a three-minute hit.

“Born To Make You Happy” hits its emotional crisis on the middle eight, which at first promises respite, with swirling, gospel-styled backing vocals. The words – just like “Baby One More Time” – have religious overtones too: “call out my name / and I will be there / just to show you how much I care”. That phrasing is also a callback to Madonna, but “Born To Make You Happy” is a reversal of “Like A Prayer”’s sacred alchemy, where sex dissolved religion, and merged worshipper and worshipped. For Britney, those lines remain indelibly drawn: when her professed devotion reaches out for religious phrasing and the song tips back into meltdown, the vibe is something more like martyrdom.

Something does feel inescapably skeevy to me about all this, though not because – as some at the time had it – Britney records were being sold to perverts. The paraphernalia around her could reach in that direction – her salacious Rolling Stone shoot, for instance, wasn’t done for the sake of the girls buying this single. That sort of marketing twisted the rest of her public persona – at this point she’s America’s most famous virgin – in an unpleasant direction. (Especially for a listener in Britain, where there’s no big audience base that such claims might appeal to, the insistence on Britney’s chastity was sad and disturbing, putting a star in an impossible future position by making the question of her virginity public property. We’ll see some of the consequences of all this down the road.)

But “Born To Make You Happy” is not a sexy song – Spears specifically asked to tone down the lyrics on that front – and isn’t directly pitched at male listeners. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the trouser-rubbing contingent getting excited by this: in the taxonomy of women as absorbed by young boys, the melodramatic excess of “Born To Make You Happy” might just as easily be read as that most toxic of stereotypes – clingy, stalky, high maintenance. So forget that – but this still leaves the abjection of the song to be reckoned with. So let’s step away from Britney Spears as fantasy and go back to that troublesome idea, Britney as ‘role model’. The idea that fans take performers as an inspiration isn’t controversial – though the notion this might mean stars are under some obligation to live good lives has traditionally been a conservative line of attack against celebrity. But what’s not so often talked about – and what’s most relevant right here – is the idea that a pop song itself is a model. Not in the sense of something to be emulated, but something to be learned from – a way to process ideas and feelings.

This song is desperate, awkward, overdramatic, and stylised, and it’s far more a soap opera breakdown than a come-on. Just like “…Baby One More Time” all this grand guignol emotion is squarely put there for teen or tween fans to relate to. In this case, it’s a soundtrack to some of their basest, most self-destructive instincts, Britney’s equivalent of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, say. Those instincts are particularly harmful because they are shaped and normalised by a world that’s arranged for men. But the instincts are theirs, nonetheless, to be felt and worked through – and pop has always had a role to play in that. “Born To Make You Happy” is horrible and electrifying. Most of the horror comes from the world. Most of the electricity comes from the singer.

7

Comments

  1. 1
    Ricardo on 4 Feb 2015 #

    I would actually beg to disagree in regards to this being an example of how her most memorable songs manage to reach the summit. If anything, BTMYH is typical album-cycle-ender-single material: serviceable, does the trick but ultimately disposable. It’s not for nowt this isn’t usually top of mind when naming any Britney song.
    Mere trivia: this was an Europe-only single. America went exactly for the same type of workmanlike fodder, except in the form of a syrupy ballad: “From The Bottom of My Broken Heart”.

  2. 2
    mapman132 on 4 Feb 2015 #

    I was going to mention this never having been released in the US but Ricardo beat me to it. That’s 9 straight and counting with no appearance on the Hot 100. I don’t think I’ve heard this before as a result. I like it more now than I probably would have at the time: 6/10.

  3. 3
    swanstep on 4 Feb 2015 #

    Britney looked quite chic in the vid. for this:
    http://youtu.be/Yy5cKX4jBkQ
    More later.

  4. 4
    Chelovek na lune on 4 Feb 2015 #

    Not Britney at her best. It is a slick, well-put together, competent, number – but still essentially pleasing background music on the radio rather than seriously attention-drawing.

    And the lyrics….oh dear. The problem is not the “clingy” “high maintenance” thing (I had barely thought of that) – but rather the complete self-abnegation (and not necessarily for any better end) they imply. They drag the whole thing down for me, which is a pity, as the melody is likeable enough.

    5

  5. 5
    abcfsk on 4 Feb 2015 #

    I did not know that this was not released in the US. It stands among Britney’s most famous singles here in Norway, and it’s been my go-to Britney for Singstar.

  6. 6
    Tom on 4 Feb 2015 #

    #4 I revised the last couple of paragraphs to make the point about the high-maintenance thing clearer – I agree with you the abjectness is the barrier here. (And I put in a bonus troll-y comparison re. the abjection, sorry.)

  7. 7
    Tom on 4 Feb 2015 #

    I don’t know if he’d thank me for linking it, but since the related articles hasn’t done its job, here’s a very young Tim Finney on “Born To Make You Happy” from April 2000 http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/2000/04/britney/ – we are now at the point on Popular where we’re covering songs that were debated here the first time round.

  8. 8
    Ben Cook on 4 Feb 2015 #

    I think part of the reason this went to #1 despite being the 4th track off the album was the insanely long build up to the single release. The video had been played on The Box etc since October. Similarly, Christina Aguilera’s “What A Girl Wants” similarly had been played since November before finally being released in February.

    Of course they had already been playing the waiting game for some time but 2000 seemed to be the point where it just went nuts and by the time singles were finally being released they seemed old already, which, along with the high turnover at the top, started to make the charts irrelevant.

  9. 9
    Tom on 4 Feb 2015 #

    That’s interesting – I hadn’t really thought about (because I didn’t watch them) how video channels were operating on different timescales to radio and the charts. This is the era when TRL was a massive power player in US pop – and when US pop was starting to have more of an impact here after a fairly divergent 1990s.

    Also slightly surprised this was never a US single, though! For some reason – maybe because it was the flashpoint of blog arguments at the time – I assumed it was one of her signature hits, but that isn’t remotely so. I still stand by the first paragraph, though – it deserves attention a lot more than “Sometimes” or “Crazy”, or later weepies like “From The Bottom Of My Broken Heart”.

  10. 10
    JLucas on 4 Feb 2015 #

    Pleased to read such a thoughtful, broadly positive take on this one. It’s always been one of my favourite Britney singles. It’s very much a sonic sister to …Baby One More Time (whereas Sometimes and Crazy were more standard-issue pop songs) but if anything even more melodramatic – and somewhat sadder. If you were going to read a little too much into it – and why the hell not? – you could envision it as the emotional sequel. On BOMT she’s desperate, but there’s a confidence there. By BTMYH she’s reached the pleading stage. Tom his the nail on the head about how needy it sounds; I don’t think she’s going to get him back..

    Musically, this is the brand of pop music I just love. It sounds so rich and whole-hearted, with fabulously committed vocals (featuring backing support from Nana Hedin, an unsung heroine of Cheiron pop) and one of the best middle-eights of the genre. Britney had one more round of this kind of pop before she (wisely) moved on. She’ll be cooler than this in future, but for me never quite as endearing.

    9/10

  11. 11
    lonepilgrim on 4 Feb 2015 #

    there have been many precedents for this kind of lyric – ‘He hit me and it felt like a kiss’ being one of the more disturbing. That at least has an air of passion to it whereas what I found most unsettling about ‘Born to make you happy’ is Britney’s Stepford-like tone. Her voice has been processed so that it sounds like she’s speaking via intercom or over a CCTV monitor, hoping that someone is listening, wanting to please them. It would fit the soundtrack for Fifty Shades of Grey perfectly.

  12. 12
    Mark M on 4 Feb 2015 #

    You can definitely imagine a conversation along the lines of:
    ‘Brit: I can’t believe you’re saying we’re over after all I’ve done for you…

    Bloke: Yeah, that’s kind of the thing. I never asked you to do any of that. I know in songs it’s meant to be moving when someone says they can’t live without you, but in reality… I’m trying not to be mean, but it can be kind of creepy. Don’t you want to go hang out with your friends, sometime? I know I need to spend some time with the guys. I don’t know, sometimes I feel like you’re drowning me…’

    As Tom half-hints in the rewritten closing, that kind of abjection was a (much- mocked in some quarters) element in ’80s indie pop, which was felt by some as celebrating male romantic hopelessness (not so much “it’s better to have loved and lost etc” as “it’s better to have loved and got absolutely nowhere with it”). At it’s least extreme, The Blue Aeroplanes, “If I can’t talk to her/I’d like to talk about her” – and the other end (and I’m sure Harvey Williams knew exactly what the effect of this title would be), Another Sunny Day’s I’m In Love With A Girl Who Doesn’t Even Know I Exist. Taken too seriously, it could certainly be seen as unhealthy, but growing up is (hopefully) about getting over all that. In theory, anyway.

    But then that kind of thing is laced throughout pop. I’m pretty sure I’d run a mile if a woman ever quoted the lyrics of Toni Braxton’s Breathe Again at me…

  13. 13
    Ben Cook on 4 Feb 2015 #

    @Tom I think MTV and The Box had a massive impact on the UK charts in the early 2000s because a lot of people were subscribing to Sky Digital at that time. The popularity of the music video channels was such that they were able to get records in the top 10 even if they weren’t getting any radio support. It was quite normal for videos to go on The Box playlist 8 or 9 weeks before the release.

  14. 14
    Tom on 4 Feb 2015 #

    Yeah, exactly – pop is more used cathartically than literally (or perhaps I’m just happy to use catharsis as an excuse when it’s pop I like). Most of that indie stuff evokes the same sense of “oh dear…” in me that BTMYH does, more so obviously because I actually felt those things. But you can use songs to wallow in those feelings, or get through them, or both at once. There is still an issue in that it reinforces standards, normalises bad attitudes – as we will hopefully see, I’m keener on early 00s pop when I think it’s “healthy” as well as dramatic.

    (In a similar way I’m torn on the 50 Shades stuff – going on the frustration and anger of the kinksters I know, the film is doubtless gross, and said grossness should be pointed out, but there’s a sometimes thin line between that and criticism that seems to assume anyone seeing or liking it is an uncritical, impressionable dupe.)

  15. 15
    mrdiscopop on 4 Feb 2015 #

    I like the touches of flamenco guitar and the wah-wah guitar chord that acts as a punctuation mark throughout.

    Could do without the “my first piano solo” and the too-slick backing vocals.

    Britney’s own vocals aren’t any great shakes, but she inhabits the lyric, giving it a tenderness her later material lacks. It never struck me as one of her signature songs, though, so I’m surprised people here identify with it so strongly. Lucky, which is in the same musical vein but with a more obviously autobiographical lyric, always struck me as the better song.

  16. 16
    thefatgit on 4 Feb 2015 #

    Funny how themes begin to emerge, with the title of this and the unbunnied, raunchier Neptunes-produced offering from late 2001. Just what is Britney to her audience? Is she the submissive, pliant wish-fulfilment machine or the lonely girl looking for her one true love and looking to keep him at all costs, at the expense of her own happiness? BTMYH is problematic when these questions are raised, and Tom has covered that issue expertly in his review.

    The “born to make you happy” line was all I could recall of this. The mid-tempo Britney isn’t as engaging as the up-tempo Britney based on the evidence offered by Popular so far. And yes, this abjection is a stumbling block for me, but not enough of one to call it a “bad” pop song. What Cheiron has brought to the party is pleasant enough, and that alone tips the scales towards a 6.

  17. 17
    Tommy Mack on 4 Feb 2015 #

    I’ve never heard this (I don’t think!) I’m meant to be working right now so can’t Youtube it but I thought Britney’s second #1 was [probable near-Popular-future bunny]. Around this time I was wrapped up in self-releasing my band’s single (Wilmslow Our Price manageress: “How many copies do you want us to stock?” Me: “A hundred for the first week?” WOPM: “Well Boyzone’s people send us 30 so why don’t we start with 15?”) so the only radio I listened to was John Peel in the (as it turned out, vain) hope that he’d play it*. Hence I was somewhat out of touch with the charts. Also, I was getting into skating, hanging out with drum&bass and hip-hop heads who’d have scorned an interest in pop music.

    The abjection thing doesn’t bother me so much (as Tom and others have said, there’s a sense of theatre to it so you don’t imagine anyone’s listening to it as a lifestyle guide). The vintage pop that feels most uncomfortable is the stuff where women are singing ‘I’m his to do whatever he wants with’-type stuff really cheerily like it’s the best thing in the world. That feels far more evocative of a world in which it’s a really shit deal to be a woman.

    Britney Spears got a really, really rough ride of it IIRC. I won’t dwell as it’s ghoulish and anyway probably more relevant later but seemed more like the fate of a tragic Victorian heroine than a modern pop star and certainly you can’t imagine a male performer getting the same bum deal.

    *but BBC Lancashire and Silk FM did: showbiz bigtime beckoned!

  18. 18
    flahr on 4 Feb 2015 #

    Never heard this one before. Feels like a sort of B*Witched “2 Become 1”.

  19. 19
    punctum on 5 Feb 2015 #

    Although “Born To Make You Happy” isn’t top drawer Britney, it was nevertheless good, and something of a relief, to see her back at the top of the charts. While lyrically the song is disappointingly conservative – women are born to make men happy and become snivelling fools immediately men walk out on them; where’s James Brown with his man-made children’s toys when you need him, even though the video ends with Britney and her Other reunited and indulging in a pillow fight? – musically it demonstrates the embarrassingly wide gap between the dullness of mainstream British pop and the acute intelligence which informed even the most workaday of pop elsewhere. It was another Swedish production – composed by Andreas Carlsson and Kristian Lundin – and retains both an icy clarity of sonic creativity and the great post-Abba melancholic sweep of huge, poignant chord changes. Britney’s performance is an immaculate slice of acting, ranging from the knowing laugh following her opening “Ohhhh, my love” to the convincing breakdown in the couplet “I don’t wanna cry a tear for you/So forgive me if I do.” Imagine the forty minutes of melisma which Westlife would have been made to coax out of the latter; then rejoice as colour and intelligence continue to make a welcome reappearance in Popular.

  20. 20
    Rory on 5 Feb 2015 #

    When I binged on Britney’s albums last time she appeared here, I agreed with Tom’s assessment that they got steadily better up to Blackout, which also meant that working your way back they got steadily worse. …Baby One More Time didn’t hold much interest for me past the title track. This song did stand out, though, from its surrounding album tracks – the other singles mentioned previously – with a less saccharine production than “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart”, in particular. It still has some surface features that would have put me off at the time, but I don’t mind them so much now, and the melody and performance are memorable.

    I can’t help comparing and contrasting the implications of the title with this male-sung parallel. The rest of the lyrics are standard “I’m sorry you’re gone, wish you were back” fare. There’s a hopeful note in the second verse, though: “I know I’ve been a fool since you’ve been gone / I’d better give it up and carry on / … / living in a dream of you and me / Is not the way my life should be”. She’ll get over it. 6.

  21. 21
    Elmtree on 5 Feb 2015 #

    This made no impression on me at the time (age 11, male, at a school where she was popular) – I remember the ‘I was born to happy’ and ‘way my life should be’ hooks, but I certainly didn’t register that it was by Britney. I kind of assumed her career skipped from Baby One More Time to…well, no spoilers. This just seems to move forwards. The core’s the beat running faster than the song’s natural tempo, and it works: it may have a bit of a sewing-machine feel, but this has an urgency most ballads don’t.

    The title sounds a bit Fifty Shades of Grey, but there’s not much of that feeling in the vocal – it’s feisty and energetic. I really don’t get the feeling she’s sounding particularly sad. I see this as a pop song about consumerism, like begging your parents for a new toy – she says she really wants the boy, but you don’t get the feeling from the vocal that she minds *too* much about not getting to have him.

  22. 22
    Kinitawowi on 6 Feb 2015 #

    One of my Uni mates picked up the Britney album for what I’m sure were somewhat less than wholesome reasons, and I remember this song jumping straight out at me as my favourite thing on it long before it materialised as the fourth single, so I was definitely happy to see it hit the top spot.

    An older and wiser me isn’t as fond as I was then – what’s with the “borun” pronunciation, and why do I seem to feel this weird affinity with songs from the just-about-to-be-dumped? – but I’d still rather listen to this than anything else she’s ever recorded.

    8.

  23. 23
    Rory on 6 Feb 2015 #

    #22: “Borun” is just a case of Americans pronouncing their Rs: see here. As an r-less Aussie it takes a bit of getting used to, hearing my Scottish kids say “wer-uld” and “ger-ul” for world and girl. Biggest ear-opener, though, was when I realised that (most? all?) Americans say “were-unt” for “weren’t”. My brain refused to process what I was hearing there until my late 30s, and then I heard it everywhere.

  24. 24
    weej on 6 Feb 2015 #

    This has never been one of my favourites, and another listen doesn’t do it any favours. The production is dated in all the wrong ways, all lite-soul backing vocals and that rubbish drum loop that tediously repeats all the way through. There’s no movement in it, no real difference between the verse and the chorus, and this is so distracting that it’s hard to focus on what Britney is doing. And the piano solo at the end is the worst, it sounds like the theme from This Morning, and now I cannot unhear. I’d much rather ‘Crazy’ were here instead – it might be pepsi max variations on the BOMT theme, but its melodrama is at least fun to listen to.

  25. 25
    Duro on 9 Feb 2015 #

    I am so conflicted about this one, the lyrics are hideous and would be justifiably destroyed on twitter nowadays. However, I remember it playing the night I first kissed my future wife in a drunken haze* (one day short of 15 years since the posting of this review) and… it’s almost a tune.

    5/10, removing at least one point for gross lyrical content.

    *Makes it sound at least ten times more romantic than it actually was

  26. 26
    Erithian on 12 Feb 2015 #

    Things people were mainly born to do according to YouTube: die, be wild, run, be alive, be with you (the last one because I’d recently seen the Dave Edmunds video).

    Ha, I like the idea of the lyrics being destroyed on Twitter! There was a Twitterstorm about the latest 1D bunny, with feminists I’d normally sympathise with getting a bit too aerated about an inoffensive pop lyric that was hardly B****** L****. Anyway, I get the point about the abject position of the narrator of the song, but this is probably my favourite Britney record – the vocal is particularly affecting and the production seems altogether less calculating and cynical than “…Baby One More Time”. Like the video too, in which apart from the lovelorn role she’s playing, she looks like she doesn’t have a care in the world.

    Another reason I have fond memories of this – standing in our twins’ bedroom up to my elbows in cack and the occasional bout of projectile vomit, singing to them “I was born to change your nappy…”

  27. 27
    ciaran on 18 Feb 2015 #

    Nowhere near vintage Britney by any means and as soon as I heard the first 3 to 4 seconds I felt like shouting out ‘Boring’. A ‘will this do’ going through the motions effort from the U.S teen pop juggernaut. Crazy would have been a good Number 1.BTMYH not so much.

    3.

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