There’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.