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Mar 15

BRITNEY SPEARS – “Oops!… I Did It Again”

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#858, 13th May 2000

britney oopsHow do you follow “…Baby One More Time”? Perhaps you can’t. Britney Spears’ second album splits the job, starting with two songs that plainly exist in “Baby”’s shadow. One is an overt sequel, “Stronger” – eager, catchy dance-pop that’s more upbeat than the first instalment: “My loneliness ain’t killing me no more”, Spears sings. Glad to hear it. The other is “Oops… I Did It Again”, which hit listeners initially as a straight-up clone of “…Baby One More Time”: the mid-paced, dancer-ready stomp, the melodrama, the end-of-song pile-on. And as that half-mocking title signalled, the song knew it.

The similarities weren’t enough to dismiss “Oops”, because if you copy a classic you might easily end up somewhere very good. Clone or not, “Oops” became one of Britney Spears’ signature tracks – a highlight of her tours and now her Vegas residency. But the resemblance meant that what “Oops” does differently – its startling gamble with its breakdown, its development of the singer’s persona, and the uses it starts to find for her voice – was overlooked.

But if Max Martin had somehow restrained from ripping himself off for Britney’s comeback, he’d have been the only one. “Oops” sounds a bit like “….Baby One More Time”. But by Spring 2000 half the charts sounded a bit like “…Baby One More Time”. British acts showed themselves especially keen students of Martin’s Cheiron studios and the new Swedish pop. It worked, too – several upcoming number ones come decked out with Cheiron-style crashing chords and floor-friendly melodrama, crowding out more authentically Max-factor productions from the Backstreet Boys or N’Sync. “Oops” was never likely to end the sound’s hot streak.

You need to look at a different Britney song to best understand how the Max Martin approach worked and how it could fail: “Satisfaction”, her Rolling Stones cover. Just as “…Baby” or “Oops” don’t, in fact, reveal more of themselves when covered by a dude with a guitar, so “Satisfaction” exposes the methods and limits of the sound by breaking a great pop record upon its wheel. The Cheiron style is built around an excess of emphasis – massive boldface syllables, power chords, and single steam-hammer beats all hitting in unison. Tightly choreographed formation dancing – freezing into shapes or throwing down on the heavy beats – completes the effect. “Satisfaction” shows what this can’t do – the Stones’ track doesn’t have the primary-coloured chords that Max-pop needs, and is front-loaded with Keith Richards’ riff, which Britney’s cover simply can’t find room for but – fatally – can’t replace either.

But listening to a misfire like “Satisfaction” leads to a better appreciation of Martin’s tricks and tics, too. In the great Cheiron numbers, the first half of a song uses the bombastic emphasis to crank up tension, which breaks near the end – often with a key change – to give the climaxes of their tracks their delirious potency, as every hook rains down at once like a videogame combo attack. Like glam rock, it’s an immediately recognisable, and not terribly subtle style, and like glam, it enjoyed a brief moment of unmatched pop dominance.

Digging into the Max Martin and Cheiron way of pop is important, because “Oops…I Did It Again” uses and plays with it so magnificently. For me, this is a peak of Britney and Max Martin’s early careers – just as good as its template, perhaps better. As a piece of classic pop songwriting, “Oops” is inferior – “…Baby” has that dynamite sixties melodrama going on, and it feels so complete and satisfying it’s irresistible. But “Oops” takes it as a model and vaults it, going beyond its aspirations to lay foundations for the rest of Britney’s career.

For a start, she actually sounds happy on it. Her singles had been a sequence of teenage agonies, with “Born To Make You Happy” pushing her melodrama to an unnerving limit. “Oops” goes in a completely different direction – now she’s the one in control while her luckless boy makes a fool of himself. “Oops” isn’t a word you say when you sincerely regret anything, and Britney clearly doesn’t. It means she gets to sing the song in a rather different way from earlier singles – breaking out a sarcastic snap that’ll end up as one of her most recognisable styles. She still flirts with melodrama – “To lose all my senses…” – but knowingly undercuts it, makes a joke of it – “that is just so typically me.”

This shifting vocal style finds an echo in the record’s production: this is the single that begins the journey to the cut-up, fractured vocal lines of Spears’ great mid-00s records. Take the sequence at the start of verse two: “You see my problem is this” – sly and crackly, confidential. “I’m dreaming away, looking for” – the callous nasal jab that’s her main “Oops” register. “Heroes that truly exist” – a multi-tracked swoon. The form of the song – Britney’s voice flitting between styles – mirrors the content – Britney as a girl gleefully trifling with her suitors. Max’s lyrics aren’t brilliant – when are they ever? – but Britney’s singing and his production are a potent combination.

As Diamanda Galas – a woman who knows a thing or two about the uses of the unnatural sounding voice – said with approval, “She doesn’t even sound human!”. Galas delightfully characterised Britney as a producer’s “sick dream”, a “radioactive worm”, and these unlikely compliments get to the implications of “Oops”. What “Oops” is doing with its vocals is picking up on the potential of Cher’s “Believe” – moving away from the idea that a pop single should pretend to be a recording of a single, replicable performance. On the instrumental side, this illusion had fallen away a long time before. In dance music, loops and cut-ups and stretching meant that vocal naturalism was strictly optional. But in pop, there was still an implied hierarchy. The lead vocal was more important than the backing, which was more important than the video, which was more important than anything else the star did.

“Oops…I Did It Again” doesn’t dissolve that hierarchy entirely. But it presents a strong challenge to it. Not just in the vocal – whose treatments are quite mild compared to later Britney Spears tracks – but in its most audacious trick, not writing a breakdown at all and instead churning to a halt, then cutting to video dialogue with a sudden “All Aboard!” As the “Oops” chords bubble softly around them, Britney and her doe-eyed suitor discuss the gift he’s brought her. Not just any gift: The Heart Of The Ocean, the necklace from the film Titanic. The dialogue makes this absolutely obvious to anyone who’s seen the film – which is most of Britney’s audience, you figure. And Britney’s response to this impossible gift of the most symbolically romantic object in the entirety of late-90s pop culture? A slightly exasperated, “Aw, you shouldn’t have.”

(Just to make it even more absurd and amazing, in the video, all this is happening on Mars.)

Britney doesn’t perform this section live – in a gig environment, “Oops” gets forced back into song-shape, which emphasises how much the section breaks that shape on record. It’s a deeply weird moment – not even a spoken word section a la the Shangri-Las, more like a skit stranded in the middle of a track. It’s simultaneously clumsy and swaggering – Britney casually hijacking the biggest film of all time – and it explicitly declares that “Oops”’ as a song is a soundtrack to its video. Which in the era of Total Request Live and its UK equivalents, was a fair acknowledgement of how fans would encounter it.

The spoken video breakdown isn’t a trick Britney, Max Martin or any of her other collaborators would revisit – it risks the momentum too much. But in this one case, it works. The dialogue is such a perfect capsule of the song’s theme, for one thing – look how far this guy will go, and look how awkwardly misguided that is. But also the interlude does the exact job a bridge would do and does it splendidly – pausing the song so it can return stronger. If the first half of “Oops” is a patchwork of new ideas and old, its climax is the Cheiron pop machine on booming form. Once again, the idea of the lead vocal as the core of the song is dropped – the back end of “Oops” is mostly carried by backing singers, with Britney contributing licks of vocal fry at its edge. It doesn’t matter – any more than it matters that, when the massed vox come in after the break,on a modified chorus, it’s the same payoff trick as on “Baby One More Time”. It’s still the most joyful trick around, and Britney and Max work it even better. The skipped beat on the title – “Oops I — DID it again to your heart!” is my single peak moment of this whole wave of pop. Even when I’ve listened to the rest of the song so much it can only sound harsh and draggy, that tiny, explosive pause pulls me back to loving it.

We’ll be seeing a lot more of Max Martin and of Britney Spears. None of their later work together – before or after her breakdown and comeback – has the bright, self-aware confidence of “Oops”, a collaboration between a producer and singer both flush with early success and keen to consolidate their position at the very heart of pop culture. It would soon be time for Max to find other singers, and for Britney to decisively break from the “…Baby One More Time” model. But “Oops” was never meant to be that break – its new ideas and laugh-out-loud cheek are a freebie. Its only job was to be a triumph, and it is.

10

Comments

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  1. 91
    Izzy on 24 Mar 2015 #

    TLC’s Creep, at 0:33 – though there the dropped beat is in the accompaniment, rather than the vocal line.

  2. 92
    ciaran on 14 Apr 2015 #

    A good write-up one would have to say but I’m not as enthusiastic for OIDIA and I find the 10 a bit extreme. A ‘Vincent’ in reverse!

    BOMT was the A grade Britney, and whilst OIDIA is a decent effort I just find it a bit less exciting than a lot of her other hits. Maybe by this stage I was a bit worn down by the rampant US Teen pop boom but I don’t think that this would have had anything like the success of BOMT if it was chosen as her debut single.

    For all that though I reckon it merits a 7.

  3. 93
    Paulito on 15 Apr 2015 #

    I’m rather baffled by Tom’s 10 in this instance. For every other maximum he’s awarded, I find that the accompanying review has built logically and eloquently towards that magic mark – even where I don’t agree with said mark. Here, though, he’s describing a tune that – as he freely acknowledges – rehashes a formula already established. For my money, no matter how competently the trick is repeated, the act of doing so diminishes the lustre. All the other 10s that Tom has awarded have, quite rightly, been for songs that are utterly original, even unique.

    One other thing that struck me about this review is that the song’s narrative – Britney as a tantalising tease stringing a hapless chappie along – is apparently something to be applauded on its own terms or, at least, relative to the submissive Britney presented in some of her previous hits. Tom, would you be so approving if it was some cocky bloke singing about making a fool of some silly filly? You’ve expressed some unease about songs that depict unequal relationships in which the guy is gleefully exploiting the girl or where the female party is otherwise subservient – ‘Baby One More Time’ and ‘Born to Make You Happy’ being the obvious cases in point. I don’t see how reversing the usual roles renders ‘Oops’ somehow superior from any perspective.

  4. 94
    Andrew on 15 Apr 2015 #

    #93 at a hunch, because years of patriarchy and male entitlement being casually deployed and reinforced in pop songs just do make this type of lyric much less skeezy coming from a woman.

  5. 95
    Tom on 15 Apr 2015 #

    I expected this to be the most controversial 10 (well, so far) – I think “brilliant execution of a successful formula” is part of pop’s great jigsaw, so I’m comfortable with there being at least one 10 handed out for that.

    The other point is an interesting one. I think the difference in power, influence and expectations between men and women usually makes “What if it was gender-flipped arguments?” specious, because when you do flip the roles the whole tone of the song changes – witness “Love Won’t Wait”: the pressure Gary is exerting there becomes much more sinister coming from a dude. So if “Oops” was flipped – yes, it would be crueller. It would also be firmly in line with a long tradition in rock where a guy has to be free, move on, sow his oats, etc. – a callous, gender-flipped Oops would fit emotionally, if not musically, onto Aftermath. I like a lot of that kind of rock, but no, I probably wouldn’t give it a 10.

    On the other hand, things not being equal, when Britney does it, it has a different weight. I actually was very careful to avoid words like “tease” in the review, because I know that ‘teasing’, ‘leading on’ etc are ideas that get used to justify awful actions against women. (I’m not saying you are endorsing those, of course! Just I made a choice to shy away from particular language.) More broadly, my hypothesis is that when women misread emotions, they often blame themselves, but when men misread emotions, they often blame women. So yes, I quite like the fact that in “Oops”, Britney acts unapologetic for being a bit mean. I like that there’s a song which says that, you know what, it’s OK to be capricious sometimes – and I particularly like that it comes after songs that have legitimised much more self-negating reactions.

    This was all stuff I was consciously thinking when I wrote the review, and with hindsight should have found room for, but it was already a bajillion words long. So thanks for giving me the chance to articulate it a bit more.

  6. 96
    DanusJonus on 15 Apr 2015 #

    Being very new to the site, this review was the first new one posted when I was reading. I think the first thing I did was go through the old reviews to investigate what marks Tom had given everything, particularly very famous singles (alright, Beatles and Stones stuff mainly!) I was therefore shocked to see this get a ten, particularly as when the tune plays in my head I can splice it into Baby One More Time.

    However, when I then did some background research on the site around the marks, the idea of giving something a mark based on how Tom feels about it at that time seems to perfectly reflect that instantaneous magical cluster of ingredients that draws us all to music and certain songs from a young age. It has to be subjective really doesn’t it? There’s a debate on one of the reviews (Livin’ Joy’s Dreamer?) about somebody thinking in that instant that Dreamer was the best song ever written. I think Tom then mentioned that he’d had an idea once to record and detail every song he’d at one point thought this about. I like that concept and it rang true when for some reason I decided to put The Small Faces Itchycoo Park on the other day (it’s on the advert for the snooker World Championships). Hadn’t listened to it in ages, but in that 2 minutes 30 seconds I thought it was the best song ever written. Just the line and melody of ‘Over bridges of sighs’ gets me every time.

    Defining what you love about a song of course gives your view credence and I think this review goes a long way to justifying the ten mark. But sometimes, to perfectly express how music can make you feel just isn’t possible. Hell you sometimes can’t articulate it on a second listen to something. Years and years of loving music, learning instruments, chord patterns and all the reasoning why a song can have such an impact on someone still hasn’t helped me understand why sometimes a piece of music resonates with me. To be honest, I don’t think I want to know why half the time.

    So, just a few points from a newbie. Apologies if this debate has been had many times before. I’m trying to read through as many previous comments as I can, but well, it’s a daunting task.

    I’m off to put Itchycoo park on repeat again…

    One question though. Can someone please explain ‘The Bunny’ thing to me please!?

  7. 97
    Mark M on 15 Apr 2015 #

    Re96: Bunny is short for the ‘The Spoiler Bunny’, a mythical creature used as a reminder of Tom’s (understandable) rule that he doesn’t want discussion (or naming) in the comments of No1s yet to be reached by Popular. Extended by the zealous to also avoid naming acts whose first No1 has yet to be covered.
    See comments 68 & 76 on this thread.

  8. 98
    Mark M on 15 Apr 2015 #

    Re93 ‘For my money, no matter how competently the trick is repeated, the act of doing so diminishes the lustre.’

    Here’s my attempt, in the context of the Astaire-Rogers movie Top Hat, to argue the opposite.

  9. 99
    DanusJonus on 15 Apr 2015 #

    Thanks Mark, though I’m now hanging my head in shame after realising the explanation was in the sodding comments section of the review I was commenting in. Though possibly worth it to know that the bunny is also a mythical creature, though I must admit to now thinking the bunny to be the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog.

  10. 100
    Paulito on 15 Apr 2015 #

    @98: that’s a fine article, and I agree with pretty much everything you say in it. However, while Top Hat may follow a similar formula to The Gay Divorcee, there are plenty of differences over the course of 80 minutes or so. Whereas the 4 or so minutes of Oops are extremely similar to the four or so minutes of Baby One More Time (which I love, btw). It’s a pretty blatant and, to my ears, cynical rewrite.

    I’ve no problem with musical acts repeating the formula up to a point (e.g. I love most of T. Rex’s stuff from ’70 to about ’73), but there’s invariably a detectable whiff about it – whether it’s of laziness, lack of ideas, cashing in, or just plain fear – that takes the material down a peg or two in my estimation.

  11. 101
    Tommy Mack on 15 Apr 2015 #

    #100 – what about All Day And All Of The Night? That’s a better song than You Really Got Me. Does it detract from it that it loses the shock of the new by virtue of being cut from the exact same cloth as its predecessor? For me probably not, mainly because the better song came second, suggesting that The Kinks felt they weren’t finished with the formula and could better YRGM (possibly Britney/Cheiron with OIDIA vs BOMT too. Dunno, I’ve not heard much early Britney for ages) whereas with T-Rex who you mention, I’d agree with Tom in his review that Telegram Sam doesn’t do anything that Get It On and Ride A White Swan didn’t do better before and with less fuss.

  12. 102
    Paulito on 15 Apr 2015 #

    “I think the difference in power, influence and expectations between men and women usually makes “What if it was gender-flipped arguments?” specious….”

    The thing is, I’m not sure that this idea of a power imbalance – at least in the game of lurve, if you will – is all that valid. The idea that men generally have the upper hand in relationships, and that women need to give them a taste of their own medicine, is a well-worn feminist truism. But since the year dot, popular song has been chock-full of hopeful male suitors whose happiness depends on whether the lady in question deigns to accept their attentions. Womenfolk wield all the power in that evergreen scenario. The great popular songbook is equally full of spurned, thwarted or cheated lovers, both male and female – some resigned to heartache, others fighting back. For every helpless, lovelorn “Crazy” or “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me”, there’s the defiant schadenfreude of a “Cry Me a River” or a “Who’s Sorry Now”. And for every “Under My Thumb” there’s a “These Boots Are Made for Walking”.

    And the songbook reflects the realities, as far as I can see. We don’t live in a world where men hold all the aces, and I’m not sure we ever did. Yes, of course there was a time when a woman had to find a husband (whose legal property she then became) as quickly as possible or else face being “left on the shelf”. There was also a time when women had little or no personal autonomy, no career prospects etc. But that’s a long-vanished world and certainly not the one Britney was speaking to 15 years ago. In any event, relationships between men and women have always been more complex than what might have been suggested by their relative places in the societal pecking order.

    So, in short, I don’t buy into the trope that it’s “refreshing” when a female narrator asserts control in a pop song or in any other narrative. To me, it’s just another reflection of the power struggles/imbalances that can apply in romantic relationships, and no better or worse for that.

  13. 103
    Izzy on 15 Apr 2015 #

    There’s also the fact that whatever one’s view of where a power balance may lie as a generality, that says nothing about a situation involving actual individuals.

    Which obviously doesn’t really matter to the fictional people in Britney’s tune. But one can easily imagine an ‘oh noes the poor white man’ response to the Craig David guitarist story that’s currently latest on the Fill Me In thread, yet that’s an actual guy and his career on the line there.

    For what it’s worth, I assumed the 10 here is marker’s remorse for scoring BOMT as a 9. Which I’m basically fine with – as others point out, recycling is and has always been a big part of pop, why should reviews be any different?

    Plus I’m pretty sure Atomic got its 10 for Heart of Glass, and I personally prefer Atomic.

  14. 104
    Paulito on 15 Apr 2015 #

    @101 That’s a very good call on those Kinks songs. Yes, ADAAOTN is superior to YRGM – a 10 to the latter’s 9, in my book – and yes, it’s cut from the same cloth sonically and stylistically. But what ‘All Day’ does is take the template of its predecessor and strip it down to an even simpler, noisier and more brutally effective model. The riff is slightly more intricate (though still brilliantly Neanderthal), but the tune and the song structure are even more basic than before and owe less to American R&B. YRGM is a crunching, squalling, cranked-up approximation of that particular genre – but it’s still identifiable as such. The genius of ADAAOTN, however, is that it uses the YRGM ‘sound’ as a starting point and then bludgeons it into something entirely new (‘eavy metal, innit). It’s a totally different song to YRGM and, in its own way, utterly groundbreaking.

  15. 105
    Tom on 15 Apr 2015 #

    Atomic got its 10 totally for Atomic! Which you are quite right to prefer :)

    I think I said upthread that on another day, BOMT would have got a 10, and Oops a 9. There’s usually a mark or so’s variance either way: a lot of 9s might have got 10s if I’d felt like it*. Marker’s remorse is a nice way of putting it in this case, but as I said on Facebook when the review went up, my answer to “which song do I prefer?” is generally “whichever’s playing”

    *there are also tracks which I am a bit shocked I went as high as 9 for.

  16. 106
    flahr on 16 Apr 2015 #

    Didn’t someone in these parts define poptimism as the opinion that the best song of all time is the one playing on the radio at the moment?

  17. 107
    Tommy Mack on 16 Apr 2015 #

    #106 Not wanting to sound like a surly prick, doesn’t that describe a complete lack of discernment? The sort of OMG! Best Ever! overreaction as standard that permeates social media? Or the liberal sprinkling of four star reviews that’s devalued much of the music press’s critical faculties (this far more cynical, driven by ad revenue)

    I mean I love that you can change your favourite band/singer every week but in order for ‘love this’ to mean anything there has to be something you dislike or at least feel indifferent to.

    I think that’s part of the cause behind pop tribalism (good thing) and canonism (bad thing) – to narrow the dizzying array of choices for the pop consumer. Now you don’t have to spend money on music, the tribalism has faded though I’d say not disappeared and the lists have sprawled into the thousands.

    Actually, I was thinking about this. Is it possible to be too open minded about music or art in general? My instinct says No, since when I’ve had the narrowest taste in music is generally when I’ve had the worst taste but at the same time, if we like or at least appreciate everything, do we love anything? On a more pragmatic level, how much time should you allow for music about which you’re dubious vs repeat listening of favourites.

    Thoughts?

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