Even the biggest artists in the world have songs you haven’t heard. In our series Z-Sides, we shine light on those rare tracks and deep cuts that only hardcores know word for word.This time: it’s Britney, bitch.
The temporary loss of Britney Spears’s hair was, perhaps, the defining moment in the death of uber-clean TRL pop culture. Her brave choice in coiffure was plastered across television screens and whispered about in school hallways; someone called Chris Crocker became very tearful in insisting we leave Britney alone; and everything we knew to be pure and true was shaved, placed in a wastepaper bin, and gone. When February rolls around each year, I listen to “Everytime” and fondle my scalp just to remember.
No one really knows why Britney chose to get rid of her hair that evening in February, 2007. It could have been drugs, her struggle to retain child custody, or maybe the simple desire to feel the softness of a grade one trim, like myself after a haircut. However the monumental reporting—and the fact that, years later, people are still investigating the scene—is testimony to the significance of Britney Spears as a character.
See, the thing is, Britney could be pop’s most contradictory figure. She was the sugar-sweet virgin who would bounce around the house sucking lollipops and nibbling candy necklaces while Justin Timberlake patiently looked on. When she appeared on the front cover of Esquire, underwear stretched dangerously low, she told reporters it wasn’t that she disagreed that young American males have an obsession with the wet, hot virgin—it was that she’d never even given it a thought. The shaving of her head visually represented the question mark that hung over her career—who was Britney Spears, what did she represent, and, most of all, was she ever in control?
The least-self aware person in existence but simultaneously the most considered, Britney meant all things to all people. Schoolgirls looked up to her; their brothers fantasized about her; their teachers thought she was everything wrong with women in the media; the principal would dream about her indulging in an after-school special; the gay fraternity thought she was fabulous. Depending on who you were asking, the reasons for Britney Spears's appeal varied widely.
Yet, while being everything to everyone else, did Britney ever really, truthfully, represent herself?
Ten years ago, she certainly tried to—and she was shut down.
Back in December 2004, three years before the head shave, she brought a track to a radio station, unsolicited, and asked them to play it. This would be her mission of intent, Britney’s go at speaking her mind regardless of whether or not her record label were going to sanitize and control her.
It was a few days before New Year's Eve, and the track, called “Mona Lisa,” was delivered by a bare-footed Britney to the KIIS-FM offices without the knowledge of her label. The radio station played the track live on air for the first and last time. It was never played again.
The song, introduced by Britney live on air, was meant to be taken from her record Original Doll, an album that never saw release and became a much-imagined object, something like Dr Dre’s Detox for people who prefer catchy choruses in place of heavily tightened Compton beats.
Original Doll had been shelved—a Buzzfeed feature earlier this year traced the project's circuitous fate and response to it at Britney's label, Jive—and in its place, a few months earlier, had come Britney’s fourth album In The Zone. That album featured “Everytime”—arguably her response to “Cry Me a River”—“Toxic”, and “Me Against the Music”. However, it’s the tracks that weren’t there, in particular “Mona Lisa”, that said the most about Britney. These songs, that were recorded around the unreleased Original Doll sessions, showcase a rare insight beyond the character of Britney, and into her soul.
“Ladies and gentlemen / I’ve got a little story to tell
About Mona Lisa / and how she suddenly fell”
Songwriter Michelle Bell, who witnessed Britney play “Everytime” solo on the piano for the first time, recalled to Buzzfeed that, in the wake of her and Timberlake’s break-up, Britney believed nobody really listened to her, and that “she just wanted someone to say I believe in you beyond this pop machine.” In the months that followed, between the release of “Everytime” and the rogue airing of “Mona Lisa,” Britney’s public image careened into a concrete wall. She became married to a childhood friend for a mere 55 hours and often underperformed on a grueling 93-city tour, which she eventually canceled halfway through. She seemed to be suffocating and fighting against the pressure to stay on a course the label had laid out for her—told to brush away her own problems and continue on as a strong-faced pop star.
“Mona Lisa” encapsulated the demise of Britney—the break up with JT, the death of her Aunt, the struggle for perfection, the failed marriages—and ushered in the head shave era that would change her pure and clean pop aesthetic forever. For a girl who even now is controlled under the legal conservatorship of her father, it was the most free and honest-sounding thing she’s ever recorded.
“Mona Lisa”—with its Gregorian chanting not too dissimilar to JT’s “Cry Me a River”—is Britney’s self-identifying alter-ego. “Whenever I feel like being mean or possibly like bustin’ people around to get stuff right, it’s kinda easier to be called ‘Mona Lisa’ instead of Britney”, she told TRL, after being credited under that pseudonym in the credits for “Do Somethin’.” It was this character, “Mona Lisa,” that represented the true Britney, the one who sung about freedoms, fought for her place and, ultimately, ended up being shut down, accelerating her descent into tabloid-fodder and Juicy Couture daily-wear. “[The lyrics were not] lost on us”, Stephanie Alexander, a back-up dancer, told Buzzfeed earlier this year. It’s about “an amazing gem of a woman who was being taken for granted and ultimately self destructs.”
See, everyone knew her / they knew her oh so well
Now I am taking over / to release her from her spell
She’s unforgettable / She was a legend though
It’s kind of pitiful / That’s she’s gone
Fans have obsessed over this song, and the rest of the Original Doll sessions, for years, hoping to find subtle clues into Britney's pre-breakdown thought process and piece together a story. They can never be certain what happened—no one can—but the few clues alone seem to point to Britney being suffocated to the point she couldn’t be herself. She was a star never trusted to speak her mind and told to stand in the corner—a cute, clueless pop princess like all the other pretty girls.
So, each year when February rolls around, and I put on “Everytime”, fondle my scalp, sigh inwards, and try to find my happy place, this is what I think about. Britney Spears was many things to many people. To me, she’s a living and breathing artifact who proves that no matter the power and scope, it is really fucking difficult to be a young woman in the spotlight. You’re told to be quiet, look pretty, and get the job done. And when you do try to speak your mind, you get shut down by your record label. Then you shave your head.
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