We were on our way back from swim practice in my friend Elaine Mernick’s Honda Civic with the radio tuned to, I don’t know, Hot Whatever, when I heard ‘. . . Baby One More Time’ for the first time. Oooh, I loved it. My immediate thought was that it didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard before. My second thought was that actually it sounded sort of like a song from Chess, the Broadway musical composed by ABBA songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Ten years later, though, I am sticking by my initial impression of “. . . Baby One More Time.” Also, ten years later, Britney Spears continues to make this kind of music: music that sounds like it was made by a person who has never heard any other music before.
If this is the case—just in case this is the case—I’ve put together a playlist of songs that I think Britney should listen to, songs that will introduce her to music in general, songs by artists whose examples, both positive and negative, Britney could learn from. Mix tapes are tricky in the way that all presents are tricky—you have to balance your own taste with the taste of the recipient, even if that person’s taste is terrible. You have to hide the medicine in the applesauce. Keeping this in mind, I have refrained from making the entire mix tape just Bikini Kill.
1. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Sinead O’Connor
Except for the fact that she is, I think, a smart and interesting person with a combination of innate talent and vocal training, not to mention songwriting ability, Sinead O’Connor has a lot in common with Britney Spears. They’re both bipolar—on a recent Oprah appearance where Sinead promoted her album Theology and confessed to being bipolar, Sinead told Oprah that if she could talk to Britney, she would invite her to come live with her in Ireland, because America isn’t a good place for a celebrity to raise children. Sinead knows about raising children—she has four, all by different men. At 21, as she was recording her breakthrough first album The Lion and the Cobra, Sinead found herself pregnant by a session drummer who would later become her first husband. According to a part of her Wikipedia entry that lacks citation, she disregarded pressure from her label to abort the pregnancy. “He thinks I just became famous and that’s what messed me up. But he’s wrong, how could I possibly know what I want when I was only 21?” Sinead sings. But, “Whatever it may bring, I will live by my own policies.” I think that last part will appeal to the side of Britney that led her to record a cover of “It’s My Prerogative.”
2. “Daddy I’m Fine” by Sinead O’Connor
Again, Sinead—late-period post-Rastafarian Sinead this time. This song should make sense to a person who maybe chafes at her father’s legal custodianship. “Daddy I’m fine!” Sinead reassures her “poor worried father.” Also it has a part that goes “I get sexy and I need them lights / like I wanna fuck every man in sight.”
3. “Anti-Pleasure Dissertation” by Bikini Kill
Throughout her adult life, Britney Spears has been at the mercy of men who’ve kissed and told about their relationships with her, which must be really annoying. Maybe it doesn’t faze her, but can you imagine being Britney, minding your own beeswax, just heading into the Gas’n‘Go to get some Bugles and then on the PA you notice your ex-boyfriend’s voice singing, “You don’t have to say . . . what you did . . . I already know . . . I found out from HIM.” That is just in poor taste, I think, no matter who did what to whom. Also more recently she dated that paparazzo who sold pictures of her and stories about her debauched ways to the tabloids. So I think Britney is in a good place to appreciate this classic anthem of lady-rage. “Did you get a good laugh, tell me was it good, was it good, was it good for you, did you win that race, did you score that point, are you so fucking cool fucking cool now didja didja didja didja . . . go tell your fucking friends! What I thought and how I felt, how punk fucking rock my pussy smelled . . . why don’t you tell them.” Yeah, go ahead and tell them, I don’t care. “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care . . .”
4. “Breakin’ Up” by Rilo Kiley
This isn’t maybe the best song that has ever lived, but Britney needs way more songs about being a strong independent woman. “Ooh, yeah, feels good to be free.”
5. “Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez
I keep going back to the Justin thing, which, if I were Britney, I would not nearly be over. I mean, Kevin, that was clearly a fluke, a weak attempt to compensate for the loss of Justin with this like fourth-generation Xerox of him. Imagine you are just becoming a huge international Pespi-promoting superstar and your boyfriend who you’ve known since you were a child is rocketing to fame alongside you, except he’s comfortably a little bit less famous than you, and then everything turns upside down and ten years later you’re having to stage one in a seemingly endless series of comebacks, and you may have money and partial custody of your kids again but let’s face it, everyone thinks you’re crazy and has seen your vagina. And then, thanks mostly to the writers on SNL, everyone also thinks your ex-boyfriend is a multi-platform genius of music, comedy, and dancing, and also he has this insanely hot girlfriend who he’s always photographed with looking casual but put-together and you can almost read their lips in the photo and know that the conversation they’re having is, like, “Hey Jessica, we just had awesome sex, now do you want to hang out with Barack Obama or Brangelina tonight?”
Probably this is approximately how Joan Baez felt about Bob Dylan when she wrote this song—about a sad phone conversation with your ex-boyfriend who is much more famous than you, and much more talented, but obviously kind of an asshole. “Now you’re telling me you’re not nostalgic / then give me another word for it / you are so good with words,/ and at keeping things vague.” Britney, maybe you should learn how to play acoustic guitar and do an unplugged cover of this. “My poetry was lousy you said.” Ooof. Thing is, Joan Baez’s poetry probably was lousy. I wish people still said “lousy.” Any way you look at it, this is the perfect moment for Britney to blow everyone away with a makeup-less, totally laid-back unplugged performance of this song.
6. “Justified and Ancient” by the KLF
This song has nothing to do with anything, it’s just good on a mix. Pop music should all sound like this: insane and illogical and totally catchy and awesome, but not in an “If You Seek Amy” way.
7. “Violet” by Hole
“Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to.” “I told you from the start just how this would end. They get what they want and they never want it again.” If only Courtney Love had actually told Britney that in 1998. It wouldn’t have made a difference, but can you imagine the conversation? Courtney could have kicked things off by admitting that she read a Sylvia Plath poem at her failed Mickey Mouse Club audition (“Daddy,” of course). Anyway, “Britney, just fyi, they get what they want and they never want it again.” You dig? It could have happened, too, Courtney was still keeping her shit together pretty well in 1998, promoting Celebrity Skin, looking totally hot a la her Golden Globes Versace moment. It’s not like she couldn’t have given Britney advice because she was too busy smoking crack out of a broken lightbulb.
8. “Free Man in Paris” by Joni Mitchell
This song is famously written from the perspective of David Geffen, but anyone who’s ever felt trapped in the gilded cage of music industry fame and success can certainly relate to it. “‘The way I see it,’ he says, ‘You just can’t win it / everybody’s in it for their own gain, you can’t please ‘em all / there’s always somebody calling you down …’” I wonder where Britney’s “Paris” is? Maybe Kentwood, LA? “You know I would go back there tomorrow, but for the work I’ve taken on / stoking the starmaker machinery behind the popular song.”
9. “Little Babies” by Sleater-Kinney
This is a feminist song about taking care of someone you’re in a relationship with as if they are a little baby. “When you’re tired feeling helpless / come inside I am the shelter / and then when you’re feeling better I’ll watch you go.” I’m not sure whether Britney has ever felt this way about anyone, even her actual little babies. That’s unfair. She probably has. She probably feels like she has to take care of everyone, not just little Sean Preston and the other one but everyone in her entourage, her crazy mom, et cetera. Maybe Britney can start learning guitar by learning this song, which is pretty easy, and impress Sleater-Kinney so much that they let her open for them on their reunion tour.
10. “After the Glitter Fades” by Stevie Nicks
This is, arguably, the best song off Stevie’s first solo album after Fleetwood Mac. I think every single word of it speaks to the midcareer disillusionment that Britney probably doesn’t have the emotional or, you know, verbal vocabulary to articulate, even to herself. Well, Britney, you don’t have to, because Stevie Nicks has done it for you. My favorite thing about this song is how broken-down and 4am the whole thing feels, like, Stevie is so jaded and glitter-faded that she’s not even going to bother to rhyme after about halfway through: “The loneliness of a one night stand / Is hard to take / We all chase something and maybe this is a dream / The timeless face of a rock and roll woman while her heart breaks / Oh you know the dream keeps coming even when you forget to feel.” Oh Britney. You know, even though the living is sometimes laced with lies, it’s all right. The feeling remains even after the glitter fades.