Oh wait! Just kidding! I guess I actually love her. This isn’t even a guilty pleasure confession—I’m like the idiot boy in teen movies who never realized he was in love with his hot best friend because she was so busy supporting his dreams and wearing glasses. I think I’ve genuinely respected Britney Spears and liked Britney Spears for years and never realized it.
“Are you out of your mind?” my boyfriend asked this morning, after I barged into the bathroom while he was showering to say “Do you think Britney Spears might be a punk rock feminist icon and we never noticed it?” And you might agree with him—I won’t barge into your shower to convince you otherwise. But maybe, just maybe, before we broach the various elaborate Britney Spears theses unspooling in my mind, you might dip your toe in the B. Spears waters and check out what other artists have done with some of her hits.
“Womanizer” cover by Lily Allen
Does a British accent always class up the joint? Not always. But Lily Allen’s charming, inescapable British accent plus a piano, as well as stripping all the sleek, produced instrumentation in “Womanizer” and subbing in a jazzy, bare bones band? That’s a recipe for classy, one that you could throw most any song into with excellent results. Lily Allen seems like a fellow covers fan, and does quite a few: other favorites include her cover of “Naïve” by The Kooks (which I can no longer find—anyone have a good link?) and her cover of “Straight to Hell” by The Clash.
(Really unrelated to everything bit of Lily Allen trivia: Did you know her brother is Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones and her song “Alfie” is about him?)
“Gimme More” cover by Sia
“Gimme More” is a fine pop song, but no one remembers it for it’s radio play. A consummate performer with multiple iconic music videos under her belt, Britney Spears’ “Gimme More” video looked like a late night commercial for a phone sex line. Everything about it felt forced, from the midriff baring outfits (Spears, though still gorgeous, had joined basically every other woman on earth in not being able to look flawless in a leather crop top) to the beginners-hip-hop-class dance moves. Her droopy performance of “Gimme More” that year at the VMAs commanded a collective “Oh…honey” from living room audiences across the country. She was going through a lot and seemed exhausted; little did we know, she was sharing that in her catchy new single.
Sia captures the surprising sad, exhausted undercurrent of this song. She slows it down and delivers it with a hoarse, weary voice. It’s a cover that illuminates the original song: How exhausting to have a crowd demand “gimme gimme more,” how true to Spears life at the time when she was paparazzi bait, her every mental health misstep breathlessly reported by blogs and tabloids. When you listen to the Sia version, you realize that half the song is a manic repetition of the plea from an unknown crowd for more, more, more from Spears. Is it any wonder her next song would ask again and again “Do you want a piece of me?”
“Oops! I Did It Again” cover by Richard Thompson
This isn’t a joke cover, and that’s why I love it. It would’ve been so easy for it to be a pat on the head, “isn’t pop music just the worst?”, eyerolling/borderline mansplainy sort of a cover, which would’ve been funny to fans who agree, and sort of a musical nuisance otherwise. But Richard Thompson commits and delivers the song with the same gravity and fervor that he lends to all of his songs. He even has the audience join in, and though they giggle, they hit all the marks. It’s like Richard Thompson, who I love but have always viewed as the sort of artist who belongs more to my father than me, prodded the audience with a “You know and I know that you know all the words. Let’s just embrace this and enjoy it.”
“Toxic” cover by Stevie Ann
There are about a million covers of “Toxic”—noteworthy ones include Mark Ronson’s cover featuring Tiggers that samples Ol’ Dirty Bastard (most fun cover), Yael Naim’s cover (most famous cover), and a cover by Nickelcreek (most bluegrass cover).
Listen to the ones above and feel free to disagree, but I think Stevie Ann’s cover is the most awesome of the lot. Stevie Ann’s silky voice and acoustic stylings transforms “Toxic” into something luscious and soulful. This already seductive song is made more so, and what was once perfect fodder for a club is suddenly perfect for a date in front of a fire, cheeks flushed and eyes wide, a dwindling bottle of red wine at your side.
“Everytime” cover by Glen Hansard
“Everytime” is already sad: it does that magic trick that only breakup songs can pull off where simple, cliche lyrics strung together start to sound powerful. (Breakups, when you get down to it, almost always rest on cliches. That’s part of why the experience is so universal, and the breakup song genre persists.) The video takes that sadness to a new level by having Britney Spears drown in a bathtub, and showing glimpses of doctors unsuccessfully trying to revive her.
You might remember Glen Hansard from “Once,” a lovely film with a killer soundtrack that won a Best Song Academy Award. The cover is fairly true to the original, with the inclusion of Glen Hansard’s lovely brogue and a fiddle. “What have I done/ You seem to move on easy” stands out as a wrenching moment from the original that, in this cover, momentarily knocks the wind out of me.