Britney Spears – Sometimes

Released: 14th June 1999

Writers: Jörgen Elofsson

Peak position: #3

Chart run: 3-7-7-8-9-11-13-17-16-20-28-33-39-43-56-74
Billboard Hot 100 chart run: 81-57-48-36-28-27-27-26-22-21-21-22-25-33-40-54-61-69-81-86

When the time came for Britney Spears to follow up her record-breaking debut single, the conventions of ‘90s pop music dictated that her second release would likely be cut from the same cloth. Imagine the surprise then, when Sometimes arrived and marked one of the quickest reinventions in the history of pop music, turning our suggestive pop vixen into the virginal girl-next-door.

For many, Sometimes was – and remains – a difficult single to digest as the follow-up to …Baby One More Time. Certainly, the critical response was mixed, and rightly so. Anything released in the immediate aftermath of Britney Spears’s debut hit was likely to compare unfavourably but Sometimes was a complete change of tack. Having built a robust and distinctive identity around their new teen idol, most people would have expected Jive Records to try and consolidate that further. Instead, this single actively seeks to unpick almost every aspect of Britney Spears’s image and repackage her as a somewhat different pop prospect altogether. Before Max Martin and Cheiron got their hands on the …Baby One More Time album, the intention had been to position Britney Spears as a teen Sheryl Crow-esque artist.

Although Sometimes was part of the evolution of the album, you sense that it probably sat closer to the sort of music originally envisaged for her.  Needless to say, many pop fans and spectators were baffled. But while this single was a complete U-turn on …Baby One More Time, it made Britney Spears herself far more marketable to the conservative mainstream, i.e. the ones who were buying albums for their young kids. From a marketing perspective, Sometimes was a necessity, and also a stroke of genius.

In fairness to this track, probably the loudest complaints were of how pleasant and utterly inoffensive it is, which in the grand scheme of things is hardly the worst crime for a pop song. And there are no two ways about it, that’s precisely what Sometimes is. Everything about the song is designed to be as innocuous as humanely possible, but that is absolutely where its charm lies. The dreamy Casio keyboard-synth melody is effortlessly sunny and so lightweight that you wonder how it didn’t float out of the studio. This is most definitely a song whose production – with its occasional plucked guitar notes giving it the gentlest of kicks – invokes hazy memories of a simpler time in pop music.

For all the (valid) criticisms of Britney Spears‘s debut album, it does contain some of her most consistent vocal work and Sometimes is no exception. Every line is delivered with such earnest sincerity (“Hope that you will wait for me, you’ll see that you’re the only one for me”) and what the song may lack in terms of vocal acrobatics, it more than compensates for with feeling. The lyrics portray Britney Spears as the girl-next-door who knows what she wants but is hopelessly shy and unsure of herself: “Sometimes I run, sometimes I hide, sometimes I’m scared of you, but all I really want is to hold you tight, treat you right, be with you day and night, baby all I need is time”. She pushes that angle for all it’s worth, though pleasingly, there’s a little more to Britney Spears’s performance, and as Sometimes swells towards its climactic finale, so to does the delivery.

After a momentary fade out, the song shifts up a gear and delivers an incredibly satisfying key-change. It’s here that Britney Spears starts to stretch her voice, casually warbling over the backing vocals and delivering some brilliant: “So-o-o-o-ome-ti-i-i-i-imes” ad-libs. It’s also the moment that gives Sometimes a palpable sense of purpose and steers the track away from simply meandering to a close. For additional vocal showboating, the Soul Solution Mid-Tempo Mix (which is neither use nor ornament as an actual remix) expands on this aspect of the song, in particular, providing a nice curio to sit alongside the radio edit.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sometimes has fared quite poorly in terms of its profile in Britney Spears’s back-catalogue. Although the girl-next-door image was a pivotal part of her early persona, it’s almost impossible to associate that image and sound with the Britney Spears of today. That’s partly through happenstance given her tumultuous personal life, but mostly because her modus operandi rapidly turned to sex. Once she began to grow up, the whimsical, virginal perspective on love offered up by Sometimes didn’t work as part of her canon anymore. And Britney Spears knew it; the last time she directly acknowledged the song was during The Onyx Hotel Tour in 2004 as part of a skit towards the end of the show where she sarcastically sang a few lines and then muttered: “I never liked that song anyway”. Her distaste seems somewhat misplaced, but in fairness, she would have had to perform the song hundreds of times in the late ‘90s/early ’00s while building a broader catalogue of material.

That said, the one aspect of Sometimes that has retained its identity is the music video. In itself, it’s not a particularly eventful entry in Britney Spears’s videography. But it does capture, probably better than any other visual from the first few albums, the hearty innocence of late ‘90s bubblegum pop. While it was primarily the uptempo anthems of the era that dominated the dancefloor and grabbed the headlines, underpinning most of the big American teen pop acts was a sincere wholesomeness. The video for Sometimes is the very essence of that halcyon period of music, set on and around a shoreline with azure skies, golden sands and an idyllic pier. There was no subtlety here; it was an aggressively constructed reassurance that behind the pop vixen façade lay a sweet-natured schoolgirl.

It’s hard to think of a way that Sometimes could have hammered that point home any more than it did. When Britney Spears isn’t gazing into the camera with a doe-eyed look on her face, she’s wandering nonchalantly around the idyllic Malibu location or performing earnest choreography. There’s even a move where she holds her hands together as if praying, just in case the message wasn’t already abundantly clear. Even Britney Spears’s love interest in the video (Chad Cole) is mostly featured from afar. She might have the hots for the guy, but in this video, there’s absolutely no way she’s acting on those urges, with physical contact kept to an absolute minimum.

Cloying though it may be to some, Sometimes epitomises an of-its-time purity that hasn’t been part of pop music for a long time now. An overhead sequence where the dancers form a heart around Britney Spears is probably the most distinctive snapshot of what the track represents. “Nice” might not be the marketing strategy many expected or wanted after …Baby One More Time, but that’s precisely what Sometimes is. And when the video treatment for 2011’s Hold It Against Me featured references to her earlier singles, it’s absolutely right that this one was there.

In terms of its chart fortunes, Sometimes was pretty much guaranteed to be at least minimally successful. In America, the single peaked at #21 on the Billboard Hot 100; a huge achievement given it wasn’t ever released commercially. Instead, the intention was to drive sales towards the …Baby One More Time album and considering it spent 50 consecutive weeks in the top 10, the strategy proved rather successful. In the UK, Sometimes peaked at #3 and spent four months in the top 75; certainly enough to prove to any doubters that this was purely driven by the momentum from Britney Spears’s previous single. The track ultimately sold 427,600 copies – ending 1999 as the 33rd highest-seller of the year – and sits at 584,000 copies with the addition of digital sales and downloads, making it her 7th biggest hit overall.

Immediately stepping out of the shadow of her debut might have come as a surprise, but it was a challenge Britney Spears was always going to face at some point. So, by doing it sooner rather than later, Jive Records could shrug off any attempt to pigeonhole her and continue with an expertly executed debut album campaign.

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Post Author: cantstopthepop