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’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’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 artisté. And 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 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 and why we love it so. 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.
As we’ve previously ruminated, Britney’s debut album contains some of her most consistent vocal work and Sometimes is no exception. Every line is delivered with such earnest sincerity and what the song may lack in terms of vocal acrobatics, it more than compensates for with feeling. The lyrics portray Britney as the girl-next-door who’s hopelessly shy and unsure of herself: “Hope that you will wait for me, you’ll see that you’re the only one for me” and she milks the song for all it’s worth in that regard. Pleasingly, there is a little more to Britney’s performance than just a bit of effort and as Sometimes swells towards its climactic finale, so too 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 starts to stretch her voice, casually warbling over the backing vocals and delivering those brilliant: “Sooooome-tiiiiimes” 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 in all honesty 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’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 Britney’s 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 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”. We’ll freely admit that we don’t share Britney’s distaste for the track and making Sometimes the butt of a joke stung. But then again, we didn’t have to perform the song hundreds of times in the ‘90s…
Just hang around and you’ll see
There’s nowhere I’d rather be
If you love me, trust in me
The way that I trust in you
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’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 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’s love interest in the video (Chad Cole) is mostly featured from afar. Such is the distance between the pair that for the most part there may as well be a restraining order in place. She might have the hots for the guy, but in this video, there’s absolutely no way Britney is acting on her urges, with physical contact kept to an absolute minimum. Cloying it may be to some, but we love the aesthetic of Sometimes. The overhead sequence with the dancers forming a heart around Britney is probably the most distinctive snapshot of a purity that is largely absent from pop music now. “Nice” might not be an appealing marketing strategy, but for better or for worse, fundamentally that’s precisely what Sometimes is, and we adore it for that reason. And yes, we did squeal when it popped up in the background of the video treatment for Hold It Against Me.
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 enjoyed a solid run in the chart, certainly enough to prove to any doubters that it was much more than a rebound hit. Immediately stepping out of the shadow of her debut hit might have come as a surprise, but it was a challenge Britney Spears was always going to face at some point. By doing it sooner rather than later, Jive Records put our new pop princess firmly in the driving seat, immediately disproving any suspicions that she was a one-trick pony.