Britney Spears – I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll

Released: 4th November 2002

Writers: Jake Hooker / Alan Merrill

Peak position: #13

Chart run: 13-21-31-40-44-52-68-X-75

The existence of I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll as an album track – let alone a single – goes straight to the heart of a struggle that was increasingly apparent to see during the Britney campaign.

This was intended to be Britney Spears’ coming-of-age record as she became more involved in songwriting and sought to broaden her sound by working with new producers. At the same time, she was preparing to make her big-screen debut in Crossroads and recording music that would feature in the movie and on an accompanying soundtrack. That’s where a lot of the Max Martin material (Overprotected, Bombastic Love and I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman) was planned to go, while the Britney album would house tracks like I’m A Slave 4 U and Boys. However, Jive Records became concerned that if Britney Spears’ fans didn’t take to her new direction, they would simply flock to the safety of the Crossroads soundtrack. So, it was decided to move the songs recorded for the movie across to Britney and have one album that would cover all bases. In turn, that created a campaign where every single representing a step forward was promptly followed by one that pushed backwards.

For the most part, this approach worked out reasonably well. Britney Spears’ role as Lucy in Crossroads was essentially written around her, so many of the songs created for the movie fit neatly into the narrative of her career. But it was, nonetheless, a tentative evolution for Britney Spears beyond the identity of her first two albums. And then came I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll.

That’s where Britney ostensibly doubling as the Crossroads soundtrack presented a logistical challenge. The movie’s release was staggered throughout 2002, meaning different singles were issued in different territories at different times. Several music videos were shot to facilitate this, and stock artwork was created to be rolled out if and when required. As the album campaign drew to a close, it more or less became a case of Jive Records just using whatever was leftover. So, although the arrival of I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll in the UK coincided neatly with the release of Crossroads on DVD, the only real driving force behind this single was the fact it already existed and required minimal effort.   

In the movie, I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll accompanies a key turning point in the plot. Lucy, Mimi (Taryn Manning) and Kit (Zoe Saldana) enter a karaoke contest to try and win enough money to fix Ben (Anson Mount)’s car and continue the impromptu road trip they’ve embarked upon in pursuit of their hopes and dreams. Although Mimi aspires to be a singer, she freezes on-stage, leaving Lucy to reluctantly take over. You know how this goes; after awkwardly mumbling the first few lines of I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll to a restless crowd, she suddenly comes out of her shell, realises her dream is to be a pop star, and before long is gyrating around the stage like she’s Britney Spears or something. The audience goes wild, the tip jar is overflowing with cash, and the foursome continues on their way with Lucy now set on auditioning for a record company in LA.  

I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll is a lot of fun as a movie sequence. And that carries over to the studio version as well. The track was first recorded by Arrows in 1975 but more widely popularised by Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, whose cover topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982 and peaked at #4 in the UK. Britney Spears’ version sits somewhere between the two; Rodney Jerkins’ scratchy production is closer to the lighter energy of the original, with vocals unmistakeably modelled on Joan Jett’s rocky drawl. 

While this is fairly unadventurous as cover versions go, Britney Spears adopts precisely the right approach with I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll. From the playful intro (“Hey…is this thing on?”) to the way she emulates the throaty growls of: “Owww!”, it comes across as an artist who is playing into the style of the track without taking it too seriously. And she doesn’t really have a choice. After all, this can only ever be a rock song short of deconstructing and rewriting the whole thing. That gives Britney Spears the chance to do something a bit different vocally. She largely steers clear of the distinctive tics that usually peppered her material and instead has time to really chew over the lyrics with a bit of vibrato in her lower register: “I saw him dancing there by the record machine, I knew he must have been about seventeen, the beat was going strong, playing my favourite so-o-o-o-o-ng”. Despite the stylised thrashing electric guitar riffs, this winds up as one of the most organic performances Britney Spears had delivered since her debut.

Conveniently, I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll never has to deal with the issue of whether the vocals – which are far softer than Joan Jett’s – will translate into a fist-pumping, anthemic chorus because the track was always built around the addition of chanted vocals: “I love rock ‘n’ roll, so put another dime in the jukebox baby, I love rock ‘n’ roll, so come and take the time, and dance with me”. As unlikely as it sounds, Britney Spears is entirely convincing in her role of the rabble-rousing leader to a crowd of 11 backing singers. Each time the chorus repeats (and it does, a lot), it’s as if she’s feeding on the energy, with ad-libs that convey someone liberated from the conventions of her usual identity and able to be a little more spontaneous. I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll has all the right ingredients to be a crowd-pleasing cover version; it’s just that Britney Spears had set the benchmark so high in terms of her output, there aren’t many circumstances where you could imagine someone reaching for this over almost any of other uptempo single she’d released previously.  

And that’s the thing. Even though I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll gets a lot of things right, it’s just not a very good Britney Spears single. Crossroads wasn’t successful enough for the song’s relevance to be understood; therefore, many people scoffed at the idea of an artist who was the poster girl for bubblegum pop now ostensibly claiming to love rock music. Even Joan Jett took a rather disdainful view, saying: “I mean, people usually cover a song that says something about them, but I doubt she loves rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe she likes songs”. It’s not as if Britney Spears hadn’t dabbled in the genre before; her previous album housed a cover of the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, again produced by Rodney Jerkins. But I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll was a much more visible effort, and without a clear direction of what the single represented, it’s easy to see how it became misinterpreted.

Even though I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll is arguably among Britney Spears’ least fondly remembered singles, the visuals that accompanied it have remained recognisable because they show her doing something that we didn’t often see: performing a song – into a microphone – with a live band playing behind her. Of course, this is Britney Spears, so it’s never quite so simple as that. Dressed in leather while a wind machine billows in her face, she grinds around the mic stand, crawls across the floor, straddles a motorbike and then smashes a guitar into an amp, causing confetti to fall from the ceiling. I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll captures the fearless swagger that underlined Britney Spears’ screen presence. She’d always had star quality; that was never in question. But now on the cusp of adulthood, the music video exudes an awareness and control over her sexuality that is far more obvious. Britney Spears knows precisely what she’s doing here, working the camera – and concept – for all its worth. There’s no context needed, which is why it lends itself so well to being used as archive footage.

Considering this was the fifth single from the album (something that’s never happened before or since), it wasn’t entirely surprising to see I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll become Britney Spears’ lowest charting release at that point, peaking at #13. However, given there was no promotion at all – the Crossroads DVD doesn’t qualify – this wasn’t a bad result, really. The song itself was not particularly damaging to Britney Spears’ brand; indeed, it turned out to be an unexpected highlight of her revamped Vegas residency, where she performed it while straddling a giant electric guitar. But the way the Britney-era descended into a rather scrappy finish did feel like it weakened her overall position. It’s almost as if Jive Records didn’t quite know where to go next. Suddenly, singles seemed to be firing off in every direction: Anticipating was released in France (with the same recycled artwork); a music video for That’s Where You Take Me received rotation in the Philippines. Considering how meticulously orchestrated Britney Spears’ career had been up to and including I’m A Slave 4 U, this all came across as a bit impulsive and chaotic.

Fundamentally, I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll exists to serve a purpose, and within the parameters of Crossroads, it does what it does very well indeed. But, outside of that, the track is unlikely to feature in many people’s top ten (or 20…or 30) Britney Spears songs. Indeed, even by the time she released Greatest Hits: My Prerogative in 2004, this was already little more than a footnote.

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