Released: 26th March 2001
Writers: Robert John “Mutt” Lange / Shania Twain / Keith Scott
Peak position: #12
Chart run: 12-21-26-30-42-57-68-71
Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know was a landmark single for Britney Spears as she broke with her established songwriting and production team for the first time (outside of America) to perform an epic ballad co-written by Shania Twain.
Although regarded as one of Britney Spears’s albums most guilty of being reliant on filler, there were – in theory – several potential singles left on Oops!…I Did It Again (which is to say, Can’t Make You Love Me, specifically).However, in actuality, there could only really be one choice. To have a song written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain on the album at a point when Come On Over had firmly established itself as a cultural phenomenon and not release it would have been a massive oversight. This was also as good a time as any to take a chance on Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know since it represented a deviation from the tried-and-tested Britney Spears formula. In most territories outside of America, this was her first single not to be written and produced by Cheiron Studios (From The Bottom Of My Broken Heart had infamously been released there instead of Born To Make You Happy). So, there was an aspect of this as being the perfect opportunity to try something a little different with the backing of a hugely successful songwriting partnership. And there was the safety net of Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know coming at the tail-end of the Oops!…I Did It Again campaign. It couldn’t cause any major hiccups when all it would really be doing at this point is mopping up the last few album sales.
Although this track is a break from the norm as far as Britney Spears’s musical persona was concerned, it represents something about her early material that is often overlooked, which was the aspiration to be taken seriously as a singer. Before Cheiron jumped on board, a Sheryl Crow-esque direction had been planned. And while much of that changed after …Baby One More Time, traces of the 10-year-old who appeared on television singing Love Can Build A Bridge were still present. In addition, songs like Where Are You Now and When Your Eyes Say It (for which a music video was allegedly filmed) feature Britney Spears using a lower, breathy register and demonstrating a level of control over her voice that may have been surprising to those lesser acquainted with her albums. However, therein lay the issue: that isn’t really what people were looking for, and many of the tracks simply weren’t up to the (very high) benchmark set by the singles.
Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know suffers the same fate, to some extent. It – inevitably – brings an entirely different energy from the preceding hits. Still, the more critical factor is that Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain writing for Britney Spears is never quite so remarkable as it could, nay should, have been. Rather than gift her a spiky piece of country-pop in the mould of That Don’t Impress Me Much or Man! I Feel Like A Woman!, the duo instead impart a ballad that Shania Twain could conceivably have recorded, even if it wouldn’t ever have been a standout on Come On Over. This isn’t a bad song; it simply feels slightly less than the sum of its parts considering what it was following.
However, Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know allowed Britney Spears to showcase a strikingly different kind of performance. And in that sense, it’s an utter revelation. Lyrically, the track broadly covers the same territory as she had before (the couplet: “My friends say you’re so into me, and that you need me desperately” is a few booming synths away from being a classic Cheiron opener), but that’s where any similarities end. Rather than a coquettish tease, Britney Spears projects lustful yearning that hints at a sexual awakening, yet still with enough romanticised tenderness to avoid too many awkward questions. From a technical perspective, this might have appeared somewhat pedestrian next to the power balladry of Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson. However, Britney Spears’s reading of the material is second to none, and she gets under the skin of the song in a way that her peers rarely did. She lives and breathes the character, imploring: “Your body language says so much, yeah, I feel it in the way you touch, but ’til you say the words it’s not enough, come on and tell me you’re in love, please” with sincere, palpable anguish.
Indeed, there’s a reasonable argument that Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know features some of Britney Spears’s best vocals. The transition out of the second chorus: “Don’t…let me be the, last to KNO-OH-OH-OH-YEAH, come on BABY, come on DARLING, ooh YEAH, come on, let me be the ONE, come on NOW-OW, oh-OOH-OOH, OH-HO (oh-ho)” deserves to be regarded as a career highlight, as her natural voice comes through. She sounds completely at ease, dropping run after run while deftly flitting between keys with warmth and sensuality. This style of singing wouldn’t have worked for her earlier singles – there was a necessity in the way she adapted to them, and it worked incredibly well for those songs – but it is great to hear where all of that evolved from. And it is a bit of a shame that this side of Britney Spears became lost along the way, as many of her subsequent ballads were constructed around the higher-pitched tone that had become her trademark.
If there’s one part of Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know that has endured, it’s the visuals, which drew a lot of attention and a fair amount of reproval. Britney Spears was no stranger to titillation, but the difference here is that it’s entirely self-aware. Previous videos that featured love interests as part of the narrative had done so in a wholesome way, like Born To Make You Happy, where the most physical thing that happens is a pillow fight. Here, the relationship is portrayed as overtly intimate, with lots of kissing and caressing. Moreover, there isn’t any overarching plot; it’s simply four minutes of Britney Spears frolicking on a beach and clambering through a tree in the company of a half-naked model (Brice Durand). However, it’s all very tastefully filmed; the Florida scenery looks like paradise itself, and the lighting is stunningly effective, particularly the shots at dusk and night-time. What the video did best of all was to gently draw a line under the album campaign, and indeed this era of Britney Spears’s career. Essentially, it was apparent that whatever came next, the status quo had changed, both in terms of how people looked at her and how she perceived herself.
Given the downward trend of Britney Spears’s chart peaks throughout the Oops!…I Did It Again campaign, it wasn’t necessarily a shock that Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know became her least successful single in the UK (and most other territories) at that point. The song was her first to miss the top ten when it reached #12, although Jive Records seemed to hedge their bets somewhat. The song couldn’t really be deemed to have underachieved when they didn’t go out of their way to make it a hit in the first place. The tracklisting was unexciting (unless you’re into remixes), and international promotion was minimal. Furthermore, Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know was sent late to radio in America and, without a commercial release, stood little chance of charting on the Billboard Hot 100. Consequently, the single had minimal impact on Oops!…I Did It Again, and with Britney Spears busy recording her third album (the release of I’m A Slave 4 U was just five months away), this felt like an intentional winding down of the campaign.
In many respects, Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know is merely a tentative step in a direction that Britney Spears soon did more convincingly on her next album(s), both in terms of balladry and a more mature image. Thus, the song never really had a chance to be anything other than an overlooked curio, swept aside by what came next. But it is well worth revisiting, if nothing else, to experience Britney Spears as the singer she’d once aspired to be, which is far more impressive than she’s often given credit for.