IT MAY SOON OFFICIALLY BE FALL, BUT SUMMER IS REIGNING SUPREME ON BROADWAY.
Based on the life of the groundbreaking recording artist, Summer: The Donna Musical traces the Queen of Disco’s meteoric rise to fame and the legacy she left behind. Structured as Donna Summer’s final concert, this jukebox musical is a highly entertaining explosion of flashing lights, energetic choreography, fabulous costumes—and, of course, 22 of the greatest hits in Summer’s legendary discography.
The show presents Donna at three stages in her lush career. As Duckling Donna, Storm Lever makes a scene-stealing Broadway debut. Performing such early gems from Summer’s repertoire as “I Remember Yesterday” and “On My Honor,” Lever brings an exuberant charm to the youngest of the three Donnas. Her unique rasp and soaring voice make her sound like a musical theater version of popstar Camila Cabello, and her superb acting underlines what an oversight it was to have her be the only Donna not to land a Tony nomination this past season. Regardless, Summer will act as a launching pad for a very big career for Lever.
After back-to-back runs in shows like Hamilton and A Bronx Tale, Ariana DeBose solidifies her standing as one of the most in-demand performers currently on Broadway. As Disco Donna, she plays Summer at the height of her career. Of the three Donnas represented, hers is the most prominently featured and the one with the biggest character arc.
Unsurprisingly, DeBose is up for the challenge and she does the best job of mimicking Summer’s voice. Her sultry rendition of “Love To Love You Baby,” feisty take on “Bad Girls” and soaring high notes in “Heaven Knows” are all custom-made dance-in-your-seats numbers. But it’s her dynamic “Faster And Faster To Nowhere” and “Hot Stuff” that best showcase her vocal transformation into the First Lady of Love.
As Diva Donna, Tony Award-winner LaChanze (The Color Purple) plays Summer in the third act of her career, while also serving as the show’s narrator. She reflects on her career and the adversities she faced battling sexism, racism and the record industry as a whole. This narrative framework of Summer’s final concert allows all three Donnas to shine as various chapters in her life are highlighted throughout the intermission-free, 100-minute production.
When LaChanze performs songs like “I Feel Love” and “She Works Hard For The Money,” it’s not hard to imagine just how much fun a Donna Summer concert would have really been. With her sparkly outfits, swarms of back-up dancers and string of hits, Summer was truly a pioneer of not just disco but also dance music at large. The way that LaChanze manages to capture and remind audiences of that is as great a tribute as any artist could hope for.
But the biggest standouts are when all three Donnas sing together. Their voices perfectly complement one another, and the ecstatic rush the audience gets from watching these three powerhouses trade harmonies and verses becomes a nearly transcendent experience. It’s no surprise that classics like “MacArthur Park” and “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” are highlights, but the added element of watching all three Donnas bring these songs to life at once generates an unparalleled level of enrapturing energy. When all three close the show with “Last Dance,” there’s hardly anyone in the theater not on their feet dancing and clapping along.
In an age of productions that honor the legacies of primarily white musicians, it’s great to see a celebration of the work of such an iconic woman of color. In fact, this fall the stories and songs of artists such as Cher, The Go Gos, Carole King, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller will be featured on New York stages. Summer is the only jukebox musical you can currently a buy a ticket to that pays homage to a non-white musical talent. Clearly, despite its efforts, Broadway still has a long ay to go when it comes to diversity.
Another refreshing element of Summer is its willingness to touch on some of the tough challenges Summer faced. Albeit briefly, the show illustrates the impact of being molested as a child, witnessing a crime, starting a new life in Germany, struggling to balance career and family, and telling a controversial joke about the LGBT community. The rode to fame isn’t all glamorous, and Summer can be as poignant at times as it is eye-opening.
But, above all, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is an effusive musical biography that even those unfamiliar with Summer’s music and personal history will smile through from start to finish.
CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, now playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City. And CLICK HERE to purchase the original cast recording, now available! Originally published on PopBytes
In 2004, she placed runner-up on the third season of American Idol. Twelve years later, she joined her fellow past contestants (including her husband, season five finalist Ace Young) to bid adieu to the series at its epic send-off live finale.
But if she had any reservations about returning to the Idol stage after so many years, DeGarmo didn’t need to seek guidance farther than Suzy Simpson, the character she currently plays Off-Broadway in The Marvelous Wonderettes. With a first act set at a 1950s high school prom, the jukebox musical’s second act finds the characters coming back for their ten-year reunion. And for The Wonderettes, this reunion means getting back up on stage to perform for and with their peers all over again. Sound familiar?
As the 29-year-old Georgia native continues her limited run (through the end of next month) in the beloved show, she and I chatted about the Wonderettes, reliving her days on Idol, and much more.
What attracted you to playing Suzy Simpson, and how do you feel she differs from other roles you’ve played in the past?
Well, first and foremost, I loved the music. My mother is a big music fan and a big part of my childhood was listening to the music of her childhood. So it’s fun to go back and sing songs that I’ve known my whole life. And to sing them on stage in New York City is every performer’s dream!
Also, to be involved with a female ensemble-type show is really fun. Suzy is a great character. I do feel that she has a lot of similarities to other roles I’ve played. But at the same time, there are a few other surprises in the show that I don’t want to give away but that definitely make her a unique character for me.
You mentioned growing up with the music. Which specific artists from this era shaped and influenced your own musical upbringing?
Oh, golly. I definitely remember lots of Aretha Franklin happening around my house. Also “Stupid Cupid” was a big song that I loved growing up. It was really funny when I found out that was going to be a Suzy song. I was like, “Oh, I already know the words to this one!”
My mom had all of the greatest hits CDs of the ’50s and ’60s. But then it was fun too because the show introduced me to a lot of songs I didn’t know. Now I just love songs like “Allegheny Moon” and “Secret Love,” which Christina Bianco just kills every night.
In the show, you get to sing some of the biggest hits from the 1950s and 60s, including “Leader of the Pack,” “Son Of A Preacher Man,” “It’s My Party,” and “You Don’t Own Me.” What’s your personal favorite song to perform each night?
I think my favorite may be “Respect” from Act II. That’s a song that I have always loved singing. I do it personally in my shows just because it’s a great feel-good song for anyone who hears it. It’s got a good meaning to it. And for my character, it’s a big moment in the arc of her storyline.
In the first act, I also love “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me.” I think that’s the only male song in the show, but of course sung by females. I love singing it and I love seeing the people that are fans of the music of the time. They kind of clutch their pearls or they squeeze their sweetie. This was a special song for them because it was a song for lovers back in the day. I love being able to help bring back those memories.
Between Hair, Hairspray, and now The Marvelous Wonderettes, it seems like you’re very interested in exploring American life in the 1950s and 1960s through your work.
There’s definitely a theme happening!
What is it about this period of time that keeps drawing you back to it?
I think I especially love the innocence of the ’50s and ’60s and just how everything was kind of a pure thought. There were no undertones to lyrics. Everything was just what it was. As a 2016 woman, there are some times when you look back at the lyrics to songs and you go, “Oh my God!” You know? They make your head hurt!
This was a time of purity where we sang what we felt and there were no crazy sexual innuendos. There was nothing promiscuous. Even just saying “Stupid Cupid” was a big deal because you said “stupid” in a song. Now, it’s hard to find a song that’s not overtly sexy and sexual. So for me as a singer, I appreciate the melodies of the music a lot. You can actually sing with the music. You don’t need a computer as accompaniment. You can just sing the song and the melodies are gorgeous and it’s a fun time. It makes people feel good. Yes, every single decade has always had its pros and cons, but I thoroughly enjoy remembering the good times of the ’50s and the ’60s.
You play one of the four song leaders who are called upon last-minute to save the senior prom after the glee club boys, who were supposed to perform, got suspended. Going back to your own high school days, were you more of a well-behaved Wonderette or a rebellious glee club member?
Oh golly! I was definitely a square. I’m still a square. I’m not a very good rule breaker. I like to have fun and I’m always down for an adventure, but if there’s any sort of rule breaking, I can’t do it because I’m not a good liar. Even though I’m an actor, I’m not a good liar. And I was on Idol while I was in high school, so the whole second half of it is kind of a blur. But I was definitely a part of the glee club and our choir back in the day and would have, I think, been thrilled to perform at my prom. And I probably would have been a little nauseous at the same time! Our prom was definitely not as glamorous as the Marvelous Wonderettes’ prom is.
Act two of the show finds the Wonderettes returning to Springfield High for their 10-year-reunion. As an actress, how does your approach to playing Suzy change when you’re playing her as a teenager versus as an adult?
The great thing is that the music that is in Act II actually helps us all tell our characters’ stories very well. There are some physical attributes that Suzy acquires in the second act, which definitely help put me in the right mindset. A lot can happen in ten years to anyone. I think Suzy is still a very bubbly and happy person, but she has had a very interesting decade and you find her in kind of a rough spot of her life. But she’s still the same young and hopeful person that she is in Act I. It’s kind of fun to see that everything is still going to be okay for her because I’m actually at the same age that Suzy is in Act II.
What do you think that showing these characters at such different stages of their lives adds to the overall themes and messages that the audience leaves with?
I would have to say the show overall could be a hopeful reminder that there’s always something good, no matter what. Yes, there can be chaotic moments in life, like with the prom or with our reunion, and you see that the girls have all kind of gone through something. But everything is going to be okay. And you can sing your way through it!
I think that’s kind of the overall idea of it – that it’s all going to be all right as long as you have your friends to lean on and to stand with. You see these four girls go through a crazy kind of scenario in the first half, and then they have to relive it in the second half all over again – but ten years later. I think that especially as females, we need our tribes. We need female friends to hang onto and to help lift us up when it’s our time of need and sometimes we kind of forget that. We get a little too independent. I’m an independent woman. I love my husband and he’s my best friend, but I definitely need my girlfriends sometimes. They understand better than anyone else.
You wrap up your run in The Marvelous Wonderettes on July 31. Do you currently have plans to stay in New York after that to do any more Broadway or Off-Broadway work?
I have some other things on the cook top that are currently boiling away, so I don’t want to reveal anything just yet. Hopefully there will be some news to report in the next couple of months. But I’m definitely going to try and stay in the city as long as I can! It’s so great to be up here for the summer. I live back in Nashville now and I love being there. It’s great to have kind of a touchstone back to the way I grew up, so it’s lovely to go back there. But New York is definitely alive and thriving, especially in the summer. Ace and I are having a blast being up here and we’ll see how long we can stay.
That’s awesome! You’ve also been a part of various musicals’ national tours, including 9 To 5 and Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. What have you found to be the biggest differences between traveling with shows versus staying put in the same venue? Do the types of audiences vary a lot and does the location where you’re performing ever impact how you play your part?
Well, the hardest part, which is also the very exciting part, is that the venue is constantly changing when you’re on the road. So sometimes you can’t get comfortable. We’re very fortunate here. Doing The Marvelous Wonderettes at the Kirk Theatre, we know where everything is, we know how the sound works, and there are no surprises in the show anymore. There’s no, “Oh where did that come from?” or “We can’t use that that scenery piece” or “We have to change this.”
When you’re on the road, the show is a constantly evolving creature. It does keep you on your toes in a way, which is exciting, but sometimes it can get a little exhausting. I need a break! I just want to do the show and not think about, “Where is this going to come in from tonight?” or “When is that going to happen?”
I love being in New York. This city is a wonderful, great supporter of theater and I feel very fortunate to be back here for the summer. But being on the road was great too. I love getting a chance to take shows to people that may not ever get a chance to come to New York City. I love bringing them Broadway shows, and showing up in the theater and telling them a great story and entertaining them for a few hours. I’m a Gemini, and so I have two different sides. Half of me loves being on the road but half of me loves being here as well.
You’ve played the role of Fern/Vylette in a couple of industry readings of the musical adaptation of Jawbreaker. What’s the status of that show? And do you plan to continue being involved with it once it lands on Broadway?
I would love to be a part of it! I currently don’t know what the status is either. They don’t tell the actors those things. I wish I knew! I loved being a part of Jawbreaker. I’ve been with it for a few years, which is crazy to think, and the music is so infectious. The character of Fern/Vylette is so wonderful. It’s so fun to play a complete polar opposite human being in the same show. At the end of the day, it’s a great story about how you really have to be true to yourself and that beauty is only skin deep.
I think it’s got a great story – especially for today’s social media generation, where we see how everything looks so pretty and perfect online. But the reality is, it’s not. Life is not perfect. None of us are and I think that show highlights that. Particularly for high-schoolers.
It kind of reminds us that we’re all just human beings. I love that and I hope to see that it comes to Broadway one day. I’ve got my fingers, toes, legs, arms, everything crossed to be a part of it again. We shall see!
You have a movie, After The Sun Fell, coming out later this summer. What can you tell us about that film?
It was really quite a cool experience. We filmed in Lewiston, New York, just north of Buffalo. Lewiston itself is just this cute little picturesque town. I felt like the whole town was a movie set, but it wasn’t. We shot in a very historical building, this beautiful home. It’s a great small ensemble piece, but it’s a dark comedy, which I had never done before. I’m usually kind of in the more in-your-face comedy, so to try and do something more situational was really great. Everyone that I worked on the film with was so talented.
It was our lead actress’, Joanna Bayless, first film and she’s a theater actress, so she and I got to bond really well because I’ve been there. When it’s your first film, you’re like, “Wait, how does this work?” and “What’s happening?” I’ve been fortunate to do some other film work in the past, and so we got to buddy up. I loved that she always had her script on set with her. I was like, “See! That’s what us theater kids do. We come with the whole thing!” She is absolutely magnificent. The story is a play that has been transferred to film and I think it’s going to be a really, really cool new story not just for myself as an actor, but also for the indie film community.
As an artist, do you find acting or singing more creatively stimulating?
It depends on the day. It really does. Again, I’m a Gemini. I equally love both. I love the challenge of finding a character that no one would expect me to play, because when you meet me you’re like, “Oh, you can’t be mean or you can’t do this.” They may try to put you in a box and I love breaking that box wide open and saying, “Yeah, that was me on stage!” or “That was me in that show!” It’s fun surprising people.
I love going into music and singing stuff that’s from my heart. Living in Nashville has been a wonderful outlet for that. I’ve been getting a chance to really sing what I grew up singing, which is country music. I know most people know me for pop because I have sung it for a few years, but my heart lies in country music. And I love being able to sit down and just sing a song that really speaks to my heart.
Back in April, you performed on the American Idol series finale. What was going through your head during that performance, knowing it would be the last time you and any of the other previous contestants would ever be up on that stage?
It was really just like one big party! It really was just like a big family reunion the whole week we were there, which was really fun. We had a great time. I think the reality of the situation didn’t really hit anyone until the beginning of the live show when we all came out and sang “One Voice.” That specific performance number was kind of Nigel Lythgoe’s baby. It was his dream and vision to see everyone come out and sing that song. Everyone was kind of laughing and joking up until right before we started the show and then everyone kind of looked at each other and thought, “Holy cow, this is real! This is really happening!” It was very nostalgic but, at the same time, it was a little like if a party met a funeral.
We were all having a great time but then everyone got very somber. We were able to revel in the moment and it was a great show to be a part of and a great show to watch. And, I had fun getting up there and singing alongside my fellow artists and friends. Of course getting to share the stage with my husband and then some other friends from other seasons, we just all had one heck of a time.
Ace and I jumped on a plane right after the show and took a red eye here to do a reading back in New York so we didn’t get to party the night away with everybody. As they say, the show must go on! But it was wonderful and it was definitely a experience that, just like Idol itself, I will cherish forever.
Now that Idol is totally over, are you able to look back and pick a single performance of yours that you consider to be your favorite from your time on the show?
Because my season was back in the day, I’ve been very lucky to have had a wonderful career post-Idol. For me, Idolwas 12 years ago, so I was able to go back to the finale with a completely different mindset than some of these other kids whose seasons were like 2-3 years ago. I felt like a mother hen at the finale.
As for my favorite performances, I have two that I really loved. One would be when I performed for disco week in the top three. Meeting Donna Summer, who I’ve always looked up to as a vocalist, is still one of the most monumental and life-changing moments I’ve ever had. I remember asking her, “How do you keep your voice healthy? You still have such a gorgeous voice and you could sing the paint off the walls!” And she told me her trick was pineapple and Coca-Cola. I thought that was the coolest thing ever!
Then, I also loved when I performed for Latin week with Miami Sound Machine. Gloria Estefan was our mentor that week. She and Donna Summer are two very strong, iconic singers. As a young female performer, to get to sing her song that she made popular, and to perform it with Miami Sound Machine while on stage wearing a dress that Simon Cowell told me I “looked like a car wash” in – those are just permanently synched into my brain and into my personal life.
I’m sure! You haven’t released any original music since 2012. Do you have plans to return to the studio to work on your solo material?
Yes! I’ve toyed with stuff over the past few years, but when I’m in the studio, I like to focus on one thing at a time. I’m not a good multi-tasker. Right now I’m focusing on doing the show. So I’m being pulled in and out of the studio, but luckily Ace and I are building a studio at our home in Nashville. But I do have an album in the works. Hopefully it’ll be done as soon as we get back. There’s definitely lots of exploration that has happened over the last couple of years and songs have started creating themselves. I definitely feel there is another solo album coming your way. Hopefully sooner rather than later but the songs are there. I just need to get my butt in the studio to record them.
Will this album have more of that country feel you mentioned?
Yes, for sure. Definitely more of a country feel. It’s just continuing the music that I really want to sing. I’ve been really lucky because the past few EPs I’ve done have been more along the lines of who I am.
My first album, even though I love it and I support it because my name is on it, wasn’t entirely me. It was a baby of the record label that I was just happy to be a singer on. There are some songs on there that I love singing, but it wasn’t truly what represented me. I think that still, even many years later, I’m still trying to show the world who I am. But I guess that’s the whole part of the human experience, right?
Earlier this month, you and your husband, Ace Young, celebrated your three-year wedding anniversary. Congratulations! How did you two celebrate?
Thank you! We celebrated with a two-show day. We’ve had this tradition for several years now. We made a point to see as many shows as we could, so that weekend we went and saw The Robber Bridegroom and An Act of God. Then we saw American Psycho on its closing night. We want to see everything! It was a wonderful way to celebrate all weekend long because we don’t live here and I get so jealous that some shows close before we get a chance to see them. We’re always hearing friends talk about things and so we had a long list of shows we wanted to see. We loved each of those three shows. And Bright Star! Oh my gosh. Don’t even get me started on that.
Oh, I loved Bright Star!
I felt all the feels.
Yes, me too. Well, thank you so much, Diana. Is there anything you want to discuss that we didn’t cover?
I think the best thing for The Marvelous Wonderettes is that it’s a great show for anyone to come to. We take you on a trip down memory lane and we can give you a great lesson in some damn good music!
Click here to purchase tickets to The Marvelous Wonderettes.
After a string of infectious hits, the band’s star was on the rise as they were featured in Apple commercials, performed at MTV’s Video Music Awards, toured with Pink, won award after award, and much more. But when their second album, Sounds from Nowheresville, was released in 2010, critics weren’t as kind to the UK artists and the success they enjoyed was quickly forgotten.
Four years later, The Ting Tings have reemerged bigger, bolder, and better than ever. Consisting of members Katie White and Jules De Martino, the band has just independently released their superb third album, Super Critical (iTunes), a passionate and unique love affair between the genius sound of their first record and their recently discovered affinity for Studio 54 and 1970’s disco. I chatted with White about the band’s evolution, the new album, their upcoming US tour, and more.
How do you feel you’ve grown and evolved musically between Sounds from Nowheresville and Super Critical?
What we found quite interesting is working with somebody else in the studio because it’s always just been myself and Jules. Both Jules and I have short attention spans so we would literally write songs and change them 30 times within the space of two days, and then have a nervous breakdown, hate it, and that would be it. Having somebody like Andy Taylor (of Duran Duran) in the studio with us, he’d go, “stop. Get away from the Pro Tools, don’t touch anything, go home, sleep on it and come back and listen to it tomorrow.” It was just a revelation to us because we’d go home hating it, then come back the next day and hear it with completely fresh ears and be like, “We love it! We love it!” That was a huge revelation for us and I think it really opened our minds to working with other people on the next album. We were always quite against it because we thought “oh god, no” and worried that they’d change things too much and we wouldn’t sound like us, but it was actually a much more endurable process.
So how did Andy end up working on the record in the first place?
It was completely random. We moved to Ibiza to record this third album and this guy walked into the studio one day. He looked kind of freaky and I had no idea who he was until he revealed that he was Andy from Duran Duran, and we just became friends. He’s really entertaining and has an amazing story. He’s a complete lover of every kind of music.
What happened was we kept getting asked to write for other artists and we were quite nervous to do that because we were in the middle of recording our album and we were worried that starting to write songs with other artists in mind would disrupt our whole brains. So Andy asked us to come to the studio once a week and kind of dump some ideas on him and then leave him to it, and we thought that was great because we wanted to work with him. But we were also a little frightened because he’s our friend so we didn’t know what we’d do if the songs that we worked on together ended up sounding like shit. We were worried that it would be really embarrassing and ruin our friendship.
At the same time, it was the perfect opportunity to do something that wasn’t so pressured. So we went into the studio one day with him and we recorded a song and we actually finished it in one day. But then we listened to it and thought, “Oh my god, we’re not giving this to anyone. We’re keeping it for ourselves.” And then we didn’t end up leaving the studio for 9 months and we were like, “you’re co-producing our entire album.” We had never worked with anyone before and it was just amazing.
We were in Ibiza, which is a beautiful island off the coast of Spain and we didn’t go to the beach once. We didn’t even go to one restaurant. We just stuck in this bunker, basically, which was hot and humid, and just had the time of our lives fantasizing about writing music and he’d tell us about how he used to go to Studio 54. It was just an amazing experience.
Why did you choose to go to Ibiza to write and record? What was it about being in that specific setting that inspired you so much?
It’s definitely become a thing for our band now that we go to a new place every time that we record. We love to feel almost like a new band and because there’s only two of us, it’s hard to feel like that. After our first album, I remember my mom saying, “Take time to remember this feeling because you can only be a new band once in your career.” It’s a very special moment because you’re not jaded and you’re not worried about how somebody will critique your songs, you’re just working out of complete naivety, which is a great place to be. Obviously by your third album, you don’t feel that same way. You’ve toured and you’ve seen all the reactions and it’s a lot harder to make decisions knowing what you know. So for us, we wanted to try to get back enough of that feeling to write new songs and get really excited again.
We’d been to Ibiza to rehearse for about four weeks before we went on tour. We finished touring Spain and we didn’t want to go back to England. We wanted to go somewhere nice and so we said, “Let’s go to Ibiza!” It’s got a really odd and interesting character because it’s kind of the place where it’s crazy party central in the summer. It’s so famous for its clubs. And then in the winter, it’s just the people who don’t know when the party stops or there’s weird, fun characters who have lived there for years in their own funky houses in the middle of nowhere with their hippie lifestyles. We just found it quite fascinating.
It’s weird because we didn’t actually make up any music that sounded like Ibiza, which is so bizarre. We kind of made the opposite. It was all techno and EDM that would be playing in the clubs in Ibiza and we’d go to them and party and have a great time. But then we’d go back to the studio with Andy and realize there was never even a single song that you could sing along to. They were all just beats that you would need horse tranquilizers to enjoy – which is ok, but we thought there might be another way.
So then we would talk about Studio 54 and we’d imagine ourselves being there. It was so glamorous and all champagne and cocaine and a bigger thing about that was that the BPM of those records from those days was a lot slower, so the dance floor would move in different ways. You can’t dance the same way to beats today, it’s almost like people are kind of jerking around and that’s it. But when you look at the footage from the 70’s, people really danced and it looked really cool. So we wanted to write a record that people could dance to. We loved going to the clubs in Ibiza but it is quite interesting that we made a record that doesn’t sound like it. It’s a bit ridiculous really.
The album really is heavily influenced by pre-EDM nightlife and 1970s New York. Aside from being able to dance to it, what is it about this disco-infused sound that you wanted to explore and what challenges did you face folding this into your signature pop/rock sound?
No challenges really, no. Especially because we had Andy helping us. Andy was in a band with Bernard Edwards out of Chic. When he ended Duran Duran, he started a band called Power Station with him. Nile Rodgers really showed him a lot. What was interesting was that because we were making our own version of that sound, it didn’t end up sounding pastiche, and was instead a weird mix. It’s not totally 70’s. It comes from all three of us, and I wasn’t even born in the 70’s. Then there’s Andy, who took all this influence from Nile Rodgers but played it in his own way as well. I think it was actually pretty easy to write because we made such a good team and had such a love affair in the studio.
You’ve openly discussed that you had a lot of difficulties making your second record. Do you feel that with this third one, you’ve found your footing and are ready to in a way, reboot the band?
Yes, definitely. It will be different. We put the album out on our own label this time. I remember when we first started as a band, we put out “That’s Not My Name” and “Great DJ” and all that all on our own, and obviously we were really scared. Then record labels came knocking on our door and like any new band, we inevitably signed with one to get things going. We wrote that first album in our bedrooms, all on our own. It was pretty much finished and then we signed it to Sony and had an amazing time.
We’re a difficult band because we write completely pop songs but if we try to just be a pop band, we fail miserably at it. We don’t function as pop artists who have huge teams around them and writers. It takes us 2-3 years to write an album and pop artists don’t function like that – they have writers and producers consistently churning out hits for them. And they do that beautifully, but we’re just not that band. We’re just an awkward band that’s almost indie in our mentality but we can’t write indie rock because everything that comes out of our mouths is pop, so we don’t really fit very well with either.
When a major label gets a rock band, they know how to work that. They get the right magazines and do what they need to in order to get the cool points. And with pop bands, there’s another way. As a band somewhere in the middle, we were nobody’s baby. We were always so polite to them but they’d ask us to do things like go walk red carpets and we’d just say, “no! We’d rather sleep at home and be miserable all night!” and that’s just not how it works when you want to sell records. By our second album, there was a meeting that we heard about where there were like 20 people discussing what we should sound like and we just thought, “What the fuck!” We’re the wrong band to work like that. We’d totally fail with 20 people, all who have different opinions of what our second album should sound like.
We’re just much happier now. It’s a totally different approach and we’re putting out the record we want when we want, it’s not like we’re timing it based on a projected chart position. Just like bands like The xx or London Grammar, you don’t feel like it’s forced upon you. But if it’s a good album, maybe over the course of the next year you’ll think “wow, that band has really picked up momentum,” so that was the way we wanted to work on Super Critical. It was less pressured and more creative.
What artists/albums were you listening to the most during the writing/recording of the album?
We listened to Diana Ross, Donna Summer, and we listened to a lot of Chaka Khan’s early and funky stuff. I became a big fan of Fleetwood Mac, but that was more about the songwriting. It wasn’t so much the sounds of the records but the song melodies. I’ve got an obsession with Stevie Nicks.
What’s your favorite song on the record and why?
I’ve got two. One is “Wrong Club” because it’s one of those songs that sound really uplifting but is really quite depressing when you listen to the lyrics. It’s got a real melancholy feel to it. I’m a big fan of bands like The Smiths, who were masters at doing that. You hear this beautiful song and you listen to the lyrics and they’re about getting run over by a bus and you just think, “That’s amazing!” I also really love the song “Failure.” We wrote that song with the most sugary, syrupy melody. We wrote the melody first and thought it was too sickly sweet for us so we wrote a song about being failure and thought it’d be fun to make such a sweet sounding song be about failure. I love it. I think I just like miserable songs.
Obviously the name Super Critical comes from a track on the record, but why did you feel it was the best title for the album as a whole?
We named it, in all honesty, after a bag of weed in the studio called “Super Critical.” All three of us were like, “is that really what it’s called?” And then you think about it and “critical” is really an amazing word. So then we started to write the song and we wanted to subvert the word to mean a few different things, and we couldn’t think of a better word to name our album. It sounds funky and could mean 2-3 different things that people can read into, whether it’s something to criticize or it’s a moment in our career that’s super important, so we liked that aspect of it a lot.
There’s a hilarious scene in Horrible Bosses in which Charlie Day’s character sings your hit “That’s Not My Name” during a cocaine binge. What was it like seeing your song used in the film that way and are you looking forward to the sequel?
It was brilliant. I found it very funny. I am really looking forward to the sequel, I thought it was a good film. It’s very surreal seeing your song used for a coke binge in a car in a movie.
Currently, you’re touring in Europe, and next year, you’ll be embarking on a headlining tour stateside. Aside from hearing the new album live, what can fans look forward to from these shows?
I don’t usually like to read things about us because it usually gives me a nervous breakdown, but I saw somebody write on Twitter, “If you go see The Ting Tings, don’t expect a nice, polished pop show” and it’s really not that. It’s disorganized and it’s raw. Even though the new album is very smooth, we still manage to bend the songs to sound rough around the edges. It’s just how we like to perform.
Britney Spears isn’t just the princess of pop. She’s a pioneer of the genre who redefines its expectations and stretches its boundaries whenever she releases a new album.
And while her list of greatest hits is familiar to nearly anyone who grew up as part of the TRL generation (and beyond), some of Britney’s finest and most inspiring work was never packaged into singles. Instead, these songs live on the tracklistings of her albums somewhere in between the monster smashes we all know and love.
Far more than just a machine who churns out songs to dance to, Britney is an artist with an extensive catalog of work that is as versatile as it is influential. Below, check out my list of top 10 essential Britney tracks that—unless you’re a more-than-average fanatical fan—you may have largely overlooked. And don’t forget to share your picks for best Britney songs in the comments section below!
10. Can’t Make You Love Me
from Oops! … I Did It Again
By the time Britney released her sophomore album, Oops! … I Did It Again, she was already a global phenomenon. Gone was the cheeky girl-next-door that was introduced on her debut record, and in her place was an established sex symbol whose face could be seen at every newsstand.
While many of Britney’s songs acknowledge her fame (i.e. “My Prerogative,” “Piece of Me,” “Mona Lisa”), Oops! … I Did It Again provides an interesting character study of the pop star. On this album, the then 18-year-old Britney was only first discovering what it meant to be at the center of the public’s eye. Songs such as the hit “Lucky” juxtaposed the glitz and glamour of being America’s sweetheart with the emptiness and artificiality that label can come with.
On “Can’t Make You Love Me,” Britney yearns for her crush to care about her. She compares her life to what it was before she catapulted to superstardom and tries to reassure the song’s muse that, despite the changes in her life, she is still the same person she’s always been at heart.
“I have been through changes, but I’m still the girl you used to know,” she tries to convince. “It’s made me no different, so tell me why you had to go? Oh baby, I will trade the fancy cars for a chance today, it’s incomparable. I might be sitting with the movie stars, everybody says that I just have it all … but I can’t make you love me.”
While the song’s upbeat tempo (dance break included) and sugary bubblegum instrumentation may mask the vulnerability of the lyrics, the dangers of celebrity life are fully on display here: people begin to define you by your public persona rather than by your inner being.
And for Britney, this was just the beginning.
9. Breathe On Me
from In The Zone
One of the fundamental components of building up the brand that is Britney Spears is her raw sexuality. Whether it be a Rolling Stone photo shoot, a sultry music video or an eye-popping performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, Britney has never been one to shy away from the provocative. It’s safe to say that there have been just as many–if not more–headlines about Britney’s sexiness as there have been about her music.
But on her 2004 album, In The Zone, Britney stripped down the spectacle of her sexuality in favor of sensuality.
The primary example of this re-focus comes in the form of “Breathe On Me.” It’s nearly impossible to close one’s eyes and listen to the track without feeling teased by Britney’s deliciously suggestive invitations. Almost tantric, the song is about how the real drive behind good sex is not lust but passion.
“This is way beyond the physical,” Britney seductively coos. “Tonight, my senses don’t make sense at all. My imagination taking us to places we have never been before. Take me in, let it out, don’t even need to touch me, baby, just breathe on me.”
Do your pants feel tighter yet?
8. And Then We Kiss (Junkie XL Remix)
from B In The Mix: The Remixes, Vol. 1
Although the standard version of this song has still to see an official release, “And Then We Kiss” was first introduced to Britney fans in the form of the Junkie XL remix on the singer’s 2005 debut remix compilation, B In The Mix.
Two months prior to this song’s release, Britney celebrated her one-year anniversary with former husband Kevin Federline. She had also just given birth to the pair’s first child, Sean Preston. Therefore, it came as no surprise that the new music emerging from the singer was a declaration of love to this man who had so profoundly changed her life.
“And Then We Kiss” is a midtempo slice of sophisticated electropop that finds Britney needing to be fueled by her lover’s touch. It’s a sensual love letter that showcases how grounded she feels by the man in her life. Without him beside her, she feels lost and uncertain. His presence provides a sense of clarity that makes all the puzzle pieces fit. He focuses, excites and tantalizes her in ways that were foreign to her prior to knowing him.
Although Britney and Kevin’s relationship didn’t last (they finalized a divorce in the summer of 2007), “And Then We Kiss” will always serve as a reminder for the singer of the better days the couple had. It’s a gorgeous song about feeling completed by the love of another individual. And no matter what happened after, it’s worth remembering what that feels like.
7. Toy Soldier
It’s such an incredible shame that the dark days of Britney’s personal life overshadowed the musical genius of her critically acclaimed fifth album, Blackout. Originally released in October 2007, it was the only one of Britney’s seven studio albums that didn’t debut at #1 (although entering the charts at #2 isn’t too shabby either). Not surprisingly, however, it’s the album that keeps on giving.
Earlier this year, it was announced that the record had certified platinum status and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Music Library and Archives – the only Britney record to ever do so. These archives were created to serve as the “most comprehensive repository of materials relating to the history of rock and roll” and to highlight music that would “broaden awareness and understanding of rock and roll, its roots, and its impact on our society.” In other words, even industry experts and scholars admit that Blackout impacted the genre in unprecedented ways.
“Toy Soldier” is a prime example of Blackout’s brilliance. A stomping club banger with a heavy injection of attitude, the saucy track finds Britney raising the bar for her new potential lover. Tired of the weak and subpar men in her life, Britney’s next love interest needs to be a soldier: a strong, assertive guy with a fearless attitude and innate drive to protect and take care of her.
Vocally, Britney is extra peppy as the sprightly, fast-paced verses are accompanied by little yelps and carefully selected drawn out syllables. Set against a military drumroll, the song packs an extra punch as it displays Britney’s confidence and reveals a seldom seen playful side of her.
6. Before The Goodbye
from The Singles Collection (Deluxe Edition)
Originally intended as the lead single from Britney’s eponymous third album, “Before The Goodbye” was replaced prior to the LP’s release with “I’m A Slave 4 U” – and removed from the record’s tracklisting altogether (except as a bonus track in certain countries).
Musically, “Before The Goodbye” was way ahead of its time. Listening to it now, it’s interesting to note that the song shaped Britney’s sound today more than most of her chart-topping hits did. It has an intensely dark electronic feel that would later be fully explored on Blackout and would bleed into all her subsequent releases. Additionally, the quick whipped verses serve as a teaser to her exploration with hip-hop on future songs like her duet with Madonna, “Me Against The Music.”
While it’s a fantastic track, it’s no surprise that “Before The Goodbye” was scrapped in favor of “I’m A Slave 4 U.” At the time it would have been released, the song would have been far too dance-heavy to make an impact on mainstream radio. Going straight from sugary hits like “Oops! … I Did It Again” and “Lucky” to a thumping club anthem like “Before The Goodbye” would have been too abrupt a departure for Britney. While her third album was intended to herald in a new era for the singer, many of her fans, especially the youngest contingent, might have been alienated by such a departure from her original sound.
“I’m A Slave 4 U” was a much safer choice to go with. While it was certainly controversial, too, the song triumphed as a declaration of sexual liberation. It paved the path for an adult Britney while building off the foundation of her bubblegum roots. And although it did present a new and evolved sound for the pop star, it didn’t radically come from left field as “Before The Goodbye” would have.
Included as one of many b-sides and remixes on the deluxe edition of the 2009 compilation, The Singles Collection, “Before The Goodbye” is finally available for mass consumption. And it’s a career-shaping song that no true Britney fan should be without.
5. Inside Out
from Femme Fatale
With last year’s Femme Fatale, Britney introduced dubstep into mainstream pop. Following the success of smash single “Hold It Against Me,” it became standard practice for a pop song to include a dubstep breakdown as musicians like Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Cheryl Cole all followed her lead.
But on the sultry ballad “Inside Out,” Britney proved that dubstep is not just an ingredient to bake dance floor anthems out of. Here, she utilized it as a tool to illustrate her insatiable need for one more memory to cling to before letting a relationship die.
In “Inside Out,” Britney knows she’s about to break up with her lover. But instead of trying to win him back, she makes herself look as desirable as possible to get one last thing out of him: sex.
“So come on, won’t you give me something to remember? Baby shut your mouth and turn me inside out,” she alluringly demands. Whatever else happened between them is irrelevant, as all she’s looking for at the moment is one last hoorah in the bedroom before they part ways entirely.
Britney thus seeks closure by detaching herself emotionally and immersing herself into one final physical act. It’s a rollercoaster for her that’s enhanced by the dramatic dubstep that continues to thrust its way to the song’s surface. Sexy, mature and self-aware, “Inside Out” is as unique as it is bold.
4. Born To Make You Happy (Bonus Remix)
from The Singles Collection (Deluxe Edition)
“Born To Make You Happy” was without a doubt one of the standout tracks on Britney’s debut album, …Baby One More Time. While it was in no way groundbreaking, its simple and cute puppy-love lyrics make it the best Taylor Swift song Taylor Swift never recorded.
On the bonus remix of the track, Britney re-recorded her original vocals to give the song a more acoustic feel. Reducing the original down to her bare vocals and organic instruments, this remix provides for a far more raw take on the song. It’s one of the few recordings where Britney’s vocals take center stage without any sort of enhancement (you even hear her clearing her throat). Listening to this version, it’s easy to picture Britney perched on a stool, holding a microphone and really committing herself to singing her heart out.
Recently re-released on the deluxe edition of The Singles Collection, the bonus remix of “Born To Make You Happy” is both a distinctive treat for Britney fans and a middle finger to those who have criticized her singing abilities over the years.
3. Unusual You
One of the saddest tracks in Britney’s repertoire, “Unusual You” reveals just how jaded the pop princess is when it comes to men. In the song, Britney sings about her confusion that a relationship is actually going well for her instead of falling apart at the seams.
“Baby, you’re so unusual, didn’t anyone tell you you’re supposed to break my heart? I expect you to, so why haven’t you?” she tenderly asks her lover. Talk about trust issues, geez.
Accompanied by a haunting electronic backdrop, this Bloodshy & Avant produced track (the team behind B’s massive hit, “Toxic”) is sprinkled with flurries of piano and a throbbing bassline. It’s a midtempo song with music as ethereal as its lyrical content is melancholy. And what makes it that much more depressing is that to Britney, it’s a happy song about realizing what the true meaning of love is. But to listeners, it’s a song about how psychologically damaged the singer is from the relationships of her past.
One listen in and the song will make you want to buy a plane ticket to Kentwood, Louisiana. After you land, you’ll want to pick up ice cream, drive to Britney’s house for a girls’ night and reassure her that it really does get better.
2. Heaven On Earth
There are surely many reasons that Rolling Stone called Blackout “the most influential pop album of the past five years” (the magazine’s “Decade-End Readers’ Poll” also voted the record to be #7 on the list of best albums between 2000-2010). But one of these reasons has to be the album’s unapologetic determination to explore and conquer territory usually written off as too niche for wide, mainstream audiences.
The Euro-disco fortified “Heaven On Earth” is one such example. The glitzy electronic track is masterfully layered with three individual vocal lines in a way reminiscent of Donna Summer’s classic “I Feel Love.” Throughout the song, Britney interjects the melody with stolen whispers and husky alto decoration, giving “Heaven On Earth” a distinctively multi-textured and celestial aura.
A deeply romantic song, “Heaven On Earth” is about how every detail about her lover provides Britney with a sense of shelter. She’s in love with everything about him. His imperfections become perfections and as long as he’s around, nothing else matters. With him, Britney ascends to otherworldly levels of bliss. It’s a sentimental track that finds our beloved pop star high off of the connection she has with another human being – a feeling she so earnestly yearns for in many other tracks within her back catalog.
1. What It’s Like To Be Me
Everyone remembers when Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake dated. How could you not? They were the golden couple of their time. But what fewer people remember is the incredible collaboration the two had on Britney’s third record.
Closing out the album, “What It’s Like To Be Me” is a punchy self-empowerment anthem. Full of sass and a “don’t fuck with me” attitude, the track is without a doubt one of the edgiest in Britney’s discography.
The song is also much rockier than a typical Britney track. Its dramatic use of strings and thrashing drums give the song sharper corners than most of her material. In turn, this sound also gives the track the courage to risk being a little more experimental.
During the song’s bridge, the music drops out and Britney sings acapella over Justin’s signature beatboxing. Layers of Justin’s background vocals are then looped in as Britney’s voice builds to welcome the explosive return of percussion. And as the song ends, it goes back into Britney and Justin’s acapella back-and-forth all the way through its chill-inducing finale.
Individually, these two artists were pivotal in defining the pop culture of their generation. But together, their work was catapulted to new heights. “What It’s Like To Be Me” not only showcased what Britney and Justin each do best, but it solidified that these two talents were unafraid to change the game and were destined to stay on top for a very long time.