Years before “I Love Rock n Roll” and “Don’t Keep Me Waiting,” (soft-)Rockney arguably made her first appearance on Britney Spears’ debut album. From the moment the spirited strumming of an acoustic guitar opens the song, it’s clear that “I Will Be There” is a unique track on the album.

BreatheHeavy’s new feature, Should Have Been A Single, is kicking things off with a Britney mini-series where we take a look at songs the princess of pop should have released as an official single off each album, but didn’t. The first installment deals with Baby One More Time.

Looking back, Britney’s debut LP is far more experimental and genre-bending than its origin in the late 90s teen-pop wave would suggest. Ten years before onetime friend Paris Hilton tried her hand at reggae influenced pop, Britney explored the genre with “Soda Pop.” A mere year after Madonna experimented with bossa nova on Ray of Light, Britney did the same with her campy rework of Cher’s “The Beat Goes On.” In the context of these wild experiments, “I Will Be There” has been lost in the shuffle, but it’s an ideal example of Britney’s many deep-cut album tracks that merited the single treatment.

“Born To Make You Happy” is the easy answer in asking which hit single got away from Britney’s debut, but the song actually was the fourth single from the album, released in Europe in December of 1999, while the US received the decidedly more schmaltzy “From the Bottom of my Broken Heart,” hardly a surprise considering …Baby One More Time was released after almost a decade of chart-topping ballads by Mariah Carey. It’s one of the more earnest vocal deliveries on the album, but I’d argue “I Will Be There” is an even better example. At the very least, it features one of the loveliest of Britney’s recorded high notes during the final refrain at the 3:33 mark: she holds the note sung on the “there” of “I will be there” for several seconds, and while some studio wizardry adds the dramatic reverb effect that came standard with pop power ballads twenty years ago, Britney nonetheless owns the moment. 

It’s perhaps the song most suited for her voice on the whole album, the melody relying on that sweet spot between the feathery whispers of “From the Bottom of my Broken Heart” and the slightly less controlled belts of “I Will Still Love You,” itself a song that aged surprisingly well. But as would become clear in the succeeding decade, before Britney largely abandoned ballads, her most successful moments vocally were the middle-range midtempos that relied on her natural voice, rather than utilizing the ***-tastic airy moans of “E-Mail My Heart” or unwieldy belting she wasn’t quite equipped for. Besides that high note at the end, though, the song uniquely captures a mature side of Britney’s voice, perhaps most clearly recalling what the starlet expressed as her initial vision for her debut album:  speaking to Rolling Stone for her infamous 1999 cover story, Spears explained that she had planned to record something akin to “Sheryl crow music, but younger and more adult contemporary.” Leave it to Brinni to plan on sounding both “younger” and “more adult” at the same time (ugh ha mind!!1!), but it is clear that “I Will Be There” is one of the more sophisticated moments on the record, much closer to “Sheryl Crow music” than almost every other track.

Ironically, the track’s strengths are largely why it has gone unnoticed. While it enjoys a decent fan following, the track has been largely absent from Britney’s touring repertoire, debuting during the Crazy 2K Tour as part of Britney’s Live in Hawaii special. It was unfairly cut from the Live and More dvd, however, and reviewing clips on YouTube, it’s not quite clear why, except to observe that the song is clearly challenging to sing while delivering the relentless choreography Britney was known for during the first 5 years of her career. The song’s lyrics require a spirited delivery, which quickly became compromised due to the heavy choreography assigned to the number. Britney admitted to Rolling Stone in the interview mentioned above that she agreed with producers who encouraged her that “it made more sense to go pop, because I can dance to it,” but in this case, the choreography intervened with the song slightly. It’s worth mentioning, though, that she went for the final high note on tour and nails it in the clips of the song from that tour. The comments sections, appropriately, are largely filled by fans who wished the song had gotten more exposure and who praised Britney’s live vocals under the constraints of dancing.

This is exactly why the song would have been an ideal single. Most early reviewers mocked Britney’s debut album for its apparent lack of finesse, arguing that the project was half-baked and premature. “I Will Be There” would have ably been able to answer these critics with its tried-and-true lyrical themes:  the title itself evokes classics like “Stand By Me” and the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.” The opening lines, perhaps, are the most compelling, with Spears declaring “You don’t have to say what’s on your mind / Cause I know where you’ve been / Give it up and leave it all behind / and then let me begin,” as though to broach a heartfelt conversation with an equal, a far cry from the teen angst of “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” which revels in infatuation and frustration at the same time. The effect of the sexual component in songs like Baby One More Time‘s title track, of course, was that due to her age, Britney was perceived as a *** object:  even when expressing her desire, thus, her position, lyrically, was slightly disempowered. But in “I Will Be There,” the dominant theme is commitment: the prickly *** appeal of the album’s most popular singles is largely absent, which would have given critics opportunity to pay more attention to the track’s strengths, free from the compulsion to judge Spears (as they consistently did) for sexualizing her material.

It’s telling that the song could pass for one by an older artist. Spears mentioned Sheryl Crow as an original inspiration, but the better analogy here might be Shania Twain, whose late-90s world ********** was still underway in 1999. Like Twain’s material, the song distinctively combines genres to great effect. The acoustic guitar gives way to a mournful electric guitar counterpart that wails toward the opening verse, as if to introduce the song as a heartfelt one that nonetheless will not be a downer. (More than one listener has pointed to that guitar’s similarity to another chameleonic 90s force:  the track “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia. That song, of course, was a cover, but Britney’s track does a similar job of combining an unmistakable pop hook with instrumentation clearly encoded as “adult contemporary”-friendly. By the time the guitars return at the 2:40 mark, it’s almost impossibly melancholic and emotive, a reminder that for all the bubblegum frivolity of the era in which Britney made her debut, pop music began its reign at this time because of the connection audiences had with the music marketed to them. 

This is why the song, like the album it is from, has aged so well. A teenager herself, Britney’s heart was clearly in what she was doing. We can quite literally hear it on tracks like this, the hit that got away.

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