“Break Free” vs. “Oops!… I Did It Again”: A Scientific Music Video Comparison of Girls In Space
On Tuesday, tiny pop star and popular Taco Bell order Ariana Grande released a music video for her latest single “Break Free,” which is set in outer space and features an outsize amount of backstory yet does not in any way reference Britney Spears’ important 2000 cultural contribution in “Oops I Did It Again.” This posed for me an irresistible opportunity to examine each video in exhaustive comparative detail.
The General Deal
The song is a breakup track and the video is set in space. One might argue that space is the last place that a person might actually want to “break free,” but space also guarantees a clean cutoff: there is no cell service and you have already asphyxiated.
“Oops,” though not a breakup song, is an “I’m sorry you caught feelings byeeeee” song. Story checks out for Space Britney: she lives in a Martian sex pod, she’s definitely going to bang the cute astronauts when they come around, sorry bout it.
Is It A Chill Sitch
Not a chill sitch. Ariana Grande is some sort of Barbarella sexy earth-girl space-traveler who has been forced into a very hostile outer space environment in which unexplained predators and gross overlord-men attack her constantly, and she has to (naturally) shoot off her boobs to kill them. She then gets beamed up to a dance party — or, judging from the vibes, a dance performance for an audience of dead people — with a small space animal that wants to fuck her, and Zedd is there too, which is awful. No one’s having enough fun for any of this to read campy; it seems sort of like a billion-dollar ad for flavored gum.
It’s not not a chill sitch. There’s a hot astronaut, he’s got a good working relationship with his crew, he’s just gone to space and found Britney Spears in a red pleather catsuit. Britney’s backup dancers in her Space Pod seem like total homies — they’d just be doing this whether or not we were there, and might all go get food after. It’s sort of unchill that Britney takes the astronaut’s hat off in the open space air — she is, of course, fine because she is a natural-born Martian — but he doesn’t even notice. Even after Britney rejects his gift (The Heart of the Ocean) he just moonwalks back to his ship for infinite daps.
Ariana Grande is 21 and she can sing like a fucking angel: famously, and like Mariah, she’s got four octaves and a (Jason Derulo voice) whistle whistle whistle. She’s straight from four years starring on a Nickelodeon TV show and I’m gonna say this is her fourth single, after “The Way,” “Baby I,” and “Problem,” which hit #2 and is her biggest hit to date.
One important thing about Ariana Grande is that she always looks like either a small toddler who time-traveled to homecoming or a mannequin in the window of a sex store. The fear in her eyes is palpable and constant but her voice cements her as extraordinary and I hope she’s nowhere near her peak.
Britney Spears at the time of “Oops!” filming was 19 and eight years out of the Mickey Mouse Club. It was her sixth single, the first off her second album, and you could easily make an argument for the song and video as her peak, or at least a peak — she was already positioned at the very top (“Baby One More Time” introduced her at #1) but had the kind of forward momentum that lasted for years (“Toxic” wasn’t until 2004, a full 9 singles later).
By “Oops!”, Britney had already done the Rolling Stone cover, which visually positioned her in the spot that Ariana’s trying to inhabit currently. (She had also openly pledged to remain a virgin till marriage! What A Time!) Britney’s voice of course was never extraordinary, but it snapped like bubblegum and she was a magnet for attention and you couldn’t not watch her when she danced.
Dominant Movie Reference
The Baby Boomer-age Star Wars and Barbarella are not the best picks for an Ariana Grande video in 2014. It’s important to note that “Break Free” has absolutely nonsensical lyrics: each line is meaningless and also contradicts the line preceding it. With this loose of a concept you’re going to want a film with a nice, easy premise, which Star Wars is the opposite of. She’d have been better off doing Gravity as Sandra Bullock in Space Bo Peep lingerie, and the unspecified captor is Clooney trying to reel her in, and Ariana’s like “Sorry bitch” and cuts her tether and plummets into deep space like, “This is — the part where I break free!”
Or even better, this non-idea that I sneezed out on reflex: Ariana busts out of a space castle, unlocks the door for an army of caged ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends, and they all burn down the castle of their space captor and do an enormous, Backstreet Boys “Larger Than Life”-style space dance to the song.
Titanic, on the other hand, is really the move. While not all those who loved Titanic might have been into Britney Spears, a guaranteed 99.9% of Britney fans had gone to see Titanic (which came out three years before “Oops!”) in theaters, and probably more than once. Crucially, Titanic is set on earth; it also features a boy-girl-iceberg plot that is one billion times less complicated than Star Wars.
Freed from the obligation of engaging the Cephalopodean universes of a deep space thriller, Britney is able to use her four minutes of music video to swiftly reverse Titanic’s leaden lovesickness. She’s like, “Oh, you came to see me in space, handsome astronaut?” *checks phone, sees message from other astronaut* “That’s so… nice of you…”
Ariana is a tiny baby lost in space. She is the Childlike Empress of this music video.
Britney is Space Queen. Ah-ha, hush that fuss.
Performer Commitment, GIF Edition
What’s Up With the Weave
Well, they brushed the front.
How Galactic Is The Makeup
Pretty galactic, I guess.
Galactic but I hate it. I want everyone in space to look super goth; I would look incredibly fucking goth if I were stuck in space.
Strong. “Break Free” has a dance-tent propulsive relentlessness and a huge, broad chorus that was written for thousands of people to belt it in each other’s faces, and Ariana’s garbled same-note whip of “I sayy, I don’t wannya” feels wildly satisfying, even more than the sustained payoff step of “break / free.” There’s a decent, semi-grimy swing coda that I wish kicked in under the song’s bridge, which drifts around sort of aimless and unintelligent.
Regardless, both of these songs are 100% hook. The difference is that “Break Free” is immediately and then always like, “Yeah! I know this song! It’s that song!” and “Oops!” sounds like nothing else but Oops.
I mean, too good. It’s a perfect topline, nimble and canny, coquettish little steps in the melody like a pop cabaret. The “but I brought this bullshit up for you from the bottom of the ocean” bridge is awkward and lessens the momentum of the jam, but it’s worth it because afterwards Britney rockets into an incredibly satisfying couple of choruses: every melody line present in the song up to that point goes airborne all at once, like a thick, rising bunch of varicolored balloons.
Confusing and not worth going to space for!
“Break Free” is probably going to be a top 10 smash but it’s so strictly generic while also feeling somehow off-the-cuff: a bunch of glowstick spaghetti thrown up against a wall. It’s got two really bad, stupid lines in particular — the ungrammatical “Now that I’ve become who I really are” (a composite being; a sentient bloom of jellyfish?) and the monkish, Kabbalistic “I only wanna die alive.” The bridge, too, is almost majestically nonsensical. (“The thought on your body” — that’s… how — “I came alive” — oh, so before this you were — “It was lethal” — but I thought you’d just — “It was fatal” — hold on — “In my dreams it felt so right” — dying? — “But I woke up and pretend” — you woke up and PRETEND?)
Ariana gave TIME the old Max-Martin-Made-Me-Do-It about her lyrical problems:
Max was like, ‘It’s funny — just do it!’ I know it’s funny and silly, but grammatically incorrect things make me cringe sometimes…. I was like, whatever, let’s do it and have some fun. I need to shake it off and let it go and be a little less rigid and old. I’m like 90. I need to not be that old.
But it’s the opposite; she needs to be not that young. The Era of Trolling and General Desire for Meaninglessness does not excuse nonsense as funny unless it’s actually funny. And it’s a shame: Ariana’s two years older than Britney was when she did the space thing, and she can sing circles around pretty much anyone working right now and she’s still reading like a timid puppet in the hands of a Svengali. Why hang out in orbit (on Beats’ dime, no less) if you’re not going to have literally any fun? Of course it’s easier to have fun if you’ve got a song that’s written in plausible English, and a video concept better than “You’re in a lavender corset and white thigh-high boots and all these alien men are trying to eat you anddddddd I think we’re good!” Ariana deserves better than the struggle. I leave you with a question: Is it a dick or what?
Still perfect, holds up so hard, miss you so much Britney. It’s good to watch “Oops!” again after a summer in which no one has really been able to find themselves a generalized summer jam and most of the female-fronted hits have involved goddamn Iggy Azalea — a summer that arrives in an ongoing, accursed period where a lot of female pop stars perform visibly stiff (Katy Perry) or effortful (Miley Cyrus) and almost no one except for Beyonce can work their way through a dance.
Britney in this era was never serious and always game; we can all take a good lesson from that. Her videos were the same way; coherent, deliberate set pieces that were all in but consistently tongue-in-cheek: plaid skirts at a high school, all-white on the pier, waitresses off duty, just her and a chair. Britney showed up and went to work and worked it, and it worked. Ariana, I believe in you. You can do it; don’t let those demons from hell get your tiny little heart down. If Britney can get through 2007, you can get a little bit closer to 2000 Britney.