Should Have Been Bigger: Britney Spears’ “Criminal”
In this franchise, we look back on songs that deserved a little more love and attention.
In 2011, Britney Spears could do no wrong. The pop icon enjoyed a string of hits following the release of her seventh studio album, Femme Fatale. However, “Criminal” should have been the song to put her career on a different trajectory. After the overwhelming success of electro-kissed releases “Hold It Against Me,” “Till the World Ends,” and “I Wanna Go,” the dancefloor diva delivered a bit of a curveball with when “Criminal” was released as the fourth and final single. With production and writing from Max Martin and Shellback, the track makes use of a flute and finds Spears paying tribute to her love for bad boys over a folk-inspired pop production. That’s right, the pop star who introduced pop music to dubstep’s throbbing baselines also got down with her folk roots on the same album.
“Mama I’m in love with a criminal, and this type of love isn’t rational, it’s physical,” Britney emphatically croons on the track’s chorus. On an album that was celebrated for its blissful and carefree pop aesthetic, “Criminal” was one of the few mid-tempos to make the album’s tracklist and is memorable as one of the pop icon’s most experimental releases to get the official single treatment. This was a more mature direction that offered the hitamker an opportunity for growth and a chance to bear a bit more of her inner workings beyond the clarion call to the dance floor that she’d become known for delivering. At a time when Spears was at her most inaccessible behind the glimmer of stardom, “Criminal” offered a glimpse into her desires and the difficulties of falling for the bad boy who you define as both as loser and a bum. If that’s not relatable, I don’t know what is.
The folksy single received one of the best music videos of the era and featured her then-fiancé Jason Trawick as her literal partner in crime. In the visual, Britney plays a true femme fatale, dressed in a variety of stylish looks and toting a gun to rob a London convenience store of vanilla candles before she and Trawick went out in a spray of bullets from the police. Vanilla candles have probably never been the cause of international criminal acts before, but Brit is admittedly a huge fan. Unfortunately, “Criminal” never received an official promotional performance at the time, and it didn’t make it onto the setlist for her international Femme Fatale Tour. As a result, it floundered on the charts and peaked well outside the top 40 becoming the only single off Femme Fatale to not reach the top 10. To this day, it’s one of the few singles Spears has released that has never been performed live. The single that could have revolutionized Spears’ discography remains criminally underrated. Revisit the ephemeral anthem below.