Britney Spears released her landmark pop smash Oops!… I Did It Again album 15 years ago, and everything that has happened to her since — both good and bad — has been publicly well-documented. Well, almost everything. There’s been little said or written about Original Doll, the “lost” Britney Spears album that never came to be, but it’s the lost album that could give us insight into how one of the most celebrated pop hitmakers of our time suffered such a public fall.
So, let’s travel back to late 2003. Spears’ fourth album, In The Zone, had just been released to commercial success and kind words from critics. Spears was certainly no stranger to hit records, and wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down, as In The Zone spawned “Toxic,” “Outrageous,” and “Me Against the Music.” This was a machine that seemed like it couldn’t be stopped, and it sometimes felt like Britney herself was only a piece of it all; there’s a theory that Spears wrote many songs for In The Zone that were raw, inspired by her breakup with Justin Timberlake and other personal demons, and her label Jive nixed them because they didn’t fit her pop star persona.
Regardless if the songs on In The Zone were what Britney or her label really wanted released, the album did eventually come out. To further support it, Spears set out on the overly ambitious Onyx Hotel tour in March of the following year. By June, though, it was cancelled after she fell and injured her knee while shooting the video for “Outrageous.”
At the time, conspiracy theories created by some stans floated around, offering the “real” reasons as to why the tour was nixed. After all, people argued, she had just met Kevin Federline, so maybe that had something to do with it. Whatever the reason for the tour cancellation — and it should be noted that there’s a video purportedly showing her falling and injuring herself — it didn’t change the fact that the tour was over.
The following months are most likely when the ill-fated Original Doll was conceived. Here’s what happened back on Dec. 30, 2004:
Spears showed up uninvited and unexpected, and weirdly shoeless, at the KISS-FM studios in Burbank, Calif. Nary a paparazzo was in sight as she stealthily made her way to the radio station, her version of a kamikaze mission, to debut her new single “Mona Lisa.”
Britney Spears live in studio! Do you have to take a super-secret CIA mission-secure route to Burbank from your crib so you don’t get followed?
I didn’t see anybody outside.
I know! It’s awesome.
I walked out there, there wasn’t one camera anywhere.
I know, it’s great!
Well thanks for hanging tonight. Good luck with your album. It’s untitled.
It’s probably going to be called Original Doll, so…
And it’s half done?
Yeah. It’s halfway done right now.
Alright, so maybe by the summer? Maybe by the fall?
Yeah, yeah maybe a little bit earlier.
Following that one time the song was played on the radio, it vanished. It wasn’t disputed that Britney was working on music during this time; her label Jive went as far as to confirm that she’d been in the studio, but not so far as to confirm that anything definitive was being released. They also said that “Mona Lisa” wouldn’t be serviced to radio, but it’s natural to assume that whatever Britney was working on at the time were songs meant to be on Original Doll.
Because there isn’t much about the album to be found online, it’s easy to dwell on “Mona Lisa,” a song that is haunting, as it seems to foreshadow the trouble that was to come to Britney in the following years. “They want her to break down / Be a legend of her fall,” part of the song goes. Spears even adopted a “Mona Lisa” alter-ego around that time. In the song, Britney sings of freeing her troubled alter-ego. This interpretation feeds into popular conspiracy theory that Britney was under mind control (a brief Google of this finds a plethora of articles, far more than any on Original Doll). There are many who say “Mona Lisa” and the Original Doll recordings were Spears’ attempt to free herself from the control of the machine around her, and that her taking “Mona Lisa” rogue to the radio station was her trying to do things her own way.
But the album obviously never came to be, and it would be four years until Spears released Blackout, the followup to In The Zone. In between the two albums came her much-publicized personal struggles.
Naturally, the disappearance of Original Doll brings more questions than answers. What if she had been allowed to continue down the path of “Mona Lisa?” Would she have still endured that public meltdown, ran into gas stations barefoot, attacked a paparazzo with an umbrella, and shaved her head? Would she have still eventually wandered into the territory of EDM, and Iggy Azalea collaborations? And would it all have culminated in her Vegas residency?
Alas, there really isn’t too much information out there on Britney’s lost album. The are a few forums dedicated to it (my favorite rumor was that Kanye was producing songs for her), a site dedicated to the album, and BuzzFeed’s excellent reporting on what may have happened. Fans have attempted to put together their own Original Doll from b-sides and whatever scraps of information they can find.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the idea of a lost Britney Spears album is the fact that there really isn’t much of it to be found on the Internet. You have to remember that this was 2004. It was before the Internet truly ruled our lives by recording every possible piece of information, big or small. Or maybe Jive managed to dead it all.
Logically, it seems that these Original Doll era songs were either scattered and released sparingly, if at all, or kept in the vault. In fact, “Mona Lisa” was eventually released on the Britney & Kevin EP as a bonus to their Britney & Kevin: Chaotic… the DVD & More. It was a watered-down version of the one that played on the KISS-FM airwaves that night, though, losing its sinister essence.
It’s not hard to compare Original Doll to The Beach Boys’ SMiLE, Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy or Dr. Dre’s Detox, other infamous lost albums (eventually, of course, SMiLE and Chinese Democracy were released). But Original Doll isn’t as much a staple of pop culture lore the way the others are. Maybe everyone forgot about it in the wake of the downward spiral that claimed Spears in the next couple of years.
Britney doesn’t need a lost album to be a pillar of pop culture, though, as she’s cemented her spot there all on her own. Still, her history in the public eye is not without its dark turns, and Original Doll might be the missing link in that narrative.