The KIIS-FM offices in Burbank, Calif., were nearly deserted the day Britney Spears called. It was December 2004, just before New Year’s Eve, and Jesse Lozano was filling in for the regular host, who was on vacation. “Britney Spears is on the phone,” he was told. “She says she wants to play her new song.”
Lozano thought it was a prank. “Usually, you don’t believe that,” he told BuzzFeed in March. But an hour later, the singer was outside the station’s Burbank studio with a bodyguard, her chihuahua, and, Lozano recalled, no shoes. “She had a CD with her and said, ‘Can we play it on the air?’”
“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?” Lozano asked.
“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.”
They came back from commercial break. Spears introduced the song she’d come to play, “Mona Lisa.”
Ladies and gentlemen / I’ve got a little story to tell
About Mona Lisa / and how she suddenly fell
See, everyone knew her / they knew her oh so well
Now I am taking over / to release her from her spell
She’s unforgettable / She was a legend though
It’s kind of pitiful / That’s she’s gone
It’s kind of incredible / She’s so unpredictable
It’s time to let her go / Cuz she’s gone
It was the first and last time “Mona Lisa” would be on the radio. A representative for Jive, her record label, told Billboard a week later the song wouldn’t be serviced to radio, and “no album is scheduled at the moment.” They did, however, note that Spears was “in the studio working on some material.”
Today, our pop stars tend to be open and imperfect, a byproduct of the social media age. Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber are in their fans’ feeds, selling their music, but also talking about their lives. But 10 years ago when Britney brought “Mona Lisa” to the radio station, there was no Instagram, only TRL. Original Doll and what Spears hoped it would become represented a shift in the pop music landscape, away from the Disney-groomed turn-of-the-century pop star toward something more honest and raw that we see today in Lorde, Rihanna, and others.
The 22-year-old Spears didn’t have a Twitter account to vent with, or a Soundcloud page she could post her songs on, but for a small window of time, she managed to bypass the gatekeepers to tell the public what was on her mind. She had long been criticized as a puppet, but Original Doll was her attempt to cut the strings.
But it would be three years, two trips to rehab, and one divorce before she would release another studio album, and by then, Original Doll was scrapped and forgotten. While some of the songs which may have ended up on the album, like “Mona Lisa,” were eventually leaked or released, the mystery of Britney Spears’ “lost album” remains, and piecing together its story offers a rare and revealing look inside the mind of a carefully managed pop icon before her fall.
Over the years, fans have put together mock Original Doll album covers and created their own tracklists culled from B-sides and leaked tracks. Message board threads devoted to the album have stirred speculation and conspiracy theories, and every so often, users claiming to have a friend of a friend who worked at Jive would post an alleged detail.
However, multiple former employees of Jive told BuzzFeed they were unfamiliar with the album, and a source who worked with Spears during the time said Original Doll was never scheduled internally; anything Spears said about it was just her talking about her plans. She didn’t say much, just 22 words in a single interview, but Original Doll has become Spears’ Smile, the infamous abandoned Beach Boys’ album, and a fascinating piece of pop folklore.
Those who worked with Spears prior to “Mona Lisa” said she wanted to be more involved in the songwriting process. Songwriter Michelle Bell first met Spears in 2002, when she was in the studio working with Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, who had remixed “Overprotected,” a song from Britney’s self-titled 2001 album. “She had on a blue thermal top and it had a little cigarette burn in it,” Bell said. “I thought, this couldn’t be her. This is her sister. She looked like she was dressing from the mall in Louisiana.”
Spears’ recent breakup with Justin Timberlake inspired several songs she wrote at the time, Bell said. During their sessions, Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” written about their breakup, was released. In its music video, he broke into the home of a Spears look-alike. “I think she was really hurt by ‘Cry Me a River,’” Bell said.
Songwriter Angela Hunte, who co-wrote Britney’s “Do Somethin’,” recalled one recording session with Spears in 2002 in a New York City studio where Jive often put up artists, when Timberlake was also in the building rehearsing for an awards show performance.
“We couldn’t hear [Justin] exactly, but you could hear the music, hear the voice,” she said. “She was a little irritated by that. Then she came in and it was like nothing happened and we started recording and she was a complete professional from beginning to end.”
“Everytime” has been described as Spears’ response to “Cry Me a River,” and an apology: “I may have made it rain / Please forgive me / My weakness caused you pain / And this song’s my sorry.” Bell recalled the first time Spears played “Everytime” for her on the piano during their 2002 sessions. (“She definitely can play the piano, no one really knows that.”) Bell told her she loved it, but Spears was hesitant about singing it for her A&R, the record label employee who would decide which songs would make the album.
“She said nobody really listens to her,” Bell said. “She just wanted somebody to say I believe in you beyond this pop machine.” Bell developed a good relationship with Spears and the pair worked on a number of songs together. “After a while, she sort of trusted me,” she said. One song they wrote during the 2002 sessions, titled “Look Who’s Talking,” was about Timberlake but contained references in its lyrics only he and Spears would understand.
“That song was totally about him,” Bell said. “It was all, let’s not put it all out there. She was like, ‘He’ll know what we mean, but the rest of the world won’t.’” In one line, Bell remembered, Spears used the word “justify” for its double meaning (Timberlake’s album was titled Justified). “I was true to you / Justify my point of view,” she sang. The song was covered by Korean singer BoA in 2008, and Spears’ version leaked in 2012.
Spears wanted to experiment with her sound. “Chaotic,” which became the theme song for her 2005 UPN reality show of the same name, was described by Bell as “animated.” “(I’ve Just Begun) Having My Fun” sounded like a Britney-fronted No Doubt song, and “Falling” was country-influenced. She also wanted to try to record more R&B-sounding songs. “I think she wanted to go in an R&B direction like Justin was doing with ‘Cry Me a River,’” Bell said. Spears’ “Me Against the Music,” which became the lead single for her 2003 album, In the Zone, bore more than a passing similarity to Justified’s lead single, “Like I Love You,” with its funked-out acoustic guitars and tight drum tracks.
Hunte called many of the songs that came out of these sessions “empowering.” In regards to “Do Somethin’,” Hunte recalled Spears thinking, “‘I don’t have to be unclothed to say what I’m thinking, I can just say it with these words. Leave me alone. I just want to do me.’ I think what she meant by that is, I can just say what I feel. I don’t have to be anything extra.”
On “Take Off,” Spears sang about tolerance, love, and peace. Bell called it her version of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” “It was about being tolerant about gay people. It was gay people, discrimination, basically loving yourself and being connected,” Bell said. “I think it was ahead of Lady Gaga. I think people would have looked at her and thought she had something to say. It was ahead of its time. She talked about war and how war is wrong.” In 2013, Bell tweeted some lyrics from the song: “They say get ready for the revolution / I think we oughta find some sorta solution.”
But Jive wasn’t impressed. “I think maybe they thought it was not close enough to her brand,” Bell said. She called In the Zone “the filtered-down version of Original Doll, or the more pop version.” She “wanted to make a record that was more vibey and more personal and honest,” Bell said. Ultimately, Spears still hoped her songs would have their day. “I think she knew, I can come back to these songs later,” Bell said.
When Spears’ In the Zone was released in November 2003, none of Bell’s or Hunte’s songs made the cut, although “Everytime” did. Even without those revelatory songs, the album was adventurous and sexy, and marked a continued evolution of her sound and image through songs like the Grammy-winning “Toxic,” “Me Against the Music” featuring Madonna, and “Touch of My Hand,” a song about masturbation.
“I think the record label was like, no, you’ve got to stay the course you’re on, which was a strong pop star, a little longer,” Bell said. “It’s a lot of pressure to keep that spot.”
While most of Spears’ original teen pop contemporaries had fallen off the charts, In the Zone debuted at No. 1, her fourth consecutive album to do so, which was at the time a record among female artists.
But by the beginning of 2004, Spears was becoming more of a tabloid fixture. In January, she got married for 55 hours to childhood friend Jason Alexander in Las Vegas, leading Us Weekly to declare “Britney: Out of Control” on its cover, while People asked “Is She Over the Edge?” Still, in March, she set out on her most ambitious tour yet, the 93-city Onyx Hotel Tour, to support In the Zone. It was also her most provocative. During one song, she writhed around in a clear bathtub wearing a nude-colored diamond-encrusted bodysuit, while for another, she and a male dancer each wearing only underwear danced on a bed and kissed.
It was a grueling schedule, with frequent back-to-back performances in cities hundreds of miles apart with perhaps a day or two in between. “I was on the road for awhile and whoever scheduled my tour must have been out of their mind,” she said in an episode of Chaotic. “I was doing way too much stuff. I was over it.”
Spears didn’t want to be on tour. She often skipped soundcheck, and she didn’t seem to be giving her all during performances; only one song in the 16-song set doesn’t appear to have been lip-synched.
But she was happier after meeting Federline, a backup dancer who’d worked with Destiny’s Child, Pink, and Justin Timberlake (he was in Timberlake’s “Like I Love You” music video). During a break at home in Los Angeles, Spears met Federline on a night out, and, soon smitten, invited him to Europe for the tour’s second leg.
“When Kevin came into the picture with all of us, you could see the sparkle in her eye,” her security guard Mo said on Chaotic. “You could see how she was more chipper. She wasn’t as down as much.”
“They saw that I wasn’t a bitch anymore and they’re like, she’s happy, let’s keep him around,” Spears said on the show.
It was also during this time that Spears brought “Mona Lisa” to soundcheck before one of her shows, said Stephanie Alexander, a backup singer on the tour. She sang it a cappella and had her band work out an arrangement. She said she wanted to record it and release it as a single. “It’s not unusual for a seasoned artist to come and try new songs for an album,” Alexander said. “For Britney, it was unusual because she was a pop act.”
They tweaked and perfected the song over several sound checks. Spears said she wanted Gregorian chanting, which Alexander found interesting because “Cry Me a River” also featured Gregorian chanting. She also noted the similarities between the bridges of the two songs. “I definitely think she was responding to ‘Cry Me a River,’” she said.
Although Spears never spoke with her backup singers or band about the meaning of the song, Alexander said she viewed it as a song about “an amazing gem of a woman who was being taken for granted and ultimately self destructs.”
“It wasn’t lost on us the lyrics of the song,” she said. “The lyrics painted this character tragically.”
“Mona Lisa” was recorded in Sweden during a tour stop with members of Spears’ road band and Bloodshy & Avant, the team who produced “Toxic.” “It definitely has the raw thing going on it,” Spears would tell KIIS-FM during the December 2004 interview, according to MTV. “My band, we didn’t use ProTools or anything with it. It’s all live. There’s a lot of stuff you can do to make it better. It’s going to get better. It will get better — this is a really, really rough mix.”
Alexander said she vaguely remembered another song Spears had on tour, but wasn’t sure. “I still can’t say for certain if that is a mirage in my mind or if there actually were something else,” she said. Regardless, there was to be no more new music recorded while on the road. The tour was cut short in June.
The cancellation was attributed to an injury Spears sustained to her left knee during a music video shoot for In the Zone track “Outrageous,” but not everyone on tour believed that. “There was a lot of speculation about the reasons the tour was cancelled so abruptly,” Alexander said. “Most people attributed it to her relationship with Kevin.” But it was the second injury since the tour began. She injured her left knee in March during a performance in Moline, Ill., which forced her to cancel two shows, and she had previously undergone minor orthopedic surgery on her left knee in 1999, according to a complaint filed in February 2005 in a New York Supreme Court. Footage captured her fall mid-spin, and she was later seen on crutches.
During the flight to New York City for the video shoot, Spears and Federline got engaged. They were married in October. In a blog post on her website that month titled “Letter of Truth,” Spears said she was taking time off to “enjoy life.”
“I’ve actually learned to say ‘NO!’” she wrote. “With this newly found freedom, its [sic] like people don’t know how to act around me. Should we talk to her like we did when she was 16 or like the Icon everyone says she is? My prerogative right now is to just chill & let all of the other overexposed blondes on the cover of Us Weekly be your entertainment… GOOD LUCK GIRLS!!” She also chalked up her knee injury to divine intervention. “I know now that my knee gave out on me this past summer so that I would have no choice but to stop,” she wrote. “My body was shutting down and needed rest. It’s funny how the Man upstairs works.”
Her words were interpreted as a temporary retirement, but she clarified what she meant in a later blog post. “What I meant was I am taking a break from being told what to do,” she wrote. “The things I’ve been doing for work lately have been so much fun, because it’s not like work to me anymore.” For her first greatest hits album, released November 2004, she recorded a cover of Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative.” The lyrics echoed her blog: “I don’t need permission / Make my own decisions / That’s my prerogative.” If she was going to make music, she wanted it to be on her terms.
When she brought “Mona Lisa” to KIIS-FM eight weeks later, all signs point to her going rogue and doing it without the knowledge of her label. Typical new single rollouts are much more calculated than calling a radio station the day of, and no one involved in the writing or recording of the song had been paid yet, backup singer Alexander said.
Spears used “Mona Lisa” as a pseudonym when she co-directed her first music video, for “Do Somethin’.” The empowerment song co-written by Hunte was released on her November 2004 greatest hits album. “I kinda think she’s like my alter ego whenever I feel like being mean or possibly like bustin’ people around to get stuff right,” she told TRL. “It’s kinda easier to be called ‘Mona Lisa’ instead of Britney.” The words “Mona Lisa” also appear for a split second in the video, written across a door that opens to reveal Spears and her bandmates.
The only other known song Spears recorded during this time was “Someday (I Will Understand).” Written in 2005, two weeks before she found out she was pregnant with her first child with Federline, Spears called it a “prophecy” on Chaotic.
Nothing seems to be the way / That it used to
Everything seems shallow / God give me truth
In me / And tell me somebody’s watching
Over me / And that is all I’m praying is that
Someday / I will understand
In God’s whole plan / And what he’s done to me
Oh but maybe / Someday I will breathe
And I’ll finally see / I’ll see it all in my baby
“It seemed very obvious what the song was about — motherhood — but there was no physical sign that Britney was pregnant during the sessions,” Sean McGhee, who engineered, programmed, and mixed the song, wrote in an email. “Certainly, we didn’t ask her any questions, I would not have wanted to pry into her personal life, but when the news came out a few weeks later, it wasn’t too much of a surprise.”
Like “Everytime,” the ethereal ballad had been written by Spears at a piano and produced by Guy Sigworth, who has worked with Björk and Madonna and was one half of the short-lived duo Frou Frou. Engineer McGhee said he was impressed with Spears’ songwriting. “I think it’s actually very difficult lyrically to write something like ‘Someday’ without being mawkish,” he said. “A lot of pop songwriters would really struggle to write about it in a sensitive and personal way, but Britney had written something really beautiful. Great melody, great lyrics, but still totally pop, and totally her. Much harder than it sounds.”
McGhee said he wasn’t told whether the song was to be a one-off single or part of a record. “If there was a larger context to it at the time, I wasn’t aware of it,” he said, although he remembered “Mona Lisa” was “mentioned by one of her label executives as a departure for Britney from what she’d done before.”
“Someday” and a re-recorded and reworked “Mona Lisa” both ended up on a 2005 EP that came with the DVD release of Chaotic. On the new “Mona Lisa,” the line “cuz she’s gone” became “she’s been cloned,” and the second verse was rewritten to be even more prophetic: “Now see everyone’s watching / As she starts to fall / They want her to break down / And be a legend of a fall,” Spears sang.
“Lost albums” — or perpetually delayed ones — are predisposed to impossibly high expectations; the mythology behind them can, over time, outweigh what the music would have been. Brian Wilson believed the Beach Boys’ Smile would change popular music forever, and producer Scott Storch said Dr. Dre’s still-unreleased Detox would be the “most advanced rap album musically and lyrically.” Spears was never as boastful of her music, but many fans believe Original Doll would have been a masterpiece.
“It would probably be a universally acclaimed album by her and gain her respect. It would probably win her a Grammy or two as well. Who knows?” one user posted on a message board in 2012.
Hunte, the “Do Somethin’” songwriter, marveled at the level of fans’ fascination with Spears’ unreleased music, something she said she doesn’t see for other artists. Fans frequently bombard her over social media asking her to to leak Britney songs, including music she didn’t even work on like “Rebellion,” a song said to have been recorded for her 2007 album Blackout. She compared Spears unreleased songs from these years to a final letter written by someone before they died; perhaps listeners hope to find clues in the lyrics to what Spears was thinking before her breakdown.
Ultimately, the Chaotic EP comes the closest to showing what Original Doll could have been, as it is the only collection of original music released between Spears’ “Mona Lisa” interview in 2004 and Blackout in 2007. Spears told KIIS-FM she was halfway finished with the album, but it’s unclear whether she meant she had recorded half an LP, or just had half an album’s worth of ideas written down somewhere. If there are songs she had recorded during that time that weren’t eventually released or leaked, we might never know.
The producers who worked with her during this time, Bloodshy & Avant and Guy Sigsworth, declined to comment for this story, and Bell, who uploaded some unreleased songs to her Tumblr in 2012, said she got a call from someone at the label who asked her to stop. “If they can make money off of it later, they don’t want anyone giving it out for free,” she said. Spears was not made available for an interview, and her longtime manager, Larry Rudolph, declined to answer questions. “Not supporting, commenting on it or providing any info for a bullshit story with zero factual basis,” he said in an email.
During the time she worked on Original Doll, Spears wrote and sang about freedom, something she has even less of today. Following her second hospitalization in a psychiatric ward in 2008, she was put under a still ongoing conservatorship, giving her father control over much of her life and finances.
Her latest LP, Britney Jean, released in November, was marketed as her most personal album yet. It included songs alluding to her faith and her children, but absent were tracks about independence like the ones she identified with so much a decade earlier. The Britney Jean song “Passenger” actually advocates the opposite. Although the lyrics can be read as a spiritual metaphor or about love, hearing “I’ll let you lead the way now / Cuz I want you to take the wheel / I’ve never been a passenger” feels ironic coming from a 32-year-old woman who has been a passenger to her own life, at least legally, for six years and counting.
In Japan in 2003, Spears was asked what her next record would be like. In the lead-up to In the Zone, it was a town hall–style interview. She was polite but seemed bored, there only out of duty, as she answered questions she had answered countless times before.
“It might be a little too early to talk about the next album, but if you had a choice of producers or artists that you’d like to collaborate with, who would you like to name?” one fan asked.
“I think because I did collaborate on this record with so many people, I would probably, on the next one, make it kind of my own thing and just probably work with one producer,” Spears said. “I really know how the process works and I know I can do it on my own.”