If it had actually been released in 2004, then Britney Spears' response song to "Cry Me A River," Justin Timberlake's rumored ballad about their breakup, would have been a sensation. However, that never happened. Instead, the only official airplay the song ever received was when Spears brought the track to a Los Angeles radio station, completely unsolicited, and asked them to play it on Dec. 31, 2004. Introduced by the singer live on air, the Spears song was called "Mona Lisa," and it sounded like the love child of "Cry Me A River," and *NSYNC's "It's Gonna Be Me." But there might be a very good reason for why the song never became a single.
"Mona Lisa" didn't contain lyrical hints about her relationship with Timberlake. Instead, and in true Spears style, the lyrics turn the gaze on the singer. Described as having "the raw thing happening in it" by Spears during the radio broadcast, the song is troubling in its honesty, with lines that hint at the singer's dissatisfaction with fame and the distortion of her public image.
Ladies and gentlemen, I've got a little story to tell
About Mona Lisa, and how she suddenly fell
Now, see, everyone knew her, they knew her, oh, so well
Now I am taking over to release her from her spell
She's the original (yeah, yeah)
She's unforgettable (yeah, yeah, yeah)
She wants you to know (yeah)
She's been cloned
As pop songs go, it has a punk spirit to it. And, if you listen close enough, and you can hear Spears being determined to take control back of her life in the rest of the lyrics.
She was taken under, drowning in her sea
Running like an angel, she was crying and could not see (oh, no)
Now, see, everyone's watching as she starts to fall
They want her to break down
There will be a legend of her fall
The song plays with ideas of identity, and, interestingly, "Mona Lisa" is a pseudonym that Spears used for a short amount of time and that appears briefly on a wall in the video for "Do Somethin'." With lines like, "Ladies and gentleman, I've got a little story to tell/ About Mona Lisa, and how she suddenly fell," and "Now, see, everyone's watching as she starts to fall/ They want her to break down/ There will be a legend of her fall," the song feels like a direct response to all of the negative media attention she was receiving at the time.
In a 2008 interview with the Swedish magazine, Café, production team Bloodshy & Avant (aka, Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg, who worked on various hit songs with Britney such as "Toxic" and "Piece Of Me") revealed that, though they thought a response song to "Cry Me A River" would be great for Spears, it would never happen. "There has always been an unwritten rule that no songs will be about Britney's life," Winnberg explained.
Fans of Spears will be well aware of this fact. While we live in an age where we all hungrily unpick the meaning of pop songs and dig deep for clues as to who they may or may not be about, Spears' songs have always remained free of personal details or obligatory references to her private life. Instead, singles like "Piece Of Me," from Blackout or "If U Seek Amy," from Circus, for example, addressed Spears' identity and the conversation surrounding her. But they never revealed anything more about who she was.
Her radio station interview in 2004 might have been the only glimpse the world has gotten of "Mona Lisa." Though it's a terrific song, it likely gave too much of the singer to a world already greedily clamoring for more of her — to a world that still clamors for more of her even now. The fact that Spears didn't indulge that then, and still doesn't indulge that now, just makes her even more powerful as a performer. And this song, like all of her songs, is catchy and enjoyable for the story that it tells.