Britney Spears recently received an extraordinary accolade from the UK’s highly respected top broadsheet newspaper the Daily Telegraph: “Amid all the fretting and frothing about her sanity…it’s easy to forget Britney’s pop brilliance. Sweeter-voiced than Beyonce, Christina and Pink, she has had a string of classics to put the pretenders to shame. Baby One More Time, Oops, Slave 4 U, Toxic… Britney is the pop artist of her generation.
It’s rare for a critic to say something nice about Britney’s voice, but these few words come as an amazing counter-offensive against the ridicule and abuse that is regularly heaped upon her. There seems to be no middle ground – you either love her or hate her with a passion.
Most pop singers don’t get compared to Beyonce, Christina or Pink. But most pop singers don’t get ridiculed and abused for their voices either. Normally, the critics don’t think a pop singer’s voice is worth discussing. It is what it is, it may not be great but it carries a tune and provides an excuse to be on stage. And that’s enough. What a relief for Jessica, Kylie, Geri Halliwell, Rachel Stevens, Emma Bunton and countless others.
Britney isn’t treated with this kind of indifference. Perhaps her critics feel she is such a big target they just have to have a pop at her. Obviously they don’t take the time to listen to her properly and try to find out what it is about her singing that inspires so much devotion in so many people. Why would they? They don’t expect pop singers to be quality singers or worthy of anything more than the most superficial interest.
So, when they take Britney to task, it tends to be for superficial reasons. They’re down on her for what she isn’t rather than for what she is. She isn’t a big voiced diva. She isn’t Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston. OK! So she isn’t the sort of artist who is going to thrill an auditorium of 15,000 people with soaring flights of multi-note vocal fancy. But she is an artist, and a very special one. Like the very best singers of today, she puts her own stamp on every song she sings.
She has a unique voice, of that there is no doubt. But where did it come from? It isn’t the voice of an unschooled amateur, as some people think. Forget any notions that she isn’t deeply enough immersed in the vocal arts to be a quality vocalist. Forget the opinion of some critics that she has little feeling for her music. This is a girl who, as a young child, was (in the words of Larry Getlen in his book “Britney: Not That Innocent”) a “relentless little singing machine, undeterred in her desire to sing everything that crossed her ears.” This is a girl whose whole life is about singing.
Britney’s childhood dentist Michelle LeBlanc said: “When she comes in to have any dental work done, she sings the whole entire time. The radio’s going, she’s singing everything that’s on the radio…When you’re coming in or out of her mouth or whatever, and she’s humming or singing. And as soon as you’re out of her mouth, the words are coming again. She’s the first person I’ve seen who’s constantly wanting to sing.”
A full twenty years of singing have given her plenty of insight into how to handle a song. Technical qualities such as control over pitch and vibrato were there from a very early stage – where you would expect an 8-year-old girl to sound childish, rough and immature, she sounded like a professional. And that was BEFORE she got singing lessons.
When New York agent Nancy Carson took Britney under her wing after Disney decided she was too young to be a Mouseketeer, she felt that Britney could sing well but wasn’t doing it in a technically correct way. Britney then spent many years under the tutelage of a number of vocal coaches. By the time Larry Rudolph sent for her to audition for a recording contract there was very little she didn’t know about professional singing.
By that point, her voice had changed a little from the Broadway-style belting vocals of her pre-teens. In the TV documentary “The rise and rise of Britney Spears” she sings a snippet of “Open Arms” and what you hear is a sweeter voice than before, but still a strong and conventional one, perhaps a little like Leann Rimes. But when her first recordings emerged a year or so later she didn’t sound like that at all.
The voice that rocked a startled world was like nothing we had ever heard before. Where the 8-year-old Britney sounded like she was 21, the 16-year old showbiz veteran seemed actually to have regressed a few years. The fine technique she had spent her whole life developing had been replaced by a much more constricted voice featuring a whole encyclopedia of mannerisms – the most obvious of which were her strange guttural croaks and groans.
There has been a lot of speculation about what went on during that first year at Jive, but we can be sure that no one actually set out to make her singing worse. What we are able to gather is that a great deal of time and thought were expended on figuring out how to market this new artist and ensure she would make a massive impact.
Somewhere along the line, someone, probably Britney herself, hit on the idea of playing a character – an innocent girl with Lolita tendencies. And this character she played would have to SOUND right as well as look right. So what would a naughty angel sound like? Britney came up with a comprehensive answer: a mixture of the youthful innocent, the sweet kid full of love and longing, the little girl with a bruised heart, the not-so-innocent jailbait pr*ck-teaser, and the party girl with a lot more than dancing on offer.
Unfortunately, in adopting this recipe for success, Britney was signing a pact with the Devil. Her strategy would make the desired impact on a world full of jaded listeners who had long since binned pop music. It would get her an audience for her great songs and give her a platform on which to display her gift for performance art. It would also give her an edge over any possible competition. But on the downside, it meant she had to put that beautiful pre-Jive voice away in a locker and pretend it never existed.
She must have known even then that, for everyone who was drawn into her web of fascination, there would be someone saying she couldn’t sing. For everyone who willingly entered her hall of smoke and mirrors, there would be someone making fun of her croaking mannerisms and saying she sounded like a chipmunk. She even said that she didn’t want everyone to like her, and she wasn’t joking – the character she was trying to create would have been a failure if it didn’t produce ambiguity, doubt, and conflicting emotions.
All the same, it must have hurt her many times over the years to know that Disney’s people placed her singing completely on a par with Christina Aguilera’s and well above Jessica Simpson’s, that she had the pure singing talent to take a completely different career path if she had wanted to, and that her career strategy meant trading respect for the mega-stardom she wanted. But Britney was determined that she was going to be a megastar, no matter what it took, and she was prepared to deal with the consequences.
I have often wondered what Britney’s “Crossroads” co-star Taryn Manning meant when she said Britney “had a beautiful voice in real life”, but it dawns on me now – the young actresses spent a lot of time together off-set and in their trailers, and Taryn heard the private Britney take her pre-Jive voice out of the locker for a little dust-down and realized that the public Britney’s vocals were indeed simply part of her act.
This is not to say that she could come out as the new Leann Rimes tomorrow if she felt like it. No, she has been playing the part of “Britney Spears” for too long now. She admitted herself in 2002 that her voice was changing, and it’s still a work in progress, constantly being brought up to date to match the changes in her public image.
On her first album, almost every song contained the basic elements of the naughty angel mixed together. On her second and subsequent albums, the various Britney characters are stranded out more, and additional nuances are added to them. And a new character, the increasingly rebellious, assertive and defiant young woman was beginning to raise her head and now seems to have become the dominant force.
However, although this kaleidoscope of role-play and characterization makes Britney’s recordings fascinating and intriguing, although it creates the constantly changing patterns that dispel any risk of boredom, it would be wrong to say that this is what defines the character in her vocals, for that would make them cold, charmless and manipulative and they are anything but that. In fact, behind all the acting out you can hear the sound of laughter and the beat of a very warm heart.
To get us further in this analysis we need to find some of the musical qualities that make Britney’s vocals so appealing. If we take her faster songs first, we find that the basic methodology has remained a constant over the years. If you follow a timeline from BOMT through OIDIA and Overprotected to Toxic and eventually My Prerogative you can hear that the prototype unveiled with BOMT has been developed and polished and perfected. You will note the steady improvement in technique, the introduction of more variety, and the abandonment of the early “little girliness”.
Always present is her unusual phrasing – it’s as hard to describe this as it was with Frank Sinatra, but it all has to do with how long she holds each word, how long she leaves each space, and the internal rhythm this generates in each phrase. Endless attention is given to the enunciation of individual words and to the ways in which phrases are begun and ended. And then there’s her accent – the many vocal excerpts from “The rise and rise of Britney Spears” reveal that, from mimicking other singers as she sang their songs, she had fully absorbed the professional showgirl’s ability to lose her accent – yet Britney’s Louisiana twang has been obvious since the start of her recording career, and remains with her to this day.
Britney’s slower songs and ballads are even more revealing of her musical intelligence and craftsmanship. What is particularly interesting is that, although these present her best opportunities to act out the various nuances of the Britney character, and although on several occasions (as on “Lucky” and “Satisfaction”) she seems to have made a deliberate choice about which part of her complex persona should receive the emphasis in a particular song, she sings most of them absolutely straight, with fewer mannerisms than in her faster songs, and the listener is left to place his or her own construction on the interaction between voice and lyric and what it means.
If you listen consecutively to four songs from the special edition of the OIDIA album – “When your eyes say it”, “You’ve got it all”, “Heart”, and “Dear Diary” you can listen all you want for signs of a slutty girl looking for – or a Lolita-like teenage temptress but all you actually hear is a sweet, charming and rather innocent girl in love taking four different lyrics and four different tunes and singing them in four different ways.
Very few pop singers seem to have any conception of applying an individual approach to each individual song. That Britney does this all the time tells us that, far from being the rough and amateurish performer some imagine, she is, in fact, extremely professional and surprisingly preoccupied with technique. And she does have plenty of technique to draw upon, from the little sobs and emotive yelps at the end of many lines in her ballads to her perfectly controlled vibrato and the delicately drawn little arpeggios in such songs as DLMBTLTK and “From the bottom of my broken heart”.
Everything about her singing is so graceful, understated and lacking in bombast and excess. There is wonderful delicacy, variety and distinctiveness. However, even this formidable array of craftsmanship would not be enough to make listeners fall headlong in love with Britney’s voice and with Britney herself through her voice. What does that is her warmth, humor and humanity, the sense of a beautiful soul, and the extraordinary emotional connection she makes with so many of her listeners.
I can speak about this from my own experience. I didn’t like pop music at all till my boyfriend wore me down with his constant worship of Ms Spears and made me listen to In The Zone.
I’m not sure that I really got it at first, but I listened right through in one go. Then I listened to it again. And again. And then I asked him if he had any more of her albums and I began listening to them too. I was well and truly hooked. Each time I listened to a Britney album it was a trip. As I listened with my eyes closed my boyfriend watched my smiles, my frowns and my little tears.
And now, in brazen defiance of the ridicule of friends, I will come out and say that no singer intrigues, delights, puzzles and satisfies me like Britney Spears. No other voice opens up such a tide of feeling within me or awakens such love in my own heart. Her voice says what I want to say. She seems to feel what I want to feel. The purity and sweetness and fervor within her expose me to my own passions and make me more spontaneous and impulsive, more generous, and warmer, and kinder.
How many pop singers can change your life and make you a better person? Britney Spears may not have a big diva voice. She may or may not be any good at singing live – who really knows? I’m happy to know that on CD she has one of the most magical and alluring pop voices ever heard since recording began. And to know that, as the Daily Telegraph said, she is THE pop artist of her generation.