New Britneyology

The Spirit of Britney?

Posted by: Karenannanina on: October 28, 2017

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You’re right, it isn’t Britney! But if I couldn’t have Britney, this is the girl I would choose. Who is it? Well, it’s Louisa Johnson, the teenager who won the UK X Factor two years ago.

So, in what way does Louisa relate to the Spirit of Britney? It’s not in singing style, because Louisa is a straightforward (but thoroughly excellent) vocal diva. No, the answer is simple. She “gets it”. Unlike all previous X Factor UK contestants, she realises that you don’t get a lot of headlines and attention purely by singing. You have to use everything you’ve got, and if you have beauty and a great body, you can’t take the puritanical – if understandable – view that you shouldn’t have to use them.

As a new young teenage star, Britney was the first to stun the media with her unashamed use of bare skin and willing promotion of a coquettish and Lolita-ish sexuality. Guys noticed her unusual body. For a white girl, she was the first to possess a great ass. And that’s very important in the assessment of sex appeal, as Kylie Minogue and J.Lo will tell you. Almost 20 years later, the world of pop music still has not come up with anything comparable. Katy? Nope. Taylor? Nope. Miley? Definitely not.

But Louisa Johnson has it, and she’s not afraid to show it. Her gallery is full of pictures of her curvaceous booty. And she shows skin at the slightest provocation. OK, her frontage is modest compared to Britney’s, but it really doesn’t matter. I hate to see brilliant young singers appear and disappear after one season at the top, for want of the ability to engage the paparazzi. Louisa Johnson isn’t going to let that happen. And for that reason, she gets my Spirit of Britney award.

Britney’s Voice Revisited

Posted by: Karenannanina on: October 14, 2017

The Noisey website’s Lauren O’Neill in a new article about her Britney stanship describes her heroine’s voice thus:
On “…Baby, One More Time,” Britney Spears sings as though she’s chewing a piece of toffee or a soft pillow of bubblegum too large for her mouth. Her Louisiana twang drips with something pleasantly sour, her lips moving around vowels the way they might navigate a lollipop, slick with its glossy sugar.

This is meant to be a compliment, an account of an almost orgasmic reaction to hearing Britney for the first time. But it suggests enough ambivalence to remind us that the jury on Britney’s voice went out almost 20 years ago, and still hasn’t delivered a reliable verdict.

For some time, a disturbing number of people believed that the notorious “Britney, her real voice” alleged clip reflected the sum total of her talent. Assuming it was real (and there’s no firm evidence that it was), it consisted of a series of grunts – the kind of grunts you might make unconsciously when you’re dancing and not trying to sing. However, this supposed revelation came as a godsend to those who had been claiming that her contribution to her recordings was literally to “phone in” a couple of notes, from which the astonishingly creative producer would “autotune” all the vocals for a complete album.

A similar school of thought held that these producers could also “blend” Britney’s tone, timbre and pronunciation with the singing of another artist. They claimed that this was a common practice. Now here you have to note that they were NOT alleging that she sang along with a guide track, in the way Rihanna is supposed to have done with Sia on Diamonds. No, since Britney couldn’t sing, she wouldn’t have been able to sing along with a guide track. What was confidently stated by these theorists was that a producer could electronically add a Britney flavour to another vocal, so that any backing singer could sound like her. You’d think that, using this supposed technology, there would be a lot of crooners out there who would have benefitted from a “blending” with Frank Sinatra’s tone and timbre, or Tom Jones’s. It’s amazing what people can believe.

Further arguments were advanced that, on many tracks, “soundalike” singers were used to substitute for Britney. The usual suspect in this plot was Myah Marie, who denied it with some outrage – only to find that the conspiracy theorists simply refused to believe her. And there were those who believed that many of her tracks didn’t even sound like her, although by this stage one might have asked how they knew what she actually sounded like, if she never sang!

Producers have always testified on her behalf, from Brian Transeau remarking that doing vocal comps with her was tough because all of the takes were so good, through Corte Ellis insisting that she got her vocals right by her own efforts and she wasn’t one of those artists where you “fix it in the mix”, to Bloodshy and Avant, and T-Pain, separately reporting that she had recorded songs with the utmost professionalism in one take. Respected ballad writer Diane Warren added her endorsement to Britney’s singing ability. Would Diane lie? It seems unlikely. However, all producer statements were dismissed by the skeptics. They were ALL lying.

But odd little incidents crept under the artillery fire, and we heard her singing with our own ears. There was the time, ages ago, when she was walking to her car with Justin Timberlake, hassled by surrounding paparazzi, and sang a little comment to them. There was the time she sang You oughta know live in concert. And recently we have had a few more indicators. A Toxic demo emerged in June 2017 which stunned many disbelievers and generated many headlines. Shortly after that, she was filmed singing Happy Birthday and that was actually her, actually singing too.

At this point, she seemed to become suddenly aware of the doubts that surrounded her ability, or lack of it, to sing live. And she made some defiant statements. Such as “I’m glad you’re addressing this question because it’s really funny. A lot of people think that I don’t sing live. I do usually — because I’m dancing so much — I do have a little bit of playback, but there’s a mixture of my voice and the playback. It really pisses me off because I’m busting my ass out there and singing at the same time, and nobody ever really gives me credit for it. You know?”

Nobody really believed her, but it was encouraging to note that she was aware of the issue. And then, as if to prove what she had said, another full live performance burst upon the lucky audience at her Vegas show. Here she sang Bonnie Raitt’s Something to talk about – a title pregnant with meaning – and did a perfectly good job. As with You oughta know, she didn’t try to dance at the same time.

What have we learnt from all of this? Well, she thinks she’s singing while she’s dancing, even if we usually can’t hear her. She CAN sing when she’s not dancing, but apparently doesn’t think her audience wants that. Oddly, it was from the Happy Birthday clip and the impromptu song for the paparazzi that I noted something interesting. For some reason, even when she sings the simplest song, she can’t help turning it into a heavily inflected soul ballad. I have a suspicion that she can’t create that styling and still sing loudly. And maybe that’s been her biggest problem all along.

The old Britney versus the new

Posted by: Karenannanina on: February 27, 2017

In these days of Glory it’s an oft-expressed opinion that Britney’s best album – so far – was actually In The Zone. But back then, when Britney entered that Zone, it was an oft-expressed opinion that her best album was Britney. And back when she was no longer a girl, but not yet a woman, there were many who preferred Oops I Did It Again.

We have grown up with Britney, and our tastes have evolved as we have grown. But now she is very much a woman, and has been so for many years. From Blackout to Glory, changes in her music have no longer been a question of growing up, and haven’t been seen as incremental developments, or as steps in a progression. Far from settling into a cohesive and distinctive musical style as she gets older, she seems to have lost or abandoned any sense of genre she may once have had. Now, it seems that the inspiration or guiding principle for each album is completely different. Each is a work complete unto itself, for better or for worse. Recent albums have sounded more like questing than settling, and the situation doesn’t seem to be heading for a resolution.

But there was a time when she seemed to be defining her own very characteristic genre. Taking Oops as emblematic of the early Britney (it’s a better and more developed version of early Britney than …Baby one more time) the first thing we notice is that her voice was very different from the one we hear on Glory. She sounded so young, because she WAS, but that “still a girl” voice was claiming improbably to be “not that innocent”, and “stronger”. On Satisfaction there are occasional glimpses of a tougher personality shining through some grittier notes, but then on Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know she sounds so sweet and vulnerable you just want to give her a hug. Indeed, the theme of most of the songs is the angst of growing up, breaking out of the restraints of being a young teenager and embracing more adult emotions – all of which burst powerfully out in Where are you now? and You got it all. But, as if to illustrate the conflict between youthful years and the future to which they aspire, One kiss from you, When your eyes say it, Girl in the mirror and Dear Diary are full of simple yearning, and, even to the older ears that we hear them with today, extremely touching. They remind me of why I loved her so much.

And that’s the problem. If we compare any of her more recent albums with those up to and including Britney, what will we be comparing with what, and how fair could a comparison be? Those early albums are icons of youth, youthfulness, innocence, teenage protest and girlish angst; and for us now, icons of rosy-hued reminiscence. When we look back on them, we’re also looking back on our own lives and the intensity with which we experienced them at that age. We hadn’t been made bored and cynical by the numbing, repetitive patterns of adult life, and everything – good and bad – seemed so new and vivid. Our feelings as fans were passionate, and full of the kind of devotion and obsession that now seem quite alien and impossible to recreate. The recollection of a night I sat in my car and prayed for Britney fills me with wonderment that I cared that much about anything. And throughout each day, I wrote in a little notebook thoughts and ideas I could work up into articles about her for the fan forums I used to inhabit for hours every day. And those forums! They weren’t just “message boards”, they were communities, full of friendships and feuds, dramas and disasters, characters, cliques and conflict.

We look at Glory with a colder eye and a hundred times more perspective. We’ve heard a lot more music, and other artists have elbowed their way past Britney in contemporary consciousness. Why, she’s even back to being “Britney Spears” again, after years when “Britney” was enough. Away back in 2003, she told OK Magazine that, in a few years, she would dial back on her career and look for a better work/life balance, and it seems that she meant it. As for sweet and innocent, it would be crazy if she sang songs of teenage angst now, and she’s way past the Lolita ambiguity phase, so she sings about sex, romantic love, relationships and dancing, and an album wouldn’t be a Britney album if it didn’t contain some “parental advisory” language. Do we relate to the lyrics, as we used to do? I dunno. Maybe no-one expects us to. We’re all adults now, and her words are definitely adult, but for many of us, life consists of putting one foot in front of the other, day after day and year after year. We could definitely relate to songs about cooking and cleaning, the boss, houses, getting the kids out to school, finance and so on, but creative artists don’t seem to find inspiration in those areas. There’s always the environment to worry about, domestic abuse, the patriarchy, racism, state intrusion, terrorism, multinationalism, housing shortages and poverty, but Britney doesn’t want to get into the serious stuff. She wants her music to be fun, but, to be fair, she still tries to awaken some emotional intensity in our sad old hearts. And if some meaningful phrases ring out and stick in our heads, her job is pretty much done.

The medium is part of the message. The Britney voice of yesteryear would hardly be a suitable vehicle to convey what she’s saying now. And her voice has changed a lot over the years. The legions of Britney imitators, from Ariana Grande to Nicole Scherzinger, inevitably offer a caricature of 1998 Britney. But she doesn’t sound like that now, and it’s strange that so few reviewers, critics and media commentators seem to have noticed. In the very early days, you might have thought of her vocals as cute and poignant, but never beautiful. And, despite the attractively breathy voice she has deployed on many songs from the Oops album onwards, she has usually preferred to experiment with the metallic, the robotic and the synthetic. Until now. Most of her vocals on Glory (with a couple of regrettable exceptions) do in fact sound genuinely beautiful to my ears.

I think she has achieved something important here. Her singing voice now sounds like a manifestation of her personality. I need to explain: I had previously thought of Britney primarily as a vocal performance artist who could pull on a different style for every song – and did it brilliantly – but on Glory the voice we hear sounds like HER. The work of her soul. The high register she uses on most tracks isn’t JUST breathy now. And it isn’t grating like Jess Glynne’s or colourless like Ellie Goulding’s. It has strength and character, but with sweetness and a certain indefinable adorability. And we love Britney because she is… uh… so damn lovable. So we may not identify with her songs as much as we used to, but we identify with the character in her voice as much as we have ever done.

“Glory” – the official New Britneyology review!

Posted by: Karenannanina on: September 6, 2016

The sources who claimed that Britney’s Glory would be a very different kind of album for her were not wrong. Some have tried to define its position in her oeuvre by comparing it to In The Zone, but those people ARE wrong. ITZ was a collection of unique but separate little gems, all totally different and unrelated to each other musically, where Glory, for all its oddities, is a more consistent – or less diverse – body of work. Yet this IS a collection, not an “auteur” creation – no producer has provided more than 3 of the 17 tracks on the Deluxe Edition.

The songs on ITZ were linked by their powerful sexual content, and at the time I felt that ITZ might just be Britney’s version of Madonna’s Erotica. The songs on Glory are also linked by their sexual content, but there the comparison with ITZ ends. It could be argued that here we have a Britneyfied version of Janet Jackson’s Unbreakable, surely the gold standard for moody, erotic albums with interesting rhythms and subtly addictive melody lines interspersed with a few bangers. But that argument depends on one’s perception of Glory as a whole.

And there’s scope for some very different perceptions. One is that it displays a frisky, re-energised Britney delivering fun, beat-filled sexy songs with unexpected gusto, interspersing them with softly sung chillout mood-sustainers. Another is that it was originally meant to be an album of intricate, rather adult songs about sex and relationships, but “her people” panicked, wanted an each-way bet, and introduced counterbalance in the shape of brash, noisy exploits with unfamiliar beats and crass, bombastic lyrics. Karen Kwak, the album’s Executive Producer, suggests that an interpretation involving fun and randomness is the more accurate one. To me, it all seems a little bit schizophrenic, but maybe I’ve forgotten how to have fun.

Some reviewers have picked on the lyrics, or individual lines within the lyrics, to submit Glory to a lit-crit evaluation from which it could never emerge well. The lyrical content of pop music doesn’t interest me much, except insofar as certain key phrases leap out, although I’m obviously not deaf to the fact that a lot of these songs are about hooking up. But if we work on the basis that in pop music, with only a few exceptions, the words are merely a vehicle for a singer’s performance, I won’t pick a fight over them. To say that Glory is an album about sex is about as useful as saying that Circus is an album about diversity. To adopt one reviewer’s sensible phrase, “That’s what she sings about”.

What interests me more about this album is the rhythmic content. This is the area that differs most from anything Britney has done before. There is huge rhythmic variety among these tracks, yet, contrarily, you might get the wrong initial impression that the same track has been made several times over. You might think of applying this thoughtless thought to (for instance) Just Luv Me, Slumber Party and Love Me Down. The snarky might feel called upon to allege that these tracks don’t go anywhere. Yet they do have an important role, a kind of cumulative effect, in the album, and they are given individuation by those varied beats.

It’s also a good idea to remember that on a typical album, it’s love at first sight with some songs, instant dislike with others, and takes-time-to-get-to-know-ya with others. On Glory, more than on most albums, there are quite a few quiet little tracks that take time to reveal themselves fully and become memorable. But when they do, songs that started out with an “OK” rating may escalate to “Good” or even “Excellent”.

There are sonic differences on Glory too. In the past, many of the productions on Britney’s albums have been set within a tightly spaced, narrow acoustic framework, so crowded as to seem almost claustrophobic. On Glory we find some grander, more reverberant acoustics and bigger, more spacious soundstages. The productions are excellent and imaginative throughout. The instrumental work is mostly sparse but clever, innovative and appropriate. Much use is made of different vocal textures and effects, wordless vocalization, surprising interjections and cute spoken sections. Much of this happened on Britney’s previous albums too, but here they get enough space and clarity to stand out and make an impact.

Several other reviewers have struggled for something smart to say in disparagement of Britney’s voice on Glory, but they have mostly missed the mark. Her voice is not particularly “adenoidal”, “strangulated”, “robotic” (and blah blah) here. Indeed, it’s a lot less eccentric than usual. Her metallic “sex Kitten” voice emerges on a couple of tracks, certainly, but a lot less often than on Femme Fatale, the nadir for Britney’s vocal listenability. Here her voice is mostly in her super-smooth, super-sweet high or mid-register (13 of 17 tracks) but with many variations within that general style. The only obvious criticism from a fan’s point of view is that she rarely sounds as distinctive and “different” as the Britney everyone imitates.

As usual on Britney albums, the bonus tracks on the Deluxe Edition seem better than some of the songs on the main album. But then, that’s a matter of taste. Liar is fabulously dramatic, Coupure Electrique utterly charming, and If I’m Dancing has a melody that sticks in the head like Gorilla Glue. There are wonderful highlights on the album, but the beauty of Invitation, Make Me, and Man on the Moon is counterbalanced by the irredeemable ugliness of Clumsy, What You Need and Private Show

Let’s take a look at the individual tracks.

A brilliant opening to the album, and an absolute standout track. Definitely from the Janet Jackson playbook, it’s slow-to-medium, has a gorgeous melody, and receives an achingly sweet and fervent performance from Britney in her highest, most ethereal pitch. Invitation sets the mood and temperature that the other chillout tracks follow.

Do You Wanna Come Over?
A grinding beat drives the verses as Britney delivers an unashamed booty-call in suitably seductive style in a song that’s full of different episodes, hooks and variety. The pre-chorus “Nobody should be alone if they don’t have to be” is sweeter-voiced but urgent. Then the men come stomping in with the thundering chorus “Whatever you want!” underpinned by Britney’s legato purring. “Do you wanna come over?” is spoken and sounds almost pleading. Wonderful!

Make Me
A lovely melody and a very well-structured song, building tension and releasing expertly. Britney alternates between her sweet high register and her seductive mid-range. She even manages to include her famous “Mmm-yeah”! G-Eazy’s rap break doesn’t please everybody, but at least it’s clearly enunciated and there’s no mention of vegetables. The instrumental tracks chime supportively. Another standout track.

Private Show
A throwback to a lost era of doo-wop soul dating back to the early 1960s. Britney wails the lyrics in a strong but extremely unsubtle voice, sounding more like the popular caricatures of herself than on almost any other track on the album. The backing tracks riff their triplets strongly. It’s crass but amusing, and has its highlights, such as Britney’s amazingly high notes after the bridge, and her “We do it all again? Nah, I’ll take a bow!” I must remember that line for future use…

Man On The Moon
Another of the excellent tracks, this is another well-constructed song, with an attractive and instantly memorable tune echoing the pure-and-simple pop of the 1960s. There is one issue: at first, Britney’s voice sounds strained on certain words, and especially “moon”, but I should have known better – it’s actually an effect caused by the interaction of her voice with that of the male backup singer. Better mixing would have done wonders. Incidentally, there can’t be many songs featuring the words “Patience, darling!”

Just Luv Me
This is one of those soft, gentle tracks that make little impact at first hearing, and Britney sings it in her softest, gentlest, wispiest voice. It’s OK-becoming-good. Janet J. has chillout mood-sustainers like this on her albums too. Soon they become indispensable as we get to know their special little instrumental sounds, and for some weird reason, they pop up and play in our heads at unexpected moments. The production is swirly, atmospheric and graceful.

Another of those odd, churning 1960s retro-rhythms, and a sound reminiscent of what used to be called a “blues band”. A generic and uninteresting melody finds Britney’s regrettable “robotic sex kitten” voice getting an airing. There’s lots of call-and-response and chanting, and a cute little-girly “Oops!” here and there, and Britney’s odd pronunciation of the word “clumsy” is rather charming. But I don’t like it. I expect to skip this track on future playings of the album – or better still, omit it altogether from my personal re-edit.

Slumber Party
Another very Janet-sounding track, this seemed like a mere mood-sustainer at first, but since then I’ve re-evaluated it (and re-re-evaluated it) upwards. There are so many hooks, melodic, lyrical, vocal, and instrumental, that it’s now unforgettable, and definitely one of my favorite songs on the album. There’s a lot going on in the production. The special little moments where everything goes quiet are pure magic. The words are pretty rude but who cares!

Just Like Me
A mood-sustainer, or one of a body of more intimate songs aimed at an older and more mature audience? This time the rhythm is a Latinish sway (and there’s acoustic guitar and castanets!). Some have theorized that it’s Britney’s comeback to Timberlake’s Cry Me A River video. But she’s not like that, and it was a long time ago. Anyway, it’s sung sweetly and without apparent malice, and there’s some lovely smooth vocalizing at the end.

Love Me Down
Lovely, wonderfully complex interlocking vocal effects as the song proceeds, and yet again a piece notable mainly for its rhythm, which is much jumpier this time. Gets an OK, since neither music nor words are particularly distinctive. By this stage in listening to the album, one can no longer entertain the view that these low-key, dreamy meditations are mere “fillers” between the major works. There are just too many of them. They must, in fact, be integral to the very point of the album. However, given that, there must be scope for some creativity in putting together a customized album with a different running order.

Hard To Forget Ya
A lively, jumpy retro rock-and-roll rhythm, but an unoriginal melody, and doesn’t really get us anywhere. It fails to amuse or to entertain. Another great production makes the best of the material, and Britney tries to give it added value with some varied vocals, but in my mind this would join its soulmate Clumsy in the “omit” list.

What You Need
It’s that 60s blues band again, with lots of Hammond organ and brass, and another contribution to the already replete “burlesque” category. It’s like a particularly thick-eared, dumb response to Aguilera’s Ain’t No Other Man, and Britney sounds like the worst parody of herself, with “may” instead of “me” etc. Let’s hope it was all a joke. “That was fun!” chirrups Ms Spears at the end. Er…. no.

Again Latin-flavored, with a mid-tempo chugging rhythm. Another Janet-sounding track, another mood-sustainer, pleasant to listen to and smoothly sung, with swirling airy effects and lots of wordless vocalizing, but one of the less memorable tracks. At first, I rated it as OK rather than good, but now I find it playing in my head every day, so.. upgrade!

Change Your Mind (No seas cortes)
This time the Latin inspiration is overt. There’s a gently swaying rhythm with a touch of flamenco drama. The sweet vocals are more distinctively Britney than on some of the other tracks, and there are some appealing hooks, including the lines sung in Spanish. Faced with a gentilhombre who’s either nervous or trying to behave himself, horny Britney tries to change his mind. I like it a lot, but aren’t some of these tracks getting close to MOR territory? (Or, given the many Latin-ish tracks, to Emma Bunton’s A Girl Like Me?) Just a thought…..

This is one of the standouts. An excellent piece of drama in its music, its words, and its lush string-enhanced production. It starts and ends with growling men chanting, there’s bluesy harmonica and automated hand-clapping and Britney delivers in her most seductive mid-range. It’s truly memorable in its melody and its structure. If this had Rihanna’s name on it, or Adele’s, it would be a single and would be a smash.

If I’m Dancing
There’s so much to like about this song. On an initial hearing, it doesn’t sound like much, but then you realize that you’re singing it to yourself an hour later. The production is colourful and imaginative, with what sounds like wasps fighting in a jar here and sumptuous synth-strings there, and Britney’s voice wafts breathily in its highest, most unaffected register. I’m not sure what the male interjections add to the proceedings though.

Coupure electrique
An utterly charming way to end the album. The lyrics in French add allure to the loveliness, the melody is gorgeous and Britney is engaging, but it’s all over far too soon. I’m not entirely sure about Britney’s pronunciation of “coupure”, but I don’t feel inclined to bash her for that. A beautiful ending to the album.

  • Sarah G: You should write an In-Depth of Glory or even Mood Ring (that's a groovy tune)
  • Sarah Giansanti: First off, yeah! I've missed your writing haha Secondly, I've always been baffled of how people can say Britney's not a singer... Derr, that's her
  • Aline: Great article as usual. Please Karen, never stop writing for the site. I love your thoughts about our queen!