New Britneyology

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.

Blur (In Depth series)

Posted by: Karenannanina on: August 26, 2016

(This review is a throwback to a previous promise to my readers. We’ll soon be talking about nothing but Glory!)

Circus is a strange album. You could call it diverse but, compared to Blackout, “unfocused” might be the word you’re reaching for. Stylistically it oscillates wildly between such extreme points of the compass as My Baby and Mannequin, depositing some genuine oddities along the way. One of these, obviously, is Mmm Papi – as eccentric a track as you’ll find anywhere outside of a Bjork album. Blur is another. Other artists have sung about intoxication, but mostly metaphorically, like Jennifer Paige’s Sober or brimming with bravado, like Beyonce’s Drunk In Love. Frank Sinatra’s One For My Baby is about drinking, but not about being drunk. Britney’s Blur is about being so far out of it on drink (or drugs) that you can’t remember what you did or who you did it with, or whether you might have need of morning-after medication. Never one to try to put a gloss on her reputation, Britney is one of very few artists who would, quite unapologetically, release a track like this one.

These are the lyrics as found on the internet:

(Verse 1)
Turn the lights out
This shit is way too fucking bright
Wanna poke my eyes out
If you wanna mess with my eyesight
Just let me get my head right
Where the hell am I?
Who are you?
What’d we do last night?
Hey yeah yeah
Who are you?
What’d we do last night?
Hey yeah yeah

Can’t remember what I did last night
Maybe I shouldn’t have given in
But I just couldn’t fight
Hope I didn’t but I think I might’ve
Everything, everything is still a blur
Can’t remember what I did last night
Everything, everything is still a blur (Did last night)
Can’t remember what I did last night
Everything, everything is still a blur

(Verse 2)
What’s your name, man?
Can you calmly hand me all my things?
I think I need an aspirin
Better yet, I need to get up outta here
I gotta get my head right
Where the hell am I?
Who are you?
What’d we do l ast night?
Yeah yeah yeah

Can’t remember what I did last night
Maybe I shouldn’t have given in
But I just couldn’t fight
Hope I didn’t but I think I might’ve
Everything, everything is still a blur
Can’t remember what I did last night
Everything, everything is still a blur (Did last night)
Can’t remember what I did last night
Everything, everything is still a blur

What happened last night?
‘Coz I don’t–coz I don’t remember
What happened?

Can’t remember what I did last night
Maybe I shouldn’t have given in
But I just couldn’t fight
Hope I didn’t but I think I might’ve
Everything, everything is still a blur
Can’t remember what I did last night (Blur)
Everything, everything is still a blur (Did last night)
Can’t remember what I did last night
Everything, everything is still a blur

As you can see, the structure is conventional, with two verses and choruses. The only departure from convention is the abbreviated quasi-bridge. Blur was written by “Danja” Hills, Stacy Barthe and Marcella “Ms Lago” Araica. It was produced by Danja and mixed by Ms Lago.

The song has a similar theme of “the morning after the night before” that we saw in Early Mornin’, but this is a very different kind of song. It’s a slow-burning grower, full of minor-key disturbia and whirling, woozy effects suggesting a serious hangover and a degree of mental distress. The melody is wistful, poignant, dreamy: a moment in time captured. In classical language it might be called a meditation.

As might be expected from the Danja/Lago team, there isn’t a vast amount of instrumental work and no instrumentalists are credited. One back-up vocalist, Luke Boyd, is listed, but is difficult to detect. The dominant sounds are a series of keyboard figures, synth drum thumps and a lot of tricky hi-hat percussion. In Verse 1, the keyboard is at first guitar-like, but soon begins to waver and melt. For the chorus, synth strings join a little tinkling figure and a few bass notes are added, and continue in Verse 2 along with the other sounds heard in Verse 1. For the quasi-bridge, the woozy synth is still present, but all instrumentals soon drop out and the question “What happened?” is asked in near-silence.

Britney’s vocal is placed centrally in the verses and divided into a stereo pair for the chorus. It’s in her mid-range and as soft and smooth as any she has recorded. It is intimate but it isn’t a sexual come-on of any description. This sweetness of tone is something many critics seem strangely blind to. In a review of her career I read today, the author described her voice as “sour” – a perspective incomprehensible to this writer. At “gotta get my head right” she sounds a little desperate; the rest of the time she sounds like someone trying to extract herself from a questionable situation, with some dignity intact, by being reasonable and not talking too loudly!

“Make Me” quick review

Posted by: Karenannanina on: July 18, 2016

I was expecting something a bit faster for Britney’s new song but I’m celebrating what we got instead! The traditional club banger seemed inevitable. Britney had been mining the same pop-dance groove on most of her albums after the thrilling days of the super-cool In The Zone. That streetwise album was the one that drew me to her. And this new single, at last, is a return to the kind of music I love. BB (“before Britney”) I was strictly a soul/r&b girl and my jams are still the sweet soul ballads like Joyce Sims’ sublime Move Closer or Lauryn Hill’s heartrending The Sweetest Thing. What makes these tracks great isn’t just the mood, enrapturing though it may be. It’s the addictive tune that keeps playing in your head most of the day, maybe after just one hearing. Make Me was cutting its trails in my brain after just a few seconds. Straight away it corrects the deficit that plagued Britney Jean – lack of memorable melody.

English producer BURNS has endowed Make Me with a much more expansive and (shall we say) reverberant soundscape than she’s used to. It’s colorful, ever-changing, and punctuated by startling electronic flutters. The basic structure is conventional, in the modern idiom, with two-part verses, pre-chorus, chorus and bridge. The verses are confidential, with lots of reverb on the synths and guitars. The pre-chorus is even quieter, but subtly engineers a release with its use of insistent percussion. Then the chorus just explodes into a wall of sound, with choir-like multi-tracked vocals and instruments flooding in and echoing all around you with stunning dynamism. On this occasion, the bridge is G-Eazy’s slick, crystal-clear rap, minimally backed, that steadily builds tension and releases into another thundering chorus, its closing words prefiguring Britney’s “make me”. Then the song disappears with the ghost of an echo.

Britney is in her mid-to-high register, sweet and intimate, breathy and sensuous, articulating more clearly than usual, with none of the croaks and groans favoured by her many imitators; but some of her characteristic sounds, like her little “mmm yeah” are just audible. No doubt we will see the usual journalistic suspects informing us that she “phones in” her vocals, and similar trash talk. Don’t believe a word of it. She’s right there in the moment, fervent, sexual, emotional and committed. If this track is a sign of things to come, it looks like a new Golden Age of Britney is about to dawn.

The Make Me video sees a return to the age-old “writhing in underwear” pattern that was discussed, admired and decried in equal measure back in the era of My Prerogative. For nostalgic Britney fans, it’s kinda comforting to see it again – although some will dub it “trashy”, as they have always done. To borrow a description of the plot, “The video begins with the singer and her girlfriends having lunch together, and telling “Michael”, a hunky young man, to come and meet them that weekend with some of his friends. When Britney tells him that she will be at this mystery meeting, he of course agrees to go. The star is then shown arriving at the Make Me auditions in a flashy BMW, and she watches the men take turns in front of the camera, pouting and showing off their talents. As Britney watches from the sidelines, she wears a glitzy black sheer crop top featuring star motifs, matching heels and a fedora and Daisy Dukes. After the rest of the men have cavorted around in front of the camera, she spots the guy she was chatting to at the beginning of the video. Things then get hot and heavy between the pair as Britney takes him to her bedroom and he plants kisses on her stomach. Britney can be seen in nothing but black underwear as the handsome model climbs on top of her – before the camera cuts off.” (Credit: Daily Mail Online)

I’ll add to this review and upgrade it to “In Depth” when more information becomes available.

  • Deborah: There's an interview with Charli XCX where she talks about her admiration for Britney, and how much she was influenced by her as a young girl. Maybe t
  • George: I was just listening to Charli XCX's new track "Blame It On You" and thinking of how much she sounds like Britney (or like an impersonator of). It is
  • Karenannanina: Thank you! Welcome to the New Britneyology community!