Picture my conversation with my friend Daisy:
“I’m planning a Britney article called 100 Ways To Say The Word ‘Baby’!”
“But do you actually HAVE 100 ways?”
“I was going to exaggerate and lie…”
“But wouldn’t that undermine the integrity of your article?”
“Uhhhhhhh…. Yes, but a full article on her pronunciation and enunciation is going to take forever….”
But finally here we are. There was no easy way out after all. I had to listen to every word on every song on every album in a way I’d never listened before, and I must say, it has been a most enlightening exercise, and challenged many of my own preconceptions.
The inspiration for the project was a little moment on Britney’s video “Gettin’ In The Zone”. She was having some harmless fun over Fe’s accent: “She said ‘poo-er’ instead of ‘poor’!” This was something of an epiphany for me. So Britney was not, in fact, some kind of wild, untamed swamp creature who played “Duelling Banjos” and ate tourists. Her years at Park Lane Academy had not been wasted and she was acutely conscious of the need to speak like a well-brung-up young lady. “Yes, I am a Southern Belle!” she told an interviewer.
Whatever you may have been persuaded to believe by a trailer-park-obsessed media, Britney Spears does not usually sing with a particularly vernacular accent. She’s no more Louisiana than Beyonce is Texas. Although she often slips into a countrified drawl, whether from carelessness or as a characteristic of a role she’s playing with her acting-in-song, she doesn’t slur her consonants. And you may point to her distinctive vowel sounds, but what’s going on there has little to do with where she came from and a lot more to do with enunciation.
In fact, contrary to many assumptions – and I have been as guilty as anybody – at the start of her career her singing was rather mannered, with self-consciously “correct” pronunciation. On the “BOMT” album, the “i” sounds as in “time” and “sign”, are sung open-mouthed and open-throated and not rendered as “tahm” and “sahn”. The way she delivers “time” and “find” in “From the bottom of my broken heart” is quite startling. She applies the same open voicing to “there” and “care”. Words that end with “r” are delivered conscientiously, and words that end with “ing” are delivered very deliberately, as in “fading” and “waiting” in “I will still love you”.
On the other hand, we get early glimpses of sounds she has always had problems with and has never been able to “sing out”. These are the “o” sounds in “supposed” and “know”, and even more so in “born”, “on”, “wrong” and “along”, which have always Britney’s biggest weakness. To enunciate these properly requires a much more open mouth and throat than even the “i” sound, far more so than she has ever been either willing or able to deliver, and it’s this one foible that makes her sound little-girlish, or, as veteran DJ Terry Wogan once put it, “like a chipmunk”. Oddly, though, she has many, varied and prettier ways of singing the word “love”.
Something you encounter on “…Baby One More Time” and nowhere else on her albums is the soul inflection she uses on “Soda Pop” and “Thinkin’ about you”. Here she produces the words from further back in her throat, with a more guttural tone and squeezed vowels. And, of course, there is heavy use of the signature “croak” that made some of her early reviewers think of gin-sodden angst and heartbreak and reflect that she was just 17.
On her second album, there is far less croaking, and we find her enunciation still notably clear and rather careful, but her pronunciation is becoming slightly more relaxed – more in line, perhaps, with her speaking voice. But her accent waxes and wanes in interviews, sometimes Southern, sometimes standard LA Girl, sometimes even English, apparently for no other reason than that what she’s saying sounds better that way. So it’s unsurprising that her accent varies from song to song throughout most of her recording career, and even more so as she begins to treat each song as its own little drama in its own little context. On the “Oops” album, she makes fairly consistent use of “ah”, “mah” and “mahl” for “I” “my” and “mile” (for example) and the final “g” usually goes missin’ from words endin’ in “ing”.
There are a couple of exceptions. “Don’t let me be the last to know” is politely sung, carefully enunciated and accentless, although “ah” for “I” does creep in here and there. The other exception is “The girl in the mirror”. It’s always worth noticing how fastidious she is in enunciating certain words, and “mirror” is an example. Words ending in “r” always receive special attention from Britney. Where most singers allow the “r” to drift into inaudibility, or render it as “ah” or “uh” in words such as “better”, Britney almost always articulates it fully, as you can witness with “hear” and “near” in “One kiss from you” and sometimes even wraps her tongue around it, as with “here” and “near” on “Everytime”. One observer has mentioned the prominence of her “long, flexible tongue”, and this may have something to do with it. It certainly seems to contribute to her characteristic pronunciation of words ending in a double “L”, such as “all”, “hell”, “spell” and “wall”.
Her second album reveals some more of the “o” sounds that she constricts – “more”, “door”, “know”, “somethin’”, “go” and “one”. If her singing coaches could teach her to open her mouth wider, use a rounded embouchure and keep her tongue down, she could avoid this issue – but on the other hand she would lose some of her quirky, if controversial, individuality and that endearing projection of innocence and youth.
Although her default pronunciation on her second album was a lot more relaxed and natural than on her first, it would be wrong to see this as one step along the road to total countrification. On her third album, “Britney”, her accent is extremely inconsistent and random throughout, even within individual songs. We may find “mah lahf” for “my life”, “sha” for “shy”, “dahm” for “dime” and “ah lurve rock an’ roll”, but in other places she pronounces her words with care, as with “mind”, “life” and “alright” on “Cinderella”. And every multi-syllable word on the album – such as “attitude”, “insecurity”, “philosophy”, “fantastic” and “compromise” – is clearly articulated.
One might begin to suspect that her accent becomes stronger when she has less time to think about it, since the ballads on the album are pronounced so neutrally. On “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman”, she only slips into the vernacular a couple of times, and on “When I found you” she is even more careful, while also managing to be thoroughly engaging and charming in her delivery. Yet some of the faster songs are relatively accentless too – for example “Before the goodbye” (all “ing” endings present and correct), “Let me be” (all “i” sounds sung out), and “Bombastic love”.
“In The Zone” is less inconsistent, and the choice of accent to suit the song less random, if not exactly methodical. Her diction is naturalistic throughout, with just a few exceptions, but as a by-product, her enunciation loses some clarity. The ballads receive a fastidious treatment, and the potentially shocking “Touch of my hand” and “Don’t hang up” are sung rather politely, sweetly, and with the utmost care. “Brave New Girl” is sung in quite an open-voiced manner that conveys an appropriate freshness. But all the rest of the songs are pronounced extremely casually, as if revealing a belief that urban-ish dance songs sound more credible that way. In passing, it might be worth noting that Britney’s signature croak has almost completely disappeared by this point – yet her sound is still immediately recognisable.
When I study my notes on “Blackout”, I find that a familiar set of observations emerges: diction less clear than at the start of her career but longer words clearly enunciated, compressed vowel sounds in some places but not in others, informal and casual pronunciation as the default, but, as usual, a lot of exceptions and peculiarities. However, as compared to “In The Zone” there is an even stronger sense of purpose in the pronunciation and enunciation she applies to each song, and it feels more like a series of conscious characterisations. For instance, in “Break the ice” she sings a little further back in her throat, and her accent steers carefully away from anything that might sound “Southern”. But on “Ooh Ooh Baby” she remembers her Southern Belle persona and, for the first and only time on any of her recordings, pronounces “ears”, “fears” and “here” as “eahs”, “feahs” and “heah”. This from a girl who always takes such trouble to enunciate her “r” sounds! On “Toy Soldier” her accent goes right off the scale of bratty vernacularity, and is obvious role-playing. And, in complete contrast, on “Heaven on Earth” she sings from the front of her mouth, the words drifting softly out on her breath, almost a whisper, invoking a particularly intimate moment. Is there ANY other singer who uses her voice to create such unforgettable synergies between singer and song?
The process of characterization continues on “Circus”, and here we begin to make the acquaintance of the “sex kitten” with the annoyingly insistent, metallic voice who has led some observers to call Britney “the singer who autotunes HERSELF”. But an artist as subtle as Britney doesn’t merely have ONE of these kittens. She’s present in attenuated form on “Womanizer”, “Kill the lights” and “Lace and leather”, in a Marilyn-inspired version on “Mmm Papi” and in the most extreme of extreme forms on “If you seek Amy”. In complete contrast, Britney uses a gentler, sweeter delivery on “Unusual you” and “My Baby”, which is most gracefully and graciously sung, with the edges rounded off the consonants. “Rock me in” reveals something of an English accent, as if designed as a tribute to Girls Aloud, and “Amnesia” is delivered as a 60’s teen-drama, complete with street-girl attitude and a heavily exaggerated “This is how I DOOOOO!”
“Femme Fatale” brings the story up to date. If Britney has been on a journey, where has she arrived? Truthfully, it’s hard to say on the evidence of an album that operates within fairly narrow parameters. With an almost entirely dance-music oriented tracklist, scope for characterization seems to have been reduced somewhat, or limited to the deployment of the variable range of “sex kittens” to varying degrees on “I wanna go”, “(Drop dead) beautiful”, “Seal it with a kiss”, “Criminal” and “Up and down”. In terms purely of accent and pronunciation, most of the songs display a compromise between careful and informal. One could describe the effect as moderately Southern vernacular but not exactly Louisiana indigenous. However, somehow her enunciation of vowels sounds even more constricted and compressed than in the past, which is probably why the average critic hears them as machine-made. It would be a shame if her identifiability and distinctiveness had transitioned from open voicings, polite pronunciations and a trademark croak through the introduction of a mildly Southern flavor, then breathiness and whispering, and eventually the full flowering of multiple characterizations in song, only to end up as little more than a bunch of carelessly formed vowels.
On the other hand, her core values are, if anything, strengthened on “Femme Fatale”. She takes exceptional trouble over her consonants throughout, “ing” endings are fully enunciated, and key words are delivered with attentiveness and charm, as in “remember” (on “Inside Out”), “uncontrollably” (“I wanna go”), “forbidden” (“Seal it with a kiss”), and “everything” and “gasoline” (“Gasoline”).
“He about to lose me” is a notable anomaly. The reversion to long-gone “BOMT” sounds at the outset is remarkable, and, even though she compromises as the song proceeds, her voicing seems much more open and less constricted than elsewhere on the album. Her vocal on “Don’t keep me waiting” may not be classic last-century Britney, but it’s quite open-voiced too. The tantalising suggestion is that she can still produce those sounds when she wants to; when she judges that a song sounds better that way. It’s like the way she drops some dramatically odd pronunciations of words into her songs. “MEH!” on “Overprotected”, “Hayzaaay” on “Hold it against me”, and “gleyess” on “Shattered glass” come to mind. And there are many, many weird ways of saying “baby”. Maybe not a hundred… but that’s another story.