Britney’s Voice Revisited

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 encompasses enough ambivalence to remind us that the jury on Britney’s voice went out almost 20 years ago, and still hasn’t delivered a 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. 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 that they didn’t “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.

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