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.
Tags: britney, glory, old vs new, Oops, spears