The Magic and Mystery of Britney’s Voice

Britney Spears once received an extraordinary accolade from the UK’s highly respected top broadsheet newspaper the Daily Telegraph: “Amid all the fretting and frothing about her sanity…it’s easy to forget Britney’s pop brilliance. Sweeter-voiced than Beyoncé, Christina and Pink, she has had a string of classics to put the pretenders to shame. Baby One More Time, Oops, Slave 4 U, Toxic… Britney is the pop artist of her generation.”

It’s rare for a critic to say something nice about Britney’s voice, but these few words come as an amazing counter-offensive against the ridicule and abuse that is regularly heaped upon her. There seems to be no middle ground – you either love her or hate her with a passion.

By contrast, consider the case of Kylie Minogue. After years of similar ridicule, the critical establishment has finally embraced her – but as a showbiz trouper, a survivor, the owner of a pretty, if miniscule, ass and the purveyor of quality pop. I’ve never yet read a discussion of the qualities of Kylie’s voice, which is probably because the critics don’t actually think it has any qualities. It is what it is, it may not be great but it carries a tune. It gives her an excuse to be on stage and that’s enough.

Britney isn’t treated with this kind of indifference. Perhaps her critics feel she is a big enough target to be worthy of their abuse. Obviously they don’t take the time to listen to her properly, to give her understated art the attention it requires, and try to find out what there is about her singing that inspires so much devotion in so many people. Why would they? They don’t expect pop singers to be quality singers or worthy of any particular interest other than in the most superficial sense.

So, when they take her to task, it tends to be for what she isn’t rather than for what she is. She isn’t a big voiced diva. She isn’t Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston. She isn’t the sort of artist who is going to thrill an auditorium of 15,000 people with her soaring flights of multi-note vocal fancy. But she is an artist, and a very special one. As much as the greatest singers of today, she owns the songs she sings. And her fans spend plenty of time pondering how other artists’songs could be raised to another level if Britney sang them.

She has a unique voice, of that there is no doubt. But where did it come from? It isn’t the voice of an unschooled amateur, as some people think. We can dismiss straight away any notions that she isn’t deeply enough immersed in the vocal arts to be a quality vocalist, just as we can dismiss the opinion of some critics that she is uninvolved in and detached from her music. This is a girl who, as a young child, was (in the words of Larry Getlen in his book “Britney: Not That Innocent”) a “relentless little singing machine, undeterred in her desire to sing everything that crossed her ears, no matter where she was or what else was going on.”

Britney’s childhood dentist Michelle LeBlanc said: “When she comes in to have any dental work done, she sings the whole entire time. The radio’s going, she’s singing everything that’s on the radio…When you’re coming in or out of her mouth or whatever, she’s humming or singing. And as soon as you’re out of her mouth, the words are coming again. She’s the first person I’ve seen who’s constantly wanting to sing.”

A full twenty years of singing have given her plenty of insight into how to handle a song. Technical qualities, such as control over pitch and vibrato, were there from a very early stage – where you would expect an 8-year-old girl to sound childish, rough and immature, she sounded like a professional. And that was BEFORE she got singing lessons.

When New York agent Nancy Carson took Britney under her wing after Disney decided she was too young to be a Mouseketeer, she felt that Britney could sing well but wasn’t doing it in a technically correct way. Britney then spent many years under the tutelage of a number of vocal coaches. By the time Larry Rudolph sent for her to audition for a recording contract there was very little she didn’t know about professional singing.

By that point, her voice had changed a little from the Broadway-style belting vocals of her pre-teens. In the TV documentary “The rise and rise of Britney Spears” she sings a snippet of “Open Arms” and what you hear is a sweeter voice than before, but still a strong and conventional one, perhaps a little like Leann Rimes. But when her first recordings emerged a year or so later she didn’t sound like that at all.

The voice that rocked a startled world was like nothing we had ever heard before. Where the 8-year-old Britney sounded like she was 21, the 16-year old showbiz veteran seemed actually to have regressed a few years. The fine vocal technique she had spent her whole life perfecting had been replaced by a much more constricted voice featuring a whole encyclopaedia of mannerisms – the most obvious of which were her strange guttural croaks and groans.

The many other vocal excerpts from “The rise and rise of Britney Spears” also reveal that, from mimicking other singers as she sang their songs, she had fully absorbed the professional showgirl’s ability to lose her accent – yet the newly emerged recording artist’s Louisiana twang was obvious from the start, and the very individual way she pronounces the words in her songs has stayed with her to this day.

There has been a lot of speculation about what went on during that first year at Jive, but we can be sure that no one actually set out to make her singing worse. What we are able to gather is that a great deal of time and thought were expended on marketing this new artist and ensuring she would make a massive impact.

Somewhere along the line, someone, probably Britney herself, hit on the idea of playing a character – an innocent girl with Lolita tendencies. And this character she played would have to SOUND right as well as look right. So what would a naughty angel sound like? Britney came up with a comprehensive answer: a mixture of the youthful innocent, the sweet kid full of love and longing, the little girl with a bruised heart, the not-so-innocent jailbait pr*ck-teaser, and the party girl with a lot more than dancing on offer.

Unfortunately, in adopting this recipe for success, Britney was signing a pact with the Devil. Her strategy would make the desired impact on a world full of jaded listeners who had binned pop years ago. It would get her an audience for her great songs and give her a platform on which to display her gift for performance art. It would also give her an edge over any possible competition. But on the downside, it meant she had to put that beautiful pre-Jive voice away in a locker and pretend it never existed.

She must have known even then that, for everyone who was drawn into her web of fascination, there would be someone saying she couldn’t sing. For everyone who willingly entered her hall of smoke and mirrors, there would be someone making fun of her croaking mannerisms and saying she sounded like a chipmunk. She even said that she didn’t want everyone to like her, and she wasn’t joking – the character she was trying to create would have been a failure if it didn’t produce ambiguity, doubt, and conflicting emotions.

All the same, it must have hurt her many times over the years to know that Disney’s people placed her singing completely on a par with Christina Aguilera’s and well above Jessica Simpson’s, that she had the pure singing talent to take a completely different career path if she had wanted to, and that her career strategy meant trading respect for the mega-stardom she wanted. But Britney was determined that she was going to be a megastar, no matter what it took, and she was prepared to deal with the consequences.

I have often wondered what Britney’s “Crossroads” co-star Taryn Manning meant when she said Britney “had a beautiful voice in real life”, but it dawns on me now – the young actresses spent a lot of time together off-set and in their trailers, and Taryn heard the private Britney take her pre-Jive voice out of the locker for a little dust-down and realised that the public Britney’s vocals were indeed simply part of her act.

On her first album, the mask did slip from time to time, and certain notes come out in a pre-Jive, open-voiced way – as you can clearly hear in “Sometimes”, “Crazy” and “I was born to make you happy” for example. With the benefit of greater experience, she doesn’t allow it to happen on her second album, and even when she does slip into some unexpected belting on “Where are you now” she stays in character.

This is not to say that she could come out as the new Leann Rimes tomorrow if she felt like it. No, she has been playing the part of “Britney Spears” for too long now. She admitted herself in 2002 that her voice was changing, and it’s still a work in progress, constantly being brought up to date to match the changes in her public image.

On her first album, almost every song contained the basic elements of the naughty angel mixed together. On her second and subsequent albums, the various Britney characters are stranded out more, and additional nuances are added to them. And a new character, the increasingly assertive, rebellious and defiant young woman was beginning to raise her head and now seems to have become the dominant force.

However, although this kaleidoscope of role-play and characterisation makes Britney’s recordings fascinating and intriguing, although it creates the constantly changing patterns that dispel any risk of boredom, it would be wrong to say that this is what defines the character in her vocals, for that would make them cold, charmless and manipulative and they are anything but that. In fact, behind all the little dramas you can hear the sound of laughter and the beat of a very warm heart.

To get us further in this analysis we need to draw a distinction between Britney’s vocals on her faster songs and on her ballads. The basic methodology for the faster songs has remained a constant over the years. If you follow a timeline from BOMT through OIDIA and Overprotected to Toxic and eventually My Prerogative you can hear that the prototype unveiled with BOMT has been developed and polished and perfected, with steady improvements in technique, the introduction of more variety, and the abandonment of the early “little girliness”. But it hasn’t changed fundamentally.

Britney’s slower songs and ballads are more revealing of her musical intelligence and craftsmanship. What is particularly interesting is that, although these present her best opportunities to act out the various nuances of the Britney character, and although on several occasions (as on “Lucky” and “Satisfaction”) she seems to have made a deliberate choice about which part of her complex persona should receive the emphasis in a particular song, she sings most of them absolutely straight and the listener is left to place his or her own construct on the interaction between voice and lyric.

If you listen consecutively to four songs from the special edition of the OIDIA album – “When your eyes say it”, “You’ve got it all”, “Heart”, and “Dear Diary” you can listen all you want for signs of a slutty girl looking for sex or a Lolita-like teenage temptress but all you actually hear is a sweet, charming and rather innocent girl in love taking four different lyrics and four different tunes and singing them in four different ways.

Very few pop singers seem to have any conception of applying an individual approach to each individual song. That Britney does this all the time tells us that, far from being the raw and amateurish performer some imagine, she is, in fact, extremely professional and surprisingly preoccupied with technique. And she does have plenty of technique to draw upon, from the little sobs and emotive yelps at the end of many lines in her ballads to her perfectly controlled vibrato and the delicately drawn little arpeggios in such songs as DLMBTLTK and “From the bottom of my broken heart”.

Everything about her singing is so graceful, understated and lacking in bombast and excess. Endless attention is given to the pronunciation of individual words and to the ways in which phrases are begun and ended. However, even this formidable craftsmanship would not be enough to make listeners fall headlong in love with Britney’s voice and with Britney herself through her voice. What does that is the extraordinary emotional connection she makes with so many of her listeners, and I can speak about this from my own experience.

I didn’t like pop music at all till my boyfriend wore me down with his constant worship of Ms Spears and made me listen to In The Zone.

I’m not sure that I really got it at first, but I listened right through in one go. Then I listened to it again. And again. And then I asked him if he had any more of her albums and I began listening to them too. I was well and truly hooked. Each time I listened to a Britney album it was a trip. As I listened with my eyes closed my boyfriend watched my smiles, my frowns and my little tears. And now, in brazen defiance of the ridicule of friends, I will come out and say that no singer intrigues, delights, puzzles and satisfies me like Britney Spears. 

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