New Britneyology

Do you REALLY think her voice has deteriorated down the years?

Posted by: Karenannanina on: October 9, 2011

(This was previously published at PoorBritney but this is its first time here. Some of the debaters may not previously have seen it…)

Britney Spears has been a professional singer, on and off, since she was recruited into the All New Mickey Mouse Club in 1993. We’ve seen videos of her performing like a real little trouper on Star Search when she was only 10 years old. You would think, wouldn’t you, that she would know quite a lot about singing? I certainly expect her to, and I think she does.

In fact, despite a hundred thousand sneery websites assuring us – or trying to reassure themselves – that “she can’t sing”, Britney’s recordings show a great deal of professionalism and skillful technique. It’s there IF you know what you’re looking for and are ready to look beyond power and Lea-Michele-style wig-out climaxes. If the sound of innocent little songs being bludgeoned to death by mindless excess is what floats your boat, you probably won’t be open to anything that I’m about to say.

The unobservant, such as hostile critics, try to put Britney in a box, saying she “has” this kind of voice or that kind of voice. “She has a nasal voice.” “She has a thin voice.” “She has a breathy voice.” “She has a robotic voice.” “She has a babyish voice.” And so on. Actually she has all of those voices and a lot more. A better way of expressing it would be to say that she possesses and USES those voices and isn’t limited to any of them.

Britney is an actress in song, you see. Consciously or unconsciously, the voices she applies to particular songs are her artistic choices. We may not especially like it, but the whiny, brattish voice she uses for parts of songs like “(Drop Dead) Beautiful” is supposed to create the image of a saucy, scheming little sex-vixen. But she’s not stuck with that voice. She only uses it in the verse and changes it for the chorus.

The voice she used in “Piece of Me” was also a little whiny, but it was very different from her sex-vixen voice. She sounded metallic and robotic – and did it so successfully that many unobservant critics thought her voice had been Vocoderized. If only people would listen through a decent set of headphones before they pass judgment…..

I guess it’s too much to expect from busy reviewers that they would take the time and trouble to pick up the subtle differences in the ways in which Britney treats each and every song on “Femme Fatale”. It’s a lot easier (and lazier) just to dismiss her and say “Her contribution to the project isn’t clear”. But if you’re interested in vocal craftsmanship, you will pride yourself on spotting the fact that her vocals on “Trouble” and “Big Fat Bass” are very different from “(Drop Dead) Beautiful”. If you can’t see that difference, you shouldn’t be writing about vocalists.

Another faulty approach in talking about Britney’s singing is to categorize her voice by eras and say she was better at this time or that time. One popular theory is that her voice has gradually deteriorated over the years since her first album. The explanations given are that she doesn’t practise enough and that she smokes. This, it is said, is why her voice became more whispery and breathy by the time of “In The Zone”.

But this theory ignores the fact that each era has contained its own anomalies and departures from a consistent timeline. For example, her high, whispery voice makes its first recorded appearance on “When your eyes say it” on the “Oops…” album. But that didn’t mean she had no other choices. On the “Britney” album that followed a year later, she chose to use a whole range of different voices, including the whispery one – but it only made an appearance on one track, “That’s where you take me”.

By the time of “In The Zone” in 2003, the “gradually getting worse because of the smoking” theorists were pretty sure she’d lost all strength and assertiveness from her voice for ever, and sang in a breathy style because she no longer had any alternative. But this album was Britney’s “Erotica” and it was appropriate that she delivered softer, sweeter, sexier vocals on most of the tracks. But there is a continuum of breathiness that stretches from “Showdown” and “Breathe on me” at one extreme, through tracks such as “I got that boom boom” and “The Hook Up” right through to “Brave New Girl”, which is sung with straightforward strength and isn’t breathy at all. Once again, the supposed timeline of steady deterioration looks extremely shaky.

Next we arrive at “Blackout”, and the consensual but completely delusional theory that, by this hopeless and helpless stage in her career, she had to be propped up in the recording booth while she croaked a few phrases into a Magic Autotune machine which then produced the vocals. Hence the flat, disengaged, metallic sound of “Piece of me”. But… ummm…. although that’s what people EXPECTED to hear, “Piece of Me” is the ONLY track where she uses that approach. Every other track, even including “Freakshow”, is totally different. This was the album where she first began to explore her full vocal range, with many songs beginning in a low register then moving into an extremely high one. “Toy Soldier” gives her sex-vixen voice an early airing, and the breathy style is also represented, e.g. on “Heaven on Earth”. But the outtakes are the clearest indication of the vast range of styles she had at her command – think about “Let Go” and “State of Grace”.

And what about “Circus”? According to the theory of Britney’s steady vocal deterioration, an album that emerged a full 5 years after “In The Zone” should show her in a state of total vocal collapse, yet it contains some of the liveliest, most varied singing of her career and very little whisperiness. Again there are songs where she switches from low to high register for the chorus, and here her high voice is stronger and better integrated than previously. “Womanizer” and “If U Seek Amy” reveal her bratty sex-vixen, but only in the verses, while “Lace and Leather” shows us a non-bratty vixen. In “Kill the lights” and “Mmm Papi” she’s mid-register fierce. “Shattered glass” is assertive enough, but with a softer edge. “Unusual you” and “Blur” aren’t breathy, yet somehow they’re still dreamy and poignant. Even the ballads, “Out from under” and “My baby”, while sweet and affectionate, are sung in a stronger, more open-throated voice than (for example) “Everytime” and in “My baby” she also displays uncharacteristically sustained notes and a more obvious vibrato.

And finally “Femme Fatale”. Britney got a bashing from many critics for sounding unnatural and electronic, but that’s a product of lazy listening, as I said at the start. Her approach on this album is basically to put the songs out there as vigorously as possible and with relatively little of her usual ornamentation. Yet there are still differences in the ways in which she sings each track. And there is much unobtrusive professionalism. On “(Drop Dead) Beautiful” she repeats the line “You’re beautiful” many times, and every time is identical to the one before. That isn’t an easy thing to achieve. Oh, I know people say “cutting and pasting”, but we know she can lay down a lead vocal in one or two takes, so that means she can do it on a single run-through. On “Don’t keep me waiting” she belts the song out as aggressively as anybody, and shows that even at full power she can hold a note AND repeat it again and again – which is something the haters said she couldn’t do.

Now, you may want to turn all of this against her and argue that this recourse to basic pop techniques is in itself a sign of diminishing vocal skills and loss of finesse. And indeed, only one track on the entire album contains any vibrato at all. But that is “He about to lose me” where all of her great qualities are shown to be intact in one song, and available for use any time she requires them. It’s almost as if she gave us this one little, anomalous track to tell us in her usual modest way “Hey, I can still do this y’know!”

13 Responses to "Do you REALLY think her voice has deteriorated down the years?"

I honestly don’t know anything about vocals and all those intricate details, all i know is this, i love and prefer Britney’s voice over those belters and show off voices!! I believe that Brit’s voice is versatile and she can use it in any way she wants, high-pitched nasally, breathy and sexy, and deep and emotional….that’s all her!!!

Just because she’s not a belter, people assume she can’t sing!! Plus, look at the countless numbers of producers who have actually worked in the studio with her and say she’s a total pro in there, i’d rather believe them over biased critics who aren’t involved in the process at all!!!

Yep and some producers who praised her weren’t included on the final cut of the album.
They had nothing to gain so I think we can take their words for it.

I agree with the fact she is the vocal chameleon of her generation:

Giorgio Moroder influenced track : “Trip To Your Heart”

Soft rock ballad with folk influence: “Criminal”

Eurodance :”I Wanna Go”

Pop rock : “Don’t Keep Me Waiting”

Urban/dubstep: “Inside Out”

And I’m only talking about her last album! 🙂

I think people overexaggerate what smoking can do to your singing voice.
Alcohol & drugs are more dangerous IMO.
This “Everyday” song that leaked a few days ago is a proof she still has it.

Actually I think that people are beginning to see her in a different light now that a Femme Fatale-era track called “Everyday” leaked; it’s a beautiful ballad that showcases Britney’s voice in the best way possible. I’ve always thought that her voice was best represented on ballads, and “Everyday” is no exception; she sounds like she did when she released …Baby One More Time thirteen years ago, possibly even better; her voice now has a refinement to it that was missing in her earlier days.

Britney’s said it herself in interviews before; shes sings the way she does out of preference, not because she’s forced to because of vocal deterioration. She’s stated that her earlier material did not present much of a challenge vocally to her, and while I didn’t understand what she meant at first I do now. Like you said, Britney’s interpretation of each and every song varies depending on the mood and tempo of the track; she chooses the style in which she sings based on what that song needs to make it work, and she’s the best of the best at it. THAT’S what she meant when she said her newer material challenges her voice; instead of singing in the same style for each track over and over again she now experiments and finds what works for the song, and that can be difficult as it means you have to know your voice intimately, and I believe she does.

And yes, for all the naysayers, we know that Britney cannot belt like Beyonce, Christina, or even Lady GaGa, but she has EXCELLENT tone, and she is much more versatile with her voice than any of the divas that I just mentioned are. And this isn’t just coming from the Britney fans, this is coming from the producers, who time and again have had nothing but good things to say about Britney while recording with her in the studio: I’ve heard that she’s a pro who can lay down a track in less than an hour, I’ve heard that she’s one of the best technical singers a producer has ever worked with, hell, producers have even felt INCLINED to let people know that yes, she can sing in an effort to shut people up who say otherwise.

Anyways, I agree completely that the whole thing has gotten out of hand at this point but as of late it seems that most of her critics’ complaints seem to be falling on deaf ears; the general public could give a damn what most of them have to say, they’re either talking to rile the Britney fans up or they’re talking just to hear themselves speak. Either way it’s something I’ve learned to ignore because I KNOW she can sing, and a hell of a lot better than most people give her credit for.

I think she can still belt.

I really want her to prove me right because I’m sure a voice like her can’t disappear just like that.

She can belt, but Karen did a great In-Depth article on one of the few tracks that Britney HAS belted on before, “Where Are You Now;” In it she addresses the fact that while she truly does belt on the track her voice never truly opens up, so it ends up sounding a bit nasally. She can do it but it’s not her forte and that’s fine because it’s not what she’s best known for.

I thought she sang “You Oughta Know” on the Circus tour to prove a point. It seemed a pretty random thing to do, but it did give a lot of cynics some pause for thought.

Yeah I thought that as well. I thing it had less to do with her liking the song and more to do with the fact that she knew it was a song she could rock live.

I think I posted on this the first time it hit PB, but I generally don’t think that her vocal abilities have changed significantly. As others have said, she actually knows her voice better now and is much more willing to experiment with her vocal technique then she was at her debut. One of my favorite tracks she layed down for FF was Trip to Your Heart. The way she prenounced every syllable on the verse so succinctly, as if each syllable conveyed its own meaning–I believe that is all her natural intuition and was not on the track originally.

Vocally, my favorite tracks she’s done are all off ITZ. Each album has its gems, but that one i feel was the most consistently amazing.

It’s a tragedy, really – the most creative, imaginative singer and interpreter of songs of her generation, and one of the most professional and proficient in the studio, but she’s so far away from what most people consider to be great singing these days (belting) that she’s almost completely unappreciated. I saw a comment on a forum recently where Xtina was described as “wailing like a goat” and I thought…. “Yessssss!”

LOL!!! It’s so true, isn’t it? I love how Xtina has been branded as “the voice of our generation.” I’ve often wondered if that was meant as a compliment or an insult; Christina lacks any sort of restraint or control when she sings to the point that even the softest and most subdued song is reduced to nothing more than a playground for her vocal gymnastics. For instance: I love the song “Hurt,” but I HATE how she decides to take it into belting territory during the bridge, when the song falls victim to loudness war and Christina’s usual antics (ie, grunting and croaking). It’s a fantastic song, but it’s nearly ruined by that one part as Christina surrenders any and all fragility and decides to JUST scream until the final chorus. Now see, I’d get laughed at by a lot of people for saying this but in my opinion the song would have been much better suited for Britney, as she is able to control her voice and doesn’t sound like she’s going into hysterics while she’s singing. Plus I feel her soprano is much nicer to hear than Christina’s, who is so used to singing/screaming in the middle register that she just doesn’t seem to have much of a feel for singing in those upper octaves at times. But anyways, yeah, lately it does seem like people are getting a bit fed up with her oversinging; if she can control her voice then she can do a fabulous job…she sounds absolutely mesmerizing on one of the bonus tracks from Bionic called “Birds Of Prey.”

I also just want to add that some people feel that artists like Britney don’t deserve a record contract because she doesn’t sing like Christina and Beyonce…in other words, she doesn’t (over)use melisma, she doesn’t belt that often, and she doesn’t do crappy R&B music. And thank GOD for it. We need singers like Britney and Kylie, who show us that you don’t always have to sing like your vocal cords may fall off at any minute to be considered a decent singer. Plus musicians like Britney are the ones who are usually more compelling to listen to anyways, as they’re more inclined to take chances and experiment in an effort to make up for what they lack, whereas the Beyonces and Christinas all too often sacrifice good production and hell, decent songs because they’re so egotistical that they think their voice is the only thing that should matter. Well I’m sorry Beyonce and Christina, but the sales of your latest albums say otherwise.

Yes, THANK GOD for Britney and also Madonna (for me, that is), out of all the female singers i listen to them two the most, because their voices don’t annoy me and they both make the best pop music, Christina and Beyonce are annoying as fuck!!!

I also think Beyonce is a little over-rated in some areas, esp. when it comes to dance, all i ever see her do is pop her pussy and stomp around like a Clydesdale, and people try to say she’s a better dancer than Brit, i don’t think so, lol

One of the very greatest albums I’ve heard in the last few years is “Seasons of My Soul” by Rumer. She never raises her voice at all, but she’s so wonderfully expressive, in a thoughtful, intelligent way. Her voice subtly recalls many different singers at various moments in the album, and it seems that this was quite intentional.

It’s a sumptuous pleasure for people who think good singing should be tasteful, inventive, and varied, and should be subservient to the interests of the material.

I think the highest handicap for Britney is the incapacity of concentrating on the work she’s delivering. That’s why all the magic she creates comes from the studio, a place where she can relax and let herself go. You guys always talk about the “acting” aspect of her singing style that all of us highly appreciate. It’s not about a mechanic technique once you deliver you can repeat over and over again. You can’t sing the same lyrics tens of times if you lay your personal trademark on the feelings you’re able to capture for that ephemeral instant. That’s always been the biggest dificulty for her, now and at the beginning of her music career.

Comments are closed.

  • Karenannanina: I agree with you about the residency. It's the road to irrelevance for an artist. But a new album would be a golden blessing for her fans. Her albums
  • George: Spot on thoughts on the issue. Honestly, I don't... really care whether she does the residency or not? As long as there is new music, I'm fine. P.S: G
  • Sarah G: You should write an In-Depth of Glory or even Mood Ring (that's a groovy tune)