New Britneyology

Britney – making weird seem mainstream!

Posted by: Karenannanina on: September 29, 2013

Ever since mega-wannabee Darius proudly unveiled his special emo-theatrical take on Baby One More Time to the bemused judges on Popstars away back in 2001, talent show contestants have occasionally ventured to perform Britney songs. They have all lived to regret it, and their efforts have always sounded unbelievably inept. And most of these people have been among her biggest fans! The problem is that you can’t deliver a Britney song as well as Britney does – you just think you can.

60 years ago, ancient “crooner” Bing Crosby was experiencing the same perceptual dissonance. He remarked that most of his listeners thought they could sing better than he could! He was always low-key and a resolute non-belter, yet his voice was instantly recognisable, and he put a distinctively warm and intimate stamp on every song he sang. His songs are a karaoke elephant trap. So are Britney’s. People tend to think that, because she doesn’t do massive, wailing climaxes, she can’t really sing. At best, they think, if they can master her old-school croaky mannerisms, the job is done.

The strange thing we’ve learnt from the TV talent shows is that there are hundreds of people out there who can belt the hell out of a song. On early talent shows, the mere ability to belt was thought to be a thing of wonder, but not now. Every week you can see girls who can sell – REALLY sell – songs made famous by Rihanna, Xtina, Katy Perry, Adele, even Beyonce, and you’re prepared to accept their versions as credible alternatives. It can go even further: I’ve just been watching a 36-year-old prison officer called Sam Bailey serve up what must surely be the definitive version of Emeli Sande’s song Clown.

But then there is also a handful of famous singers who have not only sung songs, they have created a spirit and a soul for these songs; given them a unique life of their own where the song and the performance of the song merge into one and are indivisible. These are singers like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and, yes, Britney Spears.

Croaky mimicry is nothing more than a caricature. As YouTube shows, some other celebrity singers can “do Britney” quite well, for a phrase or two, but the realism of their impersonations usually stops at Oops I Did It Again. It’s one of the polarizing debates among the Britney fans – is her singing better now, or worse? I’m one of those who believe she has never stopped improving, adding more and more layers to her technique, so that her sound now is an infinitely subtle one. It’s still uniquely Britney, but almost 100% croak-free. And even more inimitable than ever.

In an online article that appeared recently, the writer is contemplating what an oddly constructed song Work Bitch really is, and offers us a tweet from Idolator’s Sam Lansky: “The great thing about Britney Spears is that she makes dazzlingly weird songs and then tricks everyone into thinking it’s mainstream.” You hear a Britney track and you THINK it’s an ordinary little pop song, sung by a less-than-ordinary little singer. You THINK you can sing it better than she can. And you are so wrong.

Britney herself would never win a TV singing show. Can you imagine her standing toe to toe with another wannabe in a screaming match to establish who “wants it more”? Yet winners of these shows usually turn out to be thoroughly undistinguished. Winners of The Voice, in the UK at least, have turned out to be better suited to cruise-ship singing than to selling millions of albums. Any quirkiness or individuality is quickly dismissed by the public vote. Yet it seems to me that, if someone can own her material so completely that it isn’t worth anyone else’s while even TRYING to sing it, this someone’s voice possesses what “The X Factor” really means.

5 Responses to "Britney – making weird seem mainstream!"

I once would not have agreed with you in regards to her singing ability and technique improving over time. However, even on Femme Fatale two standout tracks demonstrate her versatility–“He About to Lose Me” and “Scary”.

On HATLM it’s one of her most emotional, poignant deliveries I’ve heard in a long time. The entire time she elicits this feeling of being on the brink of breaking down, losing control, but never she never quite does. She is a masterful actress the entire song and I love it.

On the other hand, for those who see her technique in HATLM as a weak vocal delivery, there is “Scary”. For all the “bubblegum” pop she has released that supposedly harkens back nostalgically to her earlier discography, I think this song does so more than any other. However, not because of some safe bubblegum image it invokes, but rather because the song is just classic “Britney” in its wacky composition and feeling. It is whimsical and unconventional, yet still remains somewhat accessible–much in the same way I find a lot of Michael Jackson’s music.

The verse just hits you WHAM, and the vocals are beautiful, crystal clear, and strong at the forefront. Seriously, where have you been hiding Brit?? Just as you wrap your head around that she jumps headfirst into the pre-chorus rap that harkens back to her “Britney” album. The chorus is perhaps the weakest part of the song for me since it is the safest, but as a whole the song reaffirms to me that Britney very much still belongs in a recording studio making music.

If Album 8 can elicit any of these same feelings again I will be a very happy fan.

I listen to this more often than the official version!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RpdnfQzNN4o

Would you really say her voice sounds “crystal clear” though? Cause I hear some vocal processing going on which I find particularly annoying. It muffles her voice quite a lot at times.

HATLM vocals though are just lovely. It’s the song that I’m not very fond of, mainly cause of the underwhelming chorus.

Oh nice! I haven’t heard the acapella. It demonstrates her voice is just as strong on the chorus as well as the verse. It’d be nice if that had carried over to the official release, but they definitely brought it down a level and added some layered vocals as well. Which is typical for a chorus on a pop song, I think.

I still hear some sort of processing even on the acapella though. However I’m no expert on said techniques and wouldn’t know what to call it haha!

All that said I think her fiery delivery shines despite the digital treatment on her voice, whereas in some songs on the album her signature sound is lost amongst all of the processing.

I actually saw that article and it made me think of similar things we’ve discussed here. Even back when I was on various Brit forums, most fans agreed – her music is freaking odd and the general public’s idea of it is completely different to what it actually is, which is why they can never understand how she sells so well. How many songs have we heard that sound like Toxic? How many songs are constructed in the way Toxic was? Bollywood strings, a dramatic build up to the chorus, a wacky breakdown section featuring screams. We all know Toxic off by heart, but have we ever considered how utterly strange it is?

A number of talent show contestants have tried Britney here in Aus:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyVWmuSfR2M (This is the most recent. Performance starts at 1:54. They’re a young, funky rap/pop kind of group but give them Britney and well…not much happens. They also manage to prove Nicki Minaj isn’t so easy to replicate, either.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9cgb-Gmbqk (Performance starts at 1:11. This woman actually won the competition but hasn’t really gone anywhere, since. She was originally signed to Jive Records and put forward as a sort of Britney clone but was dropped due to lack of interest. It’s not bad, probably because she already has some pop sensibilities and seems to have picked up on some of the vocal subtleties Britney put forward, particularly in the way she ends the song. It’s still nothing I’d listen to more than once, though).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LB6ZgfvjvI8 (From a while ago, she didn’t win, didn’t go anywhere. Karaoke at best)

I’ve only seen ONE person, sorta pull it off. The Woman Who Can Immitate All Voices, to a degree.

Samantha ruined the song, way too over dramatic, Everytime needs a delicate touch.

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  • Sarah G: You should write an In-Depth of Glory or even Mood Ring (that's a groovy tune)
  • Sarah Giansanti: First off, yeah! I've missed your writing haha Secondly, I've always been baffled of how people can say Britney's not a singer... Derr, that's her
  • Aline: Great article as usual. Please Karen, never stop writing for the site. I love your thoughts about our queen!