New Britneyology

Listening to Britney on Headphones! Part 3

Posted by: Karenannanina on: July 9, 2011

In this series of articles, I’ve been discussing how listening with good headphones (preferably with a good CD player) enables us to separate Britney’s voice from the surrounding complexities of production and subject it to a less prejudiced yet more detailed scrutiny. With many singers, listening on headphones doesn’t tell you anything you don’t know from listening on speakers or in-ear phones. Why is it important to listen to Britney so carefully? Well, to appreciate her subtle skills. And to become aware of how persistently and how unfairly she has been misrepresented.

We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be brainwashed into the Pop Idol or X Factor mindset of thinking that only loud, declamatory, bombastic belting can be considered a good and credible form of singing. Headphone listening enables you to enjoy what is good about the softer, gentler kinds of singing and appreciate them for what they are instead of lambasting them for what they are not. In this final instalment of the Britney On Headphones series, I will concentrate on the positive rather than defending against the negative.

Our Britney Headphone Tour has arrived at “In The Zone”. By 2003, Britney had been the biggest thing in pop for 5 years and many critics wanted her time to be up. Throughout 2003, hoping for wish fulfilment, they had written article after article predicting the imminent end of her career. They claimed she was too old for her teenybopper clientele now. The teenyboppers had moved on to new teeny idols.

By the time ITZ was launched, these critics had already put themselves in a sneering, dismissive mindset. Pundits were openly discussing how her career in music was over, at the very moment that the album was No.1 in America. As a result, few reviewers took ITZ seriously enough to give it a thorough listen and try to figure out what it was all about, and why. She seemed to have a soft, whispery voice – but what the hell, she was only a teeny-pleaser, and nobody expects them to be talented singers.

What they didn’t seem to grasp was that, while their backs were turned, Britney had transitioned into an adult artist and, rather than try to appeal to a new bunch of 12-year-olds, had brought her existing audience with her. And they were now young adults. A market survey discovered that her typical demographic was 16-26. This is an age range that finds people in the full flowering of their sexual awareness, and Britney expressed her own adulthood by giving them a thoroughly sexual album.

It would be fair to say that most of the songs on ITZ are the sound of sex and seduction in one form or another. When we listen to ITZ we enter a special, precious little world where lives an artist so engrossed in her art that her interpretations differentiate songs OF seduction from songs ABOUT seduction. And she differentiates all of those from songs that are simply about… well…. sex. The voices she chooses are not loud and in-your-face. Superficially it may seem that all of them are similar, but some are firmer, some are dreamier, some are sweeter… Listening on headphones helps you to detect fine distinctions in softness and attack.

And quite apart from analysing her technique, listening to ITZ on headphones is a rewarding experience because Britney Spears does this kind of thing better than anyone in the history of pop. On ITZ there are songs that you really can’t imagine being sung convincingly by anyone else.

Towards the end of the album there are three songs that express a great deal of emotion in an extremely understated way. No shrieking melodrama here. “Everytime” is sung in a very controlled way. Listen to the care with which she sings the ENDS of words like “here” and “clear”. Yet here and there are sad, broken-hearted little sighs. The Scumfrog remix picks up on these and fashions a devastating drama from them.

“The Answer” contains vocals of wonderful tenderness and love. By the way, you can’t give the credit for this to a backing singer because Britney did all the vocals herself. The chorus is as smooth, liquid and soft as you can imagine, and near the end, at 3:05, she begins to sing, simultaneously with the chorus, “Who can hold me…. wipe the tears away… who can give me love….?” and I doubt that any words have ever been sung to a lover more sweetly than here.

And finally, “Don’t Hang Up”. The song is simply about phone sex, but the yearning and empathy she conveys bring some of us to tears. I’ve never seen anyone give her credit for the astonishing way in which she sustains notes invested with all the softness, warmth and sweetness in the world while barely breathing them. (Try it yourself if you think it’s easy. Yet everyone takes it for granted.) And there’s my favorite Britney moment of all time: “Tell me, tell me what you see….feel me, feel me underneath” The hairs on the back of my neck stand up as her words drift out of the headphones like the voice of an angel.

Now “Blackout”. This has to be a case of everyone hearing what they expected to hear, which was a basket case, heavily medicated and probably either bald-headed or with a pink wig, being propped up in a studio for as long as it took to get some phrases that could be stitched together into a few vocal fragments. These were then skillfully interwoven with the voices of backing singers to create studio fabrications with a Britney Spears flavor. Nobody seemed to notice that the album was recorded entirely BEFORE her breakdown problems, or that she was Executive Producer!

How carefully were people listening to Britney at that time? Well, one critic wrote about her notorious 2007 VMA performance “the song appeared to consist entirely of the words ‘gimme gimme’” – thus turning the meaning of the song through 180 degrees. It would be fair to say that even a proportion of fans simpy accepted that her singing on “Blackout” was minimal and weak. Yet a listen on headphones shows that this is not so. Not on ANY track.
On “Gimme More” her lead vocal BURSTS forth, full of edge and attitude. There’s nothing whispery about “Piece of Me” and nothing weak about her work on the choruses of “Radar” and “Perfect Lover”. On “Ooh Ooh Baby” her voice fills your ears, and on “Why should I be sad?” you can hear the resilience in her tone.

If we decide to be charitable to the lazy, ignorant listeners who sympathised with the NME in its decision to make “Blackout” their Worst Album of the Year (a decision that is looking increasingly perverse and discreditable with the benefit of hindsight) we might say that the album contained so many spectacularly brilliant productions that people were dazzled by the wall of sound and forgot to listen to Britney. Given the spurious “back story” about her mental state during the time of the recording sessions, they then decided that this must have been because she was scarcely present.

When we enter the “Circus” era, the atmosphere is very different, because this was her supposed “comeback” – not from her previous album, which had been released only a year earlier, but from her personal, apparently mental problems that had seen her hospitalized. It was good that the critics were disposed to hear better singing from her this time around, which meant that they at least listened with a vaguely optimistic mindset.

If we listen to “Circus” on good headphones, it feels as if a window opens and we can hear with great clarity. And what we hear is that the character of her singing has undergone a change. Here, the edginess and attitude in her voice that characterized “Blackout” have gone, and she seems more at peace with herself, more relaxed and confident. There is nothing breathy or whispery at all, she sings mostly in her mid-register and her vocal technique seems smooth and effortless. Check out her confident work on “Blur” and “Lace and Leather”.

Even in “Unusual You”, where previously she would have used her high, breathy voice, she’s mid-range and solid. Where she uses falsetto, as in “Out From Under” and “Mannequin” for example, it’s perfectly integrated and the transition is seamless. And it’s interesting to hear the teasing sex-kitten voice, used widely on “Femme Fatale”, get some early exercise in the verses of “If U Seek Amy” and “Mmm Papi” (she never uses it in choruses). “My Baby” is sung extremely sweetly, in a high register, but without a hint of breathiness.

“My Baby”, incidentally, is a track that, heard on good headphones, sounds much more engaging than you would ever have imagined, BECAUSE the qualities you can hear in Britney’s voice make it sound so sincere. On speakers, it tends to sound sugary and twee. Some other tracks that gain stature on headphones are “Shattered Glass” with its odd bass bumps and subsonic rumbling, “Circus” with its crystal-clear vocal production at center and striking double-tracked fill-ins from Britney at left and right, and “Phonography” which comes over as much more subtle and complex. For a real oddity, listen to Britney’s opening lines in “Mannequin”. What do you hear?

And finally (did someone say “Thank God”?!) we get to “Femme Fatale”. What you discover on headphones here is that you don’t feel as “close” to Britney’s vocals. They seem more impersonal. The electronic effects that make the album sound so exciting have the effect of seeming to distance Britney from us and occasionally you may wish you could simply hear HER. On this outing, she’s different again. Not breathy as on ITZ, not attitudinal as on “Blackout” and not smooth and effortless as on “Circus”, this time she sings a little higher and a lot more forcefully, and on headphones you can appreciate how much her vocals dominate every mix – something that isn’t nearly as obvious on speakers.

Things to listen for on your headphones: On “Till The World Ends”, a much more detailed and focused “wall of sound” reveals itself. “Hold It Against Me” is an overwhelming experience, a real aural assault, recorded very loud and with Britney’s insistent vocals coming at you from all directions. On “How I Roll”, at the start of the verse, it sounds like two different takes of Britney’s lead vocal competing with each other. On “Big Fat Bass”, note the very particular qualities of the bass track as each incident arrives (including the famous kick-drum).

“Criminal” is particularly interesting. The mix leaves a very audible gap at the beginning, just to left of center, which is filled at 0:34 by a guitar. And it’s fascinating to analyse exactly how the intensity is built from 2:28 to the end. It’s a lovely mix. On “Up and Down”, at 1:18, listen to the very subtle harmonies from the backing singers. And on “He About To Lose Me”, notice how Britney’s vocals in the chorus start wide and double-tracked but gradually narrow until they’re a solo at center.

And that’s it! We’re done!

3 Responses to "Listening to Britney on Headphones! Part 3"

I thought only the Danja/Keri tracks on Blackout were recorded before her breakdown. The rest were made during very late 2006 (the beginning of her breakdown) and 2007…

You are correct. They were recorded in Vegas while she was pregnant.

Doesn’t it depend on what you define as her breakdown? I count it as her being dragged off to hospital in early 2008. If you define it as “any time she displayed erratic behavior up to and including early 2008” you would have to go right back to late 2003, which is when some of the incidents occurred that J. Randy Taraborrelli noted in his articles in the Daily Mail in 2004, such as her Vegas wedding and much else besides.

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)