When I teach my students about developing their own writing voice, I often refer to Britney Spears. I’m struck by how similar finding a singing voice and finding a writing voice are, and she’s the perfect example of someone with such a distinctive voice—we either love it or hate it, but we know it instantly. Britney Spears is like the Tom Wolfe or Jonathan Safran Foer of pop music.
No, really: If you believe most standard accounts of the years before her career really began, you see that she’s not all that different from our great writers and pop singers. Several successful music professionals seemed to be impressed with her voice in her early years. New York City agent Nancy Carson saw potential in her and sent her to the city’s Professional Performing Arts School. The execs at Jive signed her after hearing her sing, of all things, a Whitney Houston ballad. Her first few albums all got Grammy nominations for their vocal performances: … Baby One More Time, Oops … I Did It Again, and Britney.
But in recent years, particularly since her 2006-07 public breakdown, her producers have become far more dependent on clearly electronic vocal effects, making lip-synching in concert situations pretty much inevitable. (Thus also ending the comparison with Wolfe and Safran Foer, unless they’ve turned to ghostwriting, which I have no reason to believe.) I don’t understand why Britney’s handlers don’t have the band assemble some more live-music-friendly arrangements and let her sing for real, at least some of the time — that seems like the perfect way to rebuke the constant naysayers. Or, hell, have her do an MTV Unplugged. People would go nuts for an acoustic “… Baby One More Time” (yes, even my very amateur band does one!) or “Gimme More.” It’s basically a whole cottage industry online, doing YouTube videos of guitar versions of her ever-transmutable songs. (Even Kelly Clarkson is not immune.)
It’s the years of dependence on lip-synching that fuels rumors Britney can’t sing at all, doesn’t even do her own singing, etc. Remember when Beyonce dealt with her lip-synching scandal by singing the National Anthem live at a press conference? That’s the way to shut that shit down. And if she is somehow really not singing her own stuff, or is now so digitally enhanced that she can’t reproduce her songs live, we face a rather existential question: What is this entity we call Britney Spears, if her voice is gone and her dancing is a ghost of its former self?
In any case, I argue that Britney Spears’ voice is something special, and it’s a huge part of her enduring appeal. A love-it-or-hate-it voice isn’t a bad thing, as Wolfe and Safran Foer demonstrate. I personally prefer a flawed, unique voice over a perfect, bland one. As David Browne once wrote in Entertainment Weekly, while comparing Britney with Christina Aguilera, “Spears’ artificial-sweetener voice is much less interesting than the settings, yet that blandness is actually a relief compared with Aguilera’s numbing vocal gymnastics.” Or, as Adam Markovitz later said in those same pages while reviewing her Femme Fatale, “She’s an American institution, as deeply sacred and messed up as pro wrestling or the filibuster. Musically, though, Spears will always have to measure up to her own gold standards of pop euphony: the operatic slither of 2004’s ‘Toxic’ and the candied funk of 2000’s ‘Oops!…I Did It Again.’ Spears is no technical singer, that’s for sure. But backed by Martin and Dr. Luke’s wall of pound, her vocals melt into a mix of babytalk coo and coital panting that is, in its own overprocessed way, just as iconic and propulsive as Michael Jackson’s yips or Eminem’s snarls.” Or, you know, Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Safran Foer’s words.