A Demonstration of my love for Britney Spears
And a personal critique of her iconic career to date
There is little dispute that Britney Spears defines an era; the late 90s through to the late 2000s are intrinsically linked with her impact on the music scene and her complete omnipresence within pop culture as a whole. After recently re-discovering the back catalog of this icon, who arguably has had the biggest musical impact on me individually over any other artist, I decided I would like to write a comprehensive breakdown of her career as a whole and delve into my personal feelings and opinions on the various eras in her career. Ironic that I would use the word breakdown. I would like to state that I may share opinions that differ extensively to the bulk of the Britney fandom, but all I can do is offer my own stance. I feel that it is important to express opinions freely so I welcome anyone who agrees or disagrees with what I have to say.
The reason I think Britney Spears has had such a massive impact on me is because I’ve been along for the ride since her career began. There are certainly other brilliant artists who have shaped me personally and artistically but I can (just about) remember Britney’s first album being released. Madonna and Kylie Minogue are certainly other stars from the pop genre who I admire, but their careers started long before I was born so I don’t have the same profound connection to them that I have with Britney. I have gone back to listen to Madonna and Kylie’s earlier music, which I do appreciate (Kylie releasing the Ultimate Kyle compilation back in 2004 allowed me to form more of a connection with her earlier singles) but I think nostalgia and following a journey in real-time seems to have much more significance. There have been other singers who have had long careers I’ve followed since the beginning, but usually they go in a direction where I no longer feel I can connect, or they fail to grow as an artist (P!nk would be one of those artists, who I felt began to stagnate around the release of her single So What). Britney, mainly, has been consistently excellent at releasing high quality pop music and I suppose the difference between her and say P!nk, is Britney’s the only icon I’ve followed in real-time. (How I wish I could have followed Madonna and Kylie from the beginning!).
I was only in single figures when 1st album Baby One More Time was released in 1999. I would argue that I was certainly a precocious child who developed a distinct taste in music from an extremely young age. Luckily I was brought up in a household in which my parents were able to nurture my interest in music. I mean I was never encouraged to take up an instrument (shame) so perhaps my parents didn’t realise how significant my interest in music would become, but they always bought me plenty of CDs. I owned a lot of CDs right through my childhood and teenage years, most weekends my dad would buy me a CD when we were out shopping. I mention this because I think it made me more interested in albums as an artistic medium rather than singles or just songs you’d hear on the radio. Back to the Baby album, and it sounds contradictory to what I’ve just said, but I don’t remember much about the actual album at the time it was released. I know I ADORED the singles though. In the Baby video, Britney felt like a cool older sister. And there was something that just felt tangible about her sheer talent; what nowadays we’d call The X Factor. By the release of 2nd single ‘Sometimes’ (a song Britney later admits she hated), the growth in her as an artist was already visible; in Baby she was a mere schoolgirl, in Sometimes Britney was a young woman; her beauty astounding; her outfits, choreography and video location were flawless, and it was clear the music industry was on to something. With the release of ‘(You Drive Me) Crazy’, the artistic development I have mentioned continued; with Britney no longer looking like a forbidden object of desire in the Baby video, but a woman we were actively being encouraged to lust after. (she was still only 17). Her hair was longer and had blonde highlights, she was flaunting her assets and before our very eyes it was very clear, even this early on, that an icon was developing. The 4th and final European single ‘Born to Make You Happy’ was a chance to show us that Britney really could sing; it’s a beautiful ballad showcasing probably Britney’s purest vocals to date. In terms of the Baby record, I remember listening to it as a whole in my bedroom playing computer games, but nothing about the rest of the album had a profound effect on me. I think Britney was still a ‘singles’ artist at this point, but I suppose her record company had little idea how big she was going to become; her voice had limitations and she was basically marketed as a little sister to the Backstreet Boys. In many ways Baby as an album was perhaps ‘throwaway’ teen pop. Having said that, I do still play ‘I Will be There’ from that album, which is the only album track from Baby that I have kept. Something significant about Baby Britney is how her record label marketed her as America’s Girl Next Door; a good girl. A virgin. Yet we were being actively encouraged to lust after her? Who’d have thought society could be so confusing, right?
On to album 2; Oops I Did it Again, released in 2000, which probably fights with Baby for the title of my least favourite Britney album. Perhaps the minute break between album 1 and album 2 affected this venture, but it seems obvious that the record company wanted to exploit their unexpected star and ride the wave of popularity. Perhaps it is a reflection of the times, but the album Oops hasn’t aged well. It has probably aged the worst out of all the Britney albums. There’s no denying Baby showcased the height of bubblegum and teen pop, but somehow it felt more tasteful and actually half-decent, whereas Oops feels like its artistic message is lost somewhere within the bubblegum mess of itself. It's cheesy. It feels manufactured to the point of losing credibility. I mean we all know there is a huge team behind Britney, no matter the era, however she shines when she feels credible and authentic. This feels like she was rushed into the studio to meet a deadline. Okay, the red cat suit you say. Yes, it is memorable. The video is good. The dancing is good. But for me the music is not good. Despite this, Oops, as an album has great moments. ‘Stronger’ seems like an early moment of defiance; it also has some good album tracks. It does seem like a real shame that ‘Oops’ remains one of the most widely known singles of her career.
Moving on to 3rd album; Britney, released in 2001, and we get back to the Britney that I know and love. I still remember seeing the video for lead single ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’ for the first time, and being shocked by how different Britney looked. It seemed like she was beginning to reject the early ‘innocent virgin’ label that was placed on her, and was fully embracing her sexuality. As I mentioned before, she was a forbidden object of desire in the Baby video, before audiences were being encouraged to fully embrace her sexuality later in the Baby campaign and throughout Oops; now Britney was embracing her sexuality too. I go back to my oft-mentioned artistic and personal development we can see with Britney throughout her career; a gradual but noticeable one which surely is what establishes her as an icon. Every era is distinguished in some way, and the Slave era was certainly Britney taking the reigns of her sexuality and not letting only the audience enjoy what she had to offer aesthetically. All this talk sounds incredibly shallow, but my stance is that looks; in terms of appearance, dancing, choreography, videography and styles all form a package to develop the mythical characters that become pop icons; I feel these themes (or considerations?) are almost as important as the music itself. But the music has to be good too, otherwise it doesn’t work. And the music during the Slave era was good too. In ‘Slave’ she even refers to the way she’s perceived as this angelic, innocent entity in the pop world, but wants to embrace her passion for dancing in the highly sexualized world we live in; and the conflicts which arise from that situation. Already there was almost a feeling of resentment and entrapment coming from Britney. Of course this only made her and the music feel more relatable and authentic. 2nd single ‘Overprotected’ painted a picture of growing pains and growing up in the spotlight. Britney was still finding herself, but with everyone watching. You can feel the overwhelming confusion in the song; struggling to know what the right path is to take. ‘I’m so fed up of people telling me to be something else but me’ remains one of my favourite Britney lyrics. The Slave era also saw Britney experimenting with different genres; there were R&B influences and the album as a whole didn’t feel creatively redundant – there was more on offer than just the singles and it very much felt like an album dealing with the effects of loneliness. Britney was developing into a woman in front of our very eyes.
4th album In the Zone in 2003 continued to showcase that artistic development that makes Britney, well, Britney. However, I was disappointed by lead single ‘Me Against the Music’ as it seemed to lack the classic Britney pop hooks that she is known for; but it was a collaboration with Madonna so I guess every cloud. This couldn’t save it for me though. The choreography for the video displayed some of Britney’s most elaborate dancing, which perhaps gave the era a bit of a boost. 2nd single ‘Toxic’ eclipsed anything the first single had to offer anyway, even if personally the song is not for me. Commercially it is one of Britney’s biggest singles. I suppose toxic relationships are relatable hence its universal appeal, but sonically this song didn’t set me on fire. I still bought the album (or my dad bought it for me I suppose, haha). The hip hop sound is not something Britney had delved into much before, so it’s more experimentation but at the time I didn’t identify much with this record at the time. I think I was still too young for the themes to matter to me (sexuality and masturbation being the main themes). Interestingly when I listened back to this album recently I was surprised by how highly I rated it; it has aged very well out of her early albums and retrospectively I would actually rank it as one of her best albums; The most notable thing about this album is how sensual it feels. While Slave 4 U dealt with sexuality in a more overt way, the In the Zone album feels a lot more erotic and sensual than just merely sexual, which gives it an edge. It consumes you with desire and passion in a way that none of the other albums do; it feels like Britney is no longer a repressed like during the Slave era, but now confidently owns her sexuality and desires. The album tracks ‘Breathe On Me’ and ‘Touch of My Hand’ rank very highly in her back catalog and compete with even some of her greatest singles. On a recent listen ‘Touch of My Hand’ sent chills through me, I was so moved by it. Away from sexuality for a second, 3rd single ‘Everytime’ offers a rare moment to hear Ballad Britney. The consuming vulnerability in the vocals is deeply emotional and affecting, and is possibly one of the most genuine moments of expression from Britney on record. Talking about a toxic relationship, Britney sounds worn down by the nature of it; on the verge of the edge; yet lyrically she says she needs this person. This relationship sounds eerily similar to Britney’s relationship with the media and music business. We lapped this era up and Everytime was a UK number 1 single. Controversially the video shows Britney bleeding to death in a hot tub. At the time her mental health in real life was beginning to be questioned; this video probably didn’t help. Many people said Britney slit her wrists in the story for the video, which actually isn’t the case at all. You see early on that a paparazzi hits her in the head with a camera, which is the real cause of the bleeding.
Greatest Hits era begins in 2004 and we get a cover of ‘My Prerogative’. A great cover, clearly discussing Britney’s disdain of constant judgement and an admission that she will do what she wants. I won’t go into too much detail about this time but the video for My Prerogative and 2nd single Do Somethin’ (from 2005) both show a slightly unhinged Britney who again comes across as defiant, yet still somehow alluring (at least that’s my interpretation). Ought to mention this is around the time Britney married Kevin Federline and it’s when the media began hating on her big style for whatever reason.
Hiatus begins. Britney’s sons to Federline were born in 2005 and 2006. Understandably Britney had better things to do than release music at this point in time. Fast forward to 2007 and in the February (I think, not entirely sure) the infamous hair-shaving incident occurred. I don’t know the ins and outs of Britney’s personal life at this time (as I have minimal interest in celebrities’ personal lives, I’m more interested in their artistic content) but I suppose it’s a fair assumption to say she was going through a difficult time. Yet somehow, despite this, you go forward to late 2007 and she drops an album; Blackout.
Perhaps the most apt title an album has ever been given by an artist. Shortly before the album’s release, Britney performed new single Gimme More on the VMAs (Video Music Awards) which is undoubtedly her most panned performance of her career. Bizarrely, somehow, I was massively drawn to this song. During the performance she looked stiff and uncomfortable, her outfit was ill-fitting, she was wearing an odd blonde wig and it was obvious the people who were supposed to be looking after her, well, weren’t. I really felt for Britney at this time. I really loved her, and I wanted her to succeed. But more importantly than succeed, I wanted her to be happy. The vultures were around and wanting to bring her down, but I was championing her to get through the difficult times and storm ahead. In the scheme of things, what did a panned performance matter? In my mind, it’s too much pressure having to learn dance routines, stand there like a zoo animal in front of millions and pretend to have fun for the sake of your record. As I said though, Gimme More somehow communicated with me, and I was anticipating the album. And what an album. A complete enigma. How did she release this when there was so much going on in her personal life? If there was ever any evidence that pain and suffering leads to the best art, it’s here in this album. We got a dark, weird, experimental album that rivalled all her work that came before it and took us to completely unexpected places. It was the first time Britney had been an Executive Producer on one of her albums; she parted ways with her manager long before it was released and I think these reasons alone elevated this record. Authentic Britney is best Britney and it did feel authentic. I felt like I was taking a look into the depths of her soul. It was scary and exciting. Being honest, while I was a casual fan before; this scary Britney entwined us more than I could ever have imagined. I was now a super fan. I was going through the scariest time of my life trying to accept my sexuality, and knowing that someone as talented and amazing as Britney was suffering too, made me feel less alone. And knowing she’d turned that pain into the best album of her career felt inspirational to me. Lead single Gimme More is simple but pop at its best; the opening line of the album ‘it’s Britney, b**ch’ signifies instantly that this is not a Britney to be messed with. It is now an iconic line, that was even sampled in the 2012 collaboration ‘Scream & Shout’ with Will.I.am. Lyrically Gimme More makes you think. It seems to be Britney talking about enjoying performing for an audience. Yet you’re never quite sure whether the repetitive chants of the words ‘gimme more’ are said by Britney herself or male onlookers; the distortion of her voice to sound masculine on only half of the ‘mores’ cements this intentional confusion. Is it about Britney wanting more, the public wanting more, or a mixture of both? I think that’s the beauty of this song. It demonstrates the layered relationship between an artist and their art, and how that art can be empowering yet also destroy them. All this and I haven’t even got to the video. It was panned. And you know what? I always loved it. Even then. Yes, it looks cheap. Yes, it is simply Britney pole-dancing (and not even that well) in a black wig in a dark room for 3+ minutes. You know what? This is what made it iconic. This is what made it memorable. And this was just another (perhaps one of the rather more prominent) artistic developments in her career. She wasn’t only resenting and ditching the virgin label from early on, she was ditching everything she represented; the blonde angelic pop star. She was the antithesis of that. And she was embracing it. This is where Britney was at and the fact she went against everything she represented elevates this to another level. Gimme More, to this day, is one of Britney’s most played songs in nightclubs and it has staying power. There was something delicious about this Britney; her confidence in knowing that she barely even had to try and the public would still lap it up; I say ‘barely even had to try’, but in terms of the music, it somehow is also her best effort. I still don’t know how it happened. On to the 2nd single from Blackout; ‘Piece of Me’. Britney addresses her critics, the media and the paparazzi head on, and it no doubt gives us one of the best singles so far. I distinctly remember getting the album and going to listen to it on the stereo in my bedroom. My expectations weren’t great. Being young the media had probably brainwashed me into believing Britney was past it or at least not capable at the time. They were wrong. Hearing Piece of Me for the first time, and that ‘screw it’ attitude, to be polite, gave me confidence. Confidence in myself and my sexuality. And confidence that I should be happy with the way I look and act. The distortion of her voice on some of the lyrics; specifically ‘you wanna piece of me?’ while instant material for criticism by detractors, actually felt more like an admission from Spears that the media had taken some of her humanity; changing her voice felt like withholding part of her identity, keeping something back. It was a representation and manifestation of what the media had done. On to the album as a whole, Britney experimented more than she ever had before, which is part of the reason why it’s my favourite album of hers. It’s probably the first time the dubstep genre was heard on a mainstream pop album (in Freakshow); it was mostly an urban pop and electropop album but the darker elements of it and the general feel of the singles and videos were pivotal in establishing Britney as a pop icon; her breakdown is iconic in pop culture, however sick that sounds. It’s inspirational in a sense, that she got through that time with some of the best material she ever recorded. You often see people post quotes on social media today; ‘If Britney can get through 2007, you can get through today’. Album track Get Naked continued the tradition which In the Zone sparked, exploring sexuality, but perhaps in a more promiscuous way now. Blackout ended up being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 for its impact on music culture; it is considered an influential album for that time, inspiring artists like Lady Gaga who exploded onto the scene soon after.
Fast forward to 6th album Circus in 2008. I was psyched after Blackout and Britney had primed me into full-on super-fan mode. So of course I lapped it up. I have a lot of fondness for that album but looking back it probably wasn’t as good as Blackout but nothing would have been. The best way to describe it is a ‘lighter’ sister to Blackout. I even heard one of the Blackout producers (who also worked on some of Circus) say that label management wanted to steer Britney back towards a safer direction, presumably after the absolute delve into experimentation Blackout saw. Circus was more polished. Not as dark. It was probably considered a commercial comeback. Womanizer was ok but not that exciting, despite being a big hit. At least Britney looked so much healthier again. The 2nd single Circus was more exciting sonically than Womanizer, but the true gem of the single releases from this era was ‘If U Seek Amy’, which if you read in another way is actually ‘F * * * Me’. It was another delve into (rightly) abusing the media, basically saying that whether you love or hate Britney, she is a success, has fans and that is what matters to her. The video is extremely symbolic, as it shows Britney putting clothes on after what appears to be an orgy in the depths of her home, dressing as a housewife then going into her front garden with some home cooking, to be confronted by a number of tv crews who want to harass her. Meaning; you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. In case you hadn’t already guessed. Ever since Blackout, electropop seemed more prominent on Britney records and Circus was no exception. This encompassed a change of direction towards more dance-oriented sounds which is what I love her most for. I’m more a fan of dance Britney than pop Britney. I mentioned before that Blackout experimented a lot more with Britney’s vocals in terms of distortion; this has been a theme since that album and certainly happened a lot on Circus. I embraced it though. Autotune and vocal distortion often seems to come under fire in music, but for me it is an artistic choice; part of the pop genre, and as a fan of electronic music I personally believe that it can enhance songs. It’s just artistic experimentation and I don’t want to hear powerhouse vocals 100% of the time with pop artists I follow; that can be left for someone like Adele. Going on a tangent, I’ve always felt Britney was known more for her tone and unique voice anyway. I’ve always been one for tone over wailing, but I suppose it’s preference. Anyway, Circus followed this trend with vocal effects, but the era was generally a good, if safe, comeback. ‘Kill the Lights’, ‘Unusual You’ and ‘Mannequin’ are highlights in terms of the album tracks. Mannequin certainly seems to continue the theme of pure experimentation that was adopted during the Blackout era; exploring less mainstream sounds. It was great.
On to 7th album Femme Fatale in 2011. For me this era represented the first time Britney was recognizably an icon. We’d seen her go through everything; going from a forbidden object of desire to an obtainable object of desire, to a woman who reclaimed her sexuality then embraced it; rejected it and everything she stood for. Falling apart at the seams then building herself back up during the Circus era. By Femme Fatale it was just about celebrating the rollercoaster we’ve been on and whether Britney or anyone around her knew it, this is when I would consider her to be established as an icon. From Blackout to Circus to Femme Fatale; every record became more dance-orientated. In terms of production, Femme Fatale was the most polished and well-produced. It was seamless. It was such a fun, upbeat record. It was a great blend; fun accessible pop but also incorporating those less mainstream influences Britney had explored before such as dubstep. Lead single ‘Hold it Against Me’ contains a dubstep bridge before it ends with trance sounds. The vibe was epic and as a result this is one of my favourite Britney singles. Probably the most consistent run of single releases since her debut, ‘Till the World Ends’, ‘I Wanna Go’ and ‘Criminal’ were all great songs and the album had a great run stateside. ‘Seal it With a Kiss’ is about a forbidden romance, and it will always remind me of my first boyfriend, who used to love singing that to me seductively. (Sorry, TMI).
We head on to album 8; Britney Jean in 2013. This is probably her most controversial album to date. I don’t entirely know why, but I know a few pieces of the puzzle; Will.I.am produced a lot of it and for some reason he isn’t that popular among Britney fans (despite getting a number 1 with her in 2012 for the ‘Scream & Shout’ duet). I think there’s something Britney fans generally don’t like about his production style; I guess Britney usually uses a lot of organic sounds despite the heavy electronic influences in her sound as well; there was generally less of a mix in this album, with the emphasis far more on the electronic side of things. Secondly, the album didn’t rate that well among critics. They called the production ‘dated’. Nor did it sell that well. Britney was allegedly tied into a contract in Vegas which prevented her from promoting this album and it suffered as a result. If I’ve learned anything about pop music fans over the years, it’s that they tend to resent material from prolific artists that doesn’t chart very high. Britney Jean only got to 34 in the UK, 4 in the States. The controversy didn’t end there. It’s widely believed that a backing singer called Myah Marie provided the main vocals for this album. This is an accusation that I resent. Mainly because, while you can hear Myah, Britney’s voice is unmistakably dominant and her vocals are profoundly unique anyway; Britney can clearly be heard on every lyric in the album and the sound of the whole album is distinctly ‘Britney’. Moreover, Britney has backing vocalists on many of her albums so it’s not entirely a new thing. Despite these criticisms, Britney Jean is one of the best albums by Britney in my opinion. Rather than dated, I regard the production as retro and throwback, as there are clear 90s dance vibes which the producers would have intentionally put on there. Dance music is what Britney is made for, and Britney Jean for me is the culmination of everything that had been building since Blackout. It all pent up and was unleashed in the form of Britney Jean. It showcases some of the best dance songs of her career. ‘It Should be Easy’, ‘Body Ache’ and ‘Til it’s Gone’ are some of the best songs she has recorded. Not only that, Britney has mentioned many times that she considers this her most personal album; an opinion which I have seen disputed by fans, but which seems obvious and I agree with Britney. She went through a break-up and you can hear the pain she is going through, despite being delivered in an uptempo record. I love the futuristic style Will.I.am adopts on ‘It Should Be Easy’.
On to Glory in 2016. Album 9. I apologise; I didn’t realise this piece would last so long. Following the bad fan reaction to Britney Jean, it’s clear a different approach was taken for Glory (a title which Britney’s son chose, how sweet). The style is very different and I would argue the run from Blackout to Britney Jean is more similar sonically than what was offered on Glory. Glory was more reminiscent of In the Zone but kind of like a lite version. Glory explores r&b but it seems to lack the sensuality or feeling that In the Zone had. Nevertheless, Glory is a lovely album to listen to but I wouldn’t be rushing back to hear it again. It was partially inspired by the Selena Gomez album Revival which certainly attempted to stand out rather than follow the crowd. Britney’s voice was a lot more pure and less edited on Glory than the songs from the Blackout through to Britney Jean eras (in my opinion Britney’s artistic peak). For some reason I didn’t connect with this less edited Britney; I had become accustomed to the vocal distortion and production tricks, I found those quirks fun and endearing, artistic. Despite my reservations, Britney’s fans loved it and considered it a return to form following Britney Jean (why?). I feel bad for slating Glory but I suppose over such a varied and long-lasting career such as Britney’s, you develop expectations and those become harder and harder to live up to with each album. Why I loved Britney Jean and wasn’t mad on Glory despite this not being the general consensus among fans, I’m not entirely sure, but I think it might be down to taste. I love a wide range of dance genres and chart placings don’t matter to me. I think Glory was more of a pull for the pure pop fans.
As for the future for Britney’s music and career, I eagerly anticipate her next album. I would like something dance-orientated again and less pure pop, but whatever she releases I’m sure I’ll enjoy it to an extent. I do wonder sometimes if we’ll get many more albums from her as she’s been in the spotlight from such a young age but I sincerely hope she continues to enjoy being creative for as long as Madonna has. The journey has been a long and at times scary one, but hugely rewarding, and seeing this performer become established as an icon has been a huge joy. If she never releases another album again, I’m just glad we got this great run of 9 albums. More than anything, I’d like her to be content and happy. The art will live on.