Time to reconsider Britney’s legacy?

Because she broke through in the late 1990s, at the tail end of an era dominated by powerhouse vocalists like Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, Spears’ distinctive singing voice was often woefully undervalued. Kheraj points to her more mature third album, 2001’s Britney, which saw her embrace R&B on I’m A Slave 4 U and soft rock on I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman, as the point at which she really honed her vocal style. “She pushes her voice into more whispery textures, playing with the different sounds that she’s able to create in order to elevate a song,” Kheraj says, comparing her to Kylie Minogue and Janet Jackson in this respect. “Though in my opinion,” he adds, “Spears’ ability to be an actress with her own voice, taking on different tones, timbres and vibrations, is second to none.” This assessment of Spears’ vocal technique is echoed by Andrew Watt, a producer who worked with her on this year’s Elton John duet Hold Me Closer. “She’s unbelievable at layering her voice and doubling, which is one of the hardest things to do,” he told The Guardian in August, adding: “She’s so good at knowing when she got the right take. She took complete control.”

Finding her voice

As Spears’ career progressed, she also took more control of her music from the very start of the creative process. Kheraj says she had a predilection for finding collaborators who “would disrupt the status quo of pop” – like envelope-pushing R&B duo the Neptunes, who produced her early 2000s hits I’m a Slave 4 U and Boys, and Moby, who worked on her trance-influenced track Early Mornin’. The latter appeared on Spears’ 2003 album In the Zone, her fourth, on which she co-wrote eight of 12 songs including the beautifully subdued ballad Everytime. “The video was always on MTV when I was about 11, and I remember feeling so sad for her,” says Styrke, referring to the song’s regretful lyrics as well as its video depicting the dark side of fame. “Hearing it [now] still makes me really feel for her.”

In the Zone was another step up for Spears, but her magnum opus came four years later with 2007’s Blackout, an incredibly innovative album that she executive produced. Home to the huge hits Gimme More and Piece of Me, Blackout didn’t just feature cutting-edge production blending elements of techno, EDM and dubstep (then a very new genre); it also underlined Spears’ fearlessness. Piece of Me, a song that savagely sends up negative perceptions of her at the time, is as self-referential as pop music gets. “Guess I can’t see the harm in working and being a mama,” Spears sings. “And with a kid on my arm, I’m still an exceptional earner.” It doesn’t matter that Spears didn’t write it; she said everything she needed to just by putting it out. Blackout was a high-water mark, but Spears has displayed a knack for picking winning material throughout her career. “Have you heard her albums? They’re so intelligent,” avant-garde singer-songwriter Charli XCX said in 2014. “The way her songs are crafted is really amazing. I think that [her] music is really interesting and clever.”

In February 2008, just three months after Blackout came out, Spears was involuntarily placed under a conservatorship that would last for 13 years. She released four albums during this period, 2008’s Circus, 2011’s Femme Fatale, 2013’s Britney Jean and 2016’s Glory. Though Femme Fatale was sonically spectacular and spawned the stunning singles Hold It Against Me and Till the World Ends, it’s arguable that only Glory was the work of a fully invested Spears. “I was really specific about who I worked with and I’ve been learning to say no,” she told NME shortly after Glory’s release. “I’m a people-pleaser, so that’s hard for me – even if I don’t like something, I’ll do it just to make a person happy. I made sure this album was everything I wanted it to be. I was really selfish with it.”

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