For as long as I can remember, Britney Spears has been releasing music. There’s not many artists that I’ve grown up with like that; I have clear memories of each album, each single, as they punctuate my life, from the earliest, foggy memory of making up dances to Baby One More Time with my friends in elementary school, to slamming Work Bitch on repeat as a student of music composition in college.
I have always marvelled at Britney’s body of work, even as a tiny child, before I could articulate why — she is, without a doubt, a once-in-a-lifetime pop artist, paving the way for countless others to continue innovating the genre and challenging her peers to simply keep up.
The cruel conservatorship that Britney has been under for the past 13 years has been the subject of at least four documentaries over the last couple of years, the most recent of which, Britney Vs Spears, dropped on Netflix yesterday.
While in some ways I do think it’s important that audiences understand the distressing and exploitative nature of this arrangement, it makes me so sad to think that the most tragic aspect of her personal life is the only thing people think about now when they think of Britney Spears.
A pop icon
Britney Spears is, quite rightly, lauded as a pop icon. Over the course of nine albums, she has scored six number ones on the Billboard 200 and sold nearly 150 million records worldwide.
These numbers are so massive it’s hard to truly comprehend them; it means most people in the English-speaking world are aware of Britney, or at least have memories of a Britney song.
This also means much of today’s pop music that we hear on Spotify and on the radio has been, in some way, influenced by Britney’s work. That is the achievement that I think deserves to be brought to the fore. Like it or not, by watching the documentaries about Britney’s conservatorship, we contribute to the public spectacle, to Britney’s personal trauma — even if it also does some good by raising awareness.
We owe it to Britney to celebrate her impact on music and culture — and honestly, it’s just so much fun to dive back into her discography. She’s just really, really good at pop music.
This wasn’t necessarily an unpopular opinion when Britney first debuted at 17 years old with Baby One More Time; after hitting the top of the charts across at least 22 countries at the time of release, there was no denying that Britney had a knack for pop.
But throughout her career Britney has faced not just harsh criticism but genuine media furore and relentless prying into her personal life. She’s faced everything from descriptions of her music as vapid and soulless; her singing voice weak, unskilled and reliant on autotune; to unrealistic demands that she be a perfect, virginal role model for young girls; to criticisms of her skills as a mother. Good, bad or outrageous, everyone has always had something to say about Britney Spears.
Hit after hit
As a pop musician, and more broadly, a woman in music, I’ve always looked to Britney’s discography as something of a ‘true north’; a perfect, consistent example of brilliant pop made by a woman, something to turn to when I’m feeling lost or uninspired.
No matter what criticisms she has faced throughout her career, and, somewhat more importantly, regardless of what I might have been thinking of her personally at the time (I was a young, impressionable tween when she was plastered across the media for shaving her head), her music has always been ever-present, reliable. There is always some vocal melody, some production element, some lyrical idea that can spark inspiration and joy. In my own personal listening — that is, music I listen to for personal enjoyment and not necessarily for ‘work’ — Britney Spears is on high rotation.
It’s the music I turn to when I need a break, when I need to have fun, when I want to switch off, and when I need to have a loud, cathartic sing in the car on the way home from a long day. It’s the kind of pop music I want to make — joyous, irresistible (Baby One More Time, Lucky, Sometimes), at times sharp, provocative, dangerous, yet still honest and deeply vulnerable (If U Seek Amy, Gimme More, My Prerogative).
And in my experience as an occasional DJ, the crowd-pleasing nature of her music is even more relevant. Drop any Britney single at any point in the night and you can be guaranteed that the dancefloor will be heaving in no time.
Pioneer, trendsetter, pop music innovator
It all makes sense when you consider that pop music as a genre is designed to appeal to and please as many people as possible at one time. Spears is a master of mass appeal, of mass-marketing herself from the very beginning to become the worldwide superstar she is today.
In order to appeal to that many people at once, one might think her music has to be sanitized, bland, a blank slate with little to offer. But the reality is, much of Britney’s music is theoretically intriguing, pioneering; aesthetically challenging and deeply interesting to analyze.
Of course, analysis isn’t necessary to enjoy her music. It’s possible to just turn on Piece Of Me and enjoy it without pausing to marvel at the handy way the production utilises the common vocal tuning plugin Melodyne to turn her voice into a jerky, robot-sounding synthetic human. But as a musician, part of the fun of listening to Britney is getting excited about how interesting the music is when you do pull it apart.
Take, for example, the first thing I think of when I think about pioneering Britney-isms: her use of the alternate chorus. For this purpose, an alternate chorus can be described as the same chorus lyrics the listener has heard so far throughout the song, but with a different vocal melody, and it usually hits after at least two or three regular choruses, too. At least three Britney songs utilise this concept — you can hear examples of it in (You Drive Me) Crazy, Stronger, and Oops!...I Did It Again. In Oops! the alternate chorus even plays out underneath the original chorus towards the end of the song, in a truly intriguing example of the musical tool 'counterpoint'.
Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding break down this use of counterpoint in this 2019 article for Paper Mag, saying “We can only comprehend one speaking voice at a time, and we tune the others out in order to do so. Melody is a different game, however. When Spears sings the alternate chorus and the original chorus at the end of "Oops!," we not only hear each individual melody, but we also hear a third part: the new melody created by combining the two.”
Of note is the fact that much of Britney’s early music is written by others, including Max Martin and Rami Yacoub, but as the performing artist and, later on in her career, producer, I still believe Britney should be credited for these exciting pop music moments.
Nerdy musical analysis aside, if you dive into Britney’s discography at any point you will find intriguing, exciting, inspiring, technically remarkable examples of pop music theory. The beauty of it, however, is that you really don’t have to know anything about music at all to recognize how unique and innovative Britney has been throughout her career.
Without Britney, pop as we know it wouldn’t exist
You can see Britney’s influence everywhere in pop music today. Lady Gaga’s iconic dance style resembles the Britney dances I was learning during recess in primary school. Charli XCX cited Britney as ‘the reason she wanted to do (music) in the first place’ in the liner notes of her album Sucker. Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus — every young solo female performer in recent memory would have grown up with Britney Spears in the charts and therefore as a beacon of success for women in pop.
It’s also important to note that so many of Britney’s songs cover taking back power and independence as a woman, in and out of the spotlight. Despite the cruel, oftentimes misogynistic criticisms leveled against her, Britney has always bitten back in her music.
Even as pop as a genre moves and changes throughout the years, and with new subgenres such as hyperpop making their way into the charts, you can hear whispers of Britney’s iconic dance-pop style in the work of Grimes, Rina Sawayama, Slayyyter, SOPHIE, Dorian Electra, and countless others.
We’re living in a world where unashamedly pop music such as that of Britney Spears is now considered ‘worthy’ of criticism. Enjoying pop music as a guilty pleasure is finally becoming a thing of the past and respected artists are unafraid to cite Britney as a direct influence.
With Britney consistently in the media as a subject of unauthorized documentaries about what must be one of the most traumatic experiences of her life, I believe it’s time for audiences, too, to start celebrating her discography as a triumph. And it truly is a triumph, particularly when you consider the distressing environment that much of this music must have been created in.
As fans, it’s important to rally around the #FreeBritney movement, but it’s also so important to celebrate how Britney Spears has so consistently reinvented herself since her debut in 1998 to not only weigh in on modern pop trends over the last two decades, but create so many trends of her own.
Pop music as we know it just wouldn’t exist without Britney’s impact — and I truly hope audiences keep that in mind when they are watching yet another documentary detailing her misery under the conservatorship. We owe her that much.