Kelly Clarkson has her melisma power. Mariah has her gravity-defying belts. Beyoncé can roll around on the ground and deliver a perfect rendition of "Halo." The big voices in pop are plentiful, and obvious. Whether you prefer the husky power of P!nk or the meticulously planned runs from Brandy, there exists a voice you obsess over - one that could sing a Creed song and still make you melt.
Although I'm sure this person exists somewhere, I doubt many will name Britney Spears as their favorite vocalist. I repeat, vocalist. Not pop star, not dancer, but someone favored for their ability to carry a tune.
Travel back to September 30, 1998. That was the day Jive records released Britney's debut single, "...Baby One More TIme." The song exploded on pop radio, ushering in the second coming of teen pop alongside The Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, and Christina Aguilera. The other acts had a lot going for them - five-part male harmonies, perfect dance moves, and a larger than life voice in the form of Xtina and her jaw-dropping pipes.
Then we have Britney: an adorable, young, dirty blonde teen with a non-traditional voice. There was nothing sweet or technically awe-inspiring about her singing, but it was infectious none the less. Suddenly, everyone was singing "Baby" as "Bay-buh" and using traces of their falsetto to sing "still believe."
Flash forward to last month, when Britney began her Piece of Me residency in Las Vegas. The 20+ song set of her biggest songs, fan favorites, and a few new ones is impressive on paper. The visuals enhance songs we've memorized for almost two decades.
What isn't present? Britney's singing.
Now, I know Britney lip syncing isn't a new thing. It's been around since the beginning of her career, although it increased noticeably after the In The Zone era. Before then, we often heard Britney sing live in addition to executing dance moves that made her arguably the best dancer in pop music since Janet Jackson. For example, this TRL performance from 2003 features Britney doing both, a rarity.
After that, listening for when Britney was actually singing live became a game. During both the Circus and Femme Fatale tours, fans flooded YouTube with videos like this, where fans compiled and archived the few times Britney sang live. Then, a gift; on the second leg of the Circus tour, Britney added a cover of Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" to the set, and it was 100% live. It was the first time we heard just her, no backing track, in a long time. Again, the "You Oughta Know" cover does not feature someone who can sing like Whitney Houston or Carrie Underwood. What it does show is the same young woman with a unique, soulful voice putting effort into a performance.
When Britney and her management claimed her newest album Britney Jean would be her most personal yet, fans immediately expected vocals that sounded like she gave a damn. After two albums with a couple of phoned-in, background singer-heavy ballads, I was skeptical. Then, she released "Perfume," written by Sia. Although there are some rough spots on the vocal, it's clearly Britney singing, and the rawness took me back to hearing that scratchy voice for the first time in 1998. The way she sings "I want it all over you" actually gave me chills, because we haven't heard Britney sing like that in forever.
Yesterday, I found this unofficial acoustic version of "Perfume." Country Club Martini Crew stripped the song of everything, including most of the autotune, the backing vocals, and production. What's left is Britney's main recorded vocal, along with Sia completely taking a chorus and providing amazing adlibs at the song's bookend. It's the best version I've heard, and as a fan of Britney's singing voice, I treasure it.
So, while I will never tire of hearing Lady Gaga slobber all over the piano as she belts one of her slower numbers, or not freak out when Ariana Grande hits a ridiculous note, I'll also celebrate when we hear Britney Spears put some effort into her vocals. A friend scoffed that I was upset Britney wasn't even trying to sing during her new Vegas show. I argued she was vocally competent enough to at the very least sing the two ballads on the set, "Everytime" and "Perfume." Aside from the fact that I feel I should expect a pop singer to... sing.. I also generally enjoy Britney Spears' voice.
There's a reason we still give a damn about her, and I love when she shows why.