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It’s recognized worldwide that Britney Spears was one of the first pop princesses. Starting her long music career as a teen idol, she experienced isolation in the pop world, a contentious conservatorship that ended last year (yay!), and the ups and downs of media attention. In order to track her evolution as a musician as well as a person, I listened to all her albums in chronological order for three days, plunging myself, an occasional listener, into her entire discography. Each album was different from the last, reflecting changes in her personal life and development as an artist, but the signature Britney sound sadly faded post-Circus.
…Baby One More Time
The album that started it all. Overall, …Baby One More Time is a cute, teen-pop album. It’s a piece of nostalgia, with classic pop beats and slow ballads: a hallmark of the Y2K era. The album’s lyrics are saccharine and emotional but do not explore any deeper themes. As I listened, the standouts were “…Baby One More Time,” “Sometimes,” and “The Beat Goes On.” The album, and “…Baby One More Time” set the tone for her image. Even though she was only 16 years old when the music video for “…Baby One More Time” was filmed, people projected sexiness and rebellion onto her. In the music video, she appears as a sexy schoolgirl, a mix of youth and maturity that is reflected in the album. The album is easy to listen to, but without “…Baby One More Time,” which was destined to be a billboard hit, the album wouldn’t have been the explosive start of her career.
Oops!… I Did It Again and Britney
Oops!… I Did It Again and Britney are similar albums in many ways. The former sounds dramatically different from her debut album, taking on a more mature and sensual tone with boosted production. Britney ushers in this new era with the lyric, “I’m not that innocent,” in the title track of Oops!. The classic Britney voice, soft and nasally, is also cemented in her second album. My standout songs were “Oops!… I Did It Again,” “What U See (Is What U Get),” and “Lucky”. In Britney, the lyrics and music videos are much more sexual than in the previous album and it moves slightly away from her teen pop origin. “Boys,” “I’m a Slave 4 U,” “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll,” and “Overprotected” were the standouts of the album. Both albums are good listens, and the concrete beginnings of Britney’s public persona.
In the Zone
Britney’s fourth album has a different feel. The album’s 17 producers and multiple collaborations dramatically expanded the album’s range, the songs experiment with different genres and electronics. In comparison to her previous albums, In the Zone is the most thematically and lyrically mature. The most noticeable change in the album is how distinct each song is. In the previous album, there were at least a pair of songs that sounded very similar, but in In the Zone, each song has its own sound. The standouts included: “Me Against the Music,” “Toxic,” “Shadow,” and “Brave New Girl.” The album spans more genres than her previous albums, representing her transition from teen pop to mature musician.
Blackout and Circus
During this era of Britney’s career, she faced her harshest criticisms from the press but also created some of her most influential and praised music. Although Blackout is the pinnacle of her career to many, both Circus and Blackout are amazing albums. Up until Blackout, Britney’s albums felt like a mesh of different styles. Each song in Blackout works seamlessly together to create a sense of electric continuity. The jump from In the Zone to Blackout is colossal, reflecting the massive changes in her social life during the four years break. Following negative media attention, in 2006 Britney was a victim of the press on multiple occasions and filed for divorce from her husband. In 2007, she visited a drug rehab clinic for a day, shaved her head in a salon, and hit a photographer’s car with an umbrella. In October of that year, following a court order granting her ex-husband primary custody of their kids, she released Blackout. The press was consistently publishing negative stories about her, and her personal life was tumultuous, both contributing to a negative mental state. All of this comes out in the sound of Blackout, it’s harsher and edgier than all of her past music. She acknowledges her fame, paparazzi, her critics, and her wealth, and flaunts it. Blackout is a work of pop perfection, and thinly veiled under catchy hooks and electronic beats are the struggles that defined her life at the time. Post-release of Blackout during the production for Circus, Britney’s life continued in its tumultuous fashion; in 2008, she was involuntarily hospitalized twice due to mental health breakdowns. During her second hospitalization, she was placed under temporary conservatorship which led to 13 years of control. At the end of 2008, she released Circus, which was a return to the Britney pre-Blackout but tainted by its harsher electronic pop and heavier themes. Circus has a softer and smoother approach to the same level of excellence that Blackout displays. The album’s topics range from love to fame to motherhood, a wider selection of energies than Blackout. Songs that stood out to me were “Womanizer,” “Circus,” “Kill the Lights,” “If U Seek Amy,” “My Baby,” and “Rock Me In.” Circus betrays nothing of the battle Britney was living at the time, unlike Blackout, but both albums are fragments of her most turbulent era.
Femme Fatale, Britney Jean, and Glory
Both Femme Fatale and Britney Jean are great dance-pop albums, but neither have the same energy as Circus and lack the distinct Britney feeling that her two previous albums did. In some songs, Britney’s voice was overpowered and stripped of its power by the robust electronics. The standouts of Femme Fatale were “Till the World Ends”, “Inside Out,” “Big Fat Bass (feat. will.i.am),” and “Criminal.” Britney Jean only had two standouts for me, “Work Bitch” and “Perfume.” Glory follows her two previous albums as a period pop album its only difference is updated production and electronics. While she experiments with different languages and her voice sound a little different, in style she stays the same. The songs “Private Show,” “Liar,” “If I’m Dancing,” and “Coupure Électrique” stood out to me, but mostly because of their experimentations or infectious choruses. All three albums are fun but unoriginal, and they feel disconnected from her past music.
Britney has evolved in small increments but the change between her debut and latest albums is clear. Not only has she evolved with the music industry for 21 years, but she also represents the changing attitudes about mental health, sexualization, and powerlessness that women in pop experience. As a young star, she struggled with fame and sexualization, and as she grew older her mental health struggles and antagonistic relationship with the paparazzi tainted her public persona. When her last album was released, she still wasn’t free from her father’s conservatorship. While her music has stayed true to her public persona, only her Blackout and Circus eras have directly related to her personal life. This may have been because of her conservatorship or a need to maintain a separate musical persona. Either way, I’m curious to see what’s coming next for Britney.
Goldstein, Jessica. ““Britney Spears Wanted to Be a Star”: An Oral History of “…Baby One More Time.”” EW.com, 23 Oct. 2018, ew.com/music/2018/10/23/baby-one-more-time-britney-spears-oral-history/. Accessed 20 July 2022.
Hogan, Marc. “A Timeline of the Connections between Britney Spears’ Music and Her Conservatorship Fight.” Pitchfork, Pitchfork, 29 July 2021, pitchfork.com/thepitch/britney-spears-conservatorship-music-timeline/. Accessed 21 July 2022.
Jacobs, Julia. ““Sorry, Britney”: Media Is Criticized for Past Coverage, and Some Own up (Published 2021).” The New York Times, 2022, http://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/12/arts/music/britney-spears-documentary-media.html. Accessed 21 July 2022.
Mamo, Heran. “Britney Spears’ Conservatorship Timeline.” Billboard, Billboard, 12 Nov. 2021, http://www.billboard.com/music/music-news/britney-spears-conservatorship-timeline-2-10139930/. Accessed 21 July 2022.
Pasquini, Maria. “Everything to Know about Britney Spears and Kevin Federline’s Relationship through the Years.” PEOPLE.com, PEOPLE.com, 5 Apr. 2019, people.com/music/britney-spears-kevin-federline-relationship-everything-to-know/. Accessed 21 July 2022.
Yahr, Emily. “The Battle of Britney Spears.” Washington Post, The Washington Post, 17 May 2019, http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the-battle-of-britney-spears/2019/05/17/edcc826c-7681-11e9-bd25-c989555e7766_story.html. Accessed 21 July 2022.