Image: Britney Spears facebook
By the only definition that matters—emotional authenticity—Britney Spears was an exceptional singer. We’ve spent so long projecting our own issues onto her that we’ve forgotten what made her famous in the first place. No, not the Catholic schoolgirl outfit—her voice.
If we didn’t know it then, we know it now—“…Baby One More Time” is a timeless pop song. Even at 16, Britney Spears made you believe every word she sang. Otherwise middle-of-the-road ballads — “Sometimes”, “Lucky”, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”—became affecting, even transcendent, through her interpretations. Rarely has a popstar ever burned so bright, so fast.
Which is why it was so unnerving when the humanity in her voice went missing. Britney’s musical growth had always reflected her personal life, until one day, it didn’t. The music on 2007’s Blackout was deliberately, brilliantly robotic—until she sleepwalked through “Gimme More” at the VMAs and hijacked the narrative. From 2008’s Circus onward, Britney seemed more fembot than human. Her producers took over her music, her father took over legal control of her life. Good or bad, the songs never stopped coming. When she announced a years-long Vegas residency in 2013 — unwittingly named after her biggest fuck-you of a song—we wondered, what does Britney Spears really want?
And two generations of popstars beyond her debut, what’s a “new” Britney Spears song even supposed to sound like? Glory, her ninth studio album, suggests we’ve been asking too many questions. No one needs another Britney album, but that’s exactly why Glory is such a delight.
Glory is the rare pop album that feels completely A&Red into existence, and is better for it. Britney and her team have learned from her recent mistakes—the will.i.am-produced EDM on 2013’s Britney Jean, last year’s dead-on-arrival Iggy Azalea collaboration “Pretty Girls.” Glory is totally unconcerned with its identity as a Britney Spears album. There’s no metacommentary on her fame, no strained attempts at number one hits. These are just pop songs, with relatable lyrics, built around her voice.
“Invitation,” the opening track, welcomes us to her boudoir—except Britney’s bedroom is a multi-million dollar Vegas spectacle. It’s hymnal, choral, immediately unlike any Britney song we’ve ever heard—more Imogen Heap than Top 40. In the chorus, she finds a heady falsetto register she’s never used before, and she sounds unrecognisable—but it’s not uncanny, it’s exciting. For the first time in years, it feels like anything’s possible in her music once again.
Britney embodies both artist and muse, subject and object. Under the right conditions, writing and producing for her isn’t a mandate—it’s sonic freedom. The words she sings barely matter—they’re just a vehicle for the pleasure of the melodies.
It’s never clearer than on Glory’s first single, the lusty “Make Me…”. The verses are uncharacteristically wordy; Britney’s cadence goes from nervous to slow and determined. When the chorus comes, it bursts into life, a kaleidoscope of colours. Her voice becomes the beat—“make me ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh”—her vowels an upward spiral into heaven. What are vocal cords anyway, if not the ultimate synthesisers?
Every song is distinct, but more importantly, memorable. The slinky, luxurious R&B cut “Just Luv Me,” a Cashmere Cat production, casually offers a mantra for all pop music—“I’m not gonna ask you for nothing / Just luv me”. “Clumsy” flips airy, Flume-like synths into distinctly British songwriting, courtesy of Talay Riley. And “Do You Wanna Come Over?” offers Glory’s one and only moment of self-reference, with a spoken chorus and acoustic guitar stabs straight out of 2003’s In the Zone. It feels like an outtake, in the best possible way.
Britney might be the purest pop singer alive. She has no ego, her presence brings surprisingly little cultural baggage. But there’s still an unmistakable alchemy when she sings, a star quality no technically superior singer could ever replicate. Britney sounds motivated throughout Glory—she wants to be a singer again. The production gives her enough space to carry the songs, and she gives back. She’s reclaimed her voice, and everything feels right in her world once again.
Britney’s rise and fall might be the defining pop-cultural incident of this millennium. That first run of singles—from 1999 to 2003, “…Baby One More Time” to “Everytime”—is lightning in a bottle. Pop music’s still catching up. We’re still recovering from the collective psychic trauma of Britney’s darkest days, and coming to grips with the improbable reality that she’s still here.
There are many ways to try and make sense of Britney’s narrative. You can read Chuck Klosterman’s definitive 2003 profile . You can read about the legal details of her conservatorship, the spectacle of her Vegas residency. You should watch Spring Breakers while you wait for the Lifetime biopic. But none of it can fully explain the tumultuous first nine years of her career. We lived through them, but they feel like a collective hallucination, like the suicidal dream she wakes up from in “Everytime” .
Glory isn’t a “Lucky” Hollywood fantasy—it’s Britney’s comfortable mid-thirties, fit for her goofy Instagram persona. It’s her first album since In the Zone that hasn’t been marketed with some kind of comeback narrative—but ironically, this time it’s real.
But “Glory” isn’t really the theme of this album. It’s more like… contentment. Which is exactly what Britney Spears deserves. She’s lived enough for all of us.
Richard S. He is an award-winning pop culture critic. People still don’t take him seriously. He tweets at @Richaod.