Essay - The voice of Britney Spears: exploitation or empowerment?

The evolution of Britney Spears’ vocal style since the 1990s has been discussed in both popular culture and academia (Hawkins and Richardson, 2007), and there has been a resurgence of attention on the subject in recent years, particularly on social media (Juan, 2016; Honest Vocal Coach, 2020). However, academic literature has largely focused on Spears’ relationship to feminism (Lowe, 2003) and class (Musial, 2019), so there is space for more analysis of Spears’ vocal evolution, particularly as it pertains to the sexualisation and exploitation of young people within the music industry. The prevailing popular narrative posits that Spears’ voice moved from one of power and authenticity when she was a child, which was then manipulated into her trademark ‘baby voice’: thin, breathy, nasal, and heavily reliant upon vocal fry. This change in vocal style is understood to be an attempt to make Spears’ voice more commercially viable and easily situated within the teen-pop market (Parades, 2018), which, in turn, raises questions about sexuality, consent, white femininity and the sexualisation of young women. However, there is still creative value in Spears’ distinctive vocal style, and Spears has continued to realise its potential as her career has developed, particularly in 2003 with the release of her album In The Zone (Spears, 2003). Therefore, issues around Spears’ voice, and popular voices in general, are much more nuanced than they might initially appear. 

‘Exploitation’ (2013) is defined as ‘the act of using someone unfairly for your own advantage’, whereas ‘empowerment’ (2013) is defined as ‘the process of gaining freedom and power to do what you want or control what happens to you’. It is fair to say that Spears has had much experience of both of these circumstances throughout her career, and in order to gain a clear understanding of how Spears’ voice has pertained to her exploitation or empowerment, it is helpful to revisit Spears’ professional and personal biography. Spears began her career at age eleven with an appearance on the talent show, Star Search, in 1992 (Spears, 2008). Shortly afterwards, Spears was cast in The All-New Mickey Mouse Club (Spears, 2008), a variety show featuring other teen performers who would go on to have successful careers in popular music, such as Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. These early performances are widely discussed and praised on social media, often presented as exhibiting Spears’ ‘real’ voice (DioGuardi, 2011). In 1997, at sixteen, Spears was signed to Jive Records, under the vocal guidance of Eric-Foster-White, who is often credited with crafting ‘a sugar-coated sound that is safe yet funky, chaste yet vaguely suggestive’ for Spears’ first album (The Guardian, 1999).  Both the single ‘…Baby One More Time’ (Spears, 1999) and its album of the same name were extremely commercially successful, making number one on the US Billboard and reaching the top of the charts in multiple countries and selling over 10 million copies in a year (Blandford, 2002). Spears followed suit with her consecutive studio albums, of which there are now nine. Continued attention on and criticism of Spears’ personal life ran alongside her successful career: there was notable focus on her famous split from Justin Timberlake in 2002; an obsession with her virginity; and class-based criticism around her marriages, divorce and pregnancies with back-up dancer Kevin Federline (Musial, 2019). This culminated in the decline of her mental health and her infamous breakdown in 2007, when she lost custody of her children (CNN, 2007). Since 2007, Spears’ financial assets have been under the care of a conservatorship, and in recent years the #FreeBritney movement has emerged on social media, which strongly criticises her father’s power over her financial life amid accusations of abuse and Spears’ refusal to perform (BBC News, 2020; Betancourt, 2020). In light of these recent developments, it is pertinent to re-examine how Spears’ vocal development relates to these issues. 

Since the release of ‘...Baby One More Time’ (Spears, 1999), Spears’ voice has been intentionally shaped into a sexier, girlier version of itself, so that it could situate itself distinctively within the teen-pop market of the 1990s.  Considering that she was just aged sixteen when she was signed to Jive Records (Hughes, 2005), the crafting of Spears’ distinct vocality can be viewed as exploitative. Her infamous vocal fry and nasality can be heard in the very first line of ‘…Baby One More Time’ (Spears, 1999), in which she sings ‘…oh baby, baby’. Pecknold (2016, p.84) argues that Spears ’not only retained adolescent vocal failings but performatively emphasized them’ referring to the ‘posterior glottal chink’ (Chapman, 2016, p.71; Churcher, p.261), which is often heard in post-pubescent girls, sometimes causing a thinner, breathier vocal sound than was present before puberty, but which can be corrected through teaching. Another possibility is that breathiness in female singers is caused by ‘an inability to coordinate breathflow and vocal-fold approximation’ (Miller, 1995, p.36), which would also indicate that Spears’ vocal training was incomplete once she became post-pubescent.  Spears also heavily relies on the vocal fry technique, sometimes known as ‘creaky voice’ (Heidemann, 2016, p.6), which is caused by the vocal folds closing and opening quickly. Heidemann (2016, p.6) points out that Donna Summer employs the technique as ‘part of a titillating simulation of sexual passion’ in ‘Love to Love You Baby’ (1975), framing a trend from the 1970s onwards of employing vocal fry as suggestive of the beginnings of sexual cries or moans. Spears’ use of vocal fry, at least early in her career, is not as explicit but it is present, in the famous lines ‘Oh Baby Baby’ (Spears, 1999).  Pecknold (2016, p.85) points out the vocal fry ‘emphasizes the pubertal girl’s inability to command lower registers in a full-throated voice and stylizes[…]the characteristic “natural” breathiness of teen girl voices.’ In many academic analyses of vocal fry and breathiness, descriptors such as ‘immaturity’ (Hawkins and Richardson, 2007, p.615) ‘childlike’, and ‘vulnerable’ (Churcher, 2007, p.261) continually appear, suggesting a strong relationship between youth and sexuality which Spears’ management team exploited in many ways. 

In order to understand why Spears’ distinctive vocal timbre was encouraged partly because of its unique bringing-together of youth and sexuality, it is necessary to situate it within the wider cultural issues of what constitutes a ‘sexy’ voice. In a recent 2018 study, ‘breathy and girlish voices were rated sexier[…]when compared to modal voice’ (Levitt and Lucas, 2018, p.409). Similarly, Churcher (2007, p.261) argues that a sexy voice as performed by women is often a ‘breathless, vulnerable, childlike voice’, which is corroborated by Henton and Blandon’s research (1985, cited in Levitt, 2018, p.398). Although vulnerability can be attributed to sexual arousal, it is hard to ignore the presence of the word ‘childlike’ in Churcher’s essay, especially with an awareness of Spears’ age at the time of recording ‘…Baby One More Time’ (Spears, 1999). If breathiness is a common factor in the vocal production of teenagers, it is no coincidence that this is a vocal quality that the music industry wanted to exaggerate for Spears.  Teen fetishisation has worked incredibly well for the rest of Spears’ image; the music video for ‘Baby One More Time’ famously features Spears dancing in a school uniform (Spears, 2009), and Dick (no date, cited in Goldstein, 2018) recounts a certain amount of hesitancy across Spears’ management team before the video was released, suggesting that there was a strong awareness of the sexual connotations of the video. Additionally, Hawkins and Richardson (2007, p.615) point out that it is likely that Spears has a speech impediment which was exploited audio-visually in her music videos through excessive focus on her mouth, which suggests that there was a strong focus on Spears’ sexuality from the very start of her career. This focus on her sexuality is exploitative by its very nature due to the fact of Spears’ youth.  At sixteen, Spears’ lack of agency would have played a significant role in her ability to consent to the sexualisation of a vocal attribute which is relatively normal for that age group and a potential speech impediment over which she has no control.  

Moreover, it is a possibility that Spears’ had to make her voice smaller in order for it to fit into a racialised commercial marketplace, limiting her own vocal development whilst at the same time furthering damaging false dichotomies between ‘black’ and 'white' singing. Academics such as Pecknold (2016, p.85) have pointed out that young black female pop singers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as Destiny’s Child, sang much more like adult women when compared to their white counterparts. As Musial (2019) points out that Spears’ marketing was devised around the concept of white, southern feminine sexuality, this would suggest that Spears’ early vocal style may have been ‘too black’ to fit in. Whilst Eidsheim’s (2019, p.68) extensive research on the racialisation of the voice points out the false distinction between ‘black’ and ‘white’ sounding voices, she also points out that popular music is still ‘entangled in racial stereotypes’. This is particularly apparent in the way that music is organised commercially, and false distinctions between ‘black’ and ‘white’ voices are ideas that still carry influence in vocal pedagogy and popular culture. Hawkins and Richardson (2007, p.615) point out that Spears’ ‘sound is similar to Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé but without the powerful virtuosity that characterizes these singers’ voices’. In light of Spears’ 1992 Star Search performance (DioGuardi, 2011), which features growls and belts that are typically associated with black singers, we might question why Spears was prevented from developing this ‘powerful virtuosity’. The answer appears to be due to lack of space for within her target market. Christina Aguilera, who has been criticised for her cultural insensitivity, and accused of performing ‘the vocal equivalent of blackface’ (Eskow, 2011, quoted in Bicknell, p.88) is the white singer who takes up the commercial space for this full-bodied sound in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and so Spears’ vocal style is consequently limited to one of performative adolescence, falsely imagined to be more suited to her whiteness. Spears retains elements of black singers, picking and choosing Of course, to avoid fully referencing Summer and the re-envisioning of black femininity and sexuality that ‘Love to Love You Baby’ represents (Pinto, 2020, p.520), Spears keeps her voice contained, never releasing her vocal fry into full sexual moans and cries. 

The carefully crafted voice that had become Spears’ trademark eventually came to empower her rather than to limit her. Consideration should be given to how Spears’ career progressed into her twenties, where she claims she had more agency in her writing and production as she worked In the Zone, than she had earlier in her career (Cava, 2020). Spears insists when speaking of her working relationship with Guy Sigmouth throughout this period, ‘I just basically told him exactly how I wanted the song to sound’ (Cava, 2020), so we can infer that with this renewed sense of agency, and with her trademark voice already well-established, Spears saw its creative possibilities and chose to work with them. As Spears was twenty-three by the release of In the Zone(Spears, 2003), some fears over her sexualisation might be assuaged at this point in her career, one might assume that due to her age she has more autonomy over the expression of her sexuality.  


Spears made creative use of the manufactured, electronic sexuality of her voice in 'Toxic' (Spears 2003), and therefore her voice can be viewed as a tool for her empowerment. In criticising the music industry’s exploitation of Spears, it is important not to dismiss sexuality in vocal performance and recording entirely. Hawkins and Richardson’s (2007, p.616) observations on the production techniques in ‘Toxic’ perfectly sum up the creative potential of this breathy, soprano register: ‘this voice seems designed to connote a fluffy femininity flecked with erotic abandon’. Like Heidemann (2016), Hawkins and Richardson (2007, p.616) draw a comparison to Donna Summer’s breathy vocals in their analysis of ‘Toxic’. The ‘sonic orgasm’ (Pinto, 2020, p.520) in ‘Love to Love You Baby’ is recognised by academics for being pivotal in centring female pleasure (Pinto, 2020, p.520), and Spears hints indirectly at Summer's work in ‘Toxic’ as she glides from note to note at 2:22 to 2:34, playfully exaggerating the pitch-bends and exaggerating her nasality. Whilst Spears is careful not to release into the full-bodied cries or directly reference Summer as Beyoncé does in ‘Naughty Girl’ (2003), containing her voice into its place of white femininity so as not to shock her audience, she hints at it nevertheless. The performativity of Spears’ coquettishly sexual voice, then, is fully embraced and empowered by the time she releases ‘Toxic’, in which her vocals convey a ‘playfulness that symbolizes parody’ (Hawkins and Richardson, 2007, p.617). Toxic was acclaimed by Billboard as 'a boundless step forward for Spears - mature, sexy and tantalising’ (Taylor, 2004), winning Spears her first Grammy for Best Dance Recording, and has continued to gain recognition since its release (Schriefer, 2009). Such ongoing recognition marks the beginning of Spears’ journey towards becoming more creatively autonomous.  

Furthermore, as well as using her voice to convey sexuality, Spears also used the adolescent qualities of voice as a compositional tool to exhibit a touching sense of intimacy and vulnerability in her song ‘Everytime’ (Spears, 2003). The ballad was written by Spears herself in 2003 during the aforementioned creatively independent period of In the Zone (Spears, 2003), and was positively reviewed for its ‘vulnerability that rarely comes out in her other tunes’ (Rolling Stone, 2011). Along with the lyrics, Spears’ vocal performance is the main tool used to show this vulnerability. Her vocal fry and breathy girlishness are consistently present throughout the song and is made even more explicit through the addition of sighs at 1:03, culminating in a breathless falsetto pleading from 2:33-2:40 as she sings ‘this song is my sorry’. Ironically, then, the very ‘colorless’ and ‘distant’ timbre which Pecknold (2016, p.84) criticises is now employed stylistically to connote an emotionally powerful sonic landscape, connoting fragility and childlike abandonment, coming together to create an ‘expressive, dramatic, yet completely authentic’ (Cava, 2020) performance.   

Additionally, through a shift towards more production-focused recordings and away from live singing, Spears utilises techniques such as lip-synching to afford herself the creative and physical freedom that dance-based performances require. It is unreasonable to expect a high standard vocal performance to accompany a high-energy dance routine, and as one fan observed, ‘who can sing hanging on a harness upside-down?’ (Martinez, quoted in Nelson, 2004). Such attitudes suggest that, for an audience who sees Spears largely as an icon rather than a virtuosic singer, rigorous vocal training is not necessarily well-suited to her purpose. The priority of Spears’ audience is that she ‘just put[s] on a good show’ (Martinez, quoted in Nelson, 2004), which differs from the priorities of those who criticise her vocal performance and use of lip-synching and auto-tune. Contrastingly, vitriolic social media critics take pieces of live vocal performances and compile failures without any information about potential technical, personal or physical issues that an artist may be experiencing during the performance. The commentary accompanying some of these compilations, ‘fake tits, body, face[…]Typical Disneyland stereotype she is’ (worldticketshop, no date) compound to highlight the impossible expectations imposed upon women in music, rooted in misogyny. In considering Spears’ vocal evolution, it is worth examining the expectations that female live performers are expected to operate within: one must have a ‘natural’ voice that is technically perfect and well trained or risk being inauthentic, whilst remaining sexually appealing in both body and voice. Spears’ tour sales, on the other hand, reflect the sentiments of her fans; the Circus Tour grossed $131.8 million (Pollstar, 2009), and with a net worth set at $59 million (Hoffower, 2020), one might infer that Spears’ lack of technical prowess in singing is the least of her concerns. 

In fact, there is no evidence that singing with vocal fry and breathiness is physically damaging to the voice at all (Parades, 2018), and this style of singing is arguably safer than the techniques that Spears was using at the age of eleven. Spears’ early vocal performances as a child, such as those in the famous Star Search video (DioGuardi, 2011), have been claimed as representative of Spears’ ‘real’ voice; one only has to take a look at the comments to see the prevailing narrative. However, when we study these performances in the light of recent vocal research, it becomes clear that Spears was using vocal techniques that she was far too young for. In her Star Search performance (DioGuardi, 2011) Spears can be heard growling at 0:21, and belts from 0:25-0:32. Most recent literature on vocal pedagogy for children is in agreement that ten years old is too young to be attempting the belting technique, because before and during early puberty, the onset of hormones that grow the larynx is not finished (Pomfret, 2012, p.445 Chapman, 2016, p. 71-72). Chapman (2016, p.446) insists that: 

the goal of instruction is not to make the child sound like an adult[..]loud singing[…]should be avoided. The child simply does not have fine muscular control and is likely to force and strain in attempts to comply with such demands.  

Indeed, Spears’ shaking head movements and eye rolling from 0:21-0:25 suggests that she has in fact taken on a certain amount of strain in the upper body to compensate for sounding like an adult. This, in turn, raises questions of consent and responsibility in singing pedagogy for young people. It is difficult to ascertain with any conviction what Spears’ initial vocal training was before she was signed to Jive Records, but the aforementioned evidence suggests that it was misguided. This leads to the question of which is more exploitative: encouraging a young child to sing like an adult using techniques that she is too young for in order to gain recognition on a popular talent show, versus exaggerating the natural characteristics of the adolescent voice for commercial gain? Although much of the popular commentary on Spears’ young voice is well-intentioned (Juan, 2016), seeking to draw attention to her later exploitation by the music industry, a false narrative persists that Spears’ voice has been forcefully transitioned from an authentic, powerful voice, presumed to be healthier, to a disingenuous voice without any artistic value whatsoever.  

Spears’ is currently exerting the power of her distinctive voice through her refusal to perform unless her father ceases to have control of her financial assets (Betancourt, 2020). The subsequent attention this has brought to issues around Spears’ conservatorship only serves to demonstrate the power of her unique voice. One might be forgiven for questioning how far it can reasonably be argued that Spears’ unique vocal style has empowered her if it has failed to lead to any tangible consequences in Spears’ personal and professional life; after all, she is not personally in control of her financial assets. However, Spears’ most recent performances, such as her residency in Las Vegas, continue to draw commercial success and, such as her residency in Las Vegas (Allen, 2017). Whilst it is not clear what the outcome will be as disputes are ongoing (BBC News, 2020), it is clear that Spears has a firm recognition of the commercial and public value of her voice, and so she wields its power by refusing to share it.   

The evolution of Spears’ vocal style throughout her career raises questions around consent, exploitation, authenticity and race which warrant further investigation. The main questions centre around vocal pedagogy, and how we can continue to teach young people safely and responsibly. A minor cannot consent to vocal training that could cause long term damage, nor can she consent to her own sexualisation through being encouraged to sing in a style which is sexually evocative. Therefore, teachers need to be aware of both the physical and cultural implications of the techniques they teach to young people. However, ultimately, whether or not Spears’ trademark voice has precluded her from advancing her career and voice in the way that she wants to can only be definitively answered by Spears herself. Through focusing solely on her mistreatment and framing Spears as a victim, it is easy to miss what she has achieved and what she continues to achieve with her voice. There is plenty of evidence, particularly from 2003 onwards, that Spears realised the creative possibilities of her unique style of singing, and it has brought her significant commercial and critical acclaim throughout her career. Through her refusal to perform live, Spears utilises the power of her voice as a tool for her own personal empowerment by limiting the profit that can be made from it without her consent. It is therefore possible that Spears’ unique vocal style has served both as part of her exploitation and her empowerment across various points in her career. The possibility of a positive feminist resolution to Spears’ story may become clearer in the fullness of time once conservatorship battle is resolved, but, in any case, the power of her vocal journey should be recognised and applauded. After all, when attempting success within an industry which insists upon your exploitation for its own gain, then surely it is better to make use of the creative and commercial possibilities that come with it.  

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