Last year, half of my listening minutes on my Spotify Wrapped consisted of podcasts. Needless to say, I’m a huge podcast fan. During March I have been captivated by a small series made by Switched on Pop devoted to the sound of Britney Spears: Listening 2 Britney. For someone so scrutinized by mass media, the lack of analysis of her musical style and artistry is remarkable. This four-part series pays little attention to media dramas or utter controversy, but just focuses on a thorough musical analysis of Britney’s most popular songs.
Listening 2 Britney is part of the podcast Switched on Pop presented by songwriter Charlie Harding and musicologist Nate Sloan. Together they shine a light on the making and meaning of popular music. Their analyses treat even the smallest musical details someone else wouldn’t even notice.
The first episode of Listening 2 Britney concerns her first two albums “…Baby one more time” and “Oops!… I did it again”. Harding and Sloan distinguish a set of vocal qualities which are typically for Britney’s voice and make her really stand out with respect to earlier pop music. Britney makes excessive use of twang and vocal fry combined with percussive pronunciation. Harding and Sloan strip away the music from different songs making it easy to identify these qualities as a listener. This makes the podcast even viable for someone who is not familiar with these technical concepts.
The second episode shows us the first transition within Britney’s music making. After her success on “…Baby one more time” the follow-up “Oops!… I did it again” was outperformed by artists such as Janet Jackson, Destiny’s Child and Aaliyah. The sound of pop music was changing and Britney needed to change with it. Her polished Swedish produced pop style faded into a more R&B sound on her self-titled album “Britney”. In co-operation with the Neptunes (Pharrel Williams and Chad Hugo) she produced “I’m a Slave 4 U”, showing a whole new sound. This song uses a more spoken melody with off-beats hits and harmonic dissonance. The vocals are a lot breathier and sometimes even whispery. However, we are still able to hear the classic Britney sound into the verse: controlled vocal fry and breathy percussiveness.
The third episode dissects one of my favorite Britney songs: “Toxic”. They start by analyzing the high pitched instrumental intro. They show the melodic line is a Bollywood excerpt played in retrograde (Bach would be proud) immediately creating a ‘hook’. “Toxic” really is something of a musical epiphany, since all loose elements shouldn’t fit together (but somehow they do). The abrupt switches from chest voice to falsetto are combined with a Bollywood love song, electric surf guitar and funky synthesized bass. The seemingly impossible mix is made easily identifiable by Harding and Sloan when they manually recreate each of these elements.
The last episode shows us a ‘final’ transition towards EDM (electronic dance music), where Britney’s vocals are almost flattened out. Her voice is almost completely synthesized on her later albums like “Blackout”. Nothing remains of Britney’s typical vocal qualities like the fry and percussiveness. However, this is exactly the point of my one critical note towards the podcast. They completely left out Britney’s album after “Blackout”: “Circus”. I might be biased since this is my favorite album, but this album is an important hodgepodge of all her previous styles combined into one creating hits like “Womanizer” and “If you seek Amy”. “Womanizer” shows more of her EDM anonymous vocal style, whereas “Kill the Lights” captures her sound during her R&B phase. “Out from Under” proves to be a smoothed out ballad and both “Circus” and “If you seek Amy” give us the typical old-school Britney feel.
With that small addition, I really recommend listening to their podcast. Whether you like Britney or not, the quality of the analysis itself could give you some inspiration (or even motivation) for your next paper or research project. You can give them a listen in your favorite podcast app or visit their website https://switchedonpop.com/.