Britney Spears has many qualities that have defined her career and herself as an artist since she first appeared in the spotlight in 1999 with the release of her hit single “…Baby One More Time.” Among these different traits, one has stood out above the rest: the sound of her voice. Emerging on the pop scene in the late 90s, Spears was both feminine and hot – two things reflected in her nasally, girly singing voice, dubbed the “baby voice” by fans. But is her iconic sound her natural singing voice?
Since signing with Jive Records in 1997, Britney Spears has been singing with a so-called “baby voice,” a nasal-sounding, feminine voice that differs drastically from her natural voice. Evidence from performances spanning over the period of a decade shows that she has, in fact, been intentionally singing with a different voice and has even struggled to do so while singing live. Conforming to the industry and pop standards, Spears has used her “baby voice” for the entirety of her 20 year career that has, in turn, been impacted both positively and negatively because of it.
At the turn of the century, pop music had an enlightening energy that appealed to teen audiences worldwide for its carefree sound and seemingly cookie-cutter artists. Female artists such as Mariah Carey, The Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child were the epitome of women in pop during the late 90s. Young, full of life and incredibly girly – clad in tight mini skirts and halter tops with a small braid adorning their straightened hair – they sang about the love and loss of a certain man. Their outfits and song topics weren’t the only things they had in common though.
One common trait shared among these female artists was their voices. Sexy and feminine (just like the artists themselves), their voices captured the essence of being a woman. Focusing less on projection and “singing in the chest,” the music sung by these artists included higher, fluttering-like pitches (Mariah Carey), girlish-sounding voices (The Spice Girls) and a softer, more conversational feel (Destiny’s Child).
An example of this fun and feminine sound can be found in the 1996 Spice Girls’ hit “Wannabe.”
It was during this time that Britney Spears was first introduced to the world.
Spears was first introduced to the world of music, however, when she was very young. One example is a 10-year-old “little Britney” on the show Star Search in 1991.
This young alto is anything from the Britney that the world has come to know and love today. She’s quite the performer at age ten, but with a voice almost unrecognizable from the one that she is famous for. She presents strong vocals and massive projection, and she sounds significantly older than a small child might be expected to sound.
A few years later, Spears was a star of Disney Channel’s The Mickey Mouse Club. Starring alongside Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, 13-year-old Spears still exhibited her strong, projected vocals on the show.
Though she’s singing pop music here, we again have an example of the young Spears singing in what we will call her “natural” voice. A final look at this voice is seen in this 1998 clip of her performing “All I Need is Time,” a year after signing with Jive Records and a year before the release of the single and album “…Baby One More Time.” She’s attempting more of what we now know of as the “baby voice” here, but it’s a lot more subtle.
It wasn’t until she began releasing professional music in 1999 that the shift between her natural voice and “baby voice” was seen.
On this debut album, Spears worked with Eric Foster White, who has been cited to say that he worked on “[shaping] her voice over the course of a month to where it is today,” (Hughes). Rami Yacoub, who co-produced “…Baby One More Time” with Max Martin, has also said that there was “kind of a nasal thing” when producing songs with Martin (Bronson).
It was this voice that gave her a more girly appearance, a less mature sound. It’s the voice that gave her the “pop” sound that attracted millions of listeners and fans from across the world. It’s the voice that made her into a pop sensation.
Though this voice heavily contributed to Spears’ success as a pop artist, has it contributed to her downfalls as well?
Spears has been known for her live performances from day one: intricate, detailed and – in many cases – highly controversial, she has catapulted herself to the top in the performance business. In later years, though, there is one major factor that has stood out in her performances: her lip syncing. Performances like her 2007 VMA “Gimme More” have received bad reviews from both critics and fans, and her Vegas show “Piece of Me” has been the subject of bad reviews as well for Spears’ lip syncing.
For an artist that shined at a young age for her voice to suddenly begin lip syncing early on in her career is a curious matter.
Many people attribute her lip syncing to the increase in dancing that her performances included in the early 2000s. She became more breathy while singing and was no longer performing as well due to the amount of dancing she was doing on stage.
Others argue, however, that the sudden lip syncing was initiated also, partly, to hide her natural voice when singing live. With the pressure of live performance and the increased dancing, it could be considered quite the challenge for Spears to keep up with this “baby voice” while performing – especially when her more natural voice probably provided more breath support for the exhausted performer.
An example of Spears’ struggle between her two voices is clearly seen in her performance at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards. Here, she opens with her cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” before picking up “Oops! I Did it Again” for the rest of her performance. This VMA performance stuck out as a landmark performance for Spears due to its more risqué costume and dance. When listening to her sing, though, you can clearly hear her struggling with her voice.
From the very beginning of her performance, Spears is trying to find her voice. This is evident in the deeper, almost more breathy sound she has as she’s descending the staircase in the opening of “Satisfaction.” Around 41 seconds in, Spears finds her voice to finish out the song. When beginning “Oops!”, however, she loses it again with her intro. Almost immediately after the powerful, projected intro, she jumps right back into her “baby voice” with a mix of lip syncing and live singing for the remainder of her performance.
It should be noted that Britney struggled with her voice before any intense dancing, so it cannot be attributed to lack of breath but, rather, the two very different, very distinct sounds that she sang in – her “natural” voice and her “baby” voice.
Though Spears has been singing in an unnatural voice for the entirety of her career, it’s not a question as to whether or not it has contributed to her success. There’s a reason she sold over 37 million records worldwide before turning 20 and, with one of her signature features being her unique “baby voice,” it definitely helped to contribute to this success.
But has it ruined her all the same? Though she still remains an incredibly successful artist, Spears’ live performances are scarce and the recent leak of the track “Alien” without auto-tune has people turning their heads and asking themselves if she is even capable of singing well anymore, or if she could ever sing at all.
As previously shown, Britney can sing – and she can sing very well without auto-tune – but with the last 20 years of her live consisting of nothing else but auto-tune and her “baby voice,” one must wonder if this has taken its toll on her natural voice. Singing in a forced, nasally voice for two decades could definitely ruin a vocal tone.
Since she was a child, Britney Spears showed an outstanding amount of talent that not only rivaled, but surpassed her peers. At ten, she had he vocal capacity and capabilities of someone much older than her, by thirteen she was a child star on The Mickey Mouse Club and by eighteen she had an album reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Her success has been attributed to many factors; however, her unique “baby voice” has played a large role in setting her apart from other artists while helping her appear more feminine and sexy, as 1990s pop music culture required. Over the last 20 years, Spears has struggled between her two voices, cutting down on singing live and showing a strain in her natural singing voice when it is exposed to the public.
Spears has had tremendous accomplishments and received outstanding recognition in the musical world, but she has – at the same time – lost her natural sound and feel, all to conform to a society’s standards of what a woman should sound like. She has appealed to an entire world and to multiple generations, sold out venues and stadiums, broken records and become a musical icon, but she has not done this by showing the world her real self, her real voice. Some might call her a sellout – and maybe she is – but she’s also a prime example of a woman being molded by others to fit a standard set by society in order to achieve success.
Photo Courtesy of: Jive Records
Bronson, Fred (2003). The Billboard book of number 1 hits. Billboard Books. p. 377.
Hughes, Mark (2005). Buzzmarketing: get people to talk about your stuff. Penguin Group.