Britney Spears walked me like a dog once.
During a segment at her Piece Of Me show in Las Vegas, Spears invites a spectator on stage to serenade and embarrass them. Running BreatheHeavy.com, previously a fan-site solely covering the pop star’s every move for a decade before evolving into breaking music coverage, I was granted a rare opportunity to bask in the white-hot spotlight before a crowd of thousands of original dolled-up fans. But before strapping on a leather harness and getting spanked with a whip by Spears, I was pulled aside and warned by her security team: NO funny business. “We know you run that blog and don’t want you doing anything for headlines,” they cautioned. That startled me, but a few seconds later it sank in... I’m not in Kentwood anymore.
That’s the tip of the Britney Spears™ iceberg. We’re shown a glimpse of an adored iconic figure when there is a world below the frigid surface that has yet to be explored. And probably never will be; that’s the best way I can describe writing about Spears for over 12 years. After almost two decades in the public eye, we think we have the pop star pinned, but we know so little. Fans of Spears in 2016 are chomping at the bit – a Twitter Q&A, magazines interviews, on-camera stints all result in the same outcome: a pretty pastel painting that’s pleasant to look at, but the interpretation is all your own. Who is this polarizing figure we love leading into yet another musical era? Your guess is as good as mine, and she wants it that way.
Glory is Spears’s ninth studio album, a followup to 2013’s Britney Jean which she dubbed her most personal record to date, but it was the most disconnected she had ever been. The will.i.am executive-produced LP failed to impact music culture despite lead single “Work Bitch” being a legitimate smasha. That era deployed several major mishaps, like watering down the lead single’s music video because Spears felt it pushed the envelope. “I cut out half the video because I am a mother and because, you know, I have children, and it's just hard to play sexy mom while you're being a pop star as well," Spears said at the time.
The next video, same thing. Spears axed director Joseph Kahn’s original concept for the “Perfume” visual during post-production after a change of heart regarding its themes of sacrifice and gun violence. Kahn, who also directed Spears’s iconic “Stronger,” “Toxic” and “Womanizer” videos, told me he pitched an idea that was “going to take everything you knew about the Britney persona” and flip it. “I wanted her still to be the strong one,” he added. “I wanted to do this thing where her strength would be a sacrifice. Her giving up her life for somebody.” The ending of the revised version showed Spears alone and sobbing… not quite what Kahn had in mind. The next release fans would hear from her was the Iggy Azalea assisted standalone track “Pretty Girls,” which seemed to further disconnect the pop star from what music asked of her: originality.
If Spears’s previous offerings are a far cry from the delivery she’s capable of, why do we continue to support her? Because we've watched her sink to rock bottom then climb back to the surface.
Devoted fandom and the desperate desire for America's sweetheart to surpass her prime will forever breed intoxicating highs and lows laced in nostalgia. Spears is asked to live up to the soaring celebrity she accomplished pre-Chaotic, and for many years she couldn’t be bothered. Spears 2016 is another animal. The fire in her eyes that dimmed in recent years arose from the ashes. She may never live up to expectations continually placed upon her, but she’s made it clear there’s the potential to.
Spears rose to a level of fame only a handful of people can in our lifetime. She was a staple figure at the forefront into the unexplored digital world. Before social media, Spears was hassled by mainstream media in print magazines and awkward press conferences where she was grilled about her virginity, alleged infidelity and that nude-colored VMA ensemble. Around 2005, Spears fell in love with ex-husband Kevin Federline, married, had kids and moved into a SoCal fortress away from all of the noise. Not to enclose herself in, but to keep people out. She yearned for an escape from the crushing pressures fame required, but we couldn’t let her go. Instead, the further she secluded herself, the thirstier we became. As the Internet bloomed, Spears’s personal life spilled onto every corner of the web, and most of the headlines centered around troubling rumors criticizing her role as a mother. Eventually, it spun the pop star down a bizarre and lonely path of self-destruction until a judge granted her father Jamie Spears a conservatorship to oversee her day-to-day affairs and a court-appointed lawyer to manage her professional endeavors and help guide the iconic figure back to normalcy. This tumultuous tabloid time is unique to Spears, and fans emotionally invested in it. Since then, Spears has created a private life for her and her family while still allowing us to feel like we’re connected. It’s all a carefully concocted illusion, and it’s imperative it stays that way, because all of the ups and downs have lead to this: Glory.
Spears’s newest release is being billed as one of the Holy Trinity of albums from the Holy Spearit, the others being 2003’s In The Zone and 2007 fan-favorite Blackout. The kinetic energy living in songs off these records has the capacity to take new forms with time, one of the key ingredients to an exemplary body of work and why Glory is held in such high esteem.
Singers with this longevity and influence who have managed to stay highly relevant over many years typically put forth just a handful of works throughout their career that connect with fans more intimately than others. Nearly 10 years have passed since fans emotionally latched onto one of her records, and it’s largely due to Spears taking the reigns this time. “Honestly, I’m just particular with this record,” Spears told V Magazine earlier this year. “It’s my baby, and so I really want it done right. I just know that the direction I’m going in is so good. It’s the best thing I’ve done in a long time. I’m proud of the work, and it’s very different; it’s not what you would think at all." At the time of that interview, fans couldn’t wrap their head around what Spears had in store because she frequently disguises her mastery in humility, an endearing quality that perpetuates her reputation in the business as one of the sweetest. Her go-to lines include “you’ll have to wait and see” and “very cool” to describe the forthcoming music. Spears was careful not to label Glory as personal, because it isn’t. None of the songs provide any insight into her life as a mom, a pop star, an ex-girlfriend. What would happen if Spears took the Lemonade or 1989 route and detailed her qualms with K-Fed or something that pissed her off about performing in Vegas? The world would go nuts, but that’s not how she markets herself. Instead, the music is just as much of an escape for Spears as it is for the listener.
Releasing nine albums is an accomplishment in its own right, but a collection of outstanding songs two decades later puts Spears in good company with iconic artists like Judy Garland, Cher and Madonna, who found themselves at the forefront of gay culture later in their careers. It's textbook virgin vs. vixen marketing, but how can that dynamic be sustained after a decade and a half? Answer: by paying close attention to her shifting demographic and catering to it. Unlike 2008’s Circus, 2011’s Femme Fatale and 2013’s laziest effort Britney Jean, which utilized a ghost singer for background vocals and then some, Spears sounds invested. Her Piece Of Me show heavily relies on backtrack and even part of her recent “Carpool Karaoke” stint with James Corden on The Late Late Show this week showed Spears lipsyncing to her own old-school classics. Glory is a rare glimpse at Spears actually singing.
Expectations for Spears to deliver are at an all-time high, can she pull through?
Spears’s latest era got off to a rocky start. In the spring, reports ran rampant the pop princess was readying her new lead single titled “Make Me” to premiere during a fiery live-performance at the most-recent Billboard Music Awards. Spears never commented on the claim, but it took a life of its own when details leaked of a not-so-secret music video shoot with director David LaChapelle, who photographed Spears at 17-years-old in lingerie clutching a teletubby for Rolling Stone. There was no denying new music was on the way, but supposed production delays shelved the “Make Me” performance – instead she performed a medley of hits and continued putting the finishing touches on Glory. For reasons unknown, her music video with LaChapelle was also scrapped. In similar fashion, Spears never clarified, but nearly the entire video leaked. It included scenes of Spears appearing to have sex with the song’s collaborator, rapper G-Eazy, gyrating on the floor around a dozen half-naked men and, the scene likely to cause the most trouble for Spears... writhing around in a metal cage entirely nude except for a glittery pink bodysuit painted onto her toned physique. The imagery of a caged pop star singing naked reportedly didn’t sit well with the mom-of-two, and creative differences forced Spears and LaChapelle to go their separate ways. Again, no official statement was issued on the matter, so the imagination of the Internet materialized that theory. “Make Me” did end up getting a proper visual though, this time by photographer Randee St. Nicholas. The concept was Spears interviewing chiseled men where one lucky chump would be chosen as her prized boy toy. The clip failed to impact mainstream media and made no dent in the song’s chart play. It was a puzzling move to replace the original racy video considering “Make Me” and most of the other tracks on Glory deal with themes of sex. What’s going on? We need explanations, but Spears remains tight-lipped. Instead, she’ll let the music do the talking.
Steering clear of the typical dance floor anthem route, Spears preferred to venture into the unknown for her lead single with “Make Me.” Her breathy coos caress producer Burns’ warbly production, who told EW the song “shaped the sound of the rest of the record.” He added Spears was “looking for something completely different from what she normally does.” In a separate interview with E! News, Britney backed up Burns's sentiment. "It's a little melodic, a little more not so poppy," she said of Glory. "It's kind of chill. Very chill." “Make Me” was a promise for adult contemporary pop to come, and she made good on her word.
“Private Show” was the second release, a playful tune co-written by Carla Williams, the mastermind behind Beyonce’s enormous Lemonade track “Freedom.” With lyrics like “Work it, work it, boy watch me work it / Slide down my pole, watch me spin it and twerk it,” it serves as a possible Piece Of Me contender and doubles as a promotional tool for her latest fragrance. Though it’s the least thematic track on Glory, it opened the door for Spears to experiment with playful rapping and nasally sing-shouting while setting set the stage for the next buzz track, the Warren “Oak” Felder and Alex Nice-produced club hit “Clumsy.” The stomping electro-tinged track reminded fans of the pop singer’s familiar infectious nightlife roots soaked in sex. “But I love how you go down,” she sings. “Head first and slide it out.” And later, “Cuz I'll be slippin' off this dress / Fooling 'round and then we smash.” In “Do You Wanna Come Over?”, Spears doesn’t waste a second asking for it. “Say you feel alone, that your day was the baddest,” she sings in the Mattman & Robin-produced track. “Tellin' me you can’t sleep because of your mattress. Do you wanna come over?”
The official releases were carefully guarded pop gems in the RCA safe, but a music store in Mexico began selling Glory a week early. Fans who purchased their physical copy boasted selfies with the newly-purchased Spears record, and within hours the entire Deluxe version of the album leaked onto the Internet and every die-hard fan had a digital copy of the pirated record safely stored in their iTunes next to the pre-order.
Spears’s new music details countless liaisons, and that storytelling is almost exclusively for her fanbase consisting of gay guys and women in their twenties. Once idolized by teen girls and desired by older men, Spears finds herself in a puzzling niche in 2016. She’s no longer the naïve sex kitten, nor should she be. This has been implicitly acknowledged in her thirties as she aged out of the schoolgirl sexpot teen boys fantasize about into the sassy hard-bodied Kween of queens. Instead, Spears solidified herself as one of the most enduring pop acts of our generation at just 34-years-old. She has been derided for not evolving as an artist, but that's just a testament to how seamless her transition has been. The key to her brand has always been her adorable innocence behind-the-scenes contrasting to her brash sexual persona on stage. With the explosion of the Internet, artists come and go now more than ever because they are disgustingly overexposed. Spears was one of the last hyper-famous people before the world wide web gobbled her up, and now she’s figuring out how to press on.
Glory kicks off with the haunting electro-ballad titled “Invitation.” Spears’s voice bounces from computerized robotica to her signature breathy tone in the song co-written by Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter (Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Selena Gomez’s “Good For You”). She’s infamous for the push and pull, I’m sweet but not that innocent approach, and the opener is a glimpse of that mature nature Glory is laced with.
In the intergalactic bassy mid-tempo bop “Man On The Moon,” there’s a sadness beneath the layers of dark mascara. Spears longs for companionship, but unfathomable emotional distance separates her from otherworldly love. “Patience, darling, wait for the night,” she pleads over a dreamy beat produced by Jason Evigan. “Darkness comes and love comes alive. I've been right here dreaming of you. Waiting for my man on the moon.”
— Britney Spears (@britneyspears) June 22, 2015
“Just Luv Me” is the most vulnerable song on the record. Spears is forthright when she asks for it. “If you think that I'm saying that because I'm high maintenance. Like I'm trying to mask every problem that I'm facing,” she croons to Cashmere Cat and Robopop’s whimsical production. “Well you're wrong cause I don't need nobody when I'm breaking. All I need is your love and a little bit of patience… just luv me.”
Spears’s heart is searching for something emotional or physical on every track. “Slumber Party,” a clear single contender also co-written by Tranter and Michaels, plummets the listener down a lightless hallway with endless gleaming earworms. Same goes for the Andrew Goldstein-produced track “Love Me Down,” the Bombay-infused Bloodpop tune “Better” and the bilingual ethereal cut “Change Your Mind (No Seas Cortes),” it’s clear Spears is comfortable singing about her bedroom escapades (and the lengths she goes through to get them).
But Glory isn’t only about the rousing physical connection Spears yearns for. “Just Like Me” displays the singer’s jealous side when she walks in on her boyfriend screwing someone else, and the other woman bears a striking resemblance to Spears. “I see you on your back and I just can't believe she looks just like me,” she sings. Following her semi-recent split with ex-boyfriend David Lucado, reports alluded to Lucado cheating on Spears. She never confirmed, but had this to say in 2014 when asked if her breakup would pop up on the next album: "You take the experiences you go through and definitely put it into your work. I'm going to have a lot of 'I hate men songs.'” “Liar” is another prime example of a scorned Spears who rejects a cheating ex pleading to get back in her good graces after a bout of infidelity. “It's too late for apologies. Nothing you can offer me now,” she commands. “I'm looking at you on your knees and I'm all listened out.”
The go-to bangers and soft-spoken electro-ballads are a slick nod to the Holy Trinity, but there are several tracks that showcases Spears’s underrated talents as a vocalist. In recent years, Spears gave doubters reason to label her a performer/entertainer, but Glory reminds us she’s a singer afterall.
“What You Need” flings melodic hooks left and right while show tune-inspired horns blare over producer YoungFyre’s roaring organ accompaniment. “If I’m Dancing” submerges the listener into stuttering bridges and finds an auto-tuned Spears singing about a subject she’s an expert in. She teamed up with Ian Kirkpatrick for the track, as well as standout song “Hard To Forget Ya.” It’s a bubblegum throwback jam that incorporates a sassy ‘80s feel yet structured to sound current.
In the beginning stages of the record, Spears affirmed she planned on recording “something very artsy fartsy. Something I’ve never done before,” and she succeeded. Cue the album closer. Spears sings entirely in French in “Coupure Électrique” (the title literally translates to “Blackout,” a not-so-subtle nod to the 2007 masterpiece). Why? It makes no sense, but it’s a risk and that’s all we’ve ever wanted.
If there’s anything I’ve learned about Spears through the years, it’s to expect the unexpected. She sacrificed living a “normal” life to give millions of people including myself the opportunity to dive into a world of audio delights. It’s been awhile since Spears strayed away from the “Britney Brand” of safe-sounding PG songs, and we’ve missed her. Glory doesn’t necessarily break any barriers, but it wasn’t designed to. It was crafted to bring music madness to her loyal fanbase with the hopes that a few of the singles could connect to the masses, and with songs like “Slumber Party” and “Hard To Forget Ya,” it will. Spears won’t ever share her diary with us, so we’ll have to learn to understand who she is through the music. The pop star sounds so confident on the album it’s obvious she wants to show the world she is the misunderstood, fragile, seductive, enduring, stronger Britney Spears we think we know and love... in all her glory.
That was fun.