Starring now on a website near you: Britney Spears, raw.
We are not talking about “raw” meaning “in the flesh.” She is showing lots more skin, reports say, during her current Las Vegas musical residency. You don’t compete with Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé and Rihanna by layering up in gingham and ribbons.
What’s really raw — and interesting — about Spears is the samizdat recording that’s been released of her singing. You read that correctly: an American pop star, circa 2014, actually singing.
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The audio portion of a YouTube video posted anonymously has her warbling “Alien,” the first track from “Britney Jean,” the album the fading superstar put out in 2013. What’s unique about this recording, which spent last week being featured on pretty much any website that wanted a traffic boost, is that Spears gets no vocal help from her usual good friend, the pitch-correction software Auto-Tune.
It was surely released “in a spirit of unkindness,” as the song’s producer, William Orbit, said in a statement on Facebook that also, indirectly, vouches for the recording’s authenticity. The vocal track Web gawkers hear, Orbit said, is more “warm-up exercise,” a musical place holder, than attempt at a finished track. None of us, he says, should judge what we hear harshly.
Still. Even granting that she was merely in the on-deck circle, these are some pretty weak swings.
Where you can still find the recording — it seems to have been taken down for copyright violation in most places — you’ll hear that her voice is “pitchy” at times, to use a phrase I think I understand after hearing Randy Jackson use it approximately 9,700 times on “American Idol.”
She’s flat-out flat most of the time. When Spears hits the big chorus — what is supposed to be the big chorus — she sounds like a bored Valley Girl on karaoke night who knows she doesn’t need to impress vocally. She’s got other charms.
This all reminds me of one of the great underground artifacts of 1980s pop culture, known to some admirers as “The Tape of Only Linda.” Passed around on cassette tape, it purported to be a soundboard recording of Linda McCartney’s microphone as she sang backup, very badly, during a concert performance of “Hey Jude” by her husband, Paul, and his band Wings. Think a person surely couldn’t screw up the song’s “na-na-nas”?
Think again. I can’t remember how I got hold of the tape, but I know it was one of the treasures of my 20s, right up there with high metabolism and many years ahead of me. I played it for anybody with half an interest, and we all enjoyed this proof, exciting and illicit, that talent wasn’t strictly necessary in big-time show business.
Call the “Alien” track “The Tape of Only Britney.” Listening to it alongside the official “Alien” release provides a fascinating window into modern recording, into the unabashed artificiality that the mass market has come to accept, even expect. This is especially true in the pop realm, where, it seems, no vocal note shall be allowed to sound authentic.
Fans of Spears even extol Auto-Tune, or whichever pitch-correction software her producers choose, as the signature of her sound. This would be like me touting spell check as a signature part of my writing. What do you know: Britney Spears and I both have software that keeps us from sounding stupid.
But here is Kevin Fallon, writing about the raw track in Daily Beast, lauding Britney on Auto-Tune: “It’s how she gets the supersonic, sort-of-extraterrestrial, almost inhuman sound that’s so interesting and cool and uniquely hers.”
Hers, perhaps. But unique? If sounding faintly robotic is unique. If filtering your voice through crushed silicon chips and the bottled tears of Nat King Cole is unique. If doing exactly what Katy Perry and Ke$ha and a big chunk of the rest of the Top 40 do is unique.
I have another related artifact: “Miss Fortune,” the 2002 LP from the first-rate Americana singer and songwriter Allison Moorer. On it, Moorer had stickers placed that read, “Absolutely no vocal tuning or pitch-correction was used in the making of this record.”
It was a winning stance, especially for people already growing tired of robosingers. It was not, alas, an influential stance. But Moorer could (and can) hit the notes. These days you get the feeling that a lot of singers who could also sing on key don’t bother.
Indeed, you wonder if singers who know they’ll get the “benefit” of Auto-Tune even try anymore.
Does the process work better when it starts with something that’s almost there? Or is Britney Spears’ official “Alien” an entirely plausible result of the unofficial version that is now out in the world?
We probably won’t know. In Vegas, according to those who have seen the show, Spears lip-syncs her way through her hits.
But we do have this new “Alien,” the one that sounds, at least, human.