Britney Spears
Britney Spears
Image: Commons Wikimedia

Britney is "the most influential pop star of her generation", with artists like Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey and Charli XCX namechecking her, writes Nick Levine. Is 2022 the year to re-evaluate the singer?T

The ongoing emancipation of Britney Spears has been one of 2022's defining pop culture events, and the singer is still causing headlines. Spears is a superstar who inspires a unique kind of devotion: her fans are so loyal that they started a social movement, #FreeBritney, to focus global attention on the conservatorship that denied the artist agency over her personal and business affairs for more than 13 years. The restrictive legal arrangement – described by Spears as "abusive" but imposed amid concerns for her mental health – was terminated in November 2021, allowing her to control her own life and career again. In June of this year, she married her partner of six years, Sam Asghari; then in August she returned to the charts with Hold Me Closer, a slick collaboration with Elton John that blends together elements from his classic songs Tiny Dancer, Don't Go Breaking My Heart and The One. It peaked at number six in the US and three in the UK, becoming her highest-charting single in both markets for a decade.

If Hold Me Closer feels like a measured comeback – it's a high-profile duet with an instantly familiar chorus – it's also a stirring one. Even if it doesn't signal a long-term return to recording and touring for Spears, who at this point owes nothing to anyone but herself, it presents a welcome opportunity to reassess her musical legacy. Spears hasn't always been given her dues: a particularly cruel review of her blockbuster second album, 2000's Oops!... I Did It Again, dismissed her as a "true cipher, a dress-up doll programmed to satisfy as many different fans and fantasies as possible". But 24 years after she broke through with ...Baby One More Time, an iconic debut single that defined a new golden age of teen-pop, it's no exaggeration to call Spears the most influential pop artist of her generation.

She has been hailed as an inspiration by everyone from Lady Gaga, who in 2009 described her as "the most provocative performer of my time", to Lana Del Rey. "There is something about Britney that compelled me," Del Rey said in 2012, "the way she sings and just the way she looks." More recently, the highly acclaimed Japanese-British singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama said Spears was the first artist she fell in love with. She recalled watching her music videos as a child and thinking: "I want her as an older sister". Spears' videos could be high-concept affairs where she played a lonely Hollywood actress (Lucky) or a vampish flight attendant (Toxic), but with 2000 single Stronger, she showed she could hold our full attention with nothing but her dance moves and simple props like a chair and a cane. Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Styrke is equally effusive when asked how Spears has influenced her as a musician. "Oh my, how hasn't she?" she tells BBC Culture. "She has inspired a maybe delusional strive for pop stardom [in me], wanting to be a pop princess with a pure heart. Her voice, her dancing, her blonde hair… all of it has been influential."

No fear

Spears is also a long-time LGBTQ icon who has influenced the contemporary drag scene with her high-octane dance routines. Jonbers Blonde, a Northern Irish drag performer who was a finalist on the latest series of RuPaul's Drag Race UK, says she was particularly fascinated by two audacious performances Spears gave at the MTV Video Music Awards. In 2000, Spears delivered an inventive medley of (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction and Oops!... I Did It Again that really showed off her commanding stage presence and precision-tooled dance moves. Then the following year, she sang I'm A Slave 4 U with a live python draped over her shoulders. "I think it was the fearlessness that she portrayed in those MTV performances that inspired me," Blonde says. "Doing drag, you need to be fearless – even to leave the house in drag is brave – and that's something that Britney definitely is."

So why, given all this praise from performers who've followed in her wake, is Spears still slightly underrated? Partly it's a result of what we might call her "origin story". As a child growing up in Kentwood, Louisiana, a small town in the US Bible Belt, Spears displayed a preternatural flair for performance. "I was in my own world. I found out what I'm supposed to do at an early age," she recalled in a 1999 Rolling Stone cover story. At 12, having already appeared on the talent show Star Search and in several TV adverts, Spears was cast in The Mickey Mouse Club, a wholesome Disney variety show on which she sang and danced with fellow future A-listers Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling. But when she launched her music career in 1998, four years after the show was axed, the "Mouseketeer" tag seemed to cling a little more closely to Spears than it did to her peers.

It could be argued that Spears' rise in the late 1990s was so meteoric that the media of the time had trouble processing it. Written and produced by Max Martin, the Swedish songwriting genius who has now penned more Billboard Hot 100 chart-toppers than anyone bar John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Spears' irresistible 1998 debut single ...Baby One More Time wasn't just a hit but a pop culture phenomenon. Helped by a memorable music video in which Spears chose to wear a schoolgirl outfit – a look often interpreted as suggestive, but which also reflected her age – it became one of the best-selling singles of all time. Her debut album, also called ...Baby One More Time, ended up selling 26 million copies worldwide after spawning further huge hits with Sometimes and (You Drive Me) Crazy. "When ...Baby One More Time came out, the market, particularly in America, was saturated by boy bands," notes Alim Kheraj, a music, culture and LGBTQ journalist. "I don't think since Madonna had there been a female artist that had really skyrocketed in pop that way."

By 1999, Spears was already successful enough to embark on the Baby One More Time Tour, a 56-date criss-cross of North America, but her popularity came laced with a certain amount of disdain. Because she was so young and didn't write any of the songs on her debut album, it was all too easy to dismiss and dehumanise her as a mere "pop puppet".  "I don't doubt that, initially, Max Martin had a large role to play in how ...Baby One More Time sounded," Kheraj counters, "but ultimately the delivery, the timbre and the performance of the song is all Britney. She is in control of the song." For Kheraj, this minimisation of Spears' creative input was intensified by a toxic combination of sexism and classism. "From the off, Britney was dubbed 'stupid' and 'trailer trash' by the media," he says. Sometimes this snobbery was a little more thinly veiled, complete with patronising misogyny: Rolling Stone's review of her debut album said that Baby One More Time [the song] had succeeded in "effectively transforming this ex-Mouseketeer born in a tiny Louisiana town into a growling jailbait dynamo".

Because she broke through in the late 1990s, at the tail end of an era dominated by powerhouse vocalists like Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, Spears' distinctive singing voice was often woefully undervalued. Kheraj points to her more mature third album, 2001's Britney, which saw her embrace R&B on I'm A Slave 4 U and soft rock on I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman, as the point at which she really honed her vocal style. "She pushes her voice into more whispery textures, playing with the different sounds that she's able to create in order to elevate a song," Kheraj says, comparing her to Kylie Minogue and Janet Jackson in this respect. "Though in my opinion," he adds, "Spears' ability to be an actress with her own voice, taking on different tones, timbres and vibrations, is second to none." This assessment of Spears' vocal technique is echoed by Andrew Watt, a producer who worked with her on this year's Elton John duet Hold Me Closer. "She's unbelievable at layering her voice and doubling, which is one of the hardest things to do," he told The Guardian in August, adding: "She's so good at knowing when she got the right take. She took complete control."

Finding her voice

As Spears' career progressed, she also took more control of her music from the very start of the creative process. Kheraj says she had a predilection for finding collaborators who "would disrupt the status quo of pop" – like envelope-pushing R&B duo the Neptunes, who produced her early 2000s hits I'm a Slave 4 U and Boys, and Moby, who worked on her trance-influenced track Early Mornin'. The latter appeared on Spears' 2003 album In the Zone, her fourth, on which she co-wrote eight of 12 songs including the beautifully subdued ballad Everytime. "The video was always on MTV when I was about 11, and I remember feeling so sad for her," says Styrke, referring to the song's regretful lyrics as well as its video depicting the dark side of fame. "Hearing it [now] still makes me really feel for her."

In the Zone was another step up for Spears, but her magnum opus came four years later with 2007's Blackout, an incredibly innovative album that she executive produced. Home to the huge hits Gimme More and Piece of Me, Blackout didn't just feature cutting-edge production blending elements of techno, EDM and dubstep (then a very new genre); it also underlined Spears' fearlessness. Piece of Me, a song that savagely sends up negative perceptions of her at the time, is as self-referential as pop music gets. "Guess I can't see the harm in working and being a mama," Spears sings. "And with a kid on my arm, I'm still an exceptional earner." It doesn't matter that Spears didn't write it; she said everything she needed to just by putting it out. Blackout was a high-water mark, but Spears has displayed a knack for picking winning material throughout her career. "Have you heard her albums? They're so intelligent," avant-garde singer-songwriter Charli XCX said in 2014. "The way her songs are crafted is really amazing. I think that [her] music is really interesting and clever."

In February 2008, just three months after Blackout came out, Spears was involuntarily placed under a conservatorship that would last for 13 years. She released four albums during this period, 2008's Circus, 2011's Femme Fatale, 2013's Britney Jean and 2016's Glory. Though Femme Fatale was sonically spectacular and spawned the stunning singles Hold It Against Me and Till the World Ends, it's arguable that only Glory was the work of a fully invested Spears. "I was really specific about who I worked with and I've been learning to say no," she told NME shortly after Glory's release. "I'm a people-pleaser, so that's hard for me – even if I don't like something, I'll do it just to make a person happy. I made sure this album was everything I wanted it to be. I was really selfish with it."

However, Spears' career between 2013 and 2017 was most notable for her epic, 248-date Las Vegas residency. Titled Britney: Piece of Me, it wasn't just a box office success that grossed an enormous $137.7 million, but also a game-changer in terms of revitalising the city's somewhat fusty image. After Spears became a major draw on the Vegas strip, contemporary artists including Lady Gaga, Adele and Jennifer Lopez signed up for lucrative residencies there. Still, as influential as Britney: Piece of Me proved to be, it shouldn't be forgotten that Spears allegedly performed it under duress. In August 2022, she tweeted a link to a 22-minute voice memo in which she outlined her "demoralising" experience living and working according to the terms of her conservatorship. "My performances I know were horrible," she said of her Vegas stint. "I was just a robot."

This shouldn't be allowed to diminish the succession of dazzling performances she gave at the start of her career, both on tour and in music videos. And if the #FreeBritney movement has taught us anything about Spears, it's that she retains an ineffable quality that makes people really root for her.  "My whole feeling about her since the beginning has been so special and different from other pop stars," adds Styrke. "And I think a lot of people feel the same way. For some reason it really feels like you know her." Kheraj argues that the public's overwhelmingly sympathetic response to details of her conservatorship is further evidence of her enduring impact. "Britney Spears is pop culture [because] she encapsulates every aspect of what modern celebrity is," he adds. "She's the American Dream, the cautionary tale, the story of redemption and now a symbol of liberation." And there's no chance of her stepping out of the spotlight entirely: next year will bring a tell-all memoir in which Spears has pledged to address "events in my life [that] I've never been able to express openly". For this reason, even if her 2022 chart comeback proves to be a one-off rather than a sign of things to come, Spears' place at the top of the pop pantheon is firmly guaranteed.