As something of a lifelong fan, I'm of the opinion that Britney Spears can rarely do wrong. She's the quintessential pop icon, with a back catalog full of songs that have made enormous impact on, and contributions to, pop culture as we know it. She's a showgirl whose performances embody the idea of sex positive empowerment, but she's also a rare industry survivor, with a resilience on a par with her definitive musical talents. So, as you can imagine, I've been soaking up every musical moment from the singles of Britney's new album, Glory, with tremendous joy. From the slow, mesmerizing sex-purr of "Make Me..." to the casual hook-up jive of "Do You Wanna Come Over?," all of the singer's latest songs sound like some of her best tracks in years. It's with great bewilderment, then, that I've watched all four of Britney's recent singles from Glory fail to become the hits they deserve to be.
Though "Make Me" debuted at number two on the iTunes chart, the song had plummeted to 26th position a week later. In a similar performance, "Private Show" reached number six on its first day, but had dropped to number 87 a week later. The two singles that followed these, "Clumsy" and "Do You Wanna Come Over?" didn't even make an appearance in the top 40, with "Clumsy" debuting at number 43 and "Do You Wanna Come Over?" entering the charts at number 45. Both disappeared from the charts altogether less than a week later.
I'm not just being biased when I say that the above tracks are all great songs that deserve better. In fact, most of them received positive critical acclaim upon their release. Entertainment Weekly, for instance called "Make Me", a "woozy, future-funk burner... packed with whooshing synths and a seductive, dub step-esque boom-bap" while Rolling Stone described "Clumsy" as being "a rhythmic, almost swing-inspired turn for Spears, whose sound has evolved from melodic pop to EDM over the past five years." The quality is there, and yet, the success of each isn't. Has Britney got it wrong? I mean, what defining quality is it that separates a hit pop song from a flop?
English music producer William Orbit understands the distinction of what makes a hit pop song. As well as being an established musician himself, Orbit is also something of an iconic hit-maker. He worked with Britney on her song, "Alien" from 2013's Britney Jean, and has also written hits for artists as diverse as Madonna, Blur, and Pink. The producer tells Bustle via email that what's required from a track to give it that extra push for success is, "...a familiar feeling, that also touches off a sense of newness, with a lyric that either strikes a chord and sparks a mood, or is just very satisfying to repeat to oneself, out loud or in the mind." He also adds that, "I just heard the freshly released 'Do you Wanna Come Over?' and that chorus is already welded to my head. There, that’s probably the main criterion for pop, its sticking power."
It's hard to argue with any of the points that Orbit makes here, and if anyone should be an expert on such things, then it's certainly him. But, as much as I'm loathe to admit it, the idea that pop music has "a sense of newness" is one that certainly sounds a little at odds with Spears overall sound. Though there's no denying that her new songs are killer, and clearly some of her best work in years. But they still sound resolutely like Britney Spears. Audio-wise, they aren't new in the slightest; they're comfortable.
Her unique, trademark sound is unmistakable, no matter what melodies, riffs, or genres are dressing up one of her songs. Spears in costume is still Spears. There's a familiarity to her vocals, her style, and the themes that she tends to explore through her music (she's forever fierce, sultry, dominant and determined, not that any of that is a bad thing). In this way, Spears is iconic, but that doesn't always translate directly to long-term, extended success. "Sticking power" may be one of the main criteria for a great pop song, but it can become a crutch if it means the artist gets too comfortable to push outside of their designated musical box.
Though she is just 34 years old, it already feels like Spears has lived a dozen lifetimes within the music industry. And though there's no denying that her music has definitely matured since the bubblegum, playful-naïveté of her debut album, ...Baby One More Time, she still sounds like the Spears we know and love. And as far as hit singles go, an established singer with a great song is to music charts what an old, comfortable chair is to interior design; it may be the best, but it isn't exciting. Instead, listeners appear to respond to artists who are capable of reinvention, risks, and unique approaches. As great as Spears' new material is, you have to admit, it's not revolutionary.
You only have to look at an artist like Beyoncé, to understand how true that sentiment is, and to see reinvention and risk-taking music releases in action. Like Spears, Beyoncé is also 34 and has had the sort of career that makes her feel like she's been around since forever. But, in order to stay fresh and relevant, Bey has consistently reinvented herself and challenged her own identity, public persona, and musical style in order to be artistically surprising and keep grabbing those big hits. In addition to defining her post-Destiny's Child career with the solo album Beyoncé, the singer has since made bold feminist statements on stage, joined forces with Lady Gaga to deliver one of the most influential music videos of the past decade, and released what has arguably one of the most important and ground-breaking albums of the past 50 years with Lemonade.
I'm not suggesting that Spears in some way needs to politicize herself (in the way that Beyoncé has mastered) in order to remain relevant. But I do think she needs to step outside herself, challenge her persona, and elevate her musical style in order to wake people back up to her own particular musical genius. She's iconic for a reason, obviously, but being an icon can often mean becoming stuck within an assigned persona. If Spears wants to make an impact and wants to make hits, then she has to break out of that mold.
Because, right now, she is camouflaged. We can hear her, sure, and we can all appreciate her, but her music is adhering too closely to our expectations of what a "Britney Spears song" sounds like. We know how talented a singer she is, how charismatic and high-charged her live performances are, and the appeal of her personality, but it's time for Spears to truly experiment with her music and deliver something that genuinely makes our jaws drop and minds pop. "As well as making music, I paint in oils," Orbit says. "And [I] love the fact that making pop music has an element of surprise to the creator as well as the listener, just as happens with colours on the brush."
Spears needs to push through her comfort zone and deliver songs that are more than just ear-candy, more than just Britney being Britney. Songs that have that "element of surprise," that don't just reinvent her music, but that reinvent pop music as a whole. I honestly believe that she's still capable of doing that. And that, when she gets there, she'll be getting the hit songs that she definitely deserves.
Images: Isla Murray/Bustle