Cover Your Ears

The Great Debate: Can Britney Spears Sing Without Auto-Tune?

Poor BritBrit is being ravaged by critics after a track leaked of her vocals sans auto-tune, once again surfacing the debate over whether she can sing at all. (Actually, she can.)

Stephen Lam/Reuters

No one ever hears Britney Spears’s music and thinks, “Wow! That girl really just nailed those vocals.” Britney Spears has always been an entertainer more than she’s a singer, and that’s never been a bad thing or an insult. She’s excellent at what she does, and what she does has never been—let’s be honest—considered “singing,” in the purest sense.

So why are we shocked when something leaks that suggests Spears is not a great singer?

Such is the case today, after a video leaked that allegedly included Spears recording vocals for the track “Alien” off her latest album Britney Jean without any auto-tune enhancement. It sounds pretty much how you would expect a Britney Spears song to sound before it’s been auto-tuned. In other words, it does not sound great!

“Not meant to be heard,” is The Huffington Post’s assessment of song. “Painful” is Business Insider’s summary. Perez Hilton is embarrassed for Spears and the culprit who leaked it: “WHO IS THIS PERSON AND WHAT HAS SHE DONE WITH OUR POP PRINCESS?”

Objectively, the raw vocals on this track sound like when you would take long road trips when you were a kid and your sister would loudly sing along to her Discman, but would be unable to hear herself because headphones were too loud and sounded so off-key and flat that you’d want to jump out of the minivan window, lay on I-95, and let fate take its course. But there’s a big difference between your little sister and Britney Spears, and that difference is that Britney Spears gets to use auto-tune.

In fact, Britney Spears’s entire thing is that she uses auto-tune. We don’t just forgive her for it, like we do other singers. We want her to do it. It’s how she get’s the supersonic, sort-of -extraterrestrial, almost inhuman sound that’s so interesting and cool and uniquely hers. Does anyone hear a Britney Spears song and think it’s not auto-tuned? If anyone does, that person is a fool. You and I, though, we’re not fools! So why are we so surprised that, without the help of auto-tune, Spears sounds almost unrecognizable? Guys, that’s the point of auto-tune.

William Orbit, who produced “Alien,” recently came to the defense of Spears after the Internet started ridiculing her vocals, explaining that the version of the song that leaked is a vocal warm-up session and shouldn’t be considered indicative of Spears’s actual vocal performance while recording the track.

"I'd like to affirm that ANY singer when first at the mic at the start of a long session can make a multitude of vocalisations in order to get warmed up," Orbit wrote. "Warming up is essential if you’re a pro, as it is with a runner doing stretches, and it takes a while to do properly. I’ve heard all manner of sounds emitted during warm-ups. The point is that it is not supposed to be shared with millions of listeners.”

He goes on to clarify that Spears isn’t a bad singer, she’s just a good person: "A generous singer will put something down the mic to help the engineer get their systems warmed up and at the right level, maybe whilst having a cup of herb tea and checking through lyrics before the session really kicks off. It’s not expected to be a ‘take.'"

OK. So let’s just take all of this as fact and assume that this leaked track is Spears just goofing around, and that her actual take was spectacular and in-tune and on-key and not as reminiscent of a chorus of cats being murdered as this version is. Can we really believe that? It all goes back to the question that’s sort-of followed Britney Spears since those first “bab-ay, bab-ay”s in 1998. Can she actually sing?

It’s not just the incessant (and, again, perfectly acceptable) auto-tuning that has people suspicious. It’s the fact that she has lip-synched pretty much every televised performance in the past decade. It’s this live vocal recorded at a concert in Las Vegas that went viral because it was so atrocious. Even though the general consensus was that the video was fake, with so few examples remaining of what Spears sounds like live without any vocal enhancement the video served as funny commentary on the rampant speculation that she can’t sing.

So in my official duties as one of the industry’s foremost pop star apologists, I have surfaced these few videos that prove that Britney Spears can, in fact, sing. Listen, she’s no Whitney Houston. Hell, she’s not even a Carly Rae Jepsen. But she can sing. And I think we all need to cut her some slack.

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Here’s her singing “Everytime” live on n ABC special in 2003. It’s actually quite pretty.

Here’s American hero and YouTube user Derek Logan’s impressively thorough supercut of all the examples of Spears singing live since making her comeback.

And because a television so moment at once so cringe-worthy and so glorious should never be forgotten, here’s a video of Britney Spears belting her heart out to “Happy Birthday” for L.A. Reid during her short-lived stint as an X Factor judge.

As a life-long “Happy Birthday” whisperer who stands shyly in the corner barely making a sound while everyone else sings around him, because it such a goddamned hard song to sing (that one high note in the bridge…woof), I am legitimately impressed by her rendition of it.

The moral of the story here, though, is that Spears isn’t as bad of a singer as this leaked version of “Alien” is suggesting. Though we’re not suggesting that Spears abandon her career-long marriage to auto-tune, because that’s a relationship ripe with all kinds of happily ever afters. Especially for our ears.