Dw. Dunphy On… The Real Reason Why Britney’s “Alien” Is Bad (and Why That’s Bad for Us)

Written by Dw. Dunphy On..., Music

Short version: It is bad on purpose. What does that say about us that we accept it?

This past week the pop blogs were aghast and agog over Britney Spears’ leaked vocal run of “Alien” from the album Britney Jean. There were multiple attempts to pull down the streams, but in the most clinical tradition of going viral, the unadorned track had latched on to multiple carriers.

Britney_JeanI am not here to try to get you to believe there is anything good about the performance that was present. It is, in fact, as terrible as you may have heard. I’m not here to defend Britney either although, at the start, it will sound something like a defense. All in all, it is not Britney’s fault so much as it is the fault of modern celebrity culture and our tolerance, or outright attraction, to it.

The track was produced by William Orbit, a pioneering electronic musician. You will recall his work with Madonna on the Ray of Light album. After the leak of the vocal track, Orbit went into defense mode, stating it was a warm-up track. All successful singers do it, and they all sound like hell while doing so…which is total b.s.

Let us assume Orbit is correct and that is exactly as he claims. It is not uncommon to record warm-ups. Even in the most sterile of environments, sometimes good ideas come up and you want to capture them for study later. But once you’ve done the “official” takes and quickly run through the warm-ups to see if there’s any gold in the mud (they are all equally awful, you know), you wipe them off the hard drive. They will never produce anything of value for future monetization, no special edition bonuses, no fan-club extras, and so all they could do in the future is become a liability.

This is especially true of cloud storage where so much of this leaked material is being grabbed. Wiping undesirable takes that you know aren’t going to be of much purpose later is brand-management, and Britney Spears, above all, is a brand. And William Orbit, above all, is a professional. Those tracks had reason to exist. They are legit.

Isolated audio track of Britney Spears singingThe technology of Auto Tune is such that the programming looks for bum notes in an otherwise useful take and gently bumps up the fall-offs, tightens up unpleasant wavering, that kind of thing. When used correctly, you won’t hear the technology unless it is pointed out. In order to achieve the robotic effect we have come to expect from an Auto Tuned performance, you have to sing badly — really badly…”Alien” badly.

We know from past history that Britney has never been a singer’s singer. Like or dislike her, Christina Aguilera can outsing Britney. Spears is an entertainer who uses the mode of “singer” rather than a singer who entertains. Her first video, “Hit Me Baby One More Time” is known for the schoolgirl fetish kink more than the merits of the song itself, which many would rank as being quite few.The point is that she can still sing well enough to not be considered awful.

It stands to reason that the “Alien” vocal track is official, in an unprocessed form, because Auto Tune only works the way we think we want it to when the singer does a rotten job. That means…Britney sang it like crap on purpose.

Fault the singers of old for being difficult, demanding, or for being “divas” (and I really wish that term would pass away already). But they would not willingly allow to be heard at their worst. They would not “throw the fight.” The culture has become so screwed up that the audience is willing to not only accept a singer who is purposely singing badly, but is actively making them superstar celebrities. They can dish up a foul concoction and call it stew all they choose. It is, nonetheless, the audience that is giving it the attention that is nowhere near merit.

Think about that for a moment.