I can’t stop thinking about the young Britney Spears. I found an old clip of her on YouTube – she is hardly ten years old and a contestant on Star Search – a TV show from the last century with Ed McMahon (Johnny Carson’s old side kick) as host. Britney is in a demure little black velvet party dress – with the kind of skirt a girl loves to twirl. I believe she has patent leather shoes on – Mary Jane flats with a little strap across the arch – and there is a bow holding back her long hair. Her eyes almost cross as she sings – she is so fixated on the mic and her use of it. She has pre-Ophelia aplomb and though the song is bigger than her years it is not in any way sexually or emotionally inappropriate. The song stays with me for days through her voice’s identification with it. The moment I do not want to lose comes at 1:29 on my YouTube link. She is inhabiting the climax of one of the musical phrases with her whole body – and that whole prepubescent and not yet pre-packaged body is melting at the knees. Her spine swoons, she is so deeply connected to herself, to her musical expression and to the material at hand…and I am so deeply attracted to her innate singerly-ness.
I was not planning on having this feeling – did not plan to be haunted by the young Britney Spears. I did not like her voice coming through the car radio when my two girls were four and seven and Britney fresh out of the Disney TV machine and being turned out as a pop singer. I did not like the tiny graspy grunt that she began each exhale with; the whiney sound that dominated the flow of that air. Her voice was artificial and pleading, and though she was in her late teens she dressed like a private school girl and aped the small dependent voice of a brain dead adult woman who seemed in need of another orgasm and not much else.
That ‘grrr’ of her grunt sounds to me like the remainders of a woman’s orgasm…a vocal relic. Orgasm is a coming together of fight and flight with rest and digest. Accessing this collaborative relationship between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic functions of the Autonomic Nervous System is essential for a singer’s craft and it is healthy and natural. Curiosity around and practice of orgasm is the fifth piece of homework I give out – after yawn, sigh, belly-laugh and sob. It is a gift from deep within us. A route to learning how to consciously engage both work and release in a way that leads to renewable creativity.
In a variety of classes the week after my Britney epiphany I note the students who seem to be having a challenging time with bringing ‘work’ into ‘release’. I think concretely of the words grrrunt and grrroan. How they seem to conjure sounds located low in the body – how they have a little violence in their grrrip – the growling part of the sound. I know how good it feels to grrrowl. I recall how effective a dog is at keeping a threat at bay, without having to go all out, when he growls. It is such economical productivity. It has a hint of angrrr.
I surprise myself in early December 2012, by asking a group class what they remember of Britney Spears. She seems incredibly distant to us all despite a whole decade of personal scandal so publicly displayed on supermarket magazine racks as well as her recent comeback. She was stunningly famous – selling more than 100 million albums worldwide – more than ten chart topping hits. When I demonstrate a version of the ‘grrr’ she used in her voice – albeit from behind my chest (avoiding my throat and her whine) – my students can recall this signature vocal relic of hers.
I ask them to try it out; it does not go very well. The five of them are trying to imitate my arms-length version of a star they can’t really remember. So I ask them to look for the sound within a sighing orgasmic phrase, re-membering it through body and breath, looking for some purchase behind the chest, and they all do much better! We analyze the sound; it has both desire and satisfaction. It is relaxed and forward moving and the longing is absolutely transparent…almost embarrassingly so. It is not yearning or nostalgic, it gives way to the sound of present moment’s unbridled pleasure. We go around the circle – each person bringing Britney’s tic to life, leaving behind the world of Disney, engaging in full-bodied sound. Maybe this is the sound that the record producers encouraged the young Britney Spears to pimp out, tone down and just ‘suggest’. Maybe they were trying to preserve the deep physical embodiment I experience hearing young Britney at 1:29 on Star Search – make it oddly age appropriate? Maybe they were caught between selling and feeling.
With enough encouragement the four women in the group get it. But our lone man has a harder time. I tease him that it must be easier for us women to show satisfaction, as well as continuing need or desire, given that we are capable of multiple orgasms. He laughs and tries harder to want more while retaining a feeling of deep satisfaction and he does find something akin to what the female voice seems to do just by nature. I witness this same thing in several classes that week – it is much easier for the women once they have jumped the hurdle of propriety – but for the men it is either the release of satisfaction or a galvanized and urgent need that seems more natural to them and not this complex neither/nor, all-of-it-at-once sound. But they do find it for the most part and I do get to think of early, and late, Tom Jones!
I miss the Britney who did not happen – the voice that did not develop or grow into maturity. I would have loved to hear that little one, now grrrown up, sing with Tom Jones. Watch him offer the same generosity I see him extend to Robbie Williams, or delight he beams at Janis Joplin, shared with the Britney who has been haunting me for the last three months.
 A vocal relic is what I call a particular class of sounds used in singing. They are more codified or formalized expressions of vocal sounds that actually happen in real life situations. They could be culled from grunt or whine or groan or holler for example. In a song or when they become a habitual vocal tic of a singer and not necessarily linked to the emotion that would have birthed the sound I find them far removed from what they are for us as humans by nature. And so for me they become relics – or distant memories of what we would call a feeling or emotion. This may make them safer for singer and listener – or even a kind of short hand for emotional intention – but it is no longer the chemical-changing emotional thing it originally was.