1981–97: Early life and career beginnings
Britney Jean Spears was born on December 2, 1981, the second child of Lynne Irene (née Bridges) and James Parnell Spears. She is of English heritage through her maternal grandmother, who was born in London, and of distant Maltese descent. Her siblings are Bryan James and Jamie Lynn. At age three, she started to attend dance lessons in her hometown of Kentwood, Louisiana, and was selected to perform a solo at the annual recital. During her childhood, she also attended gymnastics and voice lessons, and won many state-level competitions and children's talent shows.
Spears made her local stage debut at age five, singing "What Child Is This?" at her kindergarten graduation. She said about her ambition as a child, "I was in my own world, [...] I found out what I'm supposed to do at an early age". At age eight, Spears and her mother Lynne traveled to Atlanta for an audition in the 1990s revival of The Mickey Mouse Club. Casting director Matt Cassella rejected her for being too young to join the series at the time, but introduced her to Nancy Carson, a New York City talent agent. Carson was impressed with Spears's vocals and suggested enrolling her at the Professional Performing Arts School; shortly after, Lynne and her daughters moved to a sublet apartment in New York.
Spears was hired for her first professional role as the understudy for the lead role of Tina Denmark in the Off-Broadway musical Ruthless!. She also appeared as a contestant on the popular television show Star Search, as well as being cast in a number of commercials. In December 1992, she was finally cast in The Mickey Mouse Club, but returned to Kentwood after the show was cancelled. She enrolled at Parklane Academy in nearby McComb, Mississippi. Although she made friends with most of her classmates, she compared the school to "the opening scene in Clueless with all the cliques. [...] I was so bored. I was the point guard on the basketball team. I had my boyfriend, and I went to homecoming and Christmas formal. But I wanted more."
In June 1997, Spears was in talks with manager Lou Pearlman to join female pop group Innosense. Lynne asked family friend and entertainment lawyer Larry Rudolph for his opinion and submitted a tape of Spears singing over a Whitney Houston karaoke song along with some pictures. Rudolph decided he wanted to pitch her to record labels, therefore she needed a professional demo. He sent Spears an unused song from Toni Braxton; she rehearsed for a week and recorded her vocals in a studio with a sound engineer. Spears travelled to New York with the demo and met with executives from four labels, returning to Kentwood the same day. Three of the labels rejected her, arguing audiences wanted pop bands such as the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls, and "there wasn't going to be another Madonna, another Debbie Gibson, or another Tiffany." Two weeks later, executives from Jive Records returned calls to Rudolph.
Senior vice president of A&R Jeff Fenster stated about Spears's audition that "It's very rare to hear someone that age who can deliver emotional content and commercial appeal. [...] For any artist, the motivation—the 'eye of the tiger'— is extremely important. And Britney had that." They appointed her to work with producer Eric Foster White for a month, who reportedly shaped her voice from "lower and less poppy" delivery to "distinctively, unmistakably Britney." After hearing the recorded material, president Clive Calder ordered a full album. Spears had originally envisioned "Sheryl Crow music, but younger more adult contemporary" but felt all right with her label's appointment of producers, since "It made more sense to go pop, because I can dance to it—it's more me." She flew to Cheiron Studios in Stockholm, Sweden, where half of the album was recorded from March to April 1998, with producers Max Martin, Denniz Pop and Rami, among others.
Musical style and performance
Following her debut, Spears was credited with leading the revival of teen pop in the late 1990s. The Daily Yomiuri reported that "[m]usic critics have hailed her as the most gifted teenage pop idol for many years, but Spears has set her sights a little higher-she is aiming for the level of superstardom that has been achieved by Madonna and Janet Jackson." Rolling Stone wrote: "Britney Spears carries on the classic archetype of the rock & roll teen queen, the dungaree doll, the angel baby who just has to make a scene." Rami Yacoub who co-produced Spears's debut album with lyricist Max Martin, commented, "I know from Denniz Pop and Max's previous productions, when we do songs, there's kind of a nasal thing. With N' Sync and the Backstreet Boys, we had to push for that mid-nasal voice. When Britney did that, she got this kind of raspy, sexy voice." Following the release of her debut album, Chuck Taylor of Billboard observed, "Spears has become a consummate performer, with snappy dance moves, a clearly real-albeit young-and funkdified voice ... "(You Drive Me) Crazy", her third single ... demonstrates Spears's own development, proving that the 17-year-old is finding her own vocal personality after so many months of steadfast practice." Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic referred to her music as a "blend of infectious, rap-inflected dance-pop and smooth balladry." Spears later commented, "With ...Baby One More Time, I didn't get to show my voice off. The songs were great, but they weren't very challenging".
Oops!...I Did It Again and subsequent albums saw Spears working with several contemporary R&B producers, leading to "a combination of bubblegum, urban soul, and raga." Her third studio album, Britney derived from the teen pop niche, "[r]hythmically and melodically ... sharper, tougher than what came before. What used to be unabashedly frothy has some disco grit, underpinned by Spears' spunky self-determination that helps sell hooks that are already catchier, by and large, than those that populated her previous two albums." Guy Blackman of The Age wrote that while few would care to listen to an entire Spears album, "[t]he thing about Spears, though, is that her biggest songs, no matter how committee-created or impossibly polished, have always been convincing because of her delivery, her commitment and her presence. For her mostly teenage fans, Spears expresses perfectly the conflicting urges of adolescence, the tension between chastity and sexual experience, between hedonism and responsibility, between confidence and vulnerability."
Her vocal ability has also been criticized, often drawing unfavorable comparison to her pop rival, Christina Aguilera Critic Allan Raible derides her overdependence in Circus on digital effects and the robotic effect it creates. "She’s never been a strong vocalist..." writes Raible, "Could she handle these songs with stripped down arrangements and no vocal effects? More importantly, would anyone want to hear her attempt such a performance? Does it matter? No. The focus is still image over substance." Her image and persona are also often contrasted to Christina Aguilera. David Browne of Entertainment Weekly observed "Christina Aguilera may flash skin and belly button, but in her music and manner, she's too eager not to offend — she's a good girl pretending to be bad. Spears, however, comes across as a bad girl acting good ... Spears' artificial-sweetener voice is much less interesting than the settings, yet that blandness is actually a relief compared with Aguilera's numbing vocal gymnastics. In contrast, Allmusic comments: "Like her peer Christina Aguilera, Britney equates maturity with transparent sexuality and the pounding sounds of nightclubs ... Where Christina comes across like a natural-born skank, Britney is the girl next door cutting loose at college, drinking and smoking and dancing and sexing just a little too recklessly, since this is the first time she can indulge herself. Sal Cinquemani of Slant Magazine notes, "The disparity between Aguilera and Spears can't be measured solely by the timbre and octave range of their voices ... [Aguilera's] popularity has never reached the fever pitch of Britney's."
Like other dance-oriented pop stars, it has been widely reported that Spears lip-syncs in concert. Author Gary Giddins wrote in his book Natural selection: Gary Giddins on comedy, film, music, and books (2006) that "among many other performers accused of moving their lips while a machine does the labor are Britney Spears, Luciano Pavarotti, Shania Twain, Beyoncé, and Madonna." Rashod D. Ollison of The Baltimore Sun observes: "Many pop stars ... feel they have no choice but to seek vocal enhancement. Since the advent of MTV and other video music channels, pop audiences have been fed elaborate videos thick with jaw-dropping effects, awesome choreography, fabulous clothes, marvelous bodies. And the same level of perfection is expected to extend beyond the video set to the concert stage. So if Britney Spears, Janet Jackson or Madonna sounds shrill and flat without a backing track, fans won't pay up to $300 for a concert ticket." Giddins adds, "it was reported Britney Spears fans prefer her to lip-sync—despite her denials of doing so (contradicted by her own director)—because they expect flawless digitalization when they pay serious money for a concert."
In Australia, NSW Fair Trading Minister Virginia Judge has advised disclaimers be printed on any ticket for concerts which contain any prerecorded vocals. She commented: "There could have been some instances where people actually go and purchase a ticket thinking that they're going to have a live performance ... for some people that means that everything is live, it's fresh, it happens instantaneously, it's not something that's been pre-recorded. You want to make sure that they're actually paying for what they think they're getting." Noting on the prevalence of lip-syncing, Los Angeles Daily News reported "in the context of a Britney Spears concert, does it really matter? Like a Vegas revue show, you don't go to hear the music, you go for the somewhat-ridiculous spectacle of it all". Similarly, Aline Mendelsohn of the Orlando Sentinel remarked: "Let's get one thing straight: A Britney Spears concert is not about the music ... you have to remember that it's about the sight, not the sound." Critic Glenn Gamboa comments her concert tours are "like her life—a massive money-making venture designed to play up her talents and distract from her shortcomings with a mix of techno-tinged sex appeal and disco-flavored flash. And, like her life, it is, more or less, a success.[164