The subtle similarities between Britney Spears, pure pop princess, and Lana Del Rey, neo-goth goddess, have become less tenuous as Del Rey’s career blossoms and Spears’ all but wanes (if “Pretty Girls” and a Planet Hollywood residency are any indications). The resemblance — both musically and personally — has become overt, the kind of glaring mirror image that can’t be ignored. Although, at first glance, one would not immediately make the correlation between the two musicians, there is a certain vulnerability paired with a rough-hewn edge that makes them both kindred spirits.
In addition to sharing similar childhoods with regard to an imposing religious presence, there is also the fact that Del Rey has vehemently expressed affection for Spears in the past, as with an impromptu paparazzi interview in which she was asked if she thought Spears would fare well in Vegas, to which she replied, “Definitely, I’d watch her do anything.” Before that, back in 2012, at the outset of her ascending career, Del Rey gushed, “I’m not really interested in a ton of female musicians but there is something about Britney that compelled me — the way she sings and just the way she looks.” Could it perhaps be because they look — and even sing — so parallel to one another with their large physiognomies, long hair, and crooning, been-done-wrong songs?
Clearly, Del Rey has expressed this affinity and admiration in myriad ways, chiefly through her signature sultry voice, coy, yet coquettish air and sartorial style, which is a mixture of current trends and stylists’ opinions—also known as: there is nothing especially stand out about the way they dress; it doesn’t bear the mark of distinctiveness of a Grace Jones or a Madonna. In this respect, Spears and Del Rey have cultivated a sort of unique banality that has made them just special enough to seem avant-garde to the Midwest. Not to say that each one hasn’t done her fair share of playing the provocateur (e.g. Spears at the 2001 MTV VMAs or Del Rey’s “Ride” and Tropico videos, which are often read as misogynistic). But there is something beneath the surface of both their devil-may-care ways that expresses a desire to appeal to the masses in spite of their aloof air. In Spears’ case, mainstream adulation in the beginning proved to be too much pressure and resulted in a breakdown resulting in a hardness and according lyrical attitude. But even before she was institutionalized, traces of Spears’ ire and frustration were evident, as with her remake of Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” in 2004, in which she seethes:
They say I’m crazy, I really don’t care / They say I’m nasty, But I don’t give a damn… / Everybody’s talkin’ all this stuff about me / why don’t they just let me live? / I don’t need permission, make my own decisions.
Spears’ deliberateness in making this the lead single and title of her greatest hits album was a strong indication of her desire to disentangle herself from the expectations of her handlers, critics and audience on her own terms.
Likewise, Del Rey bore a similar brunt early on, when her first live TV performance on Saturday Night Live on 14 January 2012 was received with the type of condemnation generally reserved for serial killers and child molesters. This level of cruelty and scrutiny was not something Spears had to endure on her first album, which was more a launching point for the trajectory of her career than an all-out media blitzkrieg (unless you count mall tours), the latter path of which thrust Del Rey into instant stardom. Certainly, Del Rey had the same kind of issues as Spears with regard to her first record label causing her to feel stagnant (Del Rey eventually bought out her contract with 5 Points Records in order to keep them from releasing any of the material she recorded with them later on). The pressure to manufacture oneself in a specific manner based on the criteria of others is evident in both of their journeys, yet paid off quite literally through the unprecedented sales of their debut albums.
As for lyrical connections, Del Rey delights in painting the image of the tragic girl, the sort who is run-down and destroyed—whether by Hollywood or by a man. Similarly, Spears embodies this same genre of a fatally flawed character. For instance, a track from Del Rey’s latest album, Honeymoon, called “Art Deco” easily describes Spears’ 2006-2007 persona:
Club queen on the downtown scene / Prowling around at night/You’re not mean, you’re just born to be seen / Born to be wild / A little party never hurt no one, that’s why it’s okay.
Other songs on Honeymoon also exemplify the spirit of Spears, like the title track, with its lamenting opening, “We both know that it’s not fashionable to love me.” This melancholic line perfectly corresponds with Spears’ own love life, peppered with romantic failures ranging from Justin Timberlake and Kevin Federline to lesser-known gents like Jason Trawick and Charlie Ebersol. Her history of finding it a challenge to hold on to someone for an extended period is in line with Del Rey’s dalliances as well — she’s been linked to bad boy prototypes like Axl Rose, A$AP Rocky, and Bradley Soileau, among others. Their attempts at attracting the bad boys who personify everything their music stands against is notable. In Spears’ tabloid history, it was a purported play for Fred Durst (remember him from the rap-metal band Limp Bizkit?) and, for Del Rey, it was Marilyn Manson. The extent of these relationships is nebulous, but the mere fact that both artists felt compelled to gravitate towards men who are “edgier” and “unpredictable” demonstrates their need to feel more rebellious than their careers have allowed them to be, or perhaps, the extent to which the public is willing to perceive them as rebellious.
Taking into account the relatively affluent socioeconomic backgrounds of Spears and Del Rey, it’s easy to understand why both singers ultimately felt a need to break free from the norm of such ordinariness through their associations with such roguish males. Spears got a taste of fame on The Mickey Mouse Club, and then its cancellation in 1995 forced her to return to Kentwood, Louisiana to attend the Christian school Parklane Academy (a short drive from her native McComb, Mississippi), where she quickly realized that she needed to get out again. Similarly, Del Rey — while still using the name Elizabeth Grant — attended a Catholic elementary school. Del Rey got her first taste of the spotlight by singing in the church choir as a child, before being sent to another religious boarding school for drinking and partying: bad girl behavior right out of a scene from Spears’ “..Baby One More Time” video.
It was this looming memory of Christian values that plagued the bodies of both Spears’ and Del Rey’s work. For Spears, the conflict between her virgin versus her whore persona that would eventually become the crux of her artistic arc. At the outset, as a Jive Records pop tart being billed as a wholesome gal the entire family could love was insidiously negated by the sexual undertones of everything she did, from her “…Baby One More Time” video to her first Rolling Stone cover featuring her in a black bra acting as though she was just another teen girl talking on the phone. Del Rey’s religiosity manifested in a less overtly sexual way, with greater emphasis on the concept of a fallen woman than the actual display of flesh but the impact on her and her work was similar. For instance, the overriding themes in the videos for “Ride” and Tropico explore the demise of a female character’s innocence, whether it’s the original woman herself, Eve, or a runaway taken in by the allure of a biker gang lifestyle.
There are also striking similarities in the sound of Spears’ and Del Rey’s songs. Where Spears’ music is concerned, it has gone the moody Del Rey route numerous times in the past. From the prostrating “Born to Make You Happy” from her first album to the mournful regret of “Everytime” from In the Zone, Spears has expressed her fair share of agony through her artistry. Moreover, the fact that she’s now doing a Las Vegas stint augments the ill-fated heroine motif explored in most of Del Rey’s oeuvre.
And finally, there’s their lilt and intonation to consider. When Del Rey sings, she often hits the same exact notes and pitches present on Spears’ “Toxic” (which is no coincidence when taking into account that this song and video has been listed as one of her influences). Del Rey, perhaps even more than her nemesis Lady Gaga, is that great internet aggregator of people and trends past, but Spears has been a primary talisman where emulating a precise frailty is concerned.
While it’s easy to compare one female musician to another, the Del Rey/Spears connection is about more than that. It’s almost as though a transference has occurred from Britney to Lana, and the latter is simply walking around with her essence, fine-tuning it into a more defiant, philosophical slant — something Spears was never able to do back in the ‘00s — the early days of cookie cutter pop molds.