One of the most rewarding parts of being a music fan is picking a side and arguing for it to the ends of the earth. Pac or Biggie? Britney or Christina? Beatles or Stones? In the series Pop Battles, The Ringer tries to settle long-standing music rivalries using listener data from Spotify, the world’s largest music-streaming service. How are today’s young people connecting with the legendary artists of yesteryear, and what does it say about the way these artists will be interpreted in the future?
Britney Spears vs. Christina Aguilera was the Coke vs. Pepsi of 1999 — no, really, Christina repped Coke and Britney shilled for Pepsi. The two teen idols released debut albums seven months apart before the turn of the century, with Britney’s becoming a standard-bearer for bubblegum pop and Aguilera’s taking an R&B bent to show off her range. Both albums sold like gangbusters. Both sprang into the public consciousness with sexed-up, innuendo-laced music videos that were beamed to millions of tweens via the Disney Channel, for some reason. Before they were famous, they both curved Justin Timberlake on the set of the Mickey Mouse Club (probably). As their stardom faded, they both decided to be judges on televised singing competitions.
Point is, even though their discographies and career arcs are wildly different, Britney and Christina are stuck together in the pop-culture pantheon. But whose music is resonating with listeners 17 years later? Spotify, the envelope please.
Spears has lived two careers — one as a teenage/early-20s pop idol who reigned as a megastar of the late-CD era, and one as an older, diminished veteran who maintained a ravenously devoted fan base but couldn’t keep the fractured music-listening public of the digital age in her orbit. Her streaming stats reflect this difference.
The songs from the first Britney era that are still getting major spins are the ones most defined by visuals. There was Britney in the Catholic schoolgirl outfit (63 million streams). Then there was Britney in the red jumpsuit on Mars (45 million streams) and, of course, Britney with the snake (20 million streams). Spears is an entertainer first and foremost, and there was no artist commanding attention the way she was in the early 2000s. Her ballads from that period, such as “Lucky,” “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart,” and “Sometimes,” generally clock in with way fewer streams (though “Everytime” from 2003’s In the Zone has managed 27 million spins).
It was Britney’s must-see-TV status that was ultimately her undoing, though. Following a four-year hiatus wracked with personal struggles, she returned to the spotlight with a disastrous performance of “Gimme More” at the 2007 Video Music Awards. The song was an important harbinger of her new style, which my colleague Lindsay Zoladz ably described as “posthuman.” But it also signaled that the winkingly not-that-innocent girl of the previous era had been changed. (“It’s Britney, bitch,” were the first words of her comeback.) Her appeal narrowed.
Overall, Britney’s late-era albums have gotten more streams than her early work, but this is more a function of recency bias than greater popularity. 2011’s Femme Fatale, her most-streamed album, went platinum. Baby One More Time went 14x platinum. Femme Fatale’s biggest single, “Till the World Ends,” is one of Spears’s most popular songs on Spotify, with more than 50 million streams. But that number pales in comparison to the singles by another 34-year-old pop star who released a big 2011 album: Beyoncé’s 4 has two songs with more than 100 million streams.
“Toxic,” which reached only no. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, has ascended to become Spears’s most-streamed song. That’s fitting because the track (my favorite of hers) splits the difference between the two Britneys. Former teenyboppers looking for a nostalgia rush can listen to it and remember the harrowing video. Modern Britney fans can play it and hear the blueprint for the electronic sound that’s defined her since Blackout.
There are a few reasons that Aguilera hasn’t been able to match Spears in Spotify streams. Christina has fewer solo LPs, with six (plus a Christmas album) compared to Britney’s nine. Outside of “Genie in a Bottle,” the hits from her wildly successful debut album are no longer that popular — “Come on Over Baby” and “What a Girl Wants” both topped the Billboard Hot 100 but have about 25 million streams between them. And despite releasing new music, she hasn’t managed to reinvent herself as successfully as Spears. Britney has logged six Billboard Top 10 hits since Christina managed her last one in 2008.
In many ways, Aguilera’s strengths are those of a bygone era — one of her albums, Back to Basics, is a deliberate Motown-influenced nostalgia trip. She’s a powerful vocalist able to craft highly resonant ballads like “Beautiful,” her most-streamed song. But since that time period pop music has taken on heavy electronic and hip-hop influences, two genres where vocal ingenuity is often prized over power-ballad belting. Aguilera’s attempts to ride this trend have largely fallen flat. Of her 10 most-streamed tracks, half are ballads, while not a single ballad makes Britney’s more popular top 10 list.
Of course, this focus on the technical craft of singing made Aguilera a perfect fit for The Voice, which has greatly increased her visibility after many years without a hit. But it’s unclear how much of a lift the show has given to Aguilera’s catalog. Her only album since becoming a Voice judge was 2012’s The Lotus, and only two of its songs have more than 10 million streams. On the other hand, “Say Something,” her duet with indie pop duo A Great Big World, got a huge boost from a live performance on The Voice and now has 257 million streams.
It’s clear that Spears and Aguilera took extremely divergent paths following their simultaneous breakout successes. Aguilera often seems to be looking toward the past via conventional ballads and juke-joint jams like “Ain’t No Other Man.” Spears has had her eye on the future since at least 2003’s In the Zone, which NPR called “a primer on the sound of pop in the ’00s.” Listeners, it seems, would prefer to go forward rather than back.