On June 23, at a public hearing, Britney Spears finally broke her silence about her 13-year-old conservatorship, which has given her father complete oversight of her estate and health (since 2019, Jodi Montgomery has acted as her temporary conservator). On February 5, The New York Times released the documentary “Framing Britney Spears,” which garnered much support and attention for #FreeBritney, a movement started by her fans to raise awareness about the restrictive nature of her conservatorship.
At the hearing, Spears spoke of her experiences and trauma, from being forced to take lithium, a psychiatric medication frequently prescribed as a mood stabilizer, to not being able to have her IUD removed. And as fans across the world voiced their support and concern for Spears, many were quick to point out that her voice sounded drastically different from how she speaks in her Instagram videos and more recent interviews. Her high-pitched “baby” voice had been replaced by a slightly deeper tone — one that many speculate is closer to Spears’ “real” voice, which hasn’t been heard since the early aughts.
When she first began singing as a young child, Spears’ voice sounded deep and soulful, and over the course of her career, her sound has drastically evolved to a higher-pitched, nasal tone that matches the singing voice she’s known for. Journalists have speculated that this change may have been due to Spears’ reported rhinoplasty (AKA “nose job”), but experts point out that there is also a link between vocal fry and trauma.
“Add trauma to the mix and behaviors can change.”
According to the National Institute of Health, the voice can change naturally due to the muscles in the larynx — or voice box — becoming weak over time, and can also evolve as a defense mechanism in response to external stressors in one’s life. According to clinical psychologist Michelle Solomon, PsyD, this is a product of the body’s fight or flight response when experiencing an external or internal threat to our sense of self or wellbeing. “This response is different and unique for everyone — there is no one size fits all for processing challenging emotions,” Solomon tells Her Campus. “Some people get quiet, some people dissociate, and some people become impulsive. If anyone is put in a difficult situation, add trauma to the mix, and behaviors can change.”
“The throat is where we house our ability to communicate and speak authentically.”
Stephanie Simpson, an optimal performance coach and performing artist who holds a Master’s in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University, tells Her Campus that the body has a clear reaction to psychological stress. “Our bodies literally go into a stress cycle,” she says. “A spike in cortisol and all of the catabolic hormones come out, and that comes up in different ways for people. The throat is where we house our ability to communicate and speak authentically. So, if we feel like we aren’t being heard or seen as who we are, or valued as who we are, that can get blocked. A lot of times when it gets blocked, the throat gets constricted.”
Simpson recalls experiencing vocal constriction firsthand at a young age, and has since made the connection that it may have been due to trauma occurring in her life. At the time, she was diagnosed with strep throat four times, as well as mono, and not only noticed a shift in her physical voice, but in her ability to perform under pressure. “When I rehearsed for a show, I would be really great with my voice teacher or at home, and then I’d get to an audition and [my voice] wouldn’t quite be the same,” she says.
Today, Simpson uses a combination of psychological and mind-body techniques to help clients overcome life’s challenges, whether it’s rehearsing for a public performance or, like the case of Ms. Spears, navigating a traumatic situation, and speaking about it publicly.
The voice can be a powerful vessel for communicating emotions.
For Spears, a woman in the spotlight navigating a difficult life change, a vocal shift is not uncommon. According to research from Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology, an academic journal focused on speech, language, and voice pathology, women are nearly twice as likely to report a vocal health problem than men. Research suggests that improper use of the voice, or speaking in a “fake” voice for long periods of time — similar to what Spears has been doing for years — can also be physically damaging.
A 2016 study of 51 singers conducted by the National Library of Medicine noted that feelings of attachment, shame, and emotional neglect can also be linked to vocal intensity — all of which are themes present in Spears’ testimony. A 2019 study of 29 women conducted at the University of Pittsburgh suggests that the human voice carries a wealth of information about a person’s physical and emotional states, personality, and even their past traumatic experiences.
That said, the number of factors contributing to Spears’ vocal change, from voice health, psychological distress, and trauma to age, are pure speculation. The voice can be a powerful vessel for communicating emotions, and fans and experts alike have noted the significance of Spears’ tone during her heartfelt testimony.
“For so long, the media dictated and created a narrative around Britney’s personal and professional life,” says Dr. Solomon. “Her choices, emotional well-being, body image, and overall identity appeared to be constantly critiqued under a microscope — it seemed she had little control over what people said about her. That’s why it is so important for anyone to be in control of their own narrative. It is important for women to feel empowered and based on reports, and Britney did not have that opportunity.”
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University of Pittsburgh Department of Otolaryngology. (2021, January 8). Psychogenic voice disorders. http://www.otolaryngology.pitt.edu.