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Britney Spears’ comeback song with Elton John has been divisive, but for fans, knowing she’s happy is enough

Her new single Hold Me Closer, a duet with Sir Elton, is a sweet, shimmering return for the singer

Some music fans thought this day would never come: Britney Spears’s return to recorded music. Since the end of her 13-year conservatorship – which saw all decisions concerning her life, career, and considerable estate handed to her father Jamie (and, briefly, various lawyers) – it has felt unlikely that Britney, understandably traumatised by being forced to tour, perform, and release music on a schedule that was not her own, would return to the studio. But one of her favourite artists, Elton John, persuaded her to join him.

Today, a duet between Britney and Sir Elton, titled “Hold Me Closer,” a partial rework of his iconoclastic 1971 hit “Tiny Dancer”, featuring brand new vocals from Spears, has been released. The song is an admittedly slight, but nonetheless shimmering, paean to late summer, in a similar disco-lite, beach-club-ready vein to John’s 2021 Dua Lipa collaboration “Cold Cold Heart”. I’m sure you can expect to hear it everywhere over the bank holiday weekend.

Some fans have been disappointed by the song, though I’m not sure why – we could hardly expect “Toxic” 2.0 from an Elton John collab. What is far and away most striking about the track is how beautiful it is to hear Britney Spears singing again. Listening with the knowledge that the decision to make it has been completely on her own terms, supported by an artist who Spears so admires herself, is moving. She sounds wonderful. The distinctive, dynamite tone that makes her such an irresistible recording artist has only improved, and she is clearly at ease against the gently sparkling production that sounds like the sun reflecting on the sea as it sets.

Spears recorded her parts of the track in LA with producer Andrew Watt. In an interview with The Guardian, Watt described her as “so prepared”, noting that “she had spent time with the record and knew how she wanted to do it. She was really collaborative and had really good ideas about the production. She’s an expert in music to make you dance.”

For fans of Spears, news of her prowess in the studio won’t be surprising – she is one of the world’s greatest ever pop stars for a reason – but hearing that she took to the experience like a duck to water after time away will be heartening. After the conservatorship – which lasted from 2008 to 2021 – ended, and she was able to speak more freely, she swore off music, writing on Instagram, which has been her main method of communication with fans for years, that “Not doing my music any more is a way of saying ‘f*** you’”. Her focus instead was on parenting her sons, marrying her much-loved fiancé Sam Asghari, and readjusting to life on her own terms.

Britney Spears arriving at the MTV Video Music Awards 2016 (Photo: PA)

So when it was announced that she had collaborated with Sir Elton, it was big news. On Thursday, ahead of the track’s release, she tweeted, acknowledging the scale of this moment for herself: “I tell myself every day to let go of the hurt bitterness and try to forgive myself and others to what may have been hurtful […] My first song in 6 years !!!! It’s pretty damn cool that I’m singing with one of the most classic men of our time.”

A comeback made with such aplomb is brilliant: it signals that she still has a desire to make new music – her talent and gifts as a performer rising above all they have been put through over the years – and gives us hope that one day, we might see a Britney Spears album made completely as she wants it, freed of the restrictions and restraints placed on her for the last decade of her career.

Still, Britney’s fans know that the time for this may never come. She has been treated so badly for so long that the majority of her considerable fanbase simply wants to see her thriving in whatever areas of her life she chooses. For many millennials, she is a deeply personal pop star – she was the defining artist of the turn of the millennium, and indeed, in my own life, she has always been a total lightning rod: my earliest memory of being completely and immediately entranced by a song and a singer is of hearing “…Baby One More Time” on the car radio and having my world expanded in an instant. She was also the first artist I ever saw performing live, and few of my concert-going experiences since have beat it.

There are millions like me, to whom she has already offered so much joy and revelation. More new Britney music would of course be a dream come true, particularly when she is in as fine a voice as on “Hold Me Closer” – but in 2022 we must accept that it’s a bonus. It’s satisfaction enough simply to see her happy. 

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