Seattle’s Prom Queen Rally to #FreeBritney with Spears Covers EP Lucky

Photo Credit: Ernie Sapiro

Lately, pop star Britney Spears has been back in the news as she fights to end her court-ordered conservatorship, prompted by a fame-induced mental breakdown in 2008. Thirteen years later, Spears is fighting to regain her autonomy from her conservator father, who limits her access to her estate and allegedly restricts her reproductive rights.

The battle for Spears’ freedom has sparked widespread discussions about disability rights and the public voyeurism that contributed to Spears’ tragic predicament. As society’s scrutiny of Spears’ personal life escalates once again, Seattle and L.A.-based artist Celene “Leeni” Ramadan, also known as Prom Queen, has decided to put emphasis on a part of Britney that she feels is often overlooked—Spears’ talent and significance as a musical artist.

With that in mind, Prom Queen will release a new EP on July 30th entitled Lucky. The 5-song EP is comprised purely of Britney Spears covers, interpreted in Prom Queen’s quintessential macabre-pop language, with a portion of the proceeds from the album going to the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse.

“With this record, I want people to hear these songs in a different way, to celebrate Britney as an artist,” says Leeni. “If there’s a famous person who’s a man, and who is a brilliant artist but has mental illness, he is celebrated and he is given freedom and he is not being locked down by his mom. We make movies about men like this. These are celebrated stories for a man but for a woman to have any sort of challenges mentally is a problem and we need to lock her away and take away her rights and [say] oh my god, she can’t be a mother.”

Leeni, who is only one year apart in age from Britney Spears, has always enjoyed the pop star’s music and felt close to Spears, who she calls a “generational icon for people my age.” In fact, Leeni’s passion for Britney Spears actually helped her find employment after she first moved to Seattle in 2004.

“In 2005, I started really looking around for work and I was doing improv comedy and one of my improv friends was doing these singing telegrams through this agency called Livewire, and she got me connected with them. I became a performer for them and have worked with them for over a decade doing singing telegrams as different characters [including Britney Spears,]” she recalls. “I remember my first Britney gig – I was hired to walk around at the convention center downtown and all I had to do was wear this schoolgirl outfit and be Britney for a day and it was really fun. And then I remember also performing for some kid’s birthday party. It was so cute. There was a bunch of girls, and they just wanted me to show up and do a full Britney singalong with them.”

It was during her time working as a Britney Spears impersonator that Leeni said she learned Spears’ catalogue inside and out, and even then, knew someday she’d do a Britney Spears cover album. After all, Prom Queen loves to cover songs, something that garnered the band national attention in 2016, when Prom Queen’s mash-up of the Twin Peaks and Stranger Things themes, Stranger Peaks, went viral.

“I consider myself a melody junkie; there’s just melodies that I love and when you get to hear them in a different context – I don’t know, for me, it gives me goosebumps,” she says. “I want to hear a great interpretation of a melody that I love… Like when I did my cover of ‘November Rain,’ I was like, ‘That is a doo-wop song.’ I was so obsessed with making that song over the years. I think I started my first one in like 2009 and kept making that song until I felt like I got it right. I don’t know, I just always really love making covers.”

As for Lucky, Prom Queen has had the concept in her mind “for years,” and had been collecting and studying Britney Spears’ songs on a Spotify playlist, hoping to narrow down her extensive catalogue and choose the ones that would work best in Prom Queen’s style—which includes a slow country ballad version of Spears’ breakout hit “Baby One More Time,” a Dick Dale surf-rock version of “Toxic,” and a glimmering doo-wop adaptation of the EP’s eponymous “Lucky.”

“I’ve always wanted to do an EP of a single artist and Britney has kind of always been at the top of my list,” says Leeni. “I just feel like a great pop song is a great pop song and you can do a number of different things with it and if the bones of the song are good, you can really take it anywhere. I think these songs to me were some of the best. I had such a hard time choosing. I think these songs, it’s kind of my favorite cross-section of her [work.]”

Prom Queen started making demos of her favorite Britney songs in Spring of 2021, and sending them to her bandmate. She would lay down bass, the acoustic guitar and some sketches of the other instruments and then send them to other folks she wanted to include on the record—including locals Jason Goessl of Sundae and Mr. Goessl, guitarist Ben Von Wildenhaus, violinist Andrew Joslyn, and fellow Britney Spears-loving L.A.-based singer, Cassandra Violet.

“Cassandra Violet is a friend of mine and she’s a big Britney fan. She wrote a piece on Medium about Britney and she just released her debut album and she has a song about Britney Spears, and she and I have collaborated a few times so I thought it would be really great to have her sing the harmony on ‘Lucky,’” Leeni says. “And then I got Andrew Joslyn to do the strings, so those are real strings on the EP.”

Each musician recorded their tracks for Lucky in their respective home studios, for COVID safety, and sent them back to Leeni, at which point Tom Meyers, Prom Queen’s drummer, engineered and mixed the EP. Prom Queen has already released their video for “Baby One More Time,” and the band is currently working on a video for “Toxic.”

As for what she hopes this EP can achieve, Leeni hopes it reminds her fans that Prom Queen is still making music, and that it gives fans some fun nostalgic pop music to enjoy over the summer. She also hopes the EP’s celebration of Britney’s music can underscore the importance of Spears’ struggle, advocating that the pop star should get to choose what the rest of her life looks like—even if it means never returning to the stage.

“I hope that she can get her freedom. I hope they can end the conservatorship. I hope that she can even get a restraining order against her father or whatever she needs, but you know, I don’t think that she needs to be in the public eye ever again if she doesn’t want to,” says Leeni. “Whatever she wants to do with the rest of her life, I want it to be her choice.”

Follow Prom Queen on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Chelsea Collins Serves Up Classic Dirty Pop Anthem with “07 Britney”

Photo Credit: Miles Arnay

Without the distractions of work or a social life, everyone has a lot more time on their hands, and they’re getting particularly introspective about the albums and songs that influenced their sound palettes. The “30-day song challenge” and “10 days of 10 albums” have been rapidly trending on all platforms of social media. For over a decade, I’ve confessed my obsession to pop music. I love its escapist charm, addictive melodies, and the melodramatic fantasy. A good pop song leaves you feeling hopelessly optimistic – for two and a half minutes – and the early 2000s, often considered a golden era, still influences contemporary culture. Perhaps ironically, the world today feels a bit like what we anticipated 20 years ago… if Y2K had been a real tipping point.

I recently watched an episode of MTV’s Making The Video focused on *NSYNC’s “Pop.” Notably, the episode featured choreographer Wade Robson (who later became well-known for the harrowing story of child abuse he tells in Leaving Neverland) filling in for an unexpectedly injured Joey Fatone and thus saving the video. It left out rumors that Robson was responsible for breaking up Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, who he had also worked with. At every turn, the mirage of the bubblegum masked the dark, complex undertones of the music industry in the early aughts.

With a bit of context and a strong affinity for Dirty Pop of the 2000s, I’d like to introduce rising star Chelsea Collins. The songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist re-imagines pop not only as a thrilling, twisted, and topsy-turvy fantasy – but through a lens of autonomy. At 21 years old, Collins is calling her own shots, showing how far the industry has come.

Catching the attention of HITCO Founder and C.E.O. L.A. Reid during a 2019 studio session, she inked a deal with the label. She also signed with S2 for publishing, the company owned by Savan Kotecha (who co-wrote four tracks on Arianna Grande’s Thank U, Next) and Sonny Takhar. After introducing herself on her first single “Tobacco and Tears,” Collins kicked off 2020 with “Used to be (L.O.V.E.),” tallying over 4.5 million streams, 31k TikTok creates and 625K views in under a month.

Collins recently released the sizzling track “07 Britney,” paying homage to the star’s most troubled year, in which Spears released Blackout amid a custody battle with estranged husband Kevin Federline, shaved her head, and eventually landed in rehab. Taking a lighter approach, the DIY music video shows Collins playing closet dress up across different scenes around Los Angeles, honoring the iconic namesake in the title. On a recent call with the kind-hearted, bubbly Collins, I had the pleasure of uncovering more to the rising star than meets the eye.

AF: How did you begin your musical journey?

CC: Honestly music was something that I picked up super early on. I started theatre when I was four or five. At the same time I started doing classical piano, and always naturally gravitated towards music. It was engraved that it would continue to be obsessed with music. I always naturally gravitated towards it. My dad would put me in sports – I was like “No! I want to sing!” When I was in middle school I started writing and that opened my eyes to everything. I took my love for singing and merged it with piano composition. I thought, “Woah, I can make my own songs the same way all of my idols do.” I started inviting all my friends over, and being their therapist by asking them about their lives and writing about them. It just became a thing that eventually led to producing. It’s weird as you get older and look back at the little tiny things you used to do as a kid, and how much they affect you as an adult. Little moments – life imitates art and all of these little things I did as a kid, it’s actively happening in real life. Sometimes it can be super weird.

AF: How did you get into music production? What resources did you have? Are you the solo producer on the majority of your tracks?

CC: A few of them I’ll make them alone. There are two people I love to produce with – one is my brother, and then my friend Chris. I start the bulk alone and then when the tiny parts come another producer can give a fresh perspective. I had so many visions in my head of what I wanted things to sound like. When I would talk to producers around fifteen, sixteen, I didn’t have the language or terminology to get my ideas a cross. You wait months to get productions back and then it’s just not what you envisioned, and I knew deep down I was doing piano for so long – there’s no reason I can’t do this. Ya know? I think the biggest part of starting out in music production was mentally pushing myself and believing in myself that I could do it. I was always on GarageBand producing demos, but one day I just locked myself in my room with my brother, because we both wanted to learn how to produce. We literally didn’t leave until we figured it out. My mom would come in and bring us food, we’d close the door again and say “Alright mom, we gotta get back to work!” It really changed everything because from there it helps you tie together your sound.

AF: What’s the age difference between you and your brother?

My brother is only a year and a couple months older than me, so we operate as twins. It’s dope to have someone by my side to get through the music industry. It’s definitely a crazy industry.

AF: Would you say you’ve made most of these songs together?

CC: Production wise, not all of them, but writing wise, yes. It’s kinda like when we were kids and used to write on guitar or piano in the piano room.

AF: What’s your technical process when it comes to recording vocals?

CC: Honestly it’s pretty simple – I had a set up in a spare room but my neighbors would get mad because it was connected to a wall in a townhouse. I literally just set my mic up on the edge of my bed so I could just sit on the edge of my bed or stand near it and put it on the desk or whatever. I just record myself. What’s super weird is that when you find the microphone you like – when you’re in a studio and an engineer is cutting your vocal there’s something more comforting about being in your room and using that one microphone you know you’re going to sound good on.

AF: Do you play around with a lot of vocal layering and stacks? Or are you more of a purist, recording over and over to get that perfect single take?

CC: It depends on the song really. I do think ad-libs and background vocals are incredibly fun because it becomes another riff in the song. If it’s minimal one take will be better, but if it’s an anthem I’ll want everyone around the microphone to chant.

AF: The music industry’s greatest gender disparity remains behind the scenes. As a young female artist, have you experienced sexism in professional studio settings?

CC: There have definitely been times where I’ve started talking about my role in what I do. There’s been situations where for months, no matter how many times I’d explain I produced a song myself, the response after they decide they really like it is: “Oh so your brother produced this?” They automatically assume that you’re incapable of doing something independently. I’d had experiences showing up to the studio, maybe working with someone who’s had more commercial success; they’ll completely mute you, make you feel like your voice doesn’t matter, and it’s really messed up. When I think of it, literally a person working at a pet store who’s not even not pursuing music could be the most talented writer or producer. You can’t be that close-minded. People all around the world have so much talent to offer. To shut someone off because of their gender or experience is ignorant. So many people have started off by posting YouTube videos in their bedroom and have gone on to become incredibly amazing and well-established writers. Starting out, so many people didn’t give them a chance.

AF: You’re also really influenced by an artist like Britney Spears, who isn’t exactly a DIY icon. I love her obviously, and grew up in the generation of Britney Fandom. You were so young then – why sing about Britney’s meltdown and comeback period rather than her age of teenage innocence? Do you feel drawn to her as a darker force in pop, or a tragic hero?

CC: When she was releasing her earlier stuff I was just being born! Maybe around middle school, I started to really get into her older records and her world in general. Her visuals were just so lively, and she as a person was so magnetic. You felt like you knew her and you connected with her so much. I was pretty closed-off as a kid, and for some reason just watching her interviews and music videos made me feel happy. There are so many other people in the world that felt that way. She just has such a charm to her, and amid all of what she went through she was always able to push through it, and fight back by coming up with stronger concepts and cooler songs. What goes hand in hand with that is that Max Martin was so essential as a partnership. It’s crazy to hear the story behind “Baby One More Time,” and how it was going to be a TLC song. I think the universe is cool, and it brings people together. I love thinking about Max Martin cutting this young new artist’s song, without knowing that artist and song would go on to become iconic. Even on Tik Tok there are so many versions of people dancing to that song, and they really know the choreography. I was the “Baby One More Time” Britney for Halloween. You just never know.

AF: That song has such a magnetic pull! What do you think of TikTok? How have you utilized it?

CC: I actually love TikTok, especially now, because I feel like there are so many different genres in it. Whatever type of person you are, you can find content that you relate to. I think the aspect of social media that can be perceived as negative is more so if you’re portraying yourself as someone you’re not, and if you’re unhappy behind the scenes. It can be a really useful tool to connect with your fans and meet cool people with similar interests all around the world. As long as you utilize it as a positive thing and you’re not scared to be yourself on it, then it’s a really beneficial thing.

AF: What made you decide to wholeheartedly launch an artist project instead of using your production/writing skills behind the scenes? Did you always write songs with the intention to perform them?

CC: Performing is something I’ve always loved to do. I think for me growing up I was pretty shy and not really the most open person. Being able to have an artist project, I can share my own experiences and take all of my influences of music production growing up, and the types of sounds I liked to make a cohesive thing. I think it’s so nice when you crack the code, and listen to five songs in a row and they all make sense together. Nowadays you should never have a limit yourself. You can be a writer, artist, producer – I even want to be a coder! There really is no limit.

AF: How do you bring early 2000s fashion into your current style?

CC: It’s fun to try and modernize certain things – the really early ’00s Paris Hilton and Britney Spears in their fun graphic tees. In that era of fashion it was cool to see how two complete opposite styles went together – like the Avril Lavigne-type style with the girly preppy school girl skirts. Now that I’m older I like to combine them and push them together. Fashion is such a fun way to creatively express yourself.

AF: What advice can you give to other women trying to break the mold by being creatively independent in the music industry?

CC: Number one is to protect your art because people will sometimes try to take advantage of it. Number two, you have to disregard the opinion of the people who don’t matter because they can make you feel down and harder on yourself. Use that as fuel and motivation.

Follow Chelsea Collins on Facebook for ongoing updates.

ONLY NOISE: Big Sister’s Clothes

Who are the great musical influencers of our lives? Lovers, friends, parents, librarians. The people who were in close proximity when our cultural preferences were still small, squishy, and developing. Their impact on our taste was indispensable and unforgettable, as they passed down songs to us like cherished family recipes. Rare is the record collection built solely from autonomous discovery – because that wouldn’t be very interesting, would it?

But what about that other person in your life? The one who got the bigger bedroom, the better car, and all of the boys? The keeper of crucial adolescent information, such as the definition of words like “Phat,” “wangsta,” and the meaning of Limp Bizkit’s LP Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavored Water? The wearer of JNCO Jeans and “candy” bracelets. What about your big sister?

Until recently, I might’ve excluded my big sister – one of them at least – from any Pop Culture Sherpa accolades. But that would’ve been a great injustice. Older siblings are often our first reference points for culture and cool – or perhaps they were before children had handheld access to the Kardashian lifestyle brand 24/7. But our crib didn’t even have dial-up…until several years later, when everyone was on that high-speed shit already.

Our household was always a stride behind the times, and the only window to the cool kid world was through my big sister, Miranda. At five years my senior, she wasn’t always thrilled to share her secrets with me, however. Pleas to hang out in her room, watch her play AOL chat, and borrow any article of clothing were frequently denied. The latter was a pretty fair decision though, as an eight-year-old might have looked questionable in pleather snakeskin bellbottoms.

Her closet and clique of friends were off limits. Music, on the other hand, served as diplomatic territory, although I was never sure why. Maybe Miranda just needed an audience for her carefully choreographed dance routines to the pop gems she exposed me to. The moves for Ace of Base’s “Don’t Turn Around” for instance, featured literal interpretations of the lyrics: turning around, grabbing and “breaking” her heart, a bicep curl to show that she was “gonna be strong.” This was nuanced stuff, I tell ya, and I ogled over her creativity and grace. She was always better at dancing; had a long, lean dancer’s body that must have come from her biological father. My own frame couldn’t be more disparate: short and hippy with an inexplicably large ass. We look almost nothing alike.

Miranda was my mainline to the cool world. Her dance performances were sacred ceremonies that were known to us alone. Whether it was this consecrated exchange, or the music itself, I loved everything Miranda played for me…and singing along to that breakout Ace of Base record The Sign is one of the earliest memories of sisterly peacekeeping I can recall. We fought a lot, but so long as a pop song was playing, a ceasefire ensued long enough to dance and sing.

If there is one artist I associate with Miranda the most, it has to be Mariah Carey, whose 1995 masterpiece Daydream dominated our living room sound system. My sister knew every word, and therefore, I knew every word – kind of. “Always Be My Baby” and “Fantasy” were our favorite cuts, the latter inspiring many a dance performance. If I slipped up on the lyrics, I could always resort to the many “Sha-da-da-da-da-da-da-doos” throughout, while Miranda hit those “freestyle” high notes (with more passion than pitch per se). “One Sweet Day” was also a big one for us, as it was Mimi’s collaboration with another childhood staple: Boyz II Men. Listening now I realize “One Sweet Day” is about a dead person, speaking to Mariah from behind the grave, embodied in the sultry voices of Boyz II Men. But at the time we embraced it as a syrupy love song, and that was enough for us.

Those were the early days – when pop felt innocent (as we all say when we get older). Our favorite songs were about heartbreak, staying strong, dancing, and loving ghosts. Kid stuff! In a few years the pop paradigm would shift however, sprinkling our newly complicated lives with subversive content. By 1999 Miranda was a teenager, and I was an awkward 10-year-old completely adrift in a post-divorce family. My big sister was engaging in increasingly hazardous behavior, and our relationship was often on the rocks, to put it lightly. But despite our tumultuous sisterhood, I never stopped wanting to be a part of her clan. Sure, she may have been hanging out with the “bad kids” at school, and maybe she was even doing “bad things,” but she still looked fabulous.

I distinctly remember a trip Miranda, my mom, and I took to Southern California during spring break of ’99. We were visiting my grandparents, who lived a stone’s throw from the ocean in Huntington Beach – a place rife with all the beautiful tan people we didn’t have in rainy Washington State. There were swimming pools, and beach days, and ice cream trucks. We went to the glamorous South Coast Plaza mall, which had an Abercrombie and Fitch! Miranda procured a pair of purple pleather flair pants that fell low across her hipless body. I think they were from Spencer Gifts, or maybe Wet Seal – high-class establishments we had limited access to in our hometown. God I wanted those pants. It was as if Miranda knew that pleather was about to be the number one fashion look – because spring break of ’99 wasn’t just monumental for us – it was a big moment for Ms. Britney Spears, too.

Our grandparents had something we lacked: MTV. For years we didn’t even have basic cable, so it was a treat visiting Grandma and Grandpa, who were apparently much cooler than us. Few music memories are as clearly etched as sitting on their couch that trip and watching the video for “Oops!…I did It Again,” which mesmerized us. The pleather. The lip-gloss. The weave. The shoddy space narrative. The pleather!

It was a massive turning point in our musical education. Britney was “not that innocent” anymore, and neither were we. Our minds were further infected with pop’s sex appeal – for it was the same week that Pink’s revenge-tinged “There You Go” dropped, as well as Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin,’” Crazy Town’s “Butterfly,” and of course, Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” Sisqo’s hit especially appealed to my young demographic, as “That thong-thong-thong-thong-thong” were super easy lyrics to remember. What a time to be 10.

Thanks to pop, and Miranda’s dutiful descriptions, that was the week I learned what a pimp was, what “come” meant (as in “Butterfly’s” “Come my lady, come come my lady”), and that letting your thong rise above your low-slung (pleather) pants was really cool. And called a “whale tail.”

It wasn’t long before I acquired my own pleather snakeskin pants, began anointing my forehead with a bindi a la Gwen Stefani, and for reasons I’ll never understand, started putting shimmery blue eye shadow on…my eyebrows. It was a sweet spot of time when my interests intersected with Miranda’s. Punk hadn’t quite entered my life yet to temporarily obliterate my love of melody. Back then, I loved everything she loved, simply because she loved it. I wanted to be the Monica to her Brandy in the video for “The Boy Is Mine.” I wanted to put on living room lip synch concerts to No Doubt’s “Spiderwebs” and Aaliyah’s “Try Again.”  And I must say – I still do.