Britney Spears’ ‘In The Zone’ Turns 10: Backtracking

Bradley Stern | November 18, 2013 5:30 am

Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.

If ever you actually want to see Britney in the zone, just watch In The Zone And Out All Night.

It’s an underrated MTV special — filmed during one chaotic (reference!) night in October of 2003 — that follows Britney, her team, and a MTV camera crew as they pull off three surprise performances (just barely) at three different clubs in New York City (Avalon, Splash and Show) in under three hours, previewing new songs to three completely unsuspecting crowds.

There’s a moment in the beginning, as she’s rehearsing for one of the shows, when Britney makes a motion offstage to cut the music, visibly annoyed. “Turn the music up!” she screams. “It’s like we’re in my bedroom listening to Sade or something!” Her team chuckles, while someone jokingly teases from offstage: “You’re such a diva, Britney!” Without skipping a beat, Britney stands up, hands on hips, feigning a frustrated hissy fit while defending herself: “I’m not a diva! I know what I like and I know what I want!”

Some Britney fans — a lot, actually — consider 2007’s Blackout to be Britney’s best record to date. That’s fair to say since, you know, it’s sonically perfect from start to finish. There’s really no denying that. But it’s also incredibly chilly, dark and, at times, phoned-in — a relic of a darker time: Britney’s alarmingly public, paparazzi-fueled breakdown, channeled into a sleek, killer collection of urban club music.

But 2003’s In The Zone represents Britney Spears at the creative peak of her career; a time when she was still hungry to make a statement as a pop star and push herself musically like never before — and a time when she was still very much speaking her mind.

Although Britney remained the pigtailed schoolgirl in the eyes of the public for years after “…Baby One More Time” was first released in 1998, people began to embrace the fact that the “Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” singer had, in fact, begun transitioning into womanhood by 2003: She was being photographed dancing in clubs, getting drunk and having fun with her dancers. She went through a break-up heard ’round the world. She was dabbling in Kabbalah (thanks, Madonna!) She was, well, being a 22-year-old superstar — something hardly anyone will ever experience.

In The Zone reflected all of that — the break-up, the drunken one night stands, a touch of spirituality (Spearituality) and, yes, even some masturbation. And, as opposed to her first three records, she herself co-wrote on 7 of the 13 tracks on the album, which made this record vastly more personal than anything she’d done before: “I’ve been able to really take my time and have creative control and really make it special,” she explained in an MTV interview.

Having just come off the Dream Within A Dream Tour in 2002, Britney began to work with different producers to find herself a new sound, breaking away from the tried-and-true Max Martin Pop Machine. It would be the first of many times she linked up with Britney Jean‘s “Alien” producer William Orbit, as well as “Get Lucky” superstars Daft Punk way back in 2002. No dice there, though — those collaborations never wound up happening. Almighty pop scribes Xenomania, then in charge of the unstoppable Girls Aloud, wrote and demoed “Graffiti My Soul” for Britney, but the track didn’t make the final cut. At the time, she was briefly professionally (and romantically) linked to Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, who told MTV they worked on a few “trip-hop” songs that sounded like “Portishead and the Sneaker Pimps.” Those tracks never surfaced, either.

Despite all the coulda-woulda-shoulda collaborations, Britney still ended up with a killer line-up of talent for In The Zone.

“Me Against The Music (feat. Madonna),” released in October 2003, was the first piece of new music from Britney’s upcoming fourth studio album…and it was quite the statement.

While a great track — that tongue-twisting bridge never fails to get the blood pumping! — “Me Against The Music” always felt more about the symbolism of the collaboration between Madonna and Britney than the actual song. In a pre-Lady Gaga world, Britney was pegged as “The New Madonna” in the media for years (despite the fact that, if anyone, Britney’s style and sound is more similar to Janet.) The Tricky Stewart-produced, The-Dream co-penned lead single is the epitome of a torch-passing moment in pop, as the Queen of Pop herself meets the Princess for a seductive showdown against the speakers, unofficially dubbing Britney the rightful heir to the throne in the process.

The song rode in on the coattails of a performance everyone was still very much buzzing about: The 2003 MTV VMA’s. The kiss between the newfound BFFs during their iconic opener along with Christina Aguilera (who, thanks to some shady editing, seriously got the shaft after the camera panned away from her own kiss with Madonna to capture Justin Timberlake‘s priceless pissed-off nod in the audience) provided the perfect launching point for their provocative duet. It would also be the first of many times Madonna and Britney complimented each other’s careers, like Britney’s cameo in a “Human Nature” backdrop for Madonna’s world tour in 2008 — a pairing that always seem to set the pop world ablaze.

In The Zone not only saw Britney experimenting with new sounds, but with her sexuality. Apart from the lesbian fantasy undertones of the “Me Against The Music” video, “Touch Of My Hand” — the very first song recorded for the album — saw the pop princess exploring a world undefined between her body and mind: Masturbation! (Or, as she would politely refer to it in interviews, “self-indulgence.”) Even by today’s pop standards, “Touch Of My Hand” feels distinctly next-level, weaving into the speakers across a mystical Eastern vibe (that seems to be a direct inspiration for Selena Gomez‘s own emancipation record, Stars Dance) co-crafted by Jimmy Harry and Shep Solomon Britney herself compared the track to Janet Jackson’s “That’s The Way Love Goes” in a MTV interview.

But “Touch Of My Hand” is nothing compared to the full-on smut of “Breathe On Me,” which remains one of Britney’s greatest songs of all time. The breathy throbber delivers a lethal combination of lustful lyricism and moody, pulsating beats that propelled Britney into clubland well before Blackout. Incredibly, the song wasn’t even the writers’ first choice for Britney: “We wrote the song during a session at Metrophonic with songs specifically aimed for her,” songwriter Steve Anderson explained to me in a 2009 interview. “I had one I worked on for ages that I thought would be perfect, and the idea for ‘Breathe On Me’ was literally done in an hour on the morning of the session to have something in my back pocket in case the other writers didn’t like the other idea — which luckily they didn’t!” The track is the embodiment of aural sex, building and moaning and groaning up to a fever pitch that — like Donna Summer‘s “I Feel Love” or Janet’s euphoric pleasure anthems like “Throb” — is essentially an orgasm caught on tape. “Just put your lips together…and blow.

Britney first added a touch of spice to her bubblegum sound by stepping into the studio with The Neptunes for 2001’s Britney on cuts like “I’m A Slave 4 U” and “Boys.” And ever since, the pop princess has been churning out #SomethingMoreUrban smashes. Brit Brit gets her urban-est on In The Zone with the Roy Hamilton-produced “(I Got That) Boom Boom,” featuring The Ying Yang Twins — a hysterical-yet-incredible hip-hop collabo sent straight up from the South that still sounds fresh a decade later, twangy banjos and all: “SHAWTY! We gonna go to the club and get crunk with Britney!” the duo declares. (Fun fact: 2013’s “turnt” is 2003’s “crunk.”) “Boy you look so sexy tonight,” Brit Brit purrs, sashaying her boom boom all across the floor.

Elsewhere, Britney flirted with other world sounds: “The Hook Up,” a dancehall-laced number sees B-Girl dorkishly attempting a Jamaican accent (“Grab my waist, nah!“) while whining up and against an infectious groove. The R. Kelly-produced “Outrageous” kept the Eastern-flavored vibes coming, as B stepped out as a fly girl, touring the world and flaunting her hot bod in a trench coat and her underwear (obviously): “B-Girl ain’t lost the beat / Jumped over drama and I landed on my feet!” she boasts — still such an amazing line!

“Outrageous,” however, will always bear a dark mark in the Book of Godney: Selected as the next single from In The Zone (over “Breathe On Me,” an iffy decision to begin with!), Britney was shooting the video for the single with The Artist Formerly Known As Snoop Dogg when she slipped on the slick street during a dance scene and busted her already damaged knee. The injury led to surgery, the cancellation of the rest of her Onyx Hotel Tour and, sadly, the last time she truly danced like that ever again. Quite grim.

But In The Zone wasn’t all jet-setting and hook ups. When Justin and Britney broke up — the King and Queen of TRL generation pop music — the universe essentially imploded. (Well, certain peoples’ universes, anyway.) After Justin dropped “Cry Me A River,” a not-at-all subtle diss song (and video) about Britney, songwriter Cathy Dennis stepped in to pen a response song called “Sweet Dreams My LA Ex.” Britney didn’t end up taking the track — leaving UK starlet Rachel Stevens to lay down the song instead. The decision was best for all parties: Rachel ended up with a #2 hit in the UK, Cathy Dennis wrote another song for Britney called “Toxic” (heard of it?), and Britney ended up with an even better break-up anthem called “Everytime.”