Britney Spears’ ‘In The Zone’ Turns 10: Backtracking
Britney wrote “Everytime” with her Dream Within A Dream Tour back-up singer, Annette Stamatelatos (AKA Annet Artani). After growing close toward the end of the tour, Britney invited Annet abroad to Italy to attend Donatella Versace’s fashion show: “It was me and her, her stylist and Felicia [Britney’s assistant], and we had this humongous house to ourselves, and they had a piano there as well,” Artani told me several years ago when we talked about writing “Everytime.” “He [Justin Timberlake] was talking shit about her at that time on the radio. He was getting personal. Here, she had a different type of image, and he was really exposing some stuff that she probably didn’t want out there, and in front of her little sister…I remember her sister being mortified and her being mortified. I’m sure that that really hurt her,” she explained. “It was a very organic, sad experience, but I think that’s where the truth comes out.”
And yes, for those eager to question her talent, she did actually write the song: “I got on the piana, and I liked that riff right there” she casually explained while playing through the song on a piano during one interview.
Produced by Guy Sigsworth (Imogen Heap, Alanis Morissette), “Everytime” is utterly haunting, still. Complimented by a sparse harp and that instantly recognizable piano melody, Britney’s voice brokenly, earnestly begs in a way that she’d never really sounded before: “I guess I need you, baby,” she quivers. And it wasn’t just the song that was heartbreaking — the video, in which Britney nearly drowns in a bathtub after suffering a blow to the head by the paparazzi (an all-too-eerie foreshadowing of what was still to come in her life) — provided Britney with her first real mirror-to-society moment that explored the dark side of fame. (Well, apart from “Lucky.”)
And then, there’s “Toxic.” What was pop music pre-“Toxic,” even?
The song is simply one of the most iconic pop songs of the past decade — a perfect storm of songwriting, production and superstar wattage all coming together at once: With Cathy Dennis providing the razor-sharp hooks (“with a taste of your lips, I’m on a ride!“), Bloodshy & Avant‘s crunchy Swede-pop production — thanks to those Bollywood strings, punchy synths and fiery licks of surf guitar — and Britney’s unmistakable vocals sealing the deal, the song’s gone on to become one of her most recognizable hits — and the colorful Joseph Kahn-directed video (which was Britney’s concept!) only helped to seal the deal further. “Toxic” is so universally celebrated and cherished, even the notoriously snooty indie critics at Pitchfork ranked the song as their 3rd best single of 2004, surrendering by dubbing the track conceding: “too damn irresistible a pop song for it to matter what media super-entity it was attributed to.”
And “Toxic” wasn’t the only solid offering by Bloodshy & Avant, either: The Swedish duo also produced “Showdown,” one of the album’s most underrated cuts. Characterized by weird, bubbly (and again, vaguely Eastern-flavored) beats, the strut-friendly, brag-heavy track (which recalls her “Slave 4 U” B-side, “Intimidated”) saw Brit continuing the battle started in “Me Against The Music,” now with an on-again, off-again flame: “Here comes the showdown, what goes around comes around…” she taunts. By In The Zone, Britney had fully mastered the role of sensual seductress — and this track is the ultimate temptation: “I don’t really wanna be a tease, but would you undo my zipper, please?” she moans at one point. Ten years later, that line is still too hot to handle.
“Early Mornin'” — a bleary-eyed hangover anthem, finds B moaning and groaning after a night spent “shakin’ my ass” into the early hours, saw Britney teaming up with Moby and Tricky Stewart for one of the album’s most left-of-center tracks. “Where you live, do your momma live there? We can hook up at the hotel,” she groans above a drippy trip-hop beat, recalling last night’s messy ordeal. “What happened next? Guess what, you don’t wanna know,” she whines. Considering In The Zone dropped only three years after Britney was goofily sashaying her red latex bodysuit-covered butt across the surface off Mars for “Oops! I Did It Again,” a salacious one night stand like “Early Mornin'” felt nothing less than revolutionary.
“Shadow,” ironically, stands in the shadow of In The Zone‘s superior ballad “Everytime,” although it’s no less worthy of praise: The chilly electronic ballad — crafted by Avril Lavigne hit-making songwriting team, The Matrix — offers a darker alternative to “Everytime.” And while she’s never been exactly known as a threat to Mariah Carey, there’s a hint of the big balladry that Britney used to pull off with her first two records: “It’s only your shadow, never yourself,” she crushingly yelps.
Perhaps the most interesting track to listen to in 2013, though, is the glitchy, glittery “Brave New Girl,” an unapologetically girly track that saunters through the speakers like Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. “She lands on both feet, won’t take the back seat / There’s a brave new girl and she’s coming out tonight!” Britney warbles through the ridiculously heavy vocoder. The track is not unlike any of the robo-friendly K-pop songs currently topping the charts across the world. A song ahead of its time? Why, yes. Yes, it is.
In The Zone is, first and foremost, a newly independent young woman’s sexual awakening. That being said, to suggest that Britney “sold sex” during the era is a surface level observation. What she sold was confidence — over a decade before #ItGetsBetter self-empowerment pop dominated the radio.
The dorky, gum-chewin’ Southern girl off-stage (Britney Jean!) turned into a complete beast when it was time to take the stage as Britney The Pop Star, whipping through choreography with ease (and looking flawless while doing so). Britney even put on some weight following the “Slave 4 U” Britney era and — lo and behold! — she looked just as gorgeous; a perfect middle finger thrown toward the pressures of becoming a stick-thin pop star. With every single live performance from that time — whether she was thrusting her exposed midriff across the stage during “Me Against The Music” in a shut-down Times Square on TRL or whipping her blonde tresses in those tight leather pants at France’s NRJ Awards — Britney dominated the stage, leading the pop pack with a killer combination of flirty femininity and powerful athleticism. She was unstoppable — and she knew it, too.
Looking back after ten years, In The Zone reminds me of a more fun time in pop music: A time when we rushed home in the afternoon to watch the TRL countdown (which counted more toward cool currency than any taste-making bloggers or album charts do now), before fans bickered in forums over sales or even had fan group names. It was a time when pop music was something a little more special (or, perhaps, a little more taboo!), still hiding underneath the dominant sound of R&B, rock and rap on the radio. And EDM? That term wasn’t even in existence.
It was also a time before Britney became a mommy, before the divorce and before she came face to face with the cruelest parts of society. The pop scene’s changed dramatically since then, too. As we round the bend toward the unknown, into an era dominated by a Las Vegas residency and an allegedly personal new album in the heart-shaped form of Britney Jean in December, we can only hope that Britney’s summoned some of the creativity and confidence of In The Zone for her upcoming Adultney record.
Regardless, we can always take solace in the fact that Britney already recorded her most personal masterpiece yet — it’s called In The Zone.
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