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.”

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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