BRITNEY SPEARS: IN THE ZONE (2003)
1) Me Against The Music; 2) (I Got That) Boom Boom; 3) Showdown; 4) Breathe On Me; 5) Early Mornin'; 6) Toxic; 7) Outrageous; 8) Touch Of My Hand; 9) The Hook Up; 10) Shadow; 11) Brave New Girl; 12) Everytime.
All right — this is where the shit really hits the fan. Be it out of sheer bare sociological curiosity, everybody needs to hear this album, or at least its most significant «conceptual» streak that begins with ʽShowdownʼ, ends with ʽThe Hook Upʼ, and reaches apocalyptic-evil levels on the ʽBreathe On Meʼ / ʽEarly Mornin'ʼ / ʽToxicʼ sequence. It is not every day that playing just three songs in a row gets you a-thinkin' about the ultimate fate of man- and womankind, and you certainly do not expect that from a Britney fuckin' Spears album — but the last time I remember myself walking away from a musical record with a comparable feeling was Aerosmith's Get A Grip (incidentally, released a round decade earlier — watch out, 2013!).
With Britney now well over 21, and the industry still red-hot yearnin' for another smash, the next move from Britney's ʽI'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Womanʼ was obvious: the fans had to be shown that the girl finally is a woman, and a real woman, «as all men know», lives in constant need of sensual pleasure and in permanent search of sexual conquest. Ain't too sure? Ask Madonna. In fact, don't ask Madonna — better still, invite Madonna to sing a duet with Britney on the opening track and provide her with a motherly blessing and a protective French kiss. Never mind if ʽMe Against The Musicʼ matches its title so well, given that there is so much of «me» in this track and so little actual music — just a regular hip-hop beat. The really important thing is that they got Madonna here to sing "C'mon Britney, lose control, watch you take it down", and this truly creates the illusion of «passing the crown».
There are, however, a few problems. For all of the obvious criticisms of Madonna as an artist, there was never any question of her being (a) an independent soul, (b) a modest, but occasionally impressive, vocal talent, (c) an above-average songwriter who could easily pen a catchy tune or, at least, recognize one (ʽInto The Grooveʼ alone should be able to dispel any doubt). And there is quite a hint of trickery in that recommendation — for all we know, Madonna herself never ever «lost control» over a single second of her professional life. Now cut to Britney, pampered from the Mickey Club get-go through the rose-candy bubblegum ickiness — and now, all sex-dolled for the next stage of her career: «if you loved In Bed With Madonna, you're going to be really, really pleased as Britney takes you to the next stage».
And yes, this is the next stage — in humiliation, first and foremost. It had been heavily propagated that In The Zone was the album on which Britney allegedly took control in her hands (heedless of Madonna's call?), and, to prove that, we now have her name added to nine out of twelve songs — kinda suspicious, though, that most of them feature at least three extra songwriters. But more importantly, the image that comes together through these songs can have nothing to do with the natural development of a 22-year old girl from Kentwood, Louisiana, who only recently was spotted talking about saving up virginity for marriage. I can believe in artistic independence for the likes of Taylor Swift — singing her monotonous bores about princes on white horses until the end of time — but Britney Spears herself behind something like ʽTouch Of My Handʼ? (It's not that I doubt the touching aspect, mind you — only the writing).
Anyway, that whole stretch I was talking about, once we get done with the lacklustre Madonna number and the even less inspiring Ying Yang Twins collaboration (lesson one: never collaborate with anyone who cannot even properly spell yin-yang), is quite demonstratively evil. Not «bad» as such, since it does feature at least a few really creative musical moves, but «evil», as Britney falls under the heavy press of sexploitation. She does know how to sex up her voice properly — she might even know that better than Madonna, preferring to take lessons from Donna Summer instead, and doing it in different ways: sensual purr on ʽBreathe On Meʼ, breathy hush on ʽEarly Mornin'ʼ, aggressive horniness on ʽToxicʼ, paranoid rutting on ʽOutrageousʼ, post-orgasmic recovery on ʽTouch Of My Handʼ (what else have we missed here?). But when all of it is taken together, the overall impression is that the girl had been placed under heavy, I mean REAL heavy drugs — most of the songs pile on the trance atmosphere so densely that you can almost feel the presence of some invisible manipulative hypnotizer behind the girl's back.
ʽBreathe On Meʼ and ʽEarly Mornin'ʼ, in particular, are really creepy — not even minding the lyrics (which sometimes actually border on questionable irony: "Monogamy is the way to go / Just put your lips together and blow"), they give you what you've always wanted: Britney the sex puppet (insert coin and wind up for your pleasure), protected by the illusion of «sexual liberation». All the more creepy, that is, given that no less than the great Moby himself — always happy to play the Joker for an unsuspecting mainstream crowd — masterminds ʽEarly Mornin'ʼ, giving it a spooky, dark, psychedelic twist with a gruff «rotating» bass pulse and swooping electronic strings as we are told that "it don't stop till the early morning / passed out on the couch I'm yawning".
The centerpiece of the album has always been, and still is, ʽToxicʼ — musically, the most inventive number on here, not only because it manages to fuse Bollywood strings with James Bond-ian surf guitar in a completely natural manner, but also because it gives us three different Britneys (verse, bridge, and chorus so totally different in tone and mood), with «unlawful carnal delight» as the only unifying theme. If the vocals weren't buried so deep under production make-up, one could even say that this is the only song on the record where we could perceive Britney having some genuine fun — but this is not about real people having real fun, after all.
By the time we are through with Britney's imaginary sex life and get to the ballads (only two of them this time — power crap on ʽShadowʼ, romantic piano crap on ʽEverytimeʼ), it is hard not to wonder if the famous breakdown, with a complete — at least temporarily — collapse of her personal life in the ensuing three years, was not a direct consequence of the recording of In The Zone, or, rather, the whole shenanigan (recording, touring, calculated need to «uphold the image» etc.); even worse, far be it from me to start moralizing, but I wonder just how many young people's lives were, in any way, influenced by this stuff.
Because, clearly, reasonable adults can take this for what it is — unabashed musical pornography — and put it to the appropriate use. Britney's teen or post-teen audiences are another matter — they could very easily be deluded into taking this for a decisive statement of «sexual liberation», maybe even a «feminist» one (even despite the fact that most of the corporate songwriters and producers behind the raciest moments here were all men), and restructure their life in accordance with the spirit of ʽBreathe On Meʼ, ʽEarly Mornin'ʼ, and, of course, ʽTouch Of My Handʼ, the song that does not justify masturbation, but glorifies it ("Into the unknown, I will be bold, I'm going to places I can be out of control..." and, of course, the completely immortal line "I'm into myself in the most precious way"!!!) — oh yeah, we've gone a long, long way from ʽPictures Of Lilyʼ and even ʽShe Bopʼ.
Even if I tend to exaggerate here — after all, it's just a run-of-the-mill dance-pop album, wouldn't it be too much honor to accuse it of raising the sexploitation bar to such hideous heights? — there is no denying the fact, it seems, that ultimately, it is all very cheap. Yes, the involvement of Moby and the inclusion of a few really neat arranging ideas (ʽToxicʼ, first and foremost) does raise the stock value of In The Zone a little bit, but if you take it as a whole — not just the melodies, but the lyrics, the vocal message, the accompanying videos, the racy tour antics — the worst thing about it is that there is nothing here that is truly, genuinely «sexy», it's more like a musical equivalent of a tasteless, boring old peepshow (watch this and tell me if I'm wrong). There is just no getting away from the fact that, no matter how big the size of the image-making army might be, here or in the future, ʽOne More Timeʼ was still the apex of Britney's sexuality — I mean, what fun is there, really, when she's so goddamn legal already?
On the other hand, I will admit that, drugged or not drugged, she does at least sound like she is still alive on most of these tracks — if you have some interest in an actual human being on the verge of being replaced with a piece of machinery, In The Zone is your last bet. Everything else, metaphorically speaking, represents the post-lobotomy period. And yes, I'd like to say that I pity the poor girl, but is she really in need of my, or anybody else's, pity? After all, the sales weren't all that bad — three million copies sold in the US alone, and how much coke can one score with those numbers? Even if you have to share with all the ten thousand producers?
Check "In The Zone" (MP3) on Amazon