Saturday, October 3, 2020

Retrospective: In The Zone • Britney Spears


After the recent break in the mirage that is Britney Spears’ lucrative career, the #FreeBritney movement has infiltrated most social media platforms. Twitter accounts, viral Tik Toks, podcasts, and YouTube gossip channels have all covered – with varying level of dramatics – the pop star’s struggle to regain control over her own finances. Though some theorists are too far disconnected from reality, dissecting her Instagram posts for alleged secret signs that she needs rescued, it’s hard not to believe there’s some truth behind the idea that Spears wants to end a years-long conservatorship over her empire. And it’s incredible how united people stand for Britney Spears’ well-being: Many kids who share short clips of the pop music titan have been alive only long enough to remember Britney Spears after her independence was ripped away.

During her first decade as a headlining pop star, Britney Spears was the poster child of autonomy. Though her first two records appealed to listeners her age, Spears made cultural tidal waves to promote her music: The moment she tied some Kmart blouses into crop-tops when dressing for her first music video, she began a career that continually pushed boundaries in ways that made the average housewife squirm in outrage – or envy. She may have gone too far – like when she appeared on the front of Rolling Stone at 17 in a bra and boy shorts under the headline “Inside the Heart, Mind & Bedroom of a Teen Dream” – but the narrative from Spears’ camp, both at the time and in hindsight, has maintained that she controlled her own empire, allegedly making decisions to spite her management’s more modest image requests.

As Spears aged, she aligned her music with her image: A consenting adult in 1999, she began to produce more overtly sexual music by 2001 when she released the self-titled Britney. Coverage of that record (and the ones that followed it, for that matter, but we’ll get there) was gross – a memorialization of how strongly toxic tabloid culture had been intertwined into legacy media coverage. “It seems the super-starlet can’t decide whether she’s a stripper or a prostitute” was the lead on Slant magazine's Britney review. Other publications, like The New York Times, were quick to pull her virginity into a conversation supposedly about her music. Beyond their inappropriate slights, critics came to a clear consensus on the record: Britney vacationed outside of her comfort zone but did not vacate the premises entirely.

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Her fourth record, In the Zone, was a milestone in its own right: It represented an adult Britney without exceptions or complications. Before it, she primed audiences for its existence, and on its heels, she expedited a public self-destruction that was somewhat foreshadowed by “Outrageous,” an R. Kelly-penned embrace of extreme media perception, and “Everytime,” accompanied by a suicidal music video plot. The media scrutinized as she married a man who they claimed “gave Britney license to fully embrace her white-trash side,” birthed two sons, and began to crumble under their intrusive watch: She began to party hard and act out, assaulting paparazzi and lashing out in public. Everything she did off the stage overshadowed her career, including the release of Blackout, a now-revered record that embraced – and likely wouldn’t have happened without – messy media fallout. Though Blackout piloted Spears into her most blatantly experimental and self-parodying musical mindset, In The Zone captures a brief, predominantly carefree side in her life in an incredibly alluring way.

With In the Zone, Spears does not compromise what she wants to become with what she was. The record is forward-facing and scaled back when compared to the full-bodied instrumental blueprint and massive harmonies that Max Martin laid out for her first three records. In fact, Martin was swapped out altogether for a menagerie of producers that somehow worked in tandem to build the record’s faux-futuristic sheathing. Far from maximalist but rooted in dance, In the Zone provided imperfect, moody nuance to Spears’ music. While dance floor ode “Me Against the Music” – featuring Madonna and a fantastic tongue-twister pre-chorus – was billed as its lead single at Spears' request, the bigger hit “Toxic” bears the closest resemblance to the bonafide pop artist that Britney Spears was previously perceived to be. But even it was a risk: Its shrill string spasms crash into a whiplash beat, culminating a bastardized fusion of Bollywood and western cinema score. 

“Overall, I think that music is emotion at the end of the day, and I think this album isn’t necessarily saying anything. I think the music is just a feeling,” she told the press during an album launch event in 2003. The mood, she told MTV, is “just a little freaky.” When she isn’t escaping in the club, like on thumping deep South club tracks “(I Got That) Boom Boom” and “The Hook Up,” she scales back to slinky beats and breathier, less pinched vocals: Considering she still slotted them between radio hits in a 2016 primetime award show medley, “Breathe on Me” and “Touch of My Hand” are clear favorites for Spears and fans alike. But there’s also something to be said about the strange dynamics of something like “Showdown,” which flaunts a fantastic dance beat, a rougher guitar riff, and hushed flirts in its verses: It’s a perfect representation of the genre-mashing and mood-shifting on a record that is a tour de force in redefining an artist without a margin of error.

• • •

Just before In The Zone was released, conversation over Spears’ split from Justin Timberlake and her coming to age seemed to take precedent over the music: Diane Sawyer pummeled her during a Primetime interview that aired just before the record dropped, often prefacing questions with warnings that they would sting. While Timberlake was the centerfold of the interview and questions on recent public turbulence drove Spears to tears, it was the accusatory tone over provocative performances that was much more irksome. After sharing with Spears that the first lady of Maryland had declared she would “shoot Britney Spears” if given the opportunity, Sawyer blames Spears for the threat because she defaulted on her alleged responsibility to remain a children’s entertainer forever. Spears was just in her response: “It’s not my job to babysit her kids.” 

While it triggered unfair growing pains for her career, a record like In The Zone was absolutely necessary for Britney Spears to mature as a young musician beyond a stock-build pop staple. Not stocked with typical album fluff or odd retrofitted covers, it is undoubtedly Spears first sturdy, dynamic artistic statement that matches a busy night at the club and an even busier night after reeling a boy back home. Making bold introductions of electronic, funk, and rhythm and blues into her repertoire, it’s an incredibly ambitious record that primed audiences for what was to come – a career that would very soon thrive on synth-heavy, mega-beat, over-processed cuts like "Gimme More" and "Womanizer."

The knowledge we have now about Spears’ situation may cast a shadow over even her early years in show business. Were odious power dynamics at play in Britney Spears’ career from the beginning to persuade her into uncomfortable positions, or did the trouble begin soon after In The Zone when she crumbled under pressure and her father was subsequently handed her assets? We may never know the answer – but given the longevity of In The Zone tracks in Spears’ live shows, it seems to be a body of work she is still willing to stand behind, regardless of what happened beyond the music. After all, it is the perfect escape from the paparazzi, firearm-wielding first ladies, and harsh speculation – into the zone, wherever that oasis may be.

In the Zone was released on Nov. 18, 2003, under Jive Records.

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