In The Zone
ineteen Ninety-Nine was a banner year for the record industry: teen pop, pop-punk, and rap-rock were ruling the charts, and the new superstars of these genres energized young record buyers to break sales records like so many piggy banks. How quickly things change. The industry is in a sales "slump," for which online filesharing has taken the blame. However, the labels readily ignore the fact that their meticulous engineered chart conquistadors are tapering off as trends change and fans grow older. Nevertheless, Britney Spears, easily the biggest new star of that year, continues to chug on, in spite of the "disappointment" of selling a paltry 4 million copies of her eponymous third album.
Britney's career ignited with a saucy Catholic schoolgirl outfit, a perfect emblem of the marketing strategy behind her success. Through careful management, Britney tiptoed along the line of virginal teen role model and nubile pedophilic fantasy, creating a tension which fueled a hype that sold millions upon millions (52 worldwide to be exact) of records. "How sexual is she?" everyone wanted to know, and her handlers kept everyone wondering by steadily ratcheting up the titilation with every lead-off single: the suggestive "Baby One More Time," the blatant tease of "Oops... I Did it Again," and the flagrant raunch of "I'm a Slave 4 U," which should have put such speculation to rest. Even as Britney writhed over Pharrell's slinky synths, the obsession burned, fueled by incongrously sentimental ballads, constant appeals to virginity, and an ostensibly chaste relationship with (then) squeaky clean popster Justin Timberlake. The last single off of Britney formally declared her ambiguity: she was not a girl, but not yet a woman. She could be whichever you wanted her to be, but what got your juices flowing was that she could easily be the opposite -- or both.
Things started to fall apart when it became patently obvious that Britney was indeed a woman, having been deflowered by Mr. Timberlake (who moved from heart-throb to sex symbol with enviable ease), as well as heavily rumored encounters with Fred Durst, Colin Farrell, and even her choreographer, Wade Robson. Justin took more than her virginity; he took away the mystique that kept her celebrity intact. Team Britney took a time out to get a gameplan together in order to keep the investment in Britney's success a worthwhile venture. Their new strategy is a rather simple one: abandon all ambiguity for a full-out sexually charged assault while padding the music with the hottest trends in pop today. Britney's success still rests on a marketing sleight-of-hand, but instead of billing sexy as virginal, her team has come up with something far less compelling. Her "transformation" into a sexpot claims to be transgressive (and therefore worthy of attention), but is in fact the obvious final step in the manufacturing of her image, and therefore totally conservative. And the host of collaborators similarly plays it safe, throwing whatever was hot in 2003 against the wall and seeing what sticks. In The Zone comes across as limp and lifeless, drained by what could be Britney's handlers' first major mistake.
The album kicks off promisingly enough. The first single, "Me Against The Music," benefits from a kinetic garage-inspired beat, even when a tepid Madonna threatens to spoil the fun. Britney sounds convincingly sexy and sultry, her vocals awash in throaty Prince-isms. But things awry rather quickly. "Boom Boom" unhappily marries imitation-Timbaland tablas to court jesters of crunk the Ying Yang Twins and has the indecency to plod along for almost five minutes. "The Showdown" reveals the blueprint for practically every song on In the Zone: club-ready productions and an abundance of raspy, breathy vocals. Rather, an over-abundance; Britney's so out of breath from her lusty fantasies that she's practically unintelligble. Which is a good thing, since her lyrics are at their most vacuous: she's either huffing about how she wants you or how you want her. Britney's more specific lyrical explorations of these highly engrossing topics manage to do less with more. "Breathe on Me" is a thinly veiled reference to oral sex, a potential bombshell to conservative middle-aged mothers and their adolescent children, but par for the course for the mature club-oriented audience In the Zone seems to aim for. "Touch of My Hand" is even more laughable, an ode to masturbation that begs to be interpreted as shocking. "The verge of obscene," Britney? Please! I'll take Tweet's more playful approach to the topic in "Oops Oh My" any day of the week.
Musically, In the Zone is far too scattershot. Techno-inspired productions (safely helmed by pop uber-producers Jimmy Harry, Sheppard Solomon, and Rodney Jerkins, as well as a contribution from Moby) co-exist uneasily with the rote R. Kelly track "Outrageous" (which was probably crafted by tinkering with the beat from "Snake" for 20 minutes) and the clumsy dancehall of "The Hook Up." Interestingly, In the Zone is most successful when it veers away from its clubby pseudo-hedonism at the album's end. The Matrix-penned "Shadow" is little more than a second-rate "I'm With You," but the sugary dance-rock of "Brave New Girl" enlivens the album far more effectively than the sexual pretension of the preceding tracks. And album closer "Everytime" (produced by Ms. Spears herself!) is just a spare piano ballad, simple yet effectively fragile, easily the album's best track (even if it is about Justin -- move on, girl!).
Ultimately, In the Zone suffers greatly from Britney's uneasy transition from teen tart to sexually powerful woman. Had Britney been in charge of her career direction instead of mercilessly prostituted by her management, she might have been able to produce something with some semblance of musical vision (a la Justin). Instead she's delivered a messy album of overdriven fantasy fulfillment that gets more tiring with every listen. Britney, less is more!
Reviewed by: Gavin Mueller
Reviewed on: 2003-11-18