Britney Spears’ In The Zone marked the discovery of the pop icon’s creative identity
Original release date: 1 November, 2003
Label: Jive Records
In the Zone was the first album cover not to show Britney Spears’ body. Featuring a close crop of her face, the ice-blue light turns her face into a reflective surface. Her hair is wild, her makeup muted, and her unwavering gaze meets ours at eye level. For an artist whose sexuality was built into her marketing from the jump – covertly at first, and then criticised as ‘provocative’ when performed on her own terms – it was a bold rejection of the image mapped onto her. After years of being looked at – a vision of softly eroticised girlhood on …Baby One More Time, caught between adolescence and womanhood on Oops!… I Did It Again, dishevelled on Britney – she turns the gaze around.
It’s hard to conceive of In the Zone as a transitional project considering how many definitive singles it produced, but it is. The last of a four-album run that began with Britney’s debut as 1999’s own Lolita and ended in a threeway kiss with Madonna and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 VMAs, In the Zone represents the death of pre-millennium innocence – both in terms of Britney’s branding, as she evolved from teen idol to cultural icon, and in a musical sense, as bubblegum pop was wiped off the charts by the dirtier sounds of crunk, emo and Timbaland. However, it also came before Britney’s much darker second act, when a highly publicised mental health crisis saw her placed under the traumatic conservatorship that would define the rest of her life.
The time-and-place context of In the Zone is stamped into its sound. Enlisting an array of producers from Tricky to the Matrix, In the Zone is a textured mix of pop, Southern hip-hop, techno and bhangra that could only come from the experimental soup of the early 00s – a time when Ying Yang Twins, Moby and Frou Frou sat comfortably together in the credits of a commercial pop record. A delirious monster hit made from parts of a 1981 Bollywood soundtrack, classical strings and surf guitars, Toxic earned Britney her first Grammy. Repetitive club number Outrageous, described by critic Ann Powers as “R. Kelly’s dirty little take on the ideal Janet Jackson song”, was selected as the theme of Catwoman, while vampy Madonna collab Me Against the Music was Britney’s personal mission statement. She co-wrote it with production team RedZone after rejecting their initial offering of a song called Pop Culture Whore, enlisted Madonna, and pushed for it to be the lead single. Though it hasn’t aged particularly well, the sum of its parts – the production! The career parallels! Britney’s tie with no shirt! – make it an agreeable artefact.
“I have a distinct memory of sitting on the front porch of my friend Suainibhe’s house listening to the CD single of Me Against the Music, with her little battery powered boombox resting on a Groovy Chick blanket because it was raining and we didn’t want it to get wet,” remembers Irish singer-songwriter CMAT, who was just seven years old when In the Zone was released. “We just sat on the porch, listening to it over and over again, staring at the road where a single car might pass by once every few minutes. A housing estate in a north Dublin suburb is maybe the opposite of the kind of visual that suits such a song, but I kind of think that was the point.”
Despite its vast array of influences, it was Britney’s most cohesive album to date – an outburst of hot and heavy bangers that push you up against the speakers of her own private Idaho. After securing her first co-write with Britney at the age of 19, Britney assumed even more creative ownership on In the Zone. She co-wrote eight of its 12 tracks, becoming more direct in her lyrics and discerning in her taste. As a result, the album is a full-force release of the energy we only caught in glimpses on Britney – bass up, no covers, the ballads eschewing schmaltzy piano minimalism in favour of ambient production (Shadow) and transcendental emotion (Everytime).
Despite its commercial success, In the Zone was met with mixed reviews. Rolling Stone called it “accommodating and hollow”, the Guardian acknowledged its lack of filler but couldn’t resist taking a pop at Britney’s “disingenuousness”, and the LA Times dubbed her “utterly anonymous as a singer”, which is just bizarre. From her doe-eyed charisma to her aching delivery, what makes a Britney song is… Britney. She elevates a good pop song into a masterpiece by sheer force of myth, as much as performance. Nowhere is this clearer than Everytime.
Directed by David LaChapelle, the video for Everytime eerily foreshadows the tragedy to come. After being hounded by paparazzi and hit in the head by a camera, Britney drowns in a bathtub and dies in hospital while a child is born in the next room. The fragility of her image bumping up against the violence of the story exposes the abuse at the heart of celebrity culture, making it the perfect choice of song to play over a montage of shotgun-toting Disney starlets wrecking the American dream in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. “On the surface, it’s poppy and airless and morose and beautiful, but underneath, I always felt like there was a violence and a pathology,” Korine said of Britney’s music around the film’s release in 2013, going on to describe her as “almost more than a person – she’s like an energy”.
Though 2007’s Blackout would formally relaunch Britney as the resilient underdog we know now, In the Zone bottles up the magic that Korine describes. It captures Britney breaking free of her confines before paying the price of daring to do so, and dashing our collective ability to really believe in pop as a pure, wonderful thing; a dream.
The first time CMAT heard Toxic was in brief – a snippet of a radio ad for her show at Dublin’s Point Depot. “I remember it so well because pop music was my life,” she says. “And that was pop music.”