Like any red blooded, American millennial, I have an affinity for the early 2000s. I’m also fully aware of the fact that this does not make me at all special. If anything, it ups my basic-betch meter from Ugg Boots to pumpkin spice. I’m simply one out of a million people who have a bizarre fetish for anything from this time period, and to be honest, I’m totally cool with it. I know I should be more alarmed by the fact that, at 28 years old, I’ll sometimes lay in bed and read articles entitled “89 Times Jessica Simpson Wore Juicy Couture to Waffle House.” I can’t explain why a photo of Britney Spears in one of her old “M.I.L.F.” tank tops swaddles and soothes me right to sleep, but it does. The early 2ks are cloaked in a certain level of camp, which tends to trick people into thinking it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Those people couldn’t be more misguided. Don’t get me wrong, we’re talking about a decade where pretty much anything and everything was acceptable, but isn’t that the charm of it? Can you imagine Justin Bieber wearing cow print chaps and a jeweled bandanna on top of cornrows to a 2016 award show ala Justin Timberlake? The idea is so far out of this universe that you can’t help but laugh. (Come to think of it, Bieber did recently rock bleached dreadlocks to the iHeartRadio Music Awards…bad example.) Underneath the tacky, jewel encrusted Ed Hardy zip up lies some of the greatest music, television and film we’ve seen from artists we still consider iconic today. Gather round as I unzip my Dooney and Burke bowling bag and dig up some of the relics of this time:
I was 15 years old when Britney Spears released her fourth studio album, In the Zone. Up to that point Britney had, for the most part, been releasing elevated versions of her previous albums and singles. Pop bangers with catchy melodies and throw away lyrics that were easy to sing and harder to forget. Her sound had gradually matured, if you use the term mature very loosely. Over a span of 3 years we watched Britney blossom from a 16 year old girl, scream singing about soda pop to a confident 18 year old who demanded time, love, joy and space. I don’t think any of us, myself included, were ready for what Britney had in store for 2003. Gone were the days of teased and crimped pigtails. Oh, hello jeans that sit as low as the human torso will allow and underwear worn outside your pants. Britney was ready to position herself as next in line to Madonna’s throne, and through her actions, Madonna had granted Britney her blessing. Here are 5 reasons you should rediscover In The Zone if you somehow managed to forgot about the most important album of all time.
I could write an entire post dedicated to the only collaboration to ever mean anything but I’ll scale it down to a couple paragraphs. Can we just sink into Britney and Madonna for a second? What a time to be alive, am I right?? The true definition of a “lightning in a bottle” moment in time. But Madonna isn’t the only brain melting pairing on this album. Britney hired producers like Moby, (“Early Mornin’”) Bloodshy & Avant (“Toxic,” “Showdown”) and the problematic but talented R. Kelly (“Outrageous”) to guide her in a more adult and “funky” direction, as Britney would later call it. I still have the image of my mom mouthing the lyrics to “Toxic” as we drove in her car burned in my mind. I knew at that moment the tides were shifting, and I could cry thinking about it. My talented, Louisiana pageant queen was finally becoming the woman she sang about in her film Crossroads.
Britney’s ability as an artist had been called into question since she was first introduced to us as that now infamous catholic school girl. It blows my mind that anyone could doubt the talent of person who’s achieved as much as she has, especially at such a young age. Britney’s writing abilities were on full display with the release of this album. I’ll never forget watching her explain to Diane Sawyer how she sat at the “piana” as she called it, and quickly came up with the melody and lyrics for “Everytime.” She has a writing credit on 9 of the 13 songs on this album (15 if you consider bonus tracks). She also handpicked the producers she wanted to work with, something she’s done since the beginning of her career. This album proved that when given permission by her record label to take creative control, Britney knows what she’s doing. They should have thought of this when they let Will.i.am take over Britney Jean…
The Subject Matter:
We all know by now that an artist’s greatest work will typically stem from some sort of debilitating emotional pain. The world watched as Britney experienced her first real heartbreak from her childhood sweetheart and the man she had convinced herself for years she would marry. I always sort of secretly wished this album were titled “Everytime” because it’s truly a defining moment in Britney’s career. Her voice has never been more perfectly matched to a song, which makes sense considering she wrote it and came up with the accompaniment. The combination of her singing in her alto register with a harp playing in the background is enough to put me in the same hospital they filmed the video in. The pain of losing her first love allowed Britney to boldly explore subjects she would’ve never been brave enough to tackle on her previous records. Remember when “Touch Of My Hand” was, up to that point, one of the most controversial moments in Brit Brit’s career? If we only knew then what we know now.
When you listen to this album, it’s hard to believe so many of her biggest singles came from the same record, and all career defining. “Me Against the Music”, “Toxic”, “Everytime”, and “Outrageous” were all singles released within 4 month spans of one another. We all know what happened with “Outrageous,” do we have to get into it?
The End Of An Era:
The In The Zone era feels very special for Britney fans because it represents the last bit of innocence and genuine happiness in Britney’s life before it imploded. In her documentary For The Record she describes herself at this time as a “cool chick,” and she wasn’t far off. In 2003 Britney was kissing Madonna at the VMA’s, hooking up with Fred Durst (LOL) and showing up to movie premiers with Colin Farrell. She was also a few months away from marrying her high school friend, Jason Alexander, for 55 hours before having it annulled. She was a young free-spirited girl at the top of her game and enjoying her new found freedom. I like to refer to this as her “mid 90’s Drew Barrymore” phase.
I would advise anyone who hasn’t listened to this album with a completely, unbiased opinion in the last 10 years to really delve into it again. Pretend you don’t know that “Toxic” went on to become one of the most iconic and critically acclaimed pop songs in American History. Listen to “Everytime’ as if you hadn’t belted it into a hairbrush in your mirror while throwing carving knives at a photo of Justin Timberlake attached to a dart board…as we all did.