LISTEN WITHOUT PREJUDICE
Believe it or not, I was prepared to really not like the new Britney Spears record, In The Zone. Those who know how much I actually do like Britney—and how much shit I take for it—will realize that statement is not at all facetious. My original inclination was to be excited for a new record, but the lead single, “Me Against The Music,” seemed pretty poor to me. The Madonna bits were the worst of it (and Madonna already ruined her own record this year), but the song itself didn’t really have much live. If you consider that her first three albums were lead by “…Baby One More Time,” “Ooops!…I Did It Again,” and “I’m a Slave 4 U,” you realize that the lead single is always a corker, and if “Me Against the Music” was any indication, In The Zone was going to be a relatively flat record.
Not to mention that even I am growing sick of the current promotional machine around her highness. Britney's attempts to have her cake and eat it too by showing her ass and then acting like she didn’t know it was hanging out come off as rather ridiculous. Once, maybe, you were tricked…but not this many times. And certainly not when they showed you a picture of Angie Dickinson with her ass out and you copied it. So, if Britney is turning me off, it’s clear the rest of the world is really going to be turning against her. It’s gotten so bad, I imagine even Christina Aguilera is looking at her former cohort and thinking, “Damn, she’s getting a lot of shit.”
So, I hit play on In The Zone with my eyes closed, reaching my hand out as if I were afraid the machine might shock me. Or the way you do when opening up a mysterious package that just might have your lover’s head in it.
"Me Against the Music” is track 1, and it’s what it is. No surprise here. Track 2 is “I Got That (Boom Boom),” guest the starring Ying Yang Twins (currently all over the radio, guesting on a Lil Jon cut). They start off the song with a little skit about how hot Britney is hot, and I’m a little worried we’re going to descend into a parade of guest stars that end up marring the album by taking time away from the person that got me here in the first place (a problem normally reserved for hiphop records). As the song starts, it fares better—deep beats, a banjo sample. It’s a decent enough track, but the rapping by the Twins makes it smack of trying a little too hard—not unlike having Madonna on “Music.” No one ever needed to hear the word “crunk” on a Britney Spears rekkid.
“Showdown” begins to cleanse the palette. It’s dancier, with some odd bloops tangled around Britney’s voice…but it’s not until song 4, “Breathe on Me” that the tide turns once and for all. A sexy house song, featuring breathy vocals a la Madonna’s “Justify My Love” and “Erotica,” “Breathe On Me” isn’t like anything Britney has done before. It’s a more sophisticated dance song. Things are looking up.
This shift is confirmed by the next track, the Moby-produced “Early Mornin’,” a post-club chill out. Things get even better on “Toxic.” We’re still in the dance realm, but now we’re getting snatches of strings, and it sounds cool. In fact, they stick around a bit later for the first semi-ballad, “Touch of My Hand.” The production keeps it from straying into schmaltz, and the lyrics are more than a little suggestive. Has Britney delivered us another pop tribute to masturbation? Does she bop?
It’s clear by now what we have with In The Zone. Notice that the word dance keeps turning up? This isn’t so much a pop record as it is a dance record. These songs would be perfectly at home in a club. They’re shiny with glitter, not a heavy production gloss. Even, as I said, the well-worn ballad territory isn’t littered with predictable big sounds, but stick to the electronic squiggles and abstractions. There are also some Middle Eastern riffs on songs like “Outrageous” and “The Hook-Up.” The latter actually sounds like an outtake from No Doubt’s Rock Steady, incorporating a Jamaican influence. Points, too, for having a toaster on the song that isn’t Sean Paul.
“Shadow” is our second ballad-style number, though it sits okay amongst its more beat-oriented peers by not being too slow and maintaining a pop melody. “Brave New Girl” picks things back up with a new wave style, including the sort of talk-singing that was used on hits of the period by bands like The Waitresses.
The finale is “Everytime,” the closest to a traditional Britney slow number as we come. Yet, it makes for a nice, gentle ending point, a sweet good-bye. And lest she break convention by going to far into old habits, the harp lullaby that runs through the track gives it something special.
Despite all my fears, I really, really like In The Zone. It’s the sort of assured genre album Britney Spears should have made at this point in her career. It seems like a natural step, suggesting a bit of maturity while not completely abandoning the frivolity. I’ll be curious to read the reviews. Will it be the cool thing to hate it? I mean, Pink has a new record, so I am sure every critic will be rushing to talk about how authentic she is. Perhaps comparisons to Madonna’s Erotica are indeed apt—a time in the artist’s career where the press and the public are wanting to rein them in, they release a record that, despite some patchiness, gives a big nod to club trends of the period, and end up being totally misunderstood.
On a similar note, another pop diva that everyone counted out at one point has another record. Kylie Minogue released Body Language in the UK last week. My understanding is that North America is going to have to wait until February for it. It’s an interesting turn for Kylie, coming off her biggest worldwide success with Fever and the smash “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” It’s still disco, still fantastic, but similar to Britney, not as pop as Ms Minogue is known for. Rather, it’s slow disco, full of easygoing rhythms, laid-back funk arrangements. There are a lot of winners here—the sensual “Chocolate,” the come on of “After Dark,” the computerized charms of lead single “Slow.” The techno tinklings of “Secrets (Take You Home)” remind me of a an updated take on the Tom Tom Club sound, and Kylie’s metronomic robot vocals achieves the right futuristic feel. The little rap recalls Blondie, as well. “Sweet Music” has classic Studio 54 grooves with a little bit of Dee-Lite production, and the huskiest vocal performance since Bacall told Bogey to put his lips together and blow. (A line delivered by Britney in “Breathe on Me,” actually.)
Body Language is a wonderfully self-assured record. Kylie clearly isn’t overly worried about her success. Perhaps it’s the hard-won battle of getting to her position after all these years that she has no need to for desperation. Instead of getting caught up in the fleeting nature of fatal fame, she’s having the confidence in her music.
While I am on the subject of Pop Queens, I should also note my vast enjoyment of a Pop Princess’ latest. Mandy Moore’s Coverage is a fantastic little disc. Covering everyone from XTC to Cat Stevens to the Waterboys to Elton John and the previously referenced Blondie, she’s put together a great collection of other people’s songs and given them new life. While at times Coverage threatens to stray into over-production, it almost always escapes (however narrowly), and all in all, is an addictive listening experience. With this and covers albums by Martin Gore and Erasure, it’s been a good year for artists stepping outside themselves and into other people’s shoes. Paul Weller is preparing to do the same next year, and I can’t wait. (He already released a collection of covers he had put out as B-sides as a bonus disc in his Fly On The Wall box, but this will be all new recordings.)
Current Soundtrack: Kylie, Body Language, Dave Gahan, "Bottle Living" DVD remixes