Thursday, December 3, 2009

#29. 'I need a hit, baby gimme it'

Britney Spears "Toxic"

In 2004 I was about as much of a music snob as I could ever conceive of being. I thought I was hot shit simply because I listened to Beefheart, had a copy of Peel Slowly and See and was on top of all the hottest new artists while still finding enough older stuff to make my tastes so much more well-rounded than anybody else's. Yeah, I was a bit of a prick to say the least, but that's neither here nor there; the biggest thing in my arsenal of snobbishness was my outright dismissal of anything and everything mainstream. As far as I was concerned I didn't have time to bother with the stuff made for mass consumption; I felt that I was above it and that nothing created in a pop lab in Sweden could possibly be worth anything but my highest degree of scorn. I could reconcile it easily back then, but in hindsight I was a bit of a dick about it to be honest. I was ignoring a lot of absolutely great material for the most unforgivably shallow of reasons, and maybe my move into full time poptardedness is a way of atoning for that period, and even though I've come around to the best of the stuff I was vehemently against at the time of its release (just assume anything on this list that was popular and released between 2000-2005 falls into that category) it's not a period of life I look back on all that fondly.

Essentially though, when I think back tot it, "Toxic" was probably the first chink in my anti-mainstream armour. OK, that's probably a lie, but of all the major hits form around the time that I was in my 'pop is unambiguously horrible and I won't hear otherwise' phase I'm pretty sure that "Toxic" was one of the few that made an impression in any way. Main reason probably being that if not for Britney's vocals it didn't really sound like a pop song. Look at it strictly from an instrumental standpoint; you've got a borderline dissonant string loop, a Spanish guitar, weird middle eastern tonalities in the arrangement, that post-chorus guitar break that sounds like it was ripped from an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack and the weird chorus of vocals in the pre-chorus that almost makes Britney sound the least bit sexy. It's such a weird series of production choices, a group of things that you don't think of as being complimentary to each other at all, yet when laid out as they are it works wonders. The dissonant strings make for an instantly ear-catching hook, the guitars in the verse give the song even more of a giddy drive, and the pair of guitar breaks that frame the chorus give it a bit of tension, in and of itself a rarity in pop music. Even back when I was vehemently against anything popular I had to concede that this was top class material - just not in public.

The real shock was that once you figure in Britney's vocals the song doesn't die a horrible critical death. I have my share of quibbles with Spears' vocals on most songs; her range is thin, the emotions never seem genuine, the studio sheen over the whole thing makes her sound like she's a robot trying to be a real girl and failing miserably. But somehow "Toxic" doesn't seem to accentuate those particular shortcomings to any great degree, hell the ethereal pre-chorus vocals approach genuine sensuality - though I'm inclined to give a lot of the credit there to back up vocalist/songwriter/unjustly forgotten 90s pop relic Cathy Denis - which is not a word I'd have ever seen myself using in the vicinity of Spears' name previous to this. It could just be that the residual goodwill generated by the arrangement rubbing off on the other facets of the song, but whatever the cause it stands as the only time I've found Britney to be especially noteworthy as a vocalist, and that's saying a lot.

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