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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Toxic," the most unique pop song of this century

Baby, can't you hear? It's nothing like what you expect from an idol like Britney Spears, but it's arguably her biggest hit.


The creation of distinct and successful musical ideas requires the careful mediation of inspirations and sonic elements. Take from too many disparate sources, and the result will surely be a muddled mess of a composition, right?


...Right?


Well, when listening to Britney Spears' enduring 2003 smash "Toxic," one may be compelled to say otherwise. Spears and producers Bloodshy & Avant seem to throw the kitchen sink at the production console, between the initial string samples, the wide variety of instruments, and more. Yet it all somehow remains coherent despite all the different pieces that make up the track. In today's post, I'm going to look into how "Toxic" remains so coherent and catchy despite the myriad pieces which make up its three-plus-minute sonic jigsaw puzzle.

(Before I get into the meat of today's article, I want to acknowledge that one of my main inspirations for tackling the song in question is the recent conservatorship ruling in Spears' favor. I know very little about conservatorship law and even less about the intricacies of her particular case, so I will refrain from making comments on the verdict past this paragraph. I hope the correct judgment was made for Britney's mental and financial well-being, most importantly the former. Age 39 — holy cow, she's 39 — is to say the least a late point at which to experience a new degree of freedom, so I hope she has properly prepared for this new stage in her life, and that she has a good support group around her, beginning with her fiancé.)


"Toxic" is undeniably pop, but it might just be the most unusual pop song of the century thus far. Its uniqueness is established in its first moments, with a chopped-up and looped sample of the song "Tere mere beech mein," from the 1981 Bollywood film Ek Duuje Ke Liye (lit. Made for Each Other). A main line of strings is rare enough on its own in 21st-century pop, let alone sampled as it is. Bloodshy mentioned in an interview that he was playing around with all sorts of Bollywood strings when the idea came to him. It makes me wonder how he was manipulating the samples in real time; I expect he was using a drum pad to trigger the samples like many modern producers do, but since the anecdote ends there, we may never get the answer.


That interview was also eye-opening in its mention of the song's circuitous path to get to Britney. I'd previously known that Kylie Minogue was targeted to sing "Toxic," but I had no idea that Janet Jackson was targeted first. It makes me wonder just how many other productions have changed hands and targets before reaching their final form.


After the Bollywood sample opening, Britney Spears' signature breathy, fry-tinged vocals come in with the iconic opening lines: "Baby, can't you see? / I'm calling..." If a listener weren't hooked from the intro, they surely are now. Behind Spears, fast guitar strums and an active synth bass make their presence known alongside the drumbeat; the bass in particular propels the verse forward.


A few lines in, at "It's dangerous / I'm falling," the synth string swell does wonders to tie the disparate instruments and their sources together. By recalling the opening sample so early on, the strings become a sonic glue which keeps the verses flowing. Even though they don't appear in the chorus, enough other elements from the verse (including the bass and guitar) do to make the soundscape intelligible in the context of earlier material. Meanwhile, those same elements are transformed to keep the song fresh at the same time. Spears' vocal contour changed from a very stepwise line in the verse to one full of leaps in the pre-chorus and chorus, and the bass and guitar chords also change.


I find the start of the chorus progression interesting because of its breaking from traditional Western harmony to descend chromatically after its upward leap (C, to E-flat, then D, D-flat, C). This could be considered a somewhat common jazz technique called a tritone substitution, when the dominant fifth chord is replaced by one a tritone away (G replaced by D-flat) to create a colorful downward resolution to the tonic. Here, though, it doesn't sound like a traditional tritone sub, because the notes playing above the bass don't correspond to a dominant chord. Personally, I think that Bloodshy & Avant weren't intending to evoke the tritone sub; rather, they happened upon something that sounded cool and unusual, but simultaneously fit the frenetic and unusual sound of "Toxic."


As much as I could continue talking about all the intricacies of "Toxic" and just how many different elements are part of its soundscape, I feel like that would just get boring after only going a little longer. I'll wrap up this post by saying that, with "Toxic," Bloodshy & Avant achieved something quite unusual in the pop music scene: they took a nearly overflowing wealth of unique instruments and sources, then curated them into a more than intelligible sonic structure. The song's form remains quite distinct, but there's no doubt it's ridiculously catchy and radio-friendly, as it remains one of Britney Spears' most iconic releases. We may never hear something like "Toxic" again, but I hope more producers take direction from Bloodshy & Avant and take greater sonic risks in constructing a pop track. You don't have to follow the same blueprints from 70 years ago to create a global smash hit.

 

If you still want to learn more about all the minutiae of "Toxic" from a theoretical standpoint, check out this video from 12tone, one of my favorite music content creators:


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