PLAYDAR: Recalling a Better (Less Robotic) Britney

I have a confession to make: There’s never been a time — through all the K-Fed drama and shaved-head breakdowns — where I’ve not been a Britney Spears fan. But now, as we get closer to the release of Britney Jean (Dec. 3, RCA Records), there’s something that’s been bothering me: Not one of her new tracks has managed to hit my G-spot.

OK, so I’m a DJ, and maybe the set’s lead single has been a small winner with me (along with the rest of the gays twerkin’ it out at Woody’s), but it certainly didn’t do much work on the charts: “Work Bitch” stalled out at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, a far cry from the No. 1 peak of Femme Fatale lead-in “Hold It Against Me.” Then there’s the soppy love ballad “Perfume,” which sounds like a song Debbie Gibson would have passed over in 1987, and the vocal messes that are the recently released (read: leaked) album tracks “Alien” and “Passenger.”

I have to wonder: When did Britney step out of the zone?

Not to go totally into pop-depression mode, I dove into the vault and plunged into her fourth studio effort, In the Zone. You know, that grown and sexy 2003 set that turned 10 this week. (Break out the candles and cake, y’all!) Thus, considering Brit-Brit’s recent disappointments, I can’t think of a better time for me — or you, for that matter — to become reacquainted with it. The album was a feast of hot, steamy after-hours beats that turned Britney into a full-on bedroom vixen. (Or, as she more recently calls her persona, “Nasty bitch mommy.”)

In the Zone nostalgically recalls a time when she was actually putting in the work. To boot, she was Timberlake-free, and her brief lesbian love affair with Madonna was heating up the tabloids on the daily. Lead single “Me Against the Music,” featuring the Material Girl, certainly took the title of the gayest song of the year, and Britney took the reigns on a whopping seven of the 13 tracks. The set was an irresistible smorgasboard of sex beats produced by the likes of Cathy Dennis Moby, R. Kelly, Bloodshy and Avant, who all came together with an experimental set of music genres with club, trip-hop, electronica and Middle Eastern influences for the record.

So, why did such an odd mix work so well? Again: It sounded like Britney — like she’d finally come into her own as a pop artist. It was vibrant and energetic — none of this dead-behind-the-eyes stuff she’s throwing out today. She purrs on the nightclub lounge tracks “Showdown” and “Breathe On Me,” and vamps it up on one-night-stand odes “The Hook Up” and “Early Mornin’.” And who can forget the heart-wrenching ballad (and accidental club hit) “Everytime”? Then, of course, there’s “Toxic,” which — well, I’ll just leave it at that. It’s “Toxic.”

The highlight: the sultry groove “Touch of My Hand.” With slinky opening guitars and a climaxing breakdown, never has a song about hanging out with your right hand hit that special spot so hard. With lyrics like “I love myself, it’s not a sin / I can’t control what’s happening,” it will forever be the theme song for all of us gays. (Or at least for me.)

Maybe my opinion will change when Britney Jean is finally released. But for now? I’m glad to go back in the zone for a true “moment” in pop time.

The best of In the Zone:


1. “Me Against the Music”

2. “Toxic”

3. “Everytime”


4. “Touch of My Hand”

5. “Breathe On Me”

6. “Showdown”