27. “Toxic” by Britney Spears (2003)

The JOAT 50 Song Countdown is a blog series where every weekday for 10 weeks I am posting a brand new long form essay where I have ranked and written about my 50 favorite songs of all-time. From Adele to Zac Brown Band, Patsy Cline to Plasma Canvas, Ludacris to Rise Against, this series offers a personal essay about the 50 songs that hit me the absolute hardest.

I had a whole other version of this entry all written in my head about how no one can be as famous as Britney Spears was and come out sane on the other side. I was going to write about how this country has an absolutely garbage history of treating young women (young famous women in particular) like shit and then blaming them for literally any reaction they have in response to that horrific treatment. I just watched Barbie again recently, and the movie is not only fantastically entertaining in its wildly varying tones and styles, its message of how patriarchy is ultimately unfulfilling not just for women, but for everyone landed flush on the cultural kisser. This article about “Toxic” by Britney Spears was going to be less an article than yet another referendum on my problems with this country and oh jesus fucking christ ekstrom just shut the fuck up once in a while.

For what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly believe all of that, but sometimes I exhaust myself with this shit. If you’re reading this far into this giant list, you probably have a good sense of my personal politics by now and you don’t need me to continue to kick you in the teeth with my views on how boring, shitty, and exhausting this country’s baked-in misogyny is. Because he’s what I realized in sitting down to write this…

Britney Spears probably would have enjoyed it if we all just shut the fuck up about her once in a while. She’s a One Woman Take Factory, like LeBron James, but for pop music. Everyone has a take on LeBron. Everyone also has a take on Britney. Did Britney ask for that? No. So in the interest of not adding yet more pointless tonnage to The Discourse, I’ll just say I feel awful for so many elements of Britney’s life and hope she has found an enjoyable level of autonomy and self-actualization finally at the age of 42. She’s certainly earned it.

Now then, onto the matter at hand. Britney could fucking BANG, dude. Her giant hits all just slap, and slap HARD. They’re all manicured and sculpted within an inch of their fucking lives, but that to me is often a feature, not a bug of pop music. Oh, you mean this shit that I’ve been incessantly singing in my head for 20 years was all calculated to be as insidiously sticky as possible by creators trying to appeal to as many people as possible? Go on.

Because “Toxic” is all gimmicks. That screeching “beee-yoooouuuuuu-weeeeee-oooooooohhhh” hook, Britney’s breathy, sexy delivery, the fake electronic drum hits, the subtle rattlesnake sounds at the tail end of the chorus, the cool guitar noodling in the bridge – man, it all just fucking works. Hook this shit directly into my veins.

The video is even better. Britney is a secret agent of some sort and we see her masquerading as a hot as Pan Am era flight attendant, making out with some ugly dude only to rip off his face Mission Impossible style and reveal a Hemsworth-lookin motherfucker underneath, riding on the back of a motorcycle with Tyson Beckford (who is still possibly the most gorgeous man who’s ever exited), and writhing around wearing what appears to be a sheer body stocking with jewels strategically placed all over her paradoxically both revealing and hiding nothing.

Britney was an absolute force. And I know that because I can say “Britney” in nearly any context and most people in their heads will think “Spears.” She’s in the rarefied air of one name musicians. Elvis, Michael, Bruce, Madonna (ok that one’s cheating), Celine are all there with her. And she’s there because she is absolutely captivating in every single thing she does.

In the “Toxic” video the thing I’m most struck by is her eyes. It always feels like Britney is looking right at me, and only me when she stares dead into camera. I never know how to react to it either. I’m a dorky, middle-aged dad who’s watching a 20 year-old music video (probably) by myself and I get all flustered like I’m 14 and trying to ask out a classmate. I have to break eye contact before she does. That doesn’t happen to me when I watch 99.9% of other music videos. Britney transcends the camera.

With some songs I spend a great deal of time considering their meaning. Until I wrote this very sentence I hadn’t spent even 30 seconds considering what “Toxic” means. I don’t care. Why would I and why would you? It’s a great fucking song to blast on the highway or in the club or when you and your friends are drunk as shit and feel like butchering a pop song at 11:30 at night in your kitchen.

One of my favorite moments in the finale of Parks and Recreation is when Jean-Ralphio fakes his own death and then spies on the funeral. The man leading the service says, “Per his request, Jean-Ralphio would like his favorite song to be played: ‘Bend Ova’ by Lil Jon featuring Tyga.” And then Lil Jon’s voice comes barreling out of the speaker – BEND OVA MAKE YA KNEES TOUCH YA ELBOWS.

That song is just. so. stupid. “Toxic” by Britney Spears is not a stupid song. But I like the idea of being at someone’s funeral and their favorite song isn’t “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones or fucking “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen or some other on-brand (but totally phony) Serious Guy weepy horseshit, it’s fucking “Toxic” by Britney Spears. Always leave ‘em with more questions than answers, I say.

And at this point in her life, I hope Britney herself leaves people with more questions than answers. She deserves a little mystery, y’know?

Up next: I wore cologne to get the feeling right.

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