By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
Wha! Grr!" She struts onstage, shouts out to her boys from the South, and in comes . . . a fiddle? Then she spins, steps, extends, twirls, begins to sing the chorus to the Outhere Brothers' "Boom Boom Boom" (1995). You think, "trying too hard." Then, "good, but ironically." Then you realize, "There's no sketchjust a real song from her new album! Awesome!"
Unlike former cohorts Justin (2002) and Christina (2002) who sold out and went "urban," In the Zone (2003) proves the indestructibility of classic pop. Slinky Franco-house, bleepy hip-hop, dub, surf guitar, and Chinese violin all come to Brit on her own terms. Major-key 16-bar structures remain intact, choruses stick to '70s disco elation, and the bass keeps stomping fours. Without Max Martin's obsessive choral layering, Britney's voice gets to stand on its ownrefreshingly pure, melisma free, and adept at breathy whispers.
Air matterseach instrument sounds cleanly separated with its own ambience. Typically a weakness, here this disjunction underlines how Britney can play with any style without having to be anything, except maybe the AOR-princess she's always secretly been and finally looks like on the mid-'80s-cassingle-inspired album cover. She steps out Cher-style (1967) on "Brave New Girl," half-raps better than Blondie (1980), gets picked up by a dude who's "kinda rough" and who tells her "let's get a room girl/come and ride with me." The chorus explodes in zippy "Ray of Light" (1998) bliss. Is this "empowering"? Does it matter? I've known people like this, and so have you. I've stuck with them while they do dumb things just to prove they can, and there oughta be songs about them just like everyone else.
Closing the show, Brit launches into "Everytime," a weeper in the best "Time After Time" (1984) tradition. The piano trails its last lovely glissando, the tabla pounds a final time (hey, the a&r guy said to push things forward), she drifts off in a reverie. . . . It's her surprise release party and everyone is here. Max, Christina, the whole Mickey Mouse Club gang in their old T-shirts and . . . what's that? It's Justin in the back. He made it! And over there it's . . . yeah, well . . . "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Pharrell."