Spears takes raunchy trip `In the Zone'

Music Review

November 18, 2003|By Rafer Guzman | Rafer Guzman,NEWSDAY

Let's be honest: Nobody is interested in Britney Spears' development as a musical artist. All we care about is her development as a woman.

Even as her records hit No. 1, fans seem more interested in Spears' transformation from virginal teen into the bold adventuress who broke Justin Timberlake's heart and recently dallied with Hollywood rogue Colin Farrell. The music has always been secondary.

On her new album, In the Zone (in stores today from Jive Records), Spears takes on yet another role: the fallen angel. It's a character Madonna symbolically passed on to her with their infamous kiss on MTV.

Spears, who turns 22 next month, is desperate to convince us she's entered womanhood. Her new song topics include one-night stands, morning-after shame, homoeroticism -- even the joys of masturbation. You've heard the phrase "too much information"? Spears apparently hasn't. (Then again, neither has Madonna.)

The album may be too advanced for younger fans. If Spears' early puppy-love songs were the equivalent of back-seat smooches, In the Zone feels like a quickie in an alleyway. "Me Against the Music," the first track and already a hit single, sets the tone: Over a spanking rhythm and heavy keyboards, Madonna urges, "Come on, Britney, lose control." Meanwhile, Spears plays the submissive, whispering "uh-huh" and "yeah." In terms of shock value, the song delivers more than a few watts, but it's a cheap thrill.

Spears strikes these pornographic poses in nearly every song. On "Showdown," she coos: I don't really want to be a tease / Would you undo my zipper, please? On "Breathe on Me," she switches roles, begging, "Don't stop, 'cause I'm halfway there." And she really pushes the envelope with "Touch of My Hand," an ode to self-pleasure: I'm all in my skin and I'm not gonna wait / Commence on myself in the most precious way.

For once, the music is good enough to matter. That's because nearly every song has a different producer, among them R. Kelly, Moby and The Matrix trio. As a result, the album is a disco extravaganza, bursting with powerful rhythms, suggestive guitars and swelling violins. At times, you can almost ignore Spears' barely serviceable voice and unconvincing, breathy delivery.

The album's biggest drawback: All this derring-do has been done before.

"Touch of My Hand" may seem boundary-breaking, but it's essentially a reworking of Cyndi Lauper's "She Bop," a No. 3 hit 20 years ago. (And Lauper's song was subtler and more playful.) Madonna's influence, of course, looms large over the entire album, especially on "Brave New Girl," a direct rip-off of "Material Girl," right down to the bouncy beat and electronic bass line.

Most disheartening is that Spears' definition of womanhood seems centered entirely on sex. At the same time, it's merely an act intended to shock and arouse.

Spears has no obligation to be a role model, but maybe she needs better role models herself.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

In the Zone

Britney Spears Score: ** 1/2

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