The writers of ‘Toxic’ thought it was too strange to be a hit

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb.

For many listeners, it was a moment of revelation to hear Britney Spears’ “Toxic” for the first time in 2003. Spears slips from her breast voice in the verse up to an eloquent falsetto in the chorus and does both in the chorus. The song’s producers, Bloodshy & Avant, combined an array of sounds that should does not go together – a Bollywood love song from 1981, electric surf guitar and funky synthesized bass – to an unforgettable melange. And Cathy Dennis’ lyrics, which spin a universal narrative of trying to resist temptation (and ultimately fail), have such a lasting power. “Toxic” has been voted one of the greatest numbers of the 21st century by several publications, and rightly so.

Despite its success, when “Toxic” was released as the second single from Spears’ fourth album, In the Zone, even the song’s writers thought it was too “strange” to be a hit. Not only did it become one, it was one of Britney’s most durable singles that lasted 20 weeks after Billboard‘s Hot 100 and topped as No. 9. (On a newly launched platform, the iTunes Music Store, audiences also made it a digital bestseller.) And almost 20 years after its release, “Toxic” is still rippling through culture. It has been covered as a jazz-noir ballad by Yael Naim, a screamo anthem by A Static Lullaby and a bluegrass burner by Nickel Creek. In 2022, the song enjoyed yet another revival in the form of DJ duo Altego’s viral TikTok mash-up of the song with Ginuwines’ “Pony”. This week, On Pop dives into the elements that make “Toxic” so enduring.

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