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10 Years, 100 Songs: #44. “It’s Dangerous, I’m Falling…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 8, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

An early review I read of “Toxic” on Pitchfork (in the infancy of their pop coverage) pointed out that a line in the song’s first verse–“I need a hit / Baby give me it”–could be taken in a fairly literal sense. Not to mean that Britney was pleading for either a mainline to her veins or a sock in the mouth, but rather, that she was at a stage in her career where she needed a hit single pretty badly. The virginal days of “Baby One More Time” and “Sometimes” were now eons ago, and even the image reinventions of “Oops I Did It Again” and “I’m a Slave 4 U” were now well in the rearview. What Britney had now was a gradually-developing perpetual media shitstorm–breaking up with Justin Timberlake, making out with Madonna at the VMAs and flirting with Kabbalah, getting hitched to some random loser in Vegas–that threatened to overwhelm any chance of her having an enduring musical career, especially when her period of collaboration with Madonna produced the mediocre duet single “Me Against the Music,” a song which did neither artist any favors.

Well say what you will about Ms. Spears, but she’s always been able to pull that rabbit out of the hat when she needed to. “Toxic” was indeed just what Britney needed, a catchy song that was more musically sophisticated than any of her hits to that point, and which sounded about as strange as her life was starting to get. It easily became her biggest hit since the beginning of the decade, almost single-handedly getting her back in the discussion of the world’s biggest pop stars after Avril Lavigne had started to make her look old and outdated and Christina Aguilera had begun to make her look insecure and cheap. It didn’t exactly steer Brit-Brit’s career back on track–indeed, things would get much, much worse in remarkably quick order–but it bought her a couple years’ worth of musical relevancy, just enough time for her to go back into the lab for another comeback single and do it all over again.

The first time I ever heard “Toxic” was as the background music for some circus-type act (or maybe it was just a dance number, I don’t remember for sure) at a performance night at my high school. I had heard that the song was a little different and had a kind of unusual hook to it, but I wasn’t nearly prepared for what was to come–those sweeping, Eastern, almost screeeching strings, combining with frisky, Spanish-sounding accoustic guitar and an eternally-reverberating guitar hook that felt like it came from a Spaghetti Western. It was unbelievable, exotic and mysterious and certainly like nothing else I’d heard from Britney before. As forgettable as “Me and the Music” was–even today, I can’t recall a note of it for the life of me–this was just as striking, and I was fairly positive that this wasn’t going to be the last time I would be hearing the song.

The song just got cooler on further listens. I came to appreciate how lost and vulnerable Britney sounded throughout the whole thing–on recent previous singles, it always seemed like it was important to Britney for her to feel completely in command, trying to control the public perception of herself and tell the people what was what. But here, she just sounded like a little girl along for the ride, more than willing to abdicate all decisions to the senior partner. It made sense in terms of the subject matter–lyrically, “Toxic” was all about submission to temptation, with almost certainly disastrous results–but it also made a whole lot of sense in terms of Britney’s career path. For better or worse, she had worked so hard creating an image for herself, and then even harder trying to break that mold, that she seemed to have forgotten who exactly she was supposed to be in the first place. “Toxic” was like her way of telling the world “I”m done trying to define myself for you people–I’m just going to do whatever the fuck I want to do now.”

It was freeing, no doubt, but it was also a little disconcerting and probably a little scary. For a song as catchy and as popular as “Toxic” was, it’s actually a fairly disconcerting song at parts, with Britney’s breathy, high-pitched singing on the pre-chorus really putting on edge: “Too high / Can’t come down.” Of course, in the context of the song, it’s all just part of the extended metaphor for love and lust, but it’s hard to ignore just how distant Britney really sounds at this point–it reminds more of those cautionary-ish rave hits that became popular in the UK when the ecstasy era reached its dark end, than it does of a simple, seductive party jam. Ultimately, the prevailing feeling surrounding “Toxic” is one of disconnect and surreallity–a conception reinforced by the song’s absolutely preposterous music video, in which Brit dons several different outfits and personas in mysterious, cartoonish, non-sensical action sequences that end up looking like a cross between David Lynch, Aeon Flux and Cinemax softcore porn.

Of course, as we would soon find out, when it came to Britney Spears and her bizarre, fasicnating travails, we had just reached the tip of the iceberg. Like Michael Jackson before her, once present, her craziness only ballooned–the marriage to K-Fed, the TV show, the weight gain and subsequent disturbing VMAs performance, the humiliating and/or all-too-revealing tabloid photos, the divorce, the nervous breakdown and head-shaving…Britney reached the rare and distinctly uncomfortable stage of celebrity weirdness where it  actually stops being funny. So much so that for a period, I was positively convinced that she was going to be the first casualty of the TMZ age–that in a very literal sense, the constant media pressure and paparazzi hounding was going to somehow directly lead to her death.
Britney Spears was rivaled only by Lindsey Lohan–and even then not really–as the decade’s primary, irrefutable case example as to why young people should not be allowed to become famous.

But unlike the great majority of teen idols of years past–especially the more troubled ones–we’re still talking about Britney in the present tense  in 2009, a full decade after her pop breakthrough. And that’s because, like as previously stated, she was always able to hit with that comeback single to get her back on the charts and on MTV, to remind people “Why do we care about whether or not this person goes barefoot in gas station bathrooms again? Oh, right!..” First it was “Toxic,” then a couple years later, it was “Gimme More,” and a couple years after that, it was “Womanizer”–all super-meaga-hits that saw Britney age fluidly with the times, catchy enough to dominate the airwaves, but still smacking of the sense that Brit still hadn’t found what she was looking for. If it keeps leading to songs like these, though, maybe it’s for the best. As long as she doesn’t die in the process, anyway.

(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far (Now With Links!):

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
90. Cassie – “Me & U
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It
81. 311 – “Amber
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite
79. Nas – “Made You Look
78. Royksopp – “Eple
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!
67. Incubus – “Stellar
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday
55. Darude – “Sandstorm
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside
52. Luomo – “Tessio
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic”

2 Responses to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #44. “It’s Dangerous, I’m Falling…””

  1. So what do you think of “Radar”?

  2. Sam Skeen said

    I heard “Toxic” for the first time that night too. It was Lana and Sarah’s streamer performance at the “night of song and dance” our senior year. I thought it was cool too, and right after the show was over you told me it was Britney Spears’ new single, and I was completely shocked.

    Probably the only Britney Spears song I can really listen to all the way through.

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