There is no universal template for attaining artistic maturity, yet Spears' solution to the mystery of growing up is to become an abstraction -- a pop automaton no more or less real than a digitally rendered PlayStation 2 nymph.
In the Zone completes the process of dehumanizing the icon. She throws off the confines of childhood by shedding her corporeal self, subjecting her meager bleat to such processing that listeners are likely to pine for the comparatively warm, organic quality of Baby One More Time or its Max Martinized clone, Oops! I Did It Again.
The immediate impact of "Me Against the Music," her Madonna duet and easily Spears' worst single to date, comes from a title reflecting everything detractors have said about Spears' recording career. The track plays like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis at their most clinical, with Spears and Madonna's voices melding into an indistinguishable tinny drone. It is, in the spirit of its title, anti-music, its opening rhythm guitar only offering dashed hopes as the clank of machinery squeezes its putative human center into the waste removal bin.
Humans appear shortly thereafter on "(I Got That) Boom Boom," as Atlanta's Ying Yang Twins promise to "go to the club and get crunk with Britney" and a banjo sample (!) drives their blunted weirdness forward, but D-Roc and Kaine are flavor-of-the-moment window dressing. "Breathe on Me" and "Early Mornin'," the latter produced by Moby, only recall Britney's motherly Madonna at her Erotica/Bedtime Stories nadir. R. Kelly's "Outrageous," with its "trench coat and my underwear" imagery, just sounds like the fetid fantasies of its creator and is delivered with the passion of an automated voicemail system.
In the Zone co-opts the "hip-hop party" method developed by Dr. Dre in the early 1990s, abused by P. Diddy thereafter and essentially perfected by Missy Elliott: by inviting a large and diffuse array of guests into the studio, the artist can sample from all of their fan bases, almost guaranteeing a hit record. Spears is campaigning for your vote with In the Zone, and she's received endorsements from the Dirty South, the Madge PAC, the electro-pop think tank and the committee for the advancement of R&B sickos -- all in hopes of getting more people to vote with their Visa cards and make it a Super Tuesday for Britney at Best Buy.
Elliott rides this formula to SoundScan glory nearly every time, and succeeds because her Timbaland-enabled sound is the star of the show: a Jay-Z cameo might give a track some added resonance, but it won't tip the balance between hit and flop. Too often, the Cecil B. DeMille approach to album casting indicates a lack of confidence in material. Sheryl Crow's C'mon, C'mon, the singer's least-substantial disc to date, featured a guest list bordering on the ridiculous: Lenny Kravitz, Stevie Nicks, Liz Phair, Emmylou Harris, Don Henley, Scott Weiland and Gwyneth Paltrow made Crow sound like a B-lister at her own premiere.
This "cast of thousands" approach on In the Zone flies in the face of Britney Spears' outsized image. From her 1999 debut onward, Spears thrived on being the focal point; she could have 50 dancers behind her in any given video, but they were stage props funneling energy toward the nexus of all attention, the object of all desire.
Ever since her Catholic schoolgirl vamping in the video for "Baby One More Time," Spears has been selling sex more than music, but for all her pouting and spouting about wearing "sexy jeans" in "Outrageous," there is little that is truly sexy about In the Zone. Its cold tone suffuses this chapter in Spears' evolution, a strange development when compared to her compatriots from the late-90s bubble boom.
Spears, Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore and Pink started out operating at the same stylistic tenor, proffering easily digestible pabulum to a willing preteen flock. Fellow Mouseketeer Aguilera transformed into a proto-porn skank, while Moore took the good-girl route, eventually morphing into a serviceable actor and interpreter of yesteryear's left-of-center pop. Arguably, Pink debuted with the greatest deficit, armed with a personality seemingly defined by hair color, but Alecia Moore quickly evolved into the strongest performer, zigging to everyone else's zag and eventually pairing with unique collaborators like Rancid's punk traditionalist, Tim Armstrong.
Clearly, Spears is looking to Madonna as the model -- the MTV Video Music Awards kiss was roundly interpreted as not only the passing of spit, but of a symbolic torch. With In the Zone, Spears' blonde ambition seems hollow: Madonna, like Britney, traded on her sexuality and shape-shifted with each successive album, but she never let anyone forget about the personality behind the pose.
In the Zone is as deep as the Victoria's Secret-level photography in its booklet, and what passes as personality gets lost in the disc's future-shock binary code. She might want to be Ciccone, but in this dead Zone Spears is Kraftwerk in lingerie.