Illustration: Iris Gottlieb.
For many listeners, hearing Britney Spears’s “Toxic” for the first time in 2003 was a moment of epiphany. Spears slides from her chest voice in the verse up to an eloquent falsetto in the pre-chorus, doing both in the chorus. The song’s producers, Bloodshy & Avant, combined a matrix of sounds that should not go together — a 1981 Bollywood love song, electric surf guitar, and funky synthesized bass — into an unforgettable melange. And Cathy Dennis’s lyrics, which spins a universal tale of trying to resist temptation (and ultimately failing), have such a lasting power. “Toxic” has been named one of the greatest tracks of the 21st century by multiple publications, and rightfully so.
➼Britney Spears: “Toxic”
➼Lata Mangeshkar and S. P. Balasubrahmanyam: “Tere Mere Beech Mein”
➼Kylie Minogue: “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”
➼Katy Perry: “I Kissed a Girl”
Despite its success, though, when “Toxic” was released as the second single from Spears’s fourth album, In the Zone, even the song’s writers thought it was too “weird” to become a hit. Not only did it become one, it was one of Britney’s most durable singles, lasting 20 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 and peaking at No. 9. (On a just-launched platform, the iTunes Music Store, audiences made it a digital best seller as well.) And almost 20 years after its release, “Toxic” is still rippling through the culture. It’s 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 Ginuwine’s “Pony.” This week, Switched on Pop dives into the elements that make “Toxic” so enduring.
The Writers of ‘Toxic’ Thought It Was Too Weird to Be a Hit