The first thing you notice about “Toxic” is the strings – urgent, stabbing, a shock of treble. The string bursts compress a riff into a couple of seconds, turning its curling snatch of melody into a red alert, a warning sign on a system out of control. Something is happening. Something is wrong. But it doesn’t feel wrong.

“Toxic”’s metaphor – desire is poison, love is the drug – is familiar. The song pushes the idea sonically as well as lyrically. In Peggy Lee’s “Fever”, a cousin of “Toxic”, the symptoms of the fever are detectable in Lee’s voice but not in the gorgeous slow slink of the rhythm and melody. “Toxic”, though, sounds feverish in its pace, its fragmented arrangements, the staccato of Britney’s voice cutting through. Listening to it now I’m startled again at how fast it is – her voice (more playful now) on the chorus sounds like it’s being tugged at by the rhythm: a dance of control and chaos that echoes the song’s theme. You’re bad for me, but if I know you are, doesn’t some small slice of control remain to me?

I read someone argue once – I don’t know if it’s true, but I hope it is – that the vernacular popularity of “toxic” as a word to describe relationships and situations dates from this song. That usage has none of the song’s nuance – it’s slipped its moorings and become a simple condemnation. What is toxic is external, invasive, dangerous – we must detox; identify the toxins (literal or metaphorical) and remove them, an act of purification.

Britney had been pure – sold as such, anyway – and knew better than most, even at this point, the dangers of that particular pose. Then, during the years and decades when “toxic” rose as a therapeutic metaphor, she was locked into a legal arrangement designed to keep her away from toxicity: bad decisions, bad influences, her own bad judgement. As defined by her father, a relationship not exactly toxin-free. She was placed into an enforced detox, a pause button on life.

In 2004 that’s still some years away. “…Baby One More Time” is Britney’s image-defining peak as a commercial phenomenon, and we’re living through her zenith as a damaged, defiant international treasure. But “Toxic” is a different high – it’s her capital-C classic, her  “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”* or “I Want It That Way”, a shot at immortality. Russell T Davies, making the revived Doctor Who series later that year, wrote a scene in “The End Of The World” where his far-future villainess introduces ‘a ballad from Earth’s classical era’, and the string-jolts of “Toxic” play as the action heats up. It’s a hoary SF joke, making the flotsam of our era the classics of some unimaginably later one, but if the SF fan in Davies enjoys the old gag, the television man in him knows a genuine classic when he hears it, a song that can make anything more exciting.

Back on Earth, “Toxic”’s gleaming lines and fever stabs played out as a soundtrack to the present, the cresting delirium of the 00s boom, heard in stripmalls and at sleepovers and in student discos. It’s hindsight that makes me hear “Toxic” as a diagnosis of how brittle that moment was, as a smile starting to twitch into rictus. But the track is strong enough to bear that hindsight.

Most toxins don’t raise the temperature – they confuse, cause nausea, crash the body’s operating systems in their attack on organs or nerves. Britney’s way of making pop could sound like a system glitching – from “Oops I Did It Again” onwards her records started covering for technical flaws in her voice by breaking it, twisting it, making it less naturalistic but more exciting. That tendency is in full flow on “Toxic”, with her husky low end sometimes played flirtatiously straight (“…from your devil’s cup”) but more often pitched up, droidized, whatever it takes to disorientate you.

The backing track joins in, its pinball table of triggered riffs creating a jagged, stop-start landscape that demands a bodily response. In one of the most thrilling touches to a thrilling song, before each chorus there comes a hammering sound, like the whole delirious mecha-pop system is crashing and having to rapidly force-reboot before Britney can carry on.

The lead writers and producers on “Toxic” are more Swedes, Bloodshy & Avant – they had a hand in plenty of good to very good tracks but, unlike Max Martin, they never came near to what Britney catalysed them into here. “Toxic” remains a touchstone – only this year someone had a minor viral hit splicing it with “Pony” in a mash-up which grievously misunderstood the appeal of Britney’s signature song, that it’s a fast record or it’s nothing. Twitchy, giddy and compulsive, it’s kept its unhealthy freshness.

*(”Toxic” shares a co-writer with the Kylie track, in Cathy Dennis, and was apparently offered to Kylie first. It’s not impossible her version would have been great, but the song as we have it doesn’t play to her strengths, and its emotional territory – the rush of dangerous relationships – would have felt a step back after “Slow”. Anyhow, her loss is our gain.)

Score: 10

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