10 years ago this week, ‘Toxic’ won the Grammy for Best Dance Recording. It was included in many lists of best 00s songs – including NME’s Top 50 – and remains a stone-cold classic to this day. But what is it about the track that makes it such a jam? We asked classical composer Adam Ragusea to dissect why it still endures.
‘Toxic’, as a composition, is pure James Bond in Bollywood pastiche – and it works. Let’s start by talking about that famous string hook. Those screechy orchestral parts were, in fact, sampled from a 1981 Bollywood musical called Ek Duuje Ke Liye (in which the male lead can be seen playing tabla on his lover’s face below). But it wasn’t merely cut and pasted from the film score (as lesser, lazier producers might have done): the songwriting team led by Swedish production/songwriting duo Bloodshy & Avant painstakingly constructed what you hear from tiny bits of the original source audio. The warm naturalism of strings passed through the filter of early 80s analogue recording technology contrasts brilliantly with the cold, electronic dance beat. It also lends a touch of cinematic drama uncommon in a club banger.
The string part is squarely in C minor, like the rest of the song, until it hits that keening, dissonant high note — an F#. How does F# make sense in C minor? It doesn’t. For a moment, the melody passes into the C diminished octatonic scale, a highly unusual eight-note scale that evokes eastern exoticism. You could call it “dangerous,” like the song’s lyrical subject. I love how high and squealing that F# is voiced. It evokes images of a careening Aston Martin trying to outrun danger, as the song’s narrator tries to outrun thoughts of a lover that haunt her like a chemical dependency.
The novel combination of Indian strings with a Bond-esque surf-rock guitar part may have been an instance of accidental reverse-engineering from Bloodshy & Avant. The original Bond theme by British film composer Monty Norman is actually partly Indian in origin. Norman nicked the shoulder-shaking “dum di-di dum dum” guitar riff that ‘Toxic’ emulates from a sitar part he’d composed for the musical ‘A House for Biswas,’ an adaptation of V. S. Naipaul’s novel about Indian immigrants in the Caribbean. You can hear it below. It’s no wonder the sound that now epitomises “spy music” has such an affinity with Indian music – the former was born of the latter.
The vocal melody in ‘Toxic’ cleverly weaves these two influences together. It slides and slinks between high notes in the “Too high, can’t come down” pre-chorus like a sarangi (a Hindustani bowed string instrument), then switches to gnarly, guitar-like blue notes for the chorus tagline, “I’m addicted to you, don’t you know that you’re toxic.”
But ‘Toxic’ was destined for greatness even before it got to Spears’ limited larynx. Bloodshy & Avant offered it to Kylie Minogue first, who rejected it because she is apparently completely deaf and chooses her material blindfolded with a divining rod. Songwriting behemoths Cathy Dennis and Henrik Jonback helped write the song; Spears herself isn’t credited as a co-writer. Whoever ended up singing the track, it was always going to be a hit – and a decade later, it remains just as intoxicating.
Adam Ragusea is a journalist in residence at Mercer University’s Centre for Collaborative Journalism in the United States, and is also a classically-trained composer.