If you can believe it, Britney Spears would like people to focus on her music, not her midriff.
But seeing is believing, and since the debut of her music video “I’m a Slave 4 U” two years ago, fans have seen Spears take an increasingly provocative journey into sexual exhibitionism.
From her love life to her infamous MTV Video Music Awards kiss with Madonna to her National Football League kickoff concert and her most recent performance in New York’s Times Square, the artist has tested the limits of her sexuality.
But now comes the moment of truth. With her new album, “In the Zone,” set to be released Monday (Nov. 17) internationally and Tuesday (Nov. 18) in the U.S., her label, Jive Records, can only hope that her midriff won’t overpower her music.
The challenge for the record label is to get across that Spears, 22, has matured as an artist and is ready for a grown-up and more musically diverse audience.
In an interview with Billboard, Spears tries to make the point clear that she’s just being herself.
“I’m doing my thing, and it’s the media that’s misconstruing the whole conception. It’s not me,” she insists. “I can’t help the fact that they write about me going to Starbucks 24-7.”
Paradoxically, her album sales seem to have declined in direct proportion to her increasing public profile.
Her 1999 debut, “… Baby One More Time,” sold 10 million copies. Subsequent releases – 2000’s “Oops!… I Did It Again” and 2001’s “Britney” – sold 9.1 million and 4.2 million copies, respectively, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
“Certainly, the kiss at the MTV Awards segued into the Madonna single and video in a big way,” Jive president Barry Weiss says.
Perhaps. But so far, public reaction to the new material has fallen well short of the media excitement.
“Me Against the Music,” the album’s opening single (featuring ample guestwork by Madonna), is up from No. 13 to 11 this week on the Mainstream Top 40 chart. But on the Billboard Hot 100, it has slipped six slots to No. 44 in its fifth week.
With the single leading the way, Jive is turning up the volume on its marketing campaign.
“We’ve left no stone unturned,” Weiss says. “We have tons and tons of media on a worldwide basis going into the album, and we’re exhausting every area that we can – print and electronic media, TV, radio, video – to make sure that people know this album is coming.”
In addition to mainstream appearances, Jive is targeting the gay community with the album, which is heavy on dance influences. To that end, the label is working with lifestyle marketer the Karpel Group.
“Because this music is so much more dance-oriented and the producers that are on this album are so ensconced in that community, we just felt like this was really the time to do this,” Jive marketing executive Kim Kaiman says.
Clear Channel Entertainment will produce next year’s 56-date Spears tour. The outing will play West Coast arenas from March 3 through April, then hit outdoor amphitheaters in mid-July.
Jive plans to release a Spears DVD in mid-March, with previously unreleased footage.
“In the Zone” marks a musical departure for Spears. Instead of traditional pop, the singer opts for a darker, more dance-oriented sound.
“It was a weird process at first,” Spears says. “I didn’t exactly know what direction I wanted to go in, but I took my time. That’s why I like this album so much.
“I did it right. I waited to find myself with other people that I really had chemistry with and could really be creative with,” she says.
The album includes production from Moby, Bloodshy & Avant, R. Kelly and the Matrix, among others.
For Larry Rudolph, Spears’ manager for Reindeer Management, it was important for Spears to continue moving away from a traditional pop sound.
“On the last album, she kind of departed from that with the Neptunes-produced stuff that she did, like ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’ and ‘Boys.’ Those departures were really what worked best for us on the last album,” Rudolph says. “We recognized that going into this album.”
After weighing their options, Spears and her camp decided on a more dance-oriented album.
“Dance music is really pop music anyway, it just has sort of a different label to it,” Rudolph says.
The new direction was felt immediately with “Touch of My Hand,” the first song that Spears cut for the new album.
“It really did provide a balance for the rest of the record. We just went from there,” Spears says of the track.
Spears co-wrote seven of the album’s 13 songs. “She has achieved what she set out to achieve, which was to make a mature album that didn’t sound like something she would have done three years ago while still making a commercial album that has hit singles,” Weiss says.
“It’s a little moody. It’s very dance-oriented and very mature,” he adds. “It’s the kind of record she should be making right now, and it came down to her to make it.”