‘Mr Burns: a Post-Electric Play’
‘Mr Burns: a Post-Electric Play’ © Rex

In 2003 Britney Spears was suffering a bit of a career slump. She had yet to reach her excruciating, head-shaving nadir of 2007, but she needed a hit. The English songwriter Cathy Dennis had penned a new tune, “Toxic”, that she had offered to Kylie Minogue (who had conquered the globe with Dennis’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” in 2001). Kylie, inexplicably, turned the song down, so it was offered to Britney; this jerkily insistent Bond-meets-Bollywood electro-dance-pop tune became a worldwide hit and an instant dance-floor filler.

“Toxic”, in fact, has four songwriting credits, the other three being Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg (of the production team Bloodshy & Avant) and Henrik Jonback: all Swedes, another example of Sweden’s success in the pop industry. A snippet of the song, the propulsive strings, comes from a Bollywood song in Hindi, “Tere Mere Beech Mein”. (Dennis’s demo for “Toxic”, on YouTube, shows how elements such as the twangy James Bond-ish guitar were added later.)

So, an American singer had a hit with a song written by an Englishwoman and three Swedes, with help from a tune used in an Indian film; the song was recorded in Stockholm and Hollywood, then mixed in Stockholm. This is the way the pop world now works. In the days of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building, jobbing songwriters would sit around a piano bashing out hits but many of today’s most popular songs are not so much written as constructed, by multinational teams.

But once a song has been constructed, what’s to stop someone from deconstructing it? Here’s where the story of “Toxic” becomes interesting. In 2011 the American singer-songwriter Jayme Dee stripped “Toxic” down to its essentials in a radical rereading; she can be seen on YouTube with an acoustic guitar and a sultry pout, moaning the song in a slowed-down 3/4 arrangement.

'Toxic' by Britney Spears
'Toxic' by Britney Spears

This was not the first time a Britney song had been given the acoustic treatment: for his album 1,000 Years of Popular Music, the folk-rock singer Richard Thompson did something similar to “Oops! . . . I Did it Again” (another Swedish-written Britney hit, by Max Martin and Rami Yacoub). What Dee and Thompson achieved was almost archaeological, digging through the accreted layers of production to discover that, underneath it all, there is an actual song.

A radically deconstructed “Toxic” has also been heard in the distant future. Last summer, London’s Almeida Theatre staged Mr Burns: a Post-Electric Play, a production, first performed in Washington DC, which imagines a post-apocalyptic future world in which roving troupes of players perform episodes of The Simpsons and sing pop songs from the old days.

In such a purely oral/aural world, the play’s author Anne Washburn suggests, without access to electricity, TV or the internet, survivors would depend on (and also trade) snippets of script or music for their physical, emotional and spiritual sustenance. The show’s score cleverly imagines how popular music might survive in such a future: in fragments. One of the songs that weaves its way through Mr Burns (and it’s an apt one, given the poisoned state of this blasted world) is “Toxic”, its Bollywood strings transmogrified into an eerie “Ooh-ee-ooh” vocal refrain.

With Mr Burns currently being performed at the Ivory Theatre in St Louis, Missouri, it’s pleasing that this curious and vaguely disturbing song lives on, as a remnant of a half-remembered relic of a half-forgotten past, drifting in a brilliantly imagined future.

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For more in the series and podcasts with clips, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song

Photograph: Rex

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