Transforming “Toxic”: An Unusually Genius Cover of this Classic
“With a taste of your lips, I’m on a ride
You’re toxic, I’m slippin’ under
With a taste of a poison paradise
I’m addicted to you
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?”
That’s right. We’re talking Toxic. Of all the pop songs ever released, there is perhaps none more iconic than Britney Spears’ 2003 ode to intoxication and infatuation. Everything about it, from the lyrics to the music video to that iconic high-pitched intro riff screams raw sex. Every time that Toxic comes on, whether in the car, at a party, or just alone in the bedroom, everyone knows it’s time to scream the lyrics at the top of your lungs and burst into out-of-control dancing.
But as iconic as this song is, all good things must come to an end, and the hype around toxic never seems to climb back to where it once was and we are all left asking “is it time to bury the hatchet?”
Or at least, that’s what I thought until I heard those timeless melodies again, and in a way, I’d never heard before. The creator of this cover? Anthony Willis. If you’ve heard of him before, I don’t blame you, that’s because his home is not in the recording studio but the film studio. That’s right, the most innovative cover of Toxic comes straight from the mouth of Hollywood, specifically the 2020 film “Promising Young Woman”
A masterpiece in its own right, nominated for Best Picture at the upcoming Oscars, this film follows a young woman’s quest to avenge past wrongdoing, forcing her to confront those she loves, those she forgot, and her own demons. But the movie’s true masterpiece is the soundtrack. Filled to the brim with female-forward fanfares, this eclectic score is everything you could want from a movie soundtrack and more. Out of all the brilliant songs in this movie, the shining gem of them all is Willis’s reimagination of Toxic, in a way that feels so classic, yet so new. It’s dark, it’s sexy, and it’s eerie. Let’s look at what makes this cover truly genius.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Willis’s cover is completely instrumental, as the melodies are reproduced solely through haunting strings. But you certainly won’t miss the lyrics, the string quartet is more than enough.
The next thing to take note of in this cover is the tempo. The speed of the song is slowed to a grinding halt, transforming the vibe from one of sexual desire to one of sinister anticipation. This fits the film perfectly, as this cover accompanies the heroine as she prepares to confront her past and release her inner rage. The tonality of Toxic is also rapidly different, as the strings play the melodies just slightly out of tune. This dissonance instantly puts anyone on edge, revealing just how powerful music can be. It feels uncomfortable in the best way possible.
When interviewed about this innovative cover, Willis responded with…
“We did a string quartet arrangement and then slowed it down. Like stretched it. Mangled it. It’s sort of a very unappealing version of that song. So, what you get is a disconnect of a song that you normally associate being really fun in a very unpleasant setting,” Willis explained. “Then there’s, of course, the lyrical connection that you make. You don’t hear the lyrics, of course, but you do hear them in your head. Which is just really clever use of that song.”
Everything Willis described, from the unpleasant nature of the cover to the unsettling dissonance of the string quartet to the lyrics that aren’t physically there but are impossible to keep out of your head, is present right from the start. Even the iconic high-pitched riff is re-created in haunting form, as a violin croaks out this melody as if the song itself is in deep pain.
Even the chorus melody is recreated, but in a way never heard before. The classic lyrics “With the taste of your lips I’m on a ride”, are replaced by harmonic strings that grow in intensity, as well as growing more and more dissonant as the cover, and the film, progress in menacing unison. This cover ends as it began, creepy, with the final “lyrics” played one final time by the violin, and the lower bass tones sharply cutting off, bringing this cover to a close. Or at least the music, because the feeling of this track lingers for the rest of the film, and if you’re me, for many days after.
In just 1 minute and 51 seconds, Anthony Willis has transformed Toxic forever. Don’t believe me? take a listen, I guarantee you will never hear this Britney Spears classic the same way ever again. Film composers are the true unsung heroes of the music industry, able to transform melodies we think we’ve heard before into works of pure genius that make us question everything we think we know about music. As we approach the Oscars, keep your ears open, and pay homage to some of music’s greatest minds.
Arie Likhtman is a double major in music industry studies and Critical Communication and Media Studies with a minor in philosophy at Butler University. Originally from St.Louis Missouri, he has played music since the age of 4, studying everything from classical piano to ballroom dance to saxophone. He is deeply passionate about all aspects of music from the hot 100 charts to underground indie rock. He hopes to use his voice as a writer to bring new artists to the forefront of the conversation, and to offer new perspectives on music, culture, and society as a whole