How Bollywood gave Britney Spears her greatest hit

  • We dissect the cinematic influences behind "Toxic," the 2003 Britney Spears hit that remains both a critic and fan favorite over fifteen years after its release.
  • The high-pitched strings in "Toxic"'s famous hook are actually sampled from a '80s Bollywood musical, "Ek Duuje Ke Liye."
  • The chorus on "Toxic" draws musical inspiration from the first Bond film, specifically its iconic 007 theme song — which, it turns out, was born out of Indian music.
  • Insider spoke to classical Carnatic vocalist Manasi Prasad and classically-trained composer Adam Ragusea to find out why the sounds of Bollywood and James Bond have such an affinity for each other in "Toxic."
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.


- ♪ Baby, can't you see ♪

Meredith Geaghan-Breiner: Rewind to 2003. Britney Spears hasn't had a big hit in almost four years, and critics say her career is slumping. This all would change when she dropped her song "Toxic."

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♪ It's dangerous ♪ ♪ I'm falling ♪

["Tere Mere Beech Mein"]

Meredith Geaghan-Breiner: The real story behind "Toxic" begins in 1981 in India with a blockbuster Bollywood musical. Those high-pitched strings in the score? You've heard them before, at the opening of Toxic, then repeated throughout the song. It's this musical number, "Tere Mere Beech Mein," that's the source of "Toxic"'s unmistakable hook and riff and a lot of the song's intensity.

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Manasi Prasad: "Tere Mere Beech Mein," it's from a classic film called "Ek Duuje Ke Liye."

Meredith Geaghan-Breiner: This is Manasi Prasad, a classical Carnatic vocalist with an encyclopedic knowledge of Indian music.

Manasi Prasad: This song is actually based on an Indian classical rāga, or melody. It's ♪ La la la ♪ ♪ La la la la la la ♪ ♪ La la ♪ So you'll find a lot of other Indian songs which are in this rāga. It's used to convey feelings of very intense emotions. I think one of the reasons why, you know, Bollywood songs work so well is the range or the pitch of the songs tends to be really high, and it brings an intensity and a brightness.

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Meredith Geaghan-Breiner: Britney's team of songwriters, led by hit maker Cathy Dennis, took two tiny sections of the musical number and expertly merged those two sections together.

["Tere Mere Beech Mein"] ["Tere Mere Beech Mein"] ["Toxic"]

Adam Ragusea: There's a string hook that's got the low, fast part, which is the ♪ Bum bum ba da da da dum ba da da dum ♪ and then there's a very high keening part that goes ♪ Da da ba ♪

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Meredith Geaghan-Breiner: This is Adam Ragusea, a writer and YouTuber who's also a classically trained composer. That second part of the hook that Adam just sang? It starts on a superhigh F sharp, a note that lies far outside the song's key of C minor, making the whole thing sound disorienting.

Adam Ragusea: That screaming F-sharp note makes the whole thing sound cinematic and scary in a fun way, like an action film.

Meredith Geaghan-Breiner: There's definitely something that sounds dangerous in that string sample. This has a lot to do with the film it was lifted from, a tale of forbidden romance.

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Manasi Prasad: It was a story about these star-crossed lovers. They fell in love, and it was opposed by their families, so both of them ended up dying at the end of the movie. So it's kind of a really tragic, intense love story.

Meredith Geaghan-Breiner: In the movie, love is danger, and that's reflected in the music, especially in the glissandos, these sliding figures in the strings, which are pretty much the signature of "Toxic"'s sampled hook. They sound slippery and precarious, which fits since Britney's singing about slipping under and falling.

♪ It's dangerous ♪ ♪ I'm falling ♪

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Meredith Geaghan-Breiner: Somehow, these notes sound even more treacherous when the sample's played backwards halfway through the track. Beyond the screechy orchestral parts borrowed from Bollywood, the other big source of danger in "Toxic" comes from the buzzing, ominous-sounding guitar.

♪ I'm addicted to you ♪ ♪ Don't you know that you're toxic ♪

♪ And I love what you do ♪ ♪ Don't you know that you're toxic ♪

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Meredith Geaghan-Breiner: If that guitar bit sounds kind of old-school to you, that's because it's surf, a rock subgenre that was biggest in the late '50s and early '60s, when there was a boom of interest in West Coast wave culture.

Clip: Surfing! [surf guitar]

Meredith Geaghan-Breiner: Surf guitar is played in a way that conjures up the sounds and feel of surfing with a hard and fast picking style and loud, wet-sounding reverb.

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♪ Never been ♪

Meredith Geaghan-Breiner: If surf's supposed to capture the carefree California ethos, you might be wondering why the guitar in "Toxic" has very much the opposite feel. That deep, low guitar tone sounds suspenseful in a way that matches the adrenaline rush of the Bollywood strings. That's probably because you identify that twangy guitar with something else entirely, one of the most recognizable movie themes in the world.

["James Bond Theme"]

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Meredith Geaghan-Breiner: The first-ever Bond film, "Dr. No," came out in 1962, right in surf rock's heyday. So it's not surprising that its title song, which would set the template for all later Bond themes, was fueled by surf. The 007 theme had an outsized influence on the music of all the Cold War spy films and TV series that followed it.

["Secret Agent Man"]

♪ There's a man who leads a life of danger ♪

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Meredith Geaghan-Breiner: By now, the tone of guitar that you hear in "Toxic" has big spy connotations, and the song's Bond-inspired music video seems to be a nod to this connection. OK, so we've got the aggressive twang of the surf guitar evoking the reckless daring of a special agent and frantically sliding Bollywood strings capturing the rush of a risky love affair. How is it that these two disparate sounds from opposite sides of the globe seem to have such an affinity for each other? Turns out, they share some of the same musical DNA. Monty Norman, the film composer who penned the 007 theme, lifted its melody from a previous piece he'd written for a play adaptation of "A House for Mr. Biswas," VS Naipaul's novel about Indian immigrants. Basically, the sound that has come to define spy music was in fact born of Indian music.

Adam Ragusea: And so, when we hear those two aesthetics put together in "Toxic," it feels really natural to us.

Meredith Geaghan-Breiner: "Toxic" distills some of the most thrilling sounds of global cinema into a three-minute pop masterpiece. What other club banger combines Bond and Bollywood so perfectly and remains a DJ staple 15 years on? That is why "Toxic" is not only the greatest triumph of Britney's career, but one of the most impressive pop hits of our time.

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♪ With the taste of your lips ♪

♪ I'm on a ride ♪ ♪ You're toxic ♪

♪ I'm slipping under ♪

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♪ With the taste of a poison paradise ♪

♪ I'm addicted to you ♪

♪ Don't you know that you're toxic ♪

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