Britney Spears extends a honeyed thigh across the length of the sofa, keeping one foot on the floor as she does so. Her blond-streaked hair is piled high, exposing two little diamond earrings on each ear lobe; her face is fully made-up, down to carefully applied lip liner. The BABY PHAT logo of Spears’ pink T-shirt is distended by her ample chest, and her silky white shorts — with dark blue piping — cling snugly to her hips. She cocks her head and smiles receptively.
But hold on. It’s not like that. You’re falling into the same trap as the lovelorn youths who call Spears’ local florist to send her long-stemmed roses and the randy fellows outside the MTV studios with prom invites scrawled on their chests. Admittedly, that trap is carefully baited by a debut video that shows the seventeen-year-old singer cavorting around like the naughtiest of schoolgirls. But, as Spears points out, nothing is actually revealed.
“All I did was tie up my shirt!” she says, addressing the critics who would hunt her down like a gay Teletubby. “I’m wearing a sports bra under it. Sure, I’m wearing thigh-highs, but kids wear those — –it’s the style. Have you seen MTV — all those girls in thongs?”
Spears’ left thigh is presently adorned by several small plastic discs that are wired to a neuromuscular stimulator. A dance rehearsal accident has temporarily confined Spears to her parents’ ranch-style house in rural-burban Kentwood, Louisiana, when she should be out promoting her white-hot debut, … Baby One More Time, 1999’s biggest-selling pop album so far. Staying home has its compensations: As Spears holds forth, her mom, Lynne, a second-grade teacher, sits on the carpet in the wood-paneled living room, fluffing and folding the laundry. If it weren’t for the diamond-laden tennis bracelet that Britney just bought her, you’d think her daughter was a vacationing college kid and not a pop sensation with an eleventh-grade education.
The song that put Spears on top is a strutting statement of intent called “…Baby One More Time” — –and that ellipsis tells a tale. The three dots mask a chorus hook line — “Hit me, baby” — –that some have taken as a masochistic come-on. “It doesn’t mean physically hit me,” says Spears. “It means just give me a sign, basically. I think it’s kind of funny that people would actually think that’s what it meant.”
Perhaps the linguistic confusion arises from the fact that the creative force behind “…Baby One More Time” is the Swedish Ikea-pop maestro Max Martin, who is also behind Backstreet Boys and Robyn. As cowriter and co-producer on the record, Martin would run lyrics past Britney, ten years his junior, for approval. “I asked them to change the words to ‘Born to Make You Happy.’ It was a sexual song,” reveals Spears, who cleaves to the Baptist faith, I said, ‘This may be a little old for me.’ Because of the image thing, I don’t want to go over the top. If I come out being Miss Prima Donna, that wouldn’t be smart. I want to have a place to grow.”
1960. Elvis has been kidnapped by Uncle Sam. Buddy Holly is dead, and Little Richard has found the Lord. Into the vacuum rises a counterrevolutionary force of adenoidal adolescents like Bobby Vee, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. These pop puppets, with their Tin Pan Ailey songs and Sta-Brite smiles, actually managed to neutralize rock & roll’s threat for several years.
It’s happening again. Welcome to the new Teen Age. In a distant demographic echo of the postwar baby boom, the American teen population has reached the kind of critical mass that makes the culture industry sit up and listen. Teen spending power is reshaping pop culture, filling our TV screens with teen dramas and our multiplexes with teen movies. It has also put a perky new beat on the pop charts, where the devotional vaporings of boy bands have vanquished the roiling rock angst of the early to mid-Nineties.
‘N Sync, Backstreet Boys and 98 are now choking on dust from the high-steppin’ heels of Miss Britney Spears. Spears, who shares a manager with ‘N Sync and a label with Backstreet Boys, screamed off the production line early this year and became the first solo artist of the Sound-Scan era to lodge a debut single and album atop the charts simultaneously, in the album’s first week of release.