If the gazillion-selling Backstreet Boys seal themselves and their fans in a sonic terrarium of soundboy solitude and stark sentimentality, Lolita star Britney Spears -- who shares the same producer -- allows something else to step into her world. As the Crystals would say, it feels like a kiss. Her intruder is self-subjection at best, physical violence at worst, and she implies that she's gotta have it.
Much of Ms. Teen USA's fame is centered around the line "Hit me baby one more time." And while the vocal hook might seem like a coded hip-hop sexual entendre, given the new-conservative culture that produced the Louisiana native, it's hard to imagine that it means anything except for exactly what it says: "Hit me." In suburban America, where the song blew up, it's a Stepford-whelp male fantasy with nasty implications, a teenybopper corollary to Limp Bizkit's "Nookie." Just as that band's front man, Fred Durst, has drained hip-hop of everything but its viscera and darkest misogyny, Spears' inventors have turned back the clock to a time before the post-femme Spice Girls and determined diva Monica raised the bar for new, aggressive female pop singers.
"(You Drive Me) Crazy" is a brilliant snatch of boilerplate electro rock, and the post-Beenie Man/Shaggy rasta-twirp vibrations of "Soda Pop" twirl and flaunt with kicky bliss. But every song, especially the gloppy ballads ("Born to Make You Happy"), systematically bulldozes our baby's agency. Where other contemporary lite pop stars like Natalie Imbruglia dream of approaching a Dusty Springfield plane where raw vocal-emotional intensity bullies out everything but the intensity itself, Spears just wants to remind us that Tiffany did not vanish in vain. Vocally, her niche makes her the oldest teen in America -- a 17-year-old bringing kids half her age the gospel that you're never too young to grow up too fast, basically Mike Eisner's worst nightmare -- but her fabricators seem to have no need to program in any of the seemingly hard-won maturity that makes Monica special, let alone a dash of the Spice Girls' pussy positivity.
So, in the first single she's letting you kick the tar out of her, and on the next one ("Sometimes") you've got her running and hiding in terror. Eventually, it gets to the point that even the most simple "I miss you/I'll be there/I'll popmail you some digicam shots of the boob job my mom bought me"-style sentiments become quite spooky. Spears might sound as if she's trying to sing like a real, live, all-growed-up dance-pop diva who can get into real live clubs and even buy drinks, too, but she really just sounds like a Backstreet Girl -- under your thumb.