This is what she looked like when you first saw her: pigtails, Catholic schoolgirl uniform, Lip Smackers baby-doll pink lips. She was a good girl, but suddenly gone bad, having tied her little white shirt in a knot over her Madonna-influenced midriff. She was a 17-year-old babe --in both senses of the word -- who already knew too much.
She was Britney Spears, and it was 1999, and this was her first video. It was called, sweetly enough, " ... Baby One More Time," in a winking omission of the soon-to-be controversial real lyric, the dot-dot-dot covering up the words "hit me." "Hit me baby one more time," she sang, at once flirtily and beggingly, in a now-you-have-me/now-you-don't cadence over and over again, in that short little skirt, in those be-lockered hallways, the leader of the pack. She was Olivia Newton John's version of Sandy in "Grease" for the '90s: No need for transformation, this girl gave it to you all in one -- the good, the bad and the body.
Britney Spears' debut album went on, propelled by that single (which shared its name with that of her album), to sell over 9 million copies in the States alone last year, making her one of the top-selling teen pop stars of all time. And, as with so many other acts, that first year of stardom -- that intervening rocket launcher of a year -- showed her transformation from tentative entrant onto the cultural radar screen (a girl who still clearly had certain strings tied to her "Mickey Mouse Club" past) to full-fledged media persona.
Sure, the do-I-dare sexuality was sort of there in the beginning, but it was an insider's thing that the little girls might not get (although the grown men surely would) as she posed for her first album cover sitting on the floor in a little red shirt and a denim mini. It was a Calvin Klein "oops, my underwear's showing" ad taken one step further and yet seemingly one step back. (Her underwear wasn't showing, but it appeared to be airbrushed out.)
But then, as the year went on, Spears was out there in every sense of the word, coming more and more clearly into focus: Britney, in a so-slick-it-seemed-wet shocking pink tube top, traversing the arena stages of the world with a mike bit around her head, oddly reminiscent of the orthodontic headgear her peers were wearing that same summer; Britney, in a clingy white "cut-out" strapped dress or an all-but-see-through polka-dot top, up for trophy after trophy at awards show after awards show; and, finally, Britney, smack dab on the cover of Rolling Stone in almost nothing but a bra and panties, with a phone pressed to her too-perfect-for-bed head, but which was still snuggled up against the satin pillows photogenically anyway. Spears had arrived. She was doing business in her boudoir. She was the virgin ready to be the whore. But what did it all mean?
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For many teen pop stars, it might not matter. She's just another Tiffany, some might say, recalling the raven-haired mall rat who ascended by playing places like the Beverly Center; or just another Debbie Gibson, who after her initial burn-so-bright-she-burnt-out success resurfaced as a wholesome Broadway staple. But some of us suspect there's something more to Britney's appeal, something hidden amidst the flirty near-nakedness, the vanilla hip-swinging. For Britney Spears is about sex, and she's about sluttiness, but she's also about something more complicated.
I bought the Britney Spears disc relatively early on in her ascendance, just as she hit the cover of Entertainment Weekly in a double stint with fellow Jive records' labelmates N'Sync. (It was just as Jive, which also counts the Backstreet Boys among its acts, was only beginning to emerge as the multi-billion dollar powerhouse it has subsequently become.) I bought the disc because I liked the single. " ... Baby One More Time" grabbed you; it was a hard-hitting hit, this track, that pinned you to the wall and wouldn't let go. It was a summer song arrived early that spring, and it was fun to roll down my car windows, letting in the L.A. sun, and to sing along with it.
It's interesting, sometimes, the evolution of an incredibly commercial album like this one, that you buy almost expecting you're going to get screwed by its most-likely-schlocky excess, but which can occasionally sneak up on you because of that very same please-let-me-please-you attitude. And so, finally, after avoiding the rest of the album and simply playing " ... Baby" over and over again, I accidentally let the disc run its course a couple of times and decided it wasn't so bad. In fact, I actually surprisingly liked a couple of the songs, including "Sometimes," Britney's second single, which, like its predecessor, had equally double entendre lyric, but which I took with a grain of salt (or, shall I say, sugar?) at the time. "Sometimes I run/Sometimes I hide/Sometimes I'm scared of you ..." she sang and I, again, as innocently as Britney herself purported to be, sang along.
And so it was that way for a while. I became a fan, a guilty-pleasure admirer through her rise from red- to white-hot that summer and then through the fall, and I began following, in the casual way of a celebrity magazine reader, the news and gossip about her. There were rumors, in the wake of the Rolling Stone cover, about breast implants: Had she really grown up that fast? Many media voices wondered out loud, and it was true: The "RS" pictures did strike one as quite different than her relatively "undeveloped" pictures on the album and its bonus poster inside.
"Yup, I did grow up that fast!" she said delightedly whenever asked, guileless and serious. And in the age of the Wonderbra ("Hello, boys!" its ads had been proclaiming since Spears must have been about 14), it wasn't so hard to believe. People also started to, quietly, question the lyrics on " ... Baby," but few did it too explicitly or in-depth. "Hit me," came the justifying reply, wasn't meant literally. (Duh! was the teen get-a-grip vibe.)
After a while, a few media outlets even began questioning Spears' persona more loudly as, for example, when she graced the cover of People enveloped in the headline, "Too Sexy, Too Soon?" But inside, Britney and her mom insisted that she was just a good Baptist girl from Lousiana who just seemed to want stardom so bad her parents let her go for it. They also let it be known that the Britney, from her lavender-bedspreaded bedroom on her constantly-in-motion tour bus, still scribbles down her daily prayers in a diary she calls her "Bible Book." So, was she a puppet? No way. It was Britney's idea to dress that way in the " ... Baby" video: She'd wanted to bare her belly because she thought it was cute and girly.
Now, in a way, for awhile, this could all be seen as Madonna-esque. Madonna, in fact, was one of Britney's idols, and it seemed plausible that she was simply objectifying herself in the manner patented by her model. It was an idea that had been perverted, so to speak, before (see Fiona Apple's "Criminal" video and that cool-rocker-girl's apparent decision to exploit herself before anyone else had a chance), but there seemed something beyond that going on here. There seemed, in fact, to be something going on that, if you read -- as no doubt millions of us last year and this year did -- interview after interview, pull quote after pull quote, and if you looked at picture after picture of Britney, was beyond the pop phenom's grasp.
You might have caught it in the odd media moment with Spears: The time on a late-night talk show when she wide-eyedly told the host that fame was great, if you just avoided the older men who -- could you believe it? -- seemed to be fans too.
But mostly, you'd glimpse it in the oddly angry sentiments elicited by Spear's name among her supposed fan base: When, as happened one night on Los Angeles' Top 40 station, 102.7 "Kiss" FM, a Britney-aged girl called up regarding a rumor about the pop star and N'Sync's Justin Timberlake having bought a house together, and the caller predicted in judgmental tones that, if they had, their place was no doubt a "fuckfest." Or when, as a study of teen girls' attitudes last year reflected, young women proclaimed that they didn't actually like the No. 1 girl act of their time and demographic. When questioned, during this study, about what celebrities they'd like to hang out with, they had pricelessly characterized Spears as someone whom they probably wouldn't want in their social group, but then amended it: OK, they might, but only because she'd attract the guys. (The idea was that she was dirty and it might rub off, and it even seemed to be supported in reality: When "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" star Melissa Joan Hart began a high-profile friendship with Spears, within a month or two Hart had shed her goody-goody image and shown up barely clothed on the cover of a lad magazine). So, unlike Madonna, Britney's boy-toy behavior was alienating girls rather than liberating them. Why?
It was clear that Britney, despite her sweet-as-pie smile and fun little lyrics and pink-tinged videos, was a slut. But that had never hurt Madonna before. So no, that didn't seem right.
The answer, instead, I began to think, could be found on that first album itself. Listen to it. I did, and after several months of enjoying its nice-girl naughtiness, I had to stop. For what happened to me was this: Odd as it may sound, whenever " ... Baby" started up -- complete with its sounds of a man's hard inhaling and exhaling, seemingly literally breathing down our teen dreamgirl's neck -- or when the whip-cracking effects on another song, "Crazy," hit, I began having uncomfortable visions. I began, in fact, in some murky part of my mind, to have inescapably awkward and then downright ugly pictures in my head of what was going on in these songs. They sounded, after a while, like sounds emanating from elaborate S&M dens, or from lands of sexual purgatory and destruction -- or, at the very least, from places where everything's so fine and perfect that it's indelibly fucked (both literally and figuratively) up. It sounded, in fact, on many of these songs, as if Britney was getting hurt as she was singing, as though someone were forcing her to sing these words at gunpoint. (It's a feeling that's intensified on " ... Baby" in the way parts of the song have been produced to sound, ominously, as if they're being sung over a phone line -- an effect that's also replicated on her latest single, "Oops! ... I Did It Again.")
It sounded, in short, like Spears was being victimized. And it was a feeling, this odd sense that my jukebox heroine was being hurt, that even after a while seemed to be echoed on her initially innocuous-seeming ballads which, upon closer listen, sounded to be dripping with desperation for a return to something with some boy that actually sounded not so special in the first place -- and in certain cases, the boys actually sounded explicitly violent. Beyond " ... Baby," there was also that second single "Sometimes," in which she pleads with a guy to be understanding of the fact that, "Sometimes I hide/Sometimes I'm scared of you ..." They were words that could just be taken at slang face value -- or not. And after a while, I began to have a hard time brushing them off.
Why, I began to wonder whenever that song keyed up, was she so damn scared? What exactly was this guy doing to her? Her recipe for success, it seemed finally, was locked into exactly this not knowing. Britney Spears' songs and her persona, in fact, seem to be all-too-authentically Lolitaesque: Her appeal hinges on a confusion between, and an overlap of, sex and violence. Her secret weapon, as it were, is in some frightening and unspoken but also real way, abuse.
And in a season where a woman on "The Sopranos" prides herself on allowing her boyfriend to hold a gun to her head during sex (How could he ever find a mistress who would do such a thing? she reasons, priding herself on her keepin'-her-man ingenuity) but where this same girlfriend ends up killing him in the end, it occurred to me: We're still, post-Madonna be damned, a nation at sexual war with ourselves. We like sex, but we like it better when it's wrong. In fact, its very wrongness makes it even hotter. And what's more wrong, in a sense, than a girl in an abusive relationship -- who likes it? Who thinks it hurts, as another shamelessly commercial but conflicted pop star once sang, so good? And so we like a girl like Britney, who allows us to have our cake and hide it too: She'll give it to us, but she'll never tell.
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Britney, although non-fans either very likely never knew she was here or fans never knew she was gone, is back. Her new album, "Oops! ... I Did It Again," arrived in stores last week. The record has already hit No. 1 in the U.K., and it seems destined to do the same here. But this time, she's not just a sweet-and-sour slut, a good-time girl about to go bad. She's a girl who's been hurt, and now it's her turn to hurt back. Of course, it's still really all just sex-play, and she's celluloid-smiling and seductively sneering the whole way through it.
This shift -- from a sort of battered girlfriend to a battered-girlfriend-who's-getting-even persona -- isn't being trumpeted loudly, of course. Instead, it seems to be being alluded to in quiet code. The album, musically, has got "more attitude," her producer Max Martin told the Los Angeles Times last week. Indeed it does. In its initial "Oops! ... I Did It Again" video, Britney -- clad in princessy blond hair extensions and, again, a wet-as-fresh-paint looking cherry red cat suit -- hits the camera with a mad-as-hell body, kicking and slamming against the screen. She's Barbie as an action figure. And here's what she has to say: "Oops, I/Did it again!/Made you believe/We were more than just friends/I played with your heart/Got lost in the game/Oops, you think I'm in looove/Sent from abooove/I'm ... not ... that ... innocent!"
Yes, "Oops ..." isn't just a wink at her multimillion album-buying fans who she hopes will do it again, it's also a strike back. And in case you didn't get it, she even stops in the middle of the video for a dramatic interlude, where her "boyfriend" gives her the trillion-carat necklace from "Titanic." Yes, the old lady in the movie threw it into the ocean in the end, but this poor guy went down and got it for her. "Oooh, you shouldn't have," Britney says, smiling her homecoming best, but then, wait ... "Oops, I ... did it again!" she gleefully concludes, breaking back into song.
Spears' publicity machine has tweaked its "attitude" this time around as well: For her latest Rolling Stone cover, for example, she's clothed -- in red, white and blue leather. The headline: "Britney Wants You!" The message? This girl is sex, American-style. And just as with Uncle Sam, although in a very different way, the idea is: You're gonna pay. If Britney was screwed last time, she seems to say, in all her high-kickin', action-packed, slicked-out glory, this time she's screwing you. But with a wink, of course. Sure, she's a girl who's been hurt, but in a weird way she kind of enjoyed it. Now, though, the rules have changed: It's still about sex, oh yeah, but now she's, so to speak, on top.
But isn't this just self-objectification? And if she's having fun and making a mint, the logic goes, why worry? And it's true that Madonna has committed seemingly "worse crimes" with her "Sex" book and her "Erotica" album, and nearly everything else during her iconographic career. But the difference is this: Each thing Madonna has done, from her "Borderline" days on out, and barring only a few misunderstood-by-everyone months, was as a self-proclaimed, self-aware fantasy-creator, dealing with the dark and the subconscious but only after explicitly explaining what she was doing.
But what about No Doubt's Gwen Stefani and Mariah Carey, someone else might say, both of whom, respectively, are no strangers to slamming sounds or desperate ballads? Again, the differences are key: For Stefani, even in all her "Just a Girl" glory, works into her ska and new wave-y hard sounds, echoes them, plays along with her songs instead of getting beaten up by them. She's a tough girl, and she's got the style -- the flamingo-pink hair, the braces-as-a fashion-statement moxie --and one-of-the-boys energy in her performances to prove it. And Mariah? Mariah's just a girl with a crush, over and over again, a girl who wants to be pretty and keeps trying harder and harder to be ever more so, who promises to give it up but still always remains, in all her Sony-studded armor, a version of a virgin.
So no, Britney's different. What she's doing, in the end, seems much more murky, and more real, and more subtle, and -- finally and perhaps most crucially -- more unknowing. In that latest issue of Rolling Stone, for example, she appears to be finally getting a whiff of what may actually be going on, but she's still holding her nose, saying, "I don't think about [it]. ... I don't want to be part of someone's Lolita thing," she tells the magazine. "It kind of freaks me out." So Britney doesn't really want to know what she's doing, and she appears to be committed to keeping her innocence, at least in that regard, intact. She wants to remain shielded from her own reality.
And perhaps luckily so. For Spears' appeal, in the end, seems to be exactly that: That who she is, or more precisely, what she's doing, is beyond her own understanding. Her new album, in fact, expertly plays upon the same "Who, me, sexy?" guilelessness as her first one, from the title on down: Oops ... she's doing it again. (The media, of course, only plays this note further: "The Girl Can't Help It" is one recent and typically dutiful headline.) And yet, of course, the truth is that the "Oops" title alone is confirmation that someone has zeroed in on her double-entendre underage appeal, and decided to slam it all the way to the bank.
And so the question remains: Who does know what Spears is doing? Jive Records' shockingly dirty old man-esque impresario? Her Swedish hitmaker Svengali, Max Martin? Britney herself, secretly? Her millions upon millions of fans?
I've come to suspect that it's probably all of us, and perhaps also none of us at the same time. Yes, it's possible. Because it's simply unspeakable, this girl's persona, like so many things these days in the media-saturated air. It's like the odd (and unacknowledged) reality of a movie like last year's "The Talented Mr. Ripley," a clearly gay romp marketed as a clearly hetero one; or the unending but also secretly marketed homoerotic appeal of a Brad Pitt or a Tom Cruise or the unspoken but inescapably odd institution of crooked-toothed but implanted-galore porn star Jenna Jameson in a reporter's spot on "E!" recently; or, cutting even closer to the chase, the way "no one will talk about porn but everyone rents it," as another adult film star recently told an interviewer on a "True Life" special on MTV.
It's true life alright, stumbling upon moments, media and otherwise, that are the exact opposite of what they promised to be. And it may not just be odd, it also may be dangerous. In fact, it's supposed to be a leading cause for schizophrenia -- being sent mixed signals, being told (or, in this case, sold) one thing, and shown another. It screws with your sense of reality. It makes you, in a sense, split right down the middle. It cracks you in two.
And so we have Britney, a girl for our times. A virgin and a whore. A girl who doesn't know what she's doing, but boy does she do it. A girl who lets you hurt her, and who pretends, and maybe even believes, that she likes it. A girl whose pain is our pleasure. A girl who gets even, but only as long as it's hot. A Mouseketeer turned near-kiddie porn star. A girl, finally, who feeds something black and blue in all of us, but who wraps it up in a pretty pink bow.