Late one recent summer afternoon, I found myself standing with thousands of other people on a concrete walkway. We were facing a chain-link fence and gate, before which stood laid-back and sunburned security guards.
Behind us, an FM radio station had set up a stage, on which, in exchange for a chance of free front row tickets, young girls were encouraged to commit karaoke with the Britney Spears tune of their choice. As each sang her personal favorite, the DJs would encourage the crowd before the stage to "make some noise!" Then they would hurl wadded-up T-shirts at them.
I was there, with my daughter and her friend, to see Britney in person. We had about an hour to kill before the gates slid open. All around us, 8-year-old girls clutched homemade "I luv you Britney" posters. Magic Marker tattoos -- "I heart Britney" -- appeared on every other arm. Behind me, a suburban mom dialed out on her cellphone: "We're in line at the gate. We'll see you inside." On my left, two Latino boys, maybe 14 and 10, braced Britney pictures against the gentle breeze and the sway of the crowd. One of the sponsors of the event, I-Zone, had set up a huge banner, about 12 feet by 6. We were encouraged to autograph this banner, which presumably would be presented to Ms. Spears for storage in her hope chest. A typical entry: "Hello Britney, I'm John and I would love to meet you."
I-Zone makes little cameras that produce sticky photographs -- kind of a Post-It/snapshot combo -- that young people can plaster on book bags and clothing. But since these photos are only slightly larger than postage stamps, any identifying characteristics of the people pictured are lost. This somewhat diminishes their value as mementos. Still, the banner was covered with these little snapshots, giving it, despite the bright colors and logos, a somber air -- the kind of artifact one gives to a grieving family after a funeral service.
My daughter has the door to her bedroom plastered with pictures of Britney. The door, in fact, is called "The Britney Door." In the middle of her collage is the written statement, "I'm not obsessed with Britney. You just don't understand the concept."
In my case, that's true enough. When I was her age, was there anything even remotely resembling Britney? We had Annette, I suppose, and Hayley Mills. Sandra Dee. That sort of thing. If they made personal appearances, they were at car lot grand openings in Encino, Calif., where they'd wave at the crowd, then move on to the next "event."
Some of them made records, and probably toured behind them. But teen events back in my day were afterthoughts -- held in high school gyms or the auditorium at the Elks Club. The teen market was not the focus of the entertainment industry.
Britney is miles beyond that. She has sponsors. Besides the sticky-pictures people, she had Youtopia.com. An alarmingly healthy young blond woman was passing out postcards on its behalf throughout the crowd. On its front was a picture of Britney (of course); on its back was a list of the "cool stuff" available on the site, including "live virtual experiences with Britney," "chatting with Britney," "virtual dating" and MUCH MORE!
Britney's tunes were playing over the loudspeaker. Everybody knew the words to every song. Moms, dads, teens, preteens -- all of them were mouthing the words. Eight-year-olds were doing gesture-perfect imitations of Britney's moves.
Behind us, the DJ was saying, "We need to see some moves up here." A 4-year-old had taken the stage. I couldn't see her, but she was wearing a fairy princess hat and a pink cone with a ribbon at its tip. As she sang along with "Baby One More Time," I could see the top of the pink cone wobbling just above the heads of the crowd.
Herbal Essence was another sponsor, as was the "Got Milk?" campaign. Pictures of Britney endorsing these concepts looked down on us as we moved forward. Signs warned us that weapons and illegal drugs, among other things, were not allowed inside. Rounding the pathway, coming around the hill, the amphitheater beckoned on the left, and on our right: souvenirs, beer, bratwurst, lattes and Radio Disney. The DJ there kept shouting at us to "make some noise" as we walked by. He also claimed to offer "awesome" prizes, many of them Britney-related.
I-Zone and "Got Milk?" had partnered up in that irritating new-economy way. They had a booth in which you could be photographed next to a life-sized poster of a milk-mustached Britney. You were provided with a milk mustache of your own: a piece of white tape. Walking by, I noticed half a dozen or so unclaimed photographs lying on a table. The show was emceed by a fellow named Slam (he spelled it for us), who was also Britney's drummer. After the obligatory "Wassup!" he reinforced the benign but firm zero-tolerance attitude of the facility by asking us to buy the blue and green glowsticks being sold and hold those aloft, instead of the potentially dangerous cigarette lighters, matches or cigarettes (forbidden, of course).
Not having the benefit of binoculars, it seemed to me that the opening acts were all the same procession of tiny people wearing shiny pants, moving around energetically, if not always appropriately, to pop songs. From time to time, I retreated to the rear of the amphitheater to watch the sun go down. We were stationed on a blanket on the lawn in the general seating section. Each time I returned, I had to step over dozens of homemade Britney signs, which would be held aloft when Britney finally hit the stage, and which Britney would never see.
There was perhaps a 45-minute lag between the time the last opening act left the stage and Britney Spears took it. Every time a song would end on the sound system, the huge crowd took its cue to chant "Britney! Britney!" Or "We want Britney! We want Britney!" As the wait wore on, the crowd became restive. A 7-year-old behind me would groan "Urg!" whenever Britney did not appear. At one point, a vast moan went through the audience -- with a distinctively female preteen timbre to it -- as though an entire generation of girls had simultaneously and spontaneously tasted despair.
But this was not a lasting despair, if such it was. Soon enough, the big screens lit up to show Britney commercials -- one for Herbal Essence, and one for "Got Milk?" Strangely, the audience did not seem irritated by this.
Then Britney's head appeared on the screens -- rather, a starburst with three Britney heads in it, shooting through a tunnel or swirling vortex. The crowd was screaming so loudly, it was difficult to make out what the computerized Britney heads were saying, but I did hear: "You have accessed the Britney Spears experience."
And so we had. The lights went down, the Britney heads blinked out and blue lights appeared in the monitors, mirroring the blue and green glowsticks waved aloft in the audience.
A glowing silver disco ball, accompanied by gyrating dancers, descended on the stage. Britney emerged from it and began to sing and dance "Crazy," to the delight of the audience.
Regarding Britney's career so far, my daughter has ventured the opinion that her first album presented the teen crooner as a needy mess. The only thing she wanted out of life was for her boyfriend to come back to her.
On her second album, however, she's her own woman. "Oops! ... I Did It Again," the title tune from that CD, is the singer's half-hearted apology to a poor sap who keeps falling in love with her. Britney keeps forgetting herself ("To lose all my senses/That is just so typically me") and seducing the guy. She's just too absent-minded. It's not her fault.
Onstage, she did her revised version of "Satisfaction," in which she complains that, while watching her TV, "A girl comes on and tells me/How tight my skirt should be/But she can't tell me who to be/I've got my own identity." The impact of this mild outburst against being misunderstood was undercut somewhat by the fact that she was sitting on a throne while she was singing it, flanked by two dancers who were fanning her with giant feathers.
OK, she went from angst-driven loser to angst-driven teen queen in one short year. Maybe there hasn't been an image revision this major since Dylan went electric. I'm not qualified to judge.
Yet, watching her frenetic performance -- full of her trademark groans, growls and even a few Michael Jackson yelps thrown in, and exhibiting her distinctive, somewhat eccentric choreography -- it's still hard for me to imagine just who she is. A more interesting question, though: Why does she tower above her competitors, the Mandy Moores, the Christina Aguileras and the Hokus?
One of her new songs proclaims, "Baby, what you see is what you get." But what are we seeing? This is simplicity itself? Her show is a cross between a public appearance at a county fair and a Las Vegas extravaganza, full of dancers and explosions, and enhanced by video monitors as big as SUVs.
At one point, video footage of 'N Sync appears, and the members "ask" four audience members, who've been pulled onstage: "What would you do to meet Britney?" These four are then asked to bark like a dog, flop like a fish, belt out a Britney favorite and walk like a chicken, respectively.
The winner (the chicken imitator) had his picture taken with Britney on her Toon Teen bedroom set, and then was whisked offstage as she launched into "I Was Born to Make U Happy," one of several "my boyfriend left me and I'm worthless" laments from her first CD. Supposedly, certain segments of our culture -- those segments that are required to worry about this sort of thing -- wonder if Britney is a bit too sexy for the room, if you know what I mean. I can report that Britney closed her show with "(Hit Me) Baby One More Time," dressed like a Catholic schoolgirl (kind of). At one point during this song, she flashed her panties at us. (This may, however, have been just another spin on "What You See Is What You Get.")
I don't know. There is a certain calculated "wholesome" look to her: what used to be Playboy magazine's version of "the girl next door." (But in what neighborhood would that "next door" be? None I've ever lived in.) Aside from the panty-flashing moment, there was nothing even remotely sexual about the show. It was mainly athletic, I guess. Some men may have fantasies about her, but I doubt in real life you could get her to sit still or pay attention long enough to fulfill them. She's a busy gal. She's got her tour. She's got photo sessions. She's got products to endorse. She's got rehearsals. She's got image makeover consultancy sessions. She doesn't have time for us as sexual beings. Or for herself either, I'm betting. She is only 18, after all.
At one point, Britney stood at the top of a staircase, in a gown whose glittering train trailed down 20 feet or more. Reeking of a showbiz insincerity that seemed so false it may have been genuine, she said, "Oh my goodness. I would give anything to hold this moment, to see all your smiling faces. You have blessed me SOOOOO much." (How she could see our smiling faces beyond her lights is another mystery.) Then she launched into "Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know," an overblown piece of Shania Twain twaddle that she worked like a pro.
Her encore, of course, was "Oops! ... I Did It Again." Its chorus, firmly embedded in America's back brain by now, ends with "Oops, you think I'm in love/That I'm sent from above/I'm not that innocent." This encore ended as flames shot out from center stage, and Britney was sucked down into them, as if into the very bowels of hell itself. And that was the show. Good night, everybody!
Waiting for the cars to clear out so we could make our long way home, my daughter, her friend and I discussed what we'd seen. They were grateful to have seen Britney, but expressed a little disappointment, particularly in her treatment of the current single "Lucky," Britney's "Sunset Boulevard"-ish song about a movie star who seems to have it all, but cries herself to sleep every night.
The tune had been staged in the Toon Teen bedroom set, with Britney singing verses into a hairbrush and bouncing on her bed as though she were a typical teen pretending to be Britney singing the song. And there were dancers swarming all over the room -- her imaginary friends? Beats me.
Then they all ran off, and came back dressed like sailors. Then Britney ran off, and reemerged dressed like a Gilbert and Sullivan admiral, as American flags appeared on the monitors. By any reckoning, the presentation was bizarre. Any connection to the song itself was tenuous at best.
Then there was the question of, shall we say, "emotional distance." Britney grunts and growls and sweats and seems to put her heart into her performance, but there's something a little off about her. It's as if she's thinking about something else, no matter what she's doing, some little chore she forgot perhaps. She's vague, distracted. Between songs, she seemed a little dreamy. My daughter said she was going to her "Britney place."
Huh? Maybe that's it. Britney, after all, doesn't even seem like a teenager any more. She looks about 30, and not a very interesting 30 -- a parody of a teen. She's a teen, but a teen deprived of typical teen experiences. Instead, she must provide those experiences for us.
She reminded me of a very competent flight attendant, really talented, there to amuse us until it's time for our plane to take off. Only there is no plane. There's just her. And she knows it. Sooner or later, her antics will fail to amuse, and we're all going to drift away from the terminal, back to our cars and homes. And so will she, if she has a home to drift to.
As we sat in the parking lot after the show, all around us 12-year-old girls were dancing around their motionless vehicles, working up spontaneous routines, mimicking Britney's moves. A car rolled by, filled with 18-year-old girls, hitting the horn and shouting, "Honk if you love Britney!"
Car horns echoed in the hot summer night. I thought of a pre-Disneyfied Britney, if there was such a person, bouncing on a trampoline, lip-synching Madonna songs and mimicking her moves. And where is that little girl? Wearing the fairy princess cone, I suppose, lost in a crowd of screaming heads, in a world where every event is sponsored to the nines, and every prize is awesome, even if it's not.\