Becoming a dad is a state of mind, and it's much more complicated than becoming a father, which is a mere accident of biology. It can be traumatic for anyone, but it's especially difficult for a rock critic. Ideally, my career is based on championing music that pisses dad off and/or scares the bejesus out of him. Woe is me on the day I cross the line and become the Man myself, though I've been accused of doing so.
Witness the letter I received from a reader after I wrote a harsh review of "Britney," the much-hyped third album by Britney Spears:
"Why are you constantly complaining about Britney Spears' image? Why are you so bothered by the idea that older men may desire Britney sexually? Perhaps you feel ashamed for wanting Ms. Spears yourself in some manner? Or does it have to do with the fact that you have a young daughter?"
The first charge was easy enough to dismiss: I'm a healthy, red-blooded fella, and there's a long list of female pop stars who get my motor running, from Jill Scott and Angie Stone, to Pink and Shakira, to the fair Justine Frischmann and the risqué art-rapper Peaches. But Barbie Doll Britney? Uh-uh, no way. Sure, I recognize her obvious charms, thrust out front and center from the cover of the current Rolling Stone. But she's too synthetic, too "perfect" and ultimately too cold in that airbrushed Playboy centerfold way. Hell, I'd sleep with the guy from Staind before I'd tumble for La Brit.
The daughter thing, though -- that hit a nerve. Could my disdain for Spears' helium chirp and cynical, sugar-coated musical calculations be motivated by some deep-seated fear of seeing my 5-year-old daughter grow up and become a sexual being? I thought I'd accepted the fact that some day, sooner rather than later, she'll become her own person, do what she wants to do, fuck who she wants to fuck. Hell, we've been singing "Mr. Suit" by Wire since she was 3 and a half ("I'm tired of being told what to think/I'm tired of being told what to do/I'm tired of fucking phonies/That's right I'm tired of you!" -- though we change the words slightly to "big bad phonies").
Still, could I be falling prey to the whole paternalistic "daddy's little girl" trip, and letting it cloud my critical judgment to boot?
The question lingered for the better part of a week, until shortly after my daughter's fifth birthday party a few days before Thanksgiving. Among the presents she received from the other members of her preschool class were a tackle box-sized makeup kit (lipstick, eye shadow, nail polish -- the works); a life-sized vanity-table play set with a bigger mirror than any we had in the house and a doll from the "Diva Starz" series, a little plastic pop singer who says different things when you dress her in different outfits (all sold separately). Sample dialogue: "Let me wear my blue pants!" and "Hyper-sweet! I'm loving this purple skirt!"
The manufacturer, Mattel, says Diva Starz are intended for "Ages 6+," though a similar, competing line called "Bratz" ("The girls with a passion for fashion!") from MGA Entertainment advises "4+." Both collections boast a young, blond diva who looks amazingly like You Know Who, complete with a pneumatically inflated, Britneyesque chest, bountifully curvaceous hips and a camel toe in the crotch.
I realized then and there that the most sinister thing about Spears isn't the sex, it's the selling. My objection is not dad-driven Puritanism, it's a gripe against the hyper-capitalism of America's massive, all-encompassing Teen Fashion/Beauty/Culture Machine, which has now moved the lower threshold of its target demographic from just pre-puberty to barely post-toddler. I'd like to grab hold of the Man (whoever he or she is) and choke 'em with his own marketing plan: "No, no, no, no, no, Mr. Suit."
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Kiddie sex is big business today, but by no means is it restricted to obscure corners of the Internet, as some would have us believe. A friend of mine who's the head buyer at Minneapolis' largest chain of magazine stores says that Hustler's faux-teen spin-off Barely Legal is their third best-selling sex mag; ultra-respectable businessmen invariably come in and buy it along with a copy of Seventeen or Cosmo Girl, which creeps her out to the core of her being. And more than once she's found a sticky, dog-eared copy of the Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen fan magazine in the employee's bathroom.
After the horrified kiddies' voices that Michael Jackson inserted at the end of "The Lost Children" from his new album "Invincible," there has been no creepier kiddie-porn moment in recent musical history than during Spears' HBO concert special, when actor Jon Voigt (father of the troubled Angelina Jolie) sat a young stand-in for the pop star (in fact her 8-year-old sister, Jamie Lynn) on his knee after telling her a fairy tale about how all her dreams will come true when she meets a man who will whisk her away.
Just thinking about it makes me want to take a shower.
But the pervs may be reaching their saturation point. Relentlessly promoted by MTV, HBO and corporate pop radio, "Britney" sold more than 745,000 copies in its first week, according to SoundScan, the company that tracks album sales. But that was considerably less than the 1.3 million units that Spears' sophomore effort "Oops! ... I Did It Again" moved in its first seven days last year.
One reason is that, no matter how tantalizing or taboo, any act gets tired the third time around. Another is that Spears is getting too old for the role of the coquettish nymph; she turns 20 on Dec. 2. But mostly, I think, the horny, jaded masses have pretty much seen all that she has to offer. If she really wants to keep our attention, she's gonna have to produce that Pam 'n' Tommy-style hardcore sex tape with her boyfriend, Justin "N 'Sync" Timberlake. Otherwise, America will move on to its next illicit fantasy girl -- and this time, she may not even be flesh and blood.
While Spears has definitely benefited from modern science -- if not via the surgical enhancement of her breasts, then certainly by the pitch-shifted digital tweaking of that god-awful voice, which she doesn't even pretend to really use "in concert" -- the technology exists to build an even dreamier diva. On Halloween, the Supreme Court heard the government's defense of a federal law overturned by an appeals court barring pornography using computer-generated images of children. If the top court holds that this material is legal because no harm is done to real children in producing it -- and many think that it will -- then the floodgates will open, and the high-tech trickery used to bring us "Monsters, Inc." and "Shrek" could give us kiddie-porn versions of "Deep Throat" and "Debbie Does Dallas."
Measured against that kind of competition, "Britney" is old news. "For the just under 40 minutes that the album lasts, people of all ages and genders can feel like a dirty old man," Jon Pareles harrumphed in his New York Times review of the album. But Spears has been working the comic-book "Lolita" angle since long before her first album in 1999, and writer Strawberry Saroyan did a fine job of dissecting it all in Salon in May 2000. "She's a Mouseketeer trafficking kiddie porn, a school-girl queen selling sex in a leathery cat suit," said the headline that ran with her essay. "Does Britney Spears have any idea what she's doing?"
Saroyan concluded that she did not, and that would seem to be confirmed by a "roundtable teleconference" that Spears' label, the teen-pop monolith Jive Records, arranged with some two dozen journalists a week before the new album's release. Each reporter was allowed to ask one question, with no follow-ups; you posed your query and were immediately muted while everyone on the line listened to the diva's response.
I got to ask the first question for the Chicago Sun-Times. From the official Jive transcript (which was e-mailed to journalists so they wouldn't have to tape or even type up the quotes):
Q. "Britney, this is a fairly hot and horny record -- a lot of people are comparing it to Madonna's "Erotica." Now, when I've seen you in concert before, I've generally been surrounded by 12- to 16-year-olds -- young kids -- most of them girls. I wonder if you've thought about the message you send to them? I see them looking at you, twirling around the pole in that Demi Moore sort of strip-tease, and I wonder if you worry about them getting this message of sexuality at a pre-sexualized age?"
A. Britney Spears: "Well, I think it's ... You know, first I'm very flattered that such young kids look up to me, because the innocence of them is a really beautiful thing. But I think it's honestly up to their parents to explain to them that I'm a performer, and that when I'm on stage, that's my time to perform and express myself. I don't wear those clothes to the supermarket or to a ballgame. You know, little kids, just like when they go into their mom's closet and they dress up in their mom's clothes, it's fine and fun, and it's like their time to play at home. But that's not what they're supposed to wear out into reality in the real world."
A disarmingly reasonable answer, and Spears had clearly been prepped and ready with it; the all-about-dressing-up defense even seems plausible for a moment when you consider that she sported no fewer than 13 different designer outfits during her 90-minute HBO concert special, building to a wet and wild climax with the "caught outside in the rain in a chain-link bra" ending. But if I hadn't been on mute, I'd have asked how many moms have latex dominatrix outfits in their closet, much less the live python she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards.
Spears seemed less practiced later in the interview. Since she sported a white jumpsuit in the HBO ads, someone asked if she was an Elvis Presley fan. "Yes, I am a really, really big Elvis fan," she gushed. "And I think the real reason why we did the whole Elvis thing is because, you know, he's from Vegas." (Actually, he was from Tupelo, Miss.)
Next, she was queried about her cover of "I Love Rock and Roll." "I just love the song," she enthused. "I love Pat Benatar, and I just think she's amazing. It's like she's a rock 'n' roll chick and she's just having a good time and it's a very empowering song." (It was Joan Jett, not Pat Benatar, who recorded the most famous version of the tune.)
Finally, toward the end of the session, a reporter from Vegas (naturally) stumblingly asked if, since she's always making a point of saying that she's, you know, still a virgin, whether there are any, um, things that she and Justin can do to just, er, have fun?
The shock that Spears registered at this intrusive but not unwarranted question (she's the one making sex an issue, after all) could be felt right over the phone line; she didn't show nearly as much revulsion for the snake that was licking her ear on MTV. How could anyone even ask such a thing! "We can go to the next question, " she snapped.
At the same time, in her latest Rolling Stone cover story, Spears insists that sex is wonderful and should be shared with everyone, and she maintains that she is the one who is wholly responsible for engineering her drool-worthy image. "What would you say to people who say of you, 'Oh, she's all constructed by other people, she's just selling sex'?" Mim Udovitch asked. Replied the singer: "If I wanna show my belly in a video or show a little bit of cleavage, I just don't see anything wrong with that. ... I come up with the concepts for all my tour ideas, all of my videos. It's just so lame that people wouldn't understand that."
Spears has a point. Why should we assume, as Saroyan did in her essay, that some man designed the pedophiliac fantasy that has propelled her career thus far (and which is a heck of a lot more complicated than a glimpse of belly button in a video)? Her telechat unwittingly displayed her shallow knowledge of the musical traditions she references, but she may be completely aware of the how to use sex as a sales tool. After all, she was brought up to be expert at it, schooled by a stage mom since before she could walk, just like JonBenet Ramsey.
In the liner notes to "Britney," the singer writes, "Mama -- thanks for being the best role model in the world. I want to be just like you when I'm older." In an interview, the singer Natalie Merchant recently told me a revealing story about being stuck in a line of golf carts backstage at a music awards show. Someone behind her kept frantically leaning on the horn, and finally she turned around to look. There was Spears in the passenger seat, sitting beside her mom, who was pounding on the horn and shouting, "Get out of the way! Britney goes first! Britney's got to go first!"
And here is Lynne Spears in "Britney Spears' Heart to Heart" (Three Rivers Press), the autobiography that she co-wrote with her daughter last year:
"The way we saw it, our family was making an investment in Brit's future. How could we not help her realize her goals? It was so clear that Brit loved performing, and it would have broken my heart to get in her way. I always used to tell her, 'Don't worry about what it costs. Just do your very best.' Dreams should never have a price tag on them. I believe that if you want something bad enough, you'll find a way to do it. And we did."
Mind you, Mama Spears is discussing dance lessons for a 2-year-old in that passage. When my own daughter was 2, the dreams she had for the future involved not having to pee in a diaper. Whenever it addresses the mother-daughter relationship, the Spears' book reminds me of Louis Malle's pedophiliac-prostitute fantasy, "Pretty Baby." When Susan Sarandon turns her daughter out to trick, it's with a mixture of pride, jealousy and self-loathing. For her part, Brooke Shields tries her damnedest at the job, partly because she doesn't want to let her mother down, and partly because she wants to prove she can be a much better lay.
There's a sort of panicked desperation to the attempted seduction of "Britney"; rarely has a coldly calculated sexual come-on been so plainly unsexy. As producers the Neptunes and Rodney Jerkins nudge the grooves away from Swedish pop perfection toward generically glossy and soulless R&B, Spears tries to update her lyrical concerns by whining about the hard life of a superstar ("Overprotected," "What It's Like to Be Me") and bemoaning the difficulties of growing up and coming of age ("I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman"). This is all a bid to stay ahead of her audience as it moves from pre-teen to puberty, of course. But for all her talk of self-empowerment, the submissive sex toy is still the role Spears plays best. She returns to it again and again ("Boys" and "I'm A Slave 4 U"), and it's certainly the pose that's being used to peddle the disc.
In Chicago, the Clear Channel Communications dance-pop station Kiss-FM celebrated the release of "Britney" with a contest offering young female listeners the chance to win Brit's tits. Engineered by the station's general manager and marketing director (both women), the tag line ran, "Wanna be like Britney? You first met her on 'The Mickey Mouse Club.' You've watched her grow into every guy's fantasy slave. Now you want what she's got! Enter to win 'Boobies Like Britney' and the $5,000 grand prize!"
In defending themselves after they were criticized by local media columnist Robert Feder, the contest's architects maintained that it was all in good fun, and their listeners knew that the prize money could be used for clothes or a makeover, not necessarily new, massive mammaries. The executives were probably right; the teenyboppers who listen to their station and tune in to MTV's "Total Request Live" have been effectively programmed almost since birth. The message, as it's been paraphrased by many a feminist critic, is: You will never be smart or sexy enough as you are; the only hope of being like Barbie or Britney is to buy, buy, buy. So start spending!
Sex has always been an inextricable part of pop music; it was thus long before Elvis (wherever he was from), and it will be so long after Spears is cast off onto the slag heap of fallen idols somewhere between Twiggy and Tiffany. And while I celebrate rock 'n' roll at its best as one of popular culture's last forums for "truth" and (only marginally commodified) rebellion, I won't deny that selling has always been a big part of the mix, too. The Beatles blew the minds of a generation and changed the music forever, but they happily moved a whole lot of boots, haircuts, posters, etc.
Spears is notable for temporarily marking a new low in the crass shamelessness of both the commercialism and the koochie-flaunting. But she isn't the first singer to emphasize tits over talent, or to shake her hips to move designer jeans and plastic dolls. And she won't be the last.
As for this dad's particular dilemma, my daughter has thankfully shown no interest in Spears as yet. If she ever does, I plan to follow the singer's advice and not only explain that she is playing dress-up, but lay bare the whole insidious con job. Then I'll offer some alternatives.
My daughter may not go right away for X-Ray Spex or Hole, Salt-N-Pepa or Angie Stone's new album, "Mahogany Soul" (which ends with the memorable declaration, "It's that time of the month, don't even mess with me!"). But I bet I could convince her that "M!ssundaztood" by Pink is a whole heckuva lot better than "Britney." No one's submissive sex toy, the former Alicia Moore is a real and complex young woman, albeit one with artificially colored chartreuse hair. I love it when she sings, "Tired of being compared to damn Britney Spears/She's so pretty, that just ain't me."