On her innocently lustful 1999 debut, "... Baby One More Time," former Mouseketeer Britney Spears came across as Satan's own Amy Grant, a hot-and-bothered fallen angel performing songs that celebrated pubescent sexuality so blatantly you could almost call them subversive. Sure, a couple of great singles aside, the album was utterly forgettable, but still, there she was on MTV, (barely) dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl, gyrating viciously while asking her lover for a sign of his affection. Who could forget it: "Hit me baby one more time."
But tempting as it was in those days to think of Spears as an adolescent agent provocateur, the mostly anonymous dance-pop whipped up by her production team worked against her. And so did that helium-tinged voice. Though Spears claimed Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey as vocal role models, at her best she approximated the clipped, staccato delivery of Janet Jackson. At her worst, she sang like the girlfriend of her former employer, Minnie Mouse.
That hardly mattered, of course. Video was and is Britney's forte, and the music she makes is mostly high-gloss soundtrack fodder: The girl's gotta have something to grind to, after all.
Yet even before she began dancing with serpents or tangling tongues with Madonna, Spears' visual representation was genuinely provocative. The steamy, oh-so-adult sensuality she performed with ritualistic precision would have been banal if not for her innocent good looks -- the doe eyes, the perfect skin, the baby fat. That juxtaposition -- pushed to the edge in an infamous Rolling Stone photo shoot -- led to hysterical charges of kiddie porn, culminating in a People magazine cover story asking if Spears was "Too Sexy Too Soon?" Well, duh. When People catches on, you know the fun's nearly over, and sure enough, Spears promptly told Rolling Stone that, well, y'know, she really didn't want "to be a part of someone's 'Lolita' thing" after all.
With that, a nation of middle-aged men gnashed their collective teeth. After all, from Sam Cooke's "Only Sixteen" to the nudge-nudge wink-wink of the Beatles singing "Well she was just 17/ You know what I mean" to Gary Puckett's "Young Girl" troubles, pop music has a long-standing relationship with borderline pedophilia. On "Don't Stand So Close to Me," the Police got canonical about it, wrapping their prurient interest in literary respectability by actually name-checking Vladimir Nabokov, even if Sting did have to use "shake and cough" to make the rhyme work.
But interesting things happen when the object of desire starts singing the songs, particularly when she's a genuine cultural phenom. Spears' next disc, "Oops! ... I Did It Again," was basically the sound of the singer kissing all her dimwitted Humbert Humberts goodbye. The title track was particularly sophisticated, a biting blowoff disguised as fluffy dance-floor pop. "You think I'm in love/ That I'm sent from above," she sang angelically. But it was just a sucker punch, a setup for that catchy, in-your-face payoff: "I'm not that innocent," Spears insisted, pronouncing each syllable like a judgment or, more likely, a joke at her, er, older demographic's expense.
It was a genius move, a girl-power style declaration of independence that signaled solidarity with the young fans who'd bought her debut by the millions. The tune was catchy as hell, to boot.
Trouble was, Spears had second thoughts almost immediately. Owing partly to the disappointing sales of "Oops," her third disc, "Britney," was a rear-guard action, an uneasy pairing of real-deal adult sensuality (see especially the Prince-worthy "I'm a Slave 4 U") and faux-reflective fodder such as "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," a maudlin weeper that scanned mainly as a memo to the Jive Records marketing department, Spears' personal assurance that she had what it took to bring her fan base through driver's-license age and beyond.
Not coincidentally, she promptly acquired a stylist with a reptile fetish, a choreographer who used the word "nasty" like a sophisticated term of dance art, and enough "collateral programming" to power her own cable network. She also famously lost her virginity.
Now comes "In the Zone," Spears' fourth and most aggressively adult disc yet. Emphatically gone are the Catholic schoolgirl uniforms and red leather spacesuits -- not to mention the fat pop hooks that former Svengali Max Martin (an aging Swedish metalhead) served up on lightweight keepers such as "(You Drive Me) Crazy" and "... Baby One More Time." Instead, we get the likes of Madonna, who breathes hot and heavy on the disc's hyperpercussive first single, "Me Against the Music," while encouraging her young charge to "lose control."
That ain't likely to happen. For all her pretense to wild and reckless abandon, Spears is a consummate pro. How could it be otherwise? She's been in show business since she was knee-high to Ed McMahon on "Star Search," and no one knows better than Spears that sex sells.
With "In the Zone," she's pushing the product particularly hard. "The Hook Up" traffics in sensuous dance-hall rhythms while Spears makes good on the title, and "Touch of My Hand" finds the singer extolling the virtues of masturbation over violin-laced techno beats. "The small of my back, the arch of my feet," Spears chants seductively. "Lately I've been noticing the beautiful me." And on the album's best track, "Early Mornin'," techno-nerd Moby turns up, twiddling the knobs and concocting a throbbing soundscape while Spears breathily invites a club-hopping paramour to a "hook up at the motel."
Sure, it's all pretty R-rated predictable stuff, but the delivery is expert and Spears' quizzical icon status (is she heir to Marilyn? Madonna? Melissa Joan Hart?) provides a compelling backdrop for contemplating the disc's outré sexuality. Plus, for better and worse, "In the Zone" is exquisitely contemporary, powered by deliciously liquid beats, gurgling synthesizers and Spears' own heavily processed vocal attack. So call it high concept.
Whoever is pulling the strings at Spears Inc. seems to have a fairly conceptual sense of history, too -- not to mention a perverse sense of humor. Alleged pedophile pornographer R. Kelly is on hand for the proceedings, serving up the aptly titled "Outrageous" and helping the formerly reluctant Lolita get in touch with her own inner perv: "Come through like a world premiere/ Trench coat and my underwear," Spears intones, dressing herself as a dirty old man amid the song's lewd and lascivious rhythms, one who -- be still, your heart -- is "about to give it to you."
Sounds like a plan -- a business plan, that is. Calculated and cunning every step of the way, "In the Zone" proves -- if it still needed proving -- that Britney Spears is not that innocent.