Bringing Up Britney: Sex Appeal, Far More Than Music, Is What Sells Spears. Does She Know It, Does She like It-And How Far Will She Take It, Now That She's Not a Kid Anymore?
Ali, Lorraine, Newsweek
Byline: Lorraine Ali
Britney Spears rips open a bag of extra-cheesy Doritos, dips one into a bowl of tuna salad, crunches loudly then wipes off the excess orange dust on the thighs of her hip-hugging jeans. "Sorry, I'm just stuffin' my face here," she says in a perky Louisiana accent, then jams another chip into her mouth. It's one of the few breaks the performer gets today between rehearsing numbers for "Saturday Night Live," posing for a magazine photo shoot and taping an upcoming Britney special for ABC. She takes a swig off her Pepsi (not Diet), then looks at her cracked, unpainted, stubby toenails. "I do need a pedicure, don't I," she says. But who cares--when the scantily clad, hip-gyrating, crotch-grabbing Spears hits the stage, no one in America but Britney's choreographer will be concentrating on her feet.
Sex appeal is to Britney Spears what special effects are to "The Matrix." Just last week Madame Tussaud's unveiled a wax figure of the star--it doesn't sing, but it straddles a pole and has inflatable breasts that heave to the music. Since she debuted as a pigtailed 16-year-old in 1998, the former Mouseketeer has morphed from a schoolgirl heartthrob to a lap-dance fantasy. And the music? Does it matter? Spears has sold more records in four years than Madonna has in the last decade. Though each Britney CD has sold fewer copies than the last, her celebrity stature continues to climb. She's appearing bottomless on the cover of Esquire and shirtless in Las Vegas. Britney will always be bigger than the critics who hate her.
This latest round of overexposure (aimed at the postpubescent crowd this time) coincides with her fourth album, "In the Zone," though it's hard to say if anyone will notice the great soundtrack behind the perpetual peep show. The record--created by everyone from Moby to R. Kelly--is actually pretty amazing. Its beats are crisp and club-savvy, its production inspired. All that's missing is the singer: Spears's breathy voice and orgasmic groans are simply decoration.
OK, so Madonna can't sing, either--and she might be Spears's greatest role model. "I remember being in my living room and watching her on TV. I'd dance around in my short tops and sing and dream about being her." But Spears isn't quite Material Girl material. The 21-year-old icon is in an awkward phase--somewhere between a puppeteered kid act and savvy pop seductress. It's hard to tell who, if anyone, is under all the shifting images. In person, the hunt doesn't get much easier. Backstage in her "SNL" dressing room, a chatty Spears checks her makeup frequently in the large mirror. She is super-amped after sucking down a Starbucks Frappuccino, even bouncy in a pep-squad sort of way. She'd be annoying if she weren't so sweet and hospitable. But all the caffeine doesn't make her really talk. Britney avoids answering "tough" questions directly, bobbing and weaving like a politician. Q: Do you feel you have more control of your career now than when you were a Svengali-ed teen act? A: People talk about teen this or that, but in the end, it's just pop music, which is popular music, and it can only get better. Q: What effect do you think your steamy performances are having on kids? A: It's a visual thing. That's why I'm here right now, because I dreamed of these moments. Kids need that. If they don't dream, they have what? That's what makes you feel spiritual, connected with God. But don't take it too literally. Just watch the performance, be drawn in. And if you don't like it, change the channel.
For better or worse, Spears got media training early on. When it pops up in otherwise casual conversation, it sounds like a beauty contestant's rehearsed monologue: "I love children. My ultimate dream five years from now would be to have kids, have a husband. …