Hit on me baby one more time (but sex is out of the question)

They're seductive yet virginal, and Nicholas Barber wishes the Lolitas of pop would just grow up
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The Independent Culture

From tomorrow, Britney Spears will be scrapping it out with Mandy Moore, Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguilera. Yes, all four of America's nubile, blonde teen queens will be in a catfight, pulling ponytails and scratching faces until one them ends up on top. I'm speaking metaphorically, of course. In reality, Moore released a single last week and Spears releases one tomorrow. With records by Simpson and Aguilera still in the charts, we'll have the opportunity to observe the most alarming trend in pop today - a trend into which the above introduction fits very neatly.

From tomorrow, Britney Spears will be scrapping it out with Mandy Moore, Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguilera. Yes, all four of America's nubile, blonde teen queens will be in a catfight, pulling ponytails and scratching faces until one them ends up on top. I'm speaking metaphorically, of course. In reality, Moore released a single last week and Spears releases one tomorrow. With records by Simpson and Aguilera still in the charts, we'll have the opportunity to observe the most alarming trend in pop today - a trend into which the above introduction fits very neatly.

It started with Britney Spears, a girl from a Baptist family who moved, at the age of nine, from smalltown Louisiana to New York to study at a performing arts school. Her mother moved with her while her father and brother stayed back in Louisiana - all this despite Mrs Spears being pregnant at the time. Britney did the rounds of auditions and commercials, got a part in the Mickey Mouse Club series in Orlando, and left school when she secured a record deal. She was 15.

It's ironic that someone so desperate to leave school was back in it so soon: for the video of her first hit single, "Baby One More Time", Spears flounced around a high school in a revealing uniform and cheerleader's outfit, batting her eyelashes and begging the listener to "hit me, baby, one more time". Somehow, the lyric and the video were deemed less offensive than those of the Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up". Didn't someone - Spears' parents, the songwriters - think the song might be a bad idea? Apparently not. Soon, her self-esteem was even lower and she was singing, "I don't wanna live without your love / I was born to make you happy."

The image of a jailbait man-pleaser was reinforced by a Rolling Stone photo shoot: Britney posed in her underwear, toy Teletubby under one arm, in a pink bedroom. She was being sold as a soft porn fantasy, and yet she claimed to be surprised that anyone might see her as a sexual being. "It's not me," she told interviewers, with breathtaking sophistry. She had been "playing a part" for the photos, so we shouldn't associate them with her. She has added that being "part of someone's Lolita thing kind of freaks me out".

The thing is, it should also be impossible. Rather central to the premise of Nabokov's novel was that the title character was aged 13. Spears is now 18. Her contemporaries are drinking, smoking, voting and going to college: the last thing they'd want would be to be confused with children five years their junior. But Spears, it seems, is still a juvenile. Watch her on stage and you'll be amazed by her immaculately made up, ruthlessly choreographed professionalism. Listen to her records and you'll hear a voice so intensively trained that every suggestion of youth has been erased. But read her interviews and you'd imagine she were barely out of kindergarten: she has a curfew imposed on her when she's on tour and she blushes and screams in embarrassment when she admits that she has kissed her boyfriend. She prays she'll have the resolve to remain chaste until she's married, she says, expertly deflecting the notion that she might be appealing deliberately to her male fans' libidos. Spears is presented as a desperate nymphomaniac and an innocent schoolgirl, all at once: virginal and squeaky clean, but a sex goddess born to serve her master. No wonder she's tipped to be Prince William's future queen.

She's also sold around 20 million albums, which explains the speed at which the clones are flying off the production line: Christina Aguilera (the junior Mariah Carey), Jessica Simpson (the junior Shania Twain) and Mandy Moore (the junior Britney Spears). Aguilera is another graduate of the Mickey Mouse Club. Moore, at 16, has already signed deals with MTV and Neutrogena, and has no qualms about playing the girl-woman. Her last single, "Candy", said it all: "I'm so addicted to the loving that you're feedin' to me / Body's in withdrawal every time you take it away/ Can't you hear me calling you to come out and play/ I'm missing you like candy." Playing? Sweets? Drugs? Sex? They're all the same.

Britain's low-budget remake is Billie Piper. Launched as the Spice Girls' little sister in 1998, her adolescent shoutiness looked woefully passé after Spears demonstrated that being in your mid-teens needn't prevent you being - sorry, playing the part of - a vamp. Piper quickly mastered both Spears' musical style and her doublespeak. Recently, the 17-year-old told a magazine: "I'd feel uncomfortable putting my body on display ... I didn't get a front cover because I wouldn't get my tits out ... But you have to stand by your principles."

Since that interview, Piper has shown us her pants on the cover of Maxim, dressed in nothing but a palm leaf for the front cover of Sky, and turned up topless in the tabloids, when photographers happened to catch her performing at London's GAY club at the very moment her pink bra slipped out of place. At the Loaded awards party, she hid her cigarette under the table, hoping no one would spot her smoking. In the world of new pop Lolitas, flashing is fine, but smoking spoils the illusion.

Has there ever been a better time to be a Humbert Humbert? The Oscar-winning film American Beauty implied that, as a general rule, it's pretty cool for middle-aged men to seduce their teenage daughters' friends. Meanwhile, the August issue of GQ bears the coverline "The Lolita Syndrome" and a picture of a scantily clad Brookside actress. "She is not just young, she's indecently young," drools the copy inside. All rather embarrassing, one would have thought, for a 17-year-old. But this is not a one-off. GQ's recent Britney interview was titled "Thank Heavens For Little Girls".

The entertainment industry seems to have bred a generation of screwed-up teens. Pure but erotic, emotionally stunted but as slickly professional as any adult, they are simultaneously older and younger than their chronological ages. Already there are signs of how unhealthy this is. In June, Piper collapsed in a London club, and spent three nights in a clinic with a "minor kidney infection". A mystery businessman has offered millions of dollars to have sex with Spears. And the words "Britney Spears nude" feature on the list of top 100 internet search terms. You have to wonder how seedy the Lolita business can get before consumers are repulsed. Let's hope we all grow out of it soon.

Britney Spears' new single, 'Lucky' is released by Jive tomorrow

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