Britney Spears: This baby doll means business

As girl fans swoon and grown men ogle, the teen popster with the Lolita image wins all round - and she still keeps a prayer journal
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The Independent Online

Tomorrow, having all but colonised the pop culture of the Anglo-American world, Britney Spears releases her second album, the cheekily titled Oops! I Did It Again. "Serious" rock groups might place gaps of three or four years in between their records, but Spears operates according to the production-line mores of the pop market. So this album comes little more than a year after her début. To date, that record, Baby One More Time, has sold 9 million copies worldwide, so it's not hard to see why she was in such a hurry to create a follow-up. The haste, according to the record's 18-year-old author, has not impacted on its quality: Oops... is "50 to 75 per cent better" than its predecessor. To cynical ears, it simply perpetuates a formula: polished, chart-friendly R'n'B - like Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones, Spears represents the appropriation of black music by a more saleable white face - that sticks to the age-old themes of boy/girl romance.

Her record company is sufficiently convinced of her commercial clout to have kept the record out of the hands of journalists, lest it finds its way on to the internet. They may have nothing to worry about - if the Britney Spears newsgroup, at alt.fan. britney-spears, is anything to go by, the cyber-distribution of Spears's music is a side issue. The minority of Spears fans who congregate on the net appear to have rather more grubby concerns. Somewhere on the World Wide Web, there is a picture of Britney Spears having sex with a horse. That's what one of the newsgroup's subscribers has heard, anyway - so on 8 May, he posted a message headed "Photo of Britney Spears banging a horse", inquired as to its whereabouts and waited for replies. Only one was forthcoming: a coolly dismissive posting that told him that he was in the wrong place and he should try the altogether more outré newsgroup alt.sex.bestiality. If the picture does exist, it's another example of the cut-and-paste celebrity porn facilitated by photo manipulation software. Such material goes a long to way to defining Spears's rather sinister male fan cult: via the net, they also swap pictures - both doctored and au naturel - of Britneyesque teen sensation Christina Aguilera, and the British adolescent star Billie Piper ("Billie Piper nipple slip pic," reads one excited posting). In addition, they trade sex-related Britney myths, too multifarious and improbable to be worth repeating.

"I don't want to be part of someone's Lolita thing," Spears recently told Rolling Stone. "It kind of freaks me out." The newsgroup, unfortunately, gives off exactly that kind of odour. Moreover, there's little doubt that Spears has helped her more warped admirers along. In April last year, Rolling Stone magazine published a set of pictures taken by the esteemed American photographer David LaChapelle. In an age of supposed sensitivity about the sexualisation of children, they beggared belief: Spears lying on pink satin sheets, dressed in girly polka dots and a black bra, clutching a Tellytubby; Spears wheeling a tiny pink bicycle into a suburban sunset, dressed in white hot pants featuring the legend "My Baby"; Spears in hot pants, bra and micro-cardie, posed among dolls, soft toys, and all the other paraphernalia of the pre-pubescent's bedroom.

The picture shoot came after the video for "Baby One More Time", the single that put a 17-year-old Spears on the map, and also provided her with a career-assisting upsurge of controversy. While miming the song, she wore a sexed-up version of school uniform, of the kind long favoured by strippers and top-shelf magazines, that prompted the first accusations that she was being sold on an image that was flatly paedophilic. Whatever, it worked - "Baby One More Time" was an inescapable feature of both radio and television for the whole of last year. In that context, LaChapelle's pictures were a pretty see-through attempt to ratchet up the brouhaha and reap the commercial rewards. Spears's word for this approach is "edgy". "I did Rolling Stone because it's an edgy magazine, something different," she recently explained in GQ. "And when people started talking about the pictures, I was like, well it's not me. What's the problem? When you do a session with someone like David LaChapelle - who normally shoots nudes - you are playing a part, and that is what it was." As to the aforementioned video, she was no less disingenuous, claiming that she had no idea that the combination of school uniform and bared midriff could be viewed as "sexy", and that in her native Louisiana, "we wear less clothes, and think nothing of it". According to the director of the clip, Spears had actually wanted to go a bit further.

There's little doubt that Spears's profile in men's magazines is down to her occupation of that dangerous sexual category known as "jailbait". The cover-lines say it all: "Hasn't she grown?" (FHM); "Thank heavens for little girls" (GQ). But grown-up men rarely buy her records - and in that context, her adoption of the persona of the sexed-up adolescent represents a perfect bonding with the majority of her fans, who are young, female, and keen to ally themselves with such a perfect icon. Until the mid-1980s, the idols worshipped by the teenage pop market were uniformly male, as evidenced by the Beatles, Marc Bolan, the Bay City Rollers and Duran Duran. It was Madonna who introduced a new archetype: the female pop star as all-powerful role model. She spawned a gigantic suburban cult, thanks in part to songs steeped in the teenage experience - most notably, "Like a Virgin", but also "Papa Don't Preach", "True Blue", "Cherish" et al. Meanwhile, her militantly grown-up sexuality, along with the fact that her songs transcended being mere pap, ensured that she secured a huge profile in the adult media.

The Spice Girls learnt all the requisite lessons, bundled their every move into the package labelled "Girl Power", and duly raked in the cash. But as far as identification with their fans was concerned, both they and Madonna had an Achilles' heel: all the teenage anthems and cod-adolescent get-up in the world could not disguise the fact that they were older than their female audience. Spears, by contrast, broke through at the same age as many of the millions who were buying her records. In the 1980s, other teen stars - Debbie Gibson, Tiffany - had managed similarly precocious feats, but they were always too chaste and prissy to secure truly feverish devotion. Spears represents a rare melding of grown-up sass and teenage naïvety; sexy and assured in her videos, doe-eyed and giggly when she's interviewed. On account of her child-woman profile, her true fans can both worship her, and feel - with equal fervour - that she's one of them. Her marketing reflects all that. Her image is that of the queen mall-rat rather than the untouchable goddess. And the lifestyle details that she allows to eddy into the outside world feed that impression: she has a Yorkshire terrier called Baby, she's "kind of" dating a member of the boy band N'Sync, but they've only kissed, and she usually goes to bed before 11.30pm.

"Her image is totally constructed to appeal to people who are slightly younger than her," says Kate Finnigan, deputy editor of teen magazine J-17. "She comes across as the coolest girl in the school - the kind of fifth year or sixth former that girls might have a crush on. The fact that she's having a relationship with a member of a boy band is perfect. In that sense, she represents the ultimate teenage dream.

"The other thing is, she's still a teenager and she still plays the teenage game. She's yet to say that she wants to be seen as grown-up. That's a mistake the Spice Girls made, and I think it's a quite British thing to do. The Americans, like Britney and the Backstreet Boys, seem to have a much better appreciation of the value of the teenage pound. In that sense, they're cleverer than British pop stars."

Spears will doubtless postpone full-blown adulthood for a few years yet. Her family's devout Baptism (she still keeps a "prayer journal" and regularly attends church) means that her every word drips with a God-fearing innocence. Moreover, her child-star origins - she was a pupil at New York's Professional Performing Arts School, and ended up on Disney's TV Show The Mickey Mouse Club - give her the all-too-familiar air of someone who may be temperamentally ill-suited to life as grown-up. All that apart, her family's hard-grafting background means that commerce, rather than credibility, is her driving force. Her mother and father still work - she is a teacher, he a building contractor - and the family seems mindful of the privations of life before Spears's success. "It was really tough," her mother, Lynne, has said, "but something always worked. Of course, we didn't eat very fancy."

For now, one of the tracks on her new album proves that the teenage world is still where Britney Spears is the happiest. On the new album, there's a version of the Stones' "Satisfaction", which prompted much speculation about whether Spears would tackle the verse that alludes to - horrors - smoking. In the original, Mick Jagger is jadedly watching TV commercials, resisting the entreaties of a washing-powder spokesman because "he doesn't smoke the same cigarettes as me". Spears rewrites the words completely. "When I'm watching my TV," she sings, "and that girl comes on and tells me/How tight my skirt should be/She can't tell me who to be/I got my own identity." It sounds a little like a skipping-rope rhyme, suffused with that all-important message of adolescent empowerment.

The industrial world's female teenagers will soon be singing along with ferocious glee - knowing that, for all the half-clad magazine poses and dodgy internet disciples, Britney Spears is still the Girl Next Door.

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