The End of Innocence

Having sold more than 16 million CDs within weeks of her second release, Britney Spears is on top of the world right now. Which means chances are you love her or hate her. If you love her, you most likely are part of the nine-to-fourteen-year-old “tween” music market that, coupled with fifteen- to nineteen-year-olds, makes you the most powerful demographic the music industry has seen since the height of the baby boom. You recognize a good hook when you hear one and you appreciate Spears as a symbol of all that you can be if you're hard-working and take advantage of your talents. She lives the American dream. She must be particularly intriguing as a young feminine role model who doesn't need or particularly want to be defined as part of a couple (see “Oops, I Did It Again”).

If you hate her, you probably are someone who resents her as the ultimate musical commodity: a child talent-show star and Mouseketeer groomed by Disney to be a teen phenomenon; an icon that suggests talent only matters when it comes in a pretty package; and a role model who redefines music's commercialization by coupling her multiplatinum success with endorsements for beauty products, kid-oriented TV stations, and even McDonald's. Britney is very much like a Disney movie, cross-marketed everywhere and, therefore, inescapable. Behind all the hype and that perfectly natural-looking (though always identical) smile, Britney probably is most disturbing because her humanity seems all but airbrushed away.

But the funny thing about Ms. Spears is that she grabs a fair measure of integrity from tackling who she is head on. Her biggest hit this summer, “Oops, I Did It Again,” manages a pretty tough gut punch, both lyrically and musically, because she revels in the dark side of being a much-sought-after-but-obscure object of affection (a misty narcissism that links her to head cheerleaders and championship quarterbacks everywhere). And, in a more disturbing way, “Oops” says something about how we view relationships in general: as games that inevitably lead to someone getting hurt. The refrain, “I'm not that innocent,” suggests that only a sap would fall for that old saw called love, and sometimes that feels a lot like the conventional wisdom.

Even more illuminating is a song like “Girl in the Mirror,” in which Spears sings about watching a stranger crying in a mirror. The final refrain actually is, “The girl in the mirror is me,” as if this were a revelation. That would be an odd bit of schizophrenia if it didn't happen to be so strangely appropriate. Who is Britney Spears but Alice looking backward through the glass at the little girl she left behind?

This revelation brings to mind Spears's current hit single, “Lucky,” in which she paints a portrait of a Hollywood commodity (herself) with a gaping hole in her life. This cotton-candy single (reminiscent of Madonna's “Material Girl” and Lisa Lisa's “Lost in Emotion”) manages to carry one of the biggest questions any successful artist could ask. Sounding like the real girl in the mirror for a moment, Spears sings, “The world keeps spinning and she just keeps winning/But tell me what happens when it stops?”

Every hit artist better be asking that question, and those who are looking for their first big record deal ought to ask it as well. After all, it will stop. In the past four years, virtually every industry that can market to Generation Y, the largest group of teens since the baby boom, and which, according to Brandweek, “spends $97 billion annually,” has reorganized itself to be ahead on the next big thing. The music industry is shooting rookie artists up the charts at an unprecedented rate and Britney Spears clones are everywhere. Unfortunately a commodity is by nature disposable, and an artist sold like a Disney blockbuster can and must be replaced by something new.

Meanwhile Spears will keep doing what she does best: pleasing audiences. Her show apparently is quite an event -- like a theme-park performance by Cecil B. DeMille. Spears descends to the stage in a giant mirror ball surrounded by lights and explosions. She fronts a five-piece rock band with tight choreography and enough costume and set changes to make Diana Ross green with envy. The difference between Spears's show and some theme-park spectacle is that this is her life, and her music increasingly suggests ambivalence toward that reality.

Whatever fans and their parents (fans or not) get from her show, all could do worse than to start a dialogue around “Lucky”'s central question: What does happen when it stops? In a culture that worships rags-to-riches stories but has few concepts of how to deal with failure, it's hard to think of many more important questions.

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Danny Alexander