There are pop stars — and there’s Britney Spears. She’s an electric entertainer, a teen trendsetter, a star whose face is everywhere. A little innocent, a little daring, she was the girl your daughters wanted to dress like, to look like, to be. It’s been a carefully crafted image, and it worked. Her first CD flew off the shelf, more than 10 million sold, becoming one of the biggest selling debut albums ever. Since then, her innocent allure has given way to an edgier appeal. Onstage and off, Britney Spears is filling the gossip columns and generating a new kind of buzz. And maybe that’s no accident. With another CD coming out next week, and tens of millions of dollars at stake, the more buzz, the better.
It's 2 a.m. in a jam-packed New York City nightclub, and Britney Spears is giving what may be her wildest, rawest, sweatiest performance yet. It sure is a far cry from the girl in braids the world first met just five years ago. So why exactly did she go from good Britney to bad Britney. Is she just a young girl growing up? Or is it more like a down and dirty marketing master plan?
All together, Britney’s first three albums sold more than 23 million copies. That’s more than Christina Aguillera, Jessica Simpson and Pink combined. But if Britney wants her new CD to climb the billboard charts, she knows she’ll need to keep grabbing attention. She may look like she’s just letting loose here, but is this Britney Spears out of control — or in total control?
America first met her as a ten year old contestant on Star Search. Two years later, Britney joined the New Mickey Mouse Club. Also in her class of seven Mouseketeers were future pop stars Christina Aguillera and Justin Timberlake. But there are also two you probably haven’t heard of: Nikki de Loach and T.J. Fantini.
T.J. Fantini: “Britney was kind of pretty well rounded at most things.”
Hoda Kotb: “Was she quiet or loud?”
Nikki de Loach: “Quiet.”
Kotb: “A driven person, or did she just let things happen?”
Nikki: “Kinda a little of both.”
T.J.: “I would say a little bit of both.”
Kotb: “Was she naive or was she sophisticated?”
But even back then, Britney seemed to know a thing a two about drawing people in.
T.J.: “She liked to play — I don’t want to say the boys against each other. But she definitely, especially that second year got a little more wise as far as—”
Kotb: “What? The power of a woman?”
As the whole world knows, she would test out those developing feminine wiles on soon to be boy-band heartthrob Justin Timberlake. They sang a duet together as Mouseketeers. She was 12, he was 13.
Kotb: Legend has it that Britney and Justin had a little smooch when they were little kids, back in the Mickey Mouse Club. Is this true?”
T.J.: “I would like to say that that happened at my house.”
A group of Mouseketeers including Justin and Britney were gathered at T.J.’s for a slumber party.
T.J.: “I remember first that we — I think decided to play strip poker. But that didn’t work too well, ‘cause nobody wanted to take off their clothes.”
It was an inhibition Britney would ultimately overcome. But back to the slumber party. The group switched to Truth or Dare, and someone dared Justin to kiss Britney.
T.J.: “I think that was her first kiss. I remember her being like a little, I don’t know, like she was really like, she got really insecure about it.”
She’d get over that, too.
After the show was cancelled and the mice went off in different directions, Nikki and T.J. say they knew from day one that Christina Aguillera would make it big. Britney’s stardom, they say was harder to anticipate.
T.J.: “I was a little surprised. Not because she’s n— I don’t think she’s talented or anything. I just wasn’t expecting that, especially not right as fast as it happened.”
It did happen fast — like about three and a half minutes after the release of her 1999 video “Baby One More Time.” It could have been just another catchy tune with a perky dance routine. But Britney made a suggestion about how she and her dancers should wear their Catholic school girl uniforms that would change the course of music video history.
Joe: “Why not make it a little sexier and I’ll just knot it instead of tucking my shirt in — and that little thing transformed her from school girl to naughty school girl... Mothers saw this young school girl who could be their daughter look slightly naughty at a school it was setting off alarm bells.”
“Baby One More Time” hit number one on the Billboard charts. Britney’s album went multi multi platinum and Britney quickly developed a strong fan base among the Barbie and bubblegum set.
Sophia and Rachel were five and eight when “Baby One More Time” first hit the charts. Today, they’re 10 and 13.
Sophia: “I know I certainly liked her when I was little because I liked pink.”
No, not that Pink, we’ll get to her later. Sophia’s talking about what Britney was wearing. And she liked the songs, too.
Sophia: “When I was five, six and seven, that’s what I would hum, that’s what I would sing. We skipped along, I have two best friends, we’d hold hands and skipped. And we would sing it.”
Rachel: “There would be a sleepover party with eight girls and we’d blast her song and make up a dance and whatever and it would be fun.”
And it didn’t hurt that the Britney Spears pop star package came all wrapped up in down-home niceness. When Britney made her first appearance on the Today show, she was still as sweet and southern as a slice of pecan pie. That “Southern Thing” Was Instilled In Britney back in Kentwood, La., population 2,656.
Britney’s pastor at the First Baptist Church from the time she was four to 14, remembers her as a star in the church choir, who was raised right.
Pastor: “I think she realized the importance certainly of worship and I think she realized the importance as far as being dedicated in terms of things that are morally right and good. She’s just always a cute little girl always happy and singing.”
Gary Callahan of Callahan’s Furniture sells porcelain Britney Spears dolls at $150 a pop.
Callahan: “We sold all of them we just have one left we hate to let it go Who’s buying? Kids, parents saying their buying for their kids, some grown men.”
The town is proud all right, but this is a conservative place, where the rhythm of life is more in tune with Sunday morning church bells then the Friday night gyrations of big cities far away. And Britney Spears’ grown up act may have gone a little too far for Kentwood.
BRITNEY DOES SOME GROWING UP
In 2000, at age 18, Britney released her next album and video, “Oops I Did it Again.” The makeup was a little heavier, the outfit, a little tighter, but Britney insisted the song’s catchy catch phrase, “I’m not that innocent,” was not about her.
In interviews she continued to speak with what sounds like naive girlish charm, but was it a pattern that would escalate as her career progressed: titillate the audience with provocative images and lyrics, but then back away with a gee whiz innocence.
Toure: “She was always ready to flirt with you, to be coy, to be sexy.”
Toure is a writer for Rolling Stone.
Toure: “Like Britney would never be the girl who would pull the bra down. It’d be the girl who’s — the bra would — she would look away and the bra would fall off. ‘Oh, did that— oh, excuse me, I didn’t even know that that happened.’”
And speaking of bras, a controversy was brewing over what was inside Britney’s. Observers noted that she had grown quite a bit between her first video and her newer ones. Had she had surgery, or was this just nature taking its course? Britney showed she could laugh at herself when she addressed the issue on Saturday Night Live.
It seemed like no subject was off limits for Britney. By now, she was going out with Justin Timberlake of NSYNC. And when the media asked about their relationship, she ventured into territory most pop stars wouldn’t go anywhere near. She said she was saving herself for marriage. She even discussed her virginity at a news conference. And she gave one interview after another.
So, were these remarks just tripping off of her tongue? Or at some level did she understand that the public would be more fascinated by the big questions swirling around her, than by her music alone.
Kotb: “She does do a good job generating debate. Is she a virgin or isn’t she? Are they real? Are they fake?”
Toure: “The whole most popular girl in high school thing. That girl knows how to get everybody else talking about her.”
And they’d be talking more after her appearance at the 2000 MTV Music Awards — 18-year-old Britney, strode onto the stage in a suit and hat. But then, hello! It sure looked like she was ready to strip that clean cut image right off. By now, like any celebrity at her level, Britney had a flotilla of managers, record execs and PR people helping chart her course. Did her team think it was time for Britney to grow up in a big way?
If there was anything left of the sweet girl next door, she’d move to a whole new neighborhood when her next album came out.
Kotb: “You’ve heard, ‘I’m a Slave for You?’ Why are you laughing?”
Toure: “I love that song. It had this wonderful soulful beat. She’s like breathing on the track real heavy.”
For a virgin, it was pretty hot stuff. But Britney said she wasn’t necessarily singing about anything dirty. The lyrics, she said, could mean she was a slave to the music.
And who could pay attention to the words, anyway. the two things everyone remembers about the song? This video and this snake the 6-foot-long albino python Britney wore when she sang “Slave” at the 2001 MTV Music Awards.
Toure: “This girl’s going for it, like she’s not getting off the stage. She’s like, ‘You people are gonna pay attention to me. I don’t care what I have to do. If I have to be on Mars in video, if I have to have a snake, if I have to rip this off and have nothing, I’ll do it.’”
And all the stunts were paying off. The year she shimmied with the serpent Britney Spears earned more than $38 million, part of it from her multimillion dollar deal as the face of Pepsi Cola. There was just one little problem — that constant hum of criticism that it wasn’t Britney’s talent that was responsible for her success. Some critics complained about her lip synching in concert, others observed that her voice at 20 wasn’t what it was at 10.
What does matter with Britney, Toure says, what with the image, the outfits, and those big important questions, like what was going on with her and Justin. As she told the crowd at her 2001 HBO concert in Las Vegas, all the criticism was getting her down. After all, she wasn’t even a full blown grown up yet.
Okay, so she wasn’t a girl, and she wasn’t a woman. But was she still a virgin? It was the question she couldn’t escape. It wouldn’t be long until Britney started ducking another personal question: Had she and Justin broken up? First she denied it. Then she confirmed it. It was over. And there were other problems, too. While her latest album was a hit, it sold less than half what her first album did. Could it be that Britney’s in-your-face strategy had backfired?
Enter plan B: She announced she’d be taking a break, some time out of the spotlight to clear her head. But that’s not exactly how it turned out.
BRITNEY: PUBLICITY MACHINE
If Britney was trying to stay out of the public eye during her time off from recording and performing, well, she wasn’t trying very hard. The paparazzi followed Britney everywhere she went, and she almost always gave them something to document. It sure looked like Britney actually wanted to land on Page Six, the gossip page of the New York Post.
Toure: “There’s been a consistent sort of dirtying of the image, you know. Like if you take distressed jeans. You know, and they’re really nice when they come out of the factory. And they’re messing with them and messing with them. Like what can we do to mess them, just throw a little dirt on her.”
Sometimes, not the kind of dirt a girl would want. Ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake, and hardcore rocker Fred Durst, who Britney says she never even dated, both went on the air saying they’d had sex with the country’s most celebrated self proclaimed virgin.
And it wasn’t just the boys talking about Britney. Other young female singers like Avril Lavigne and Pink seemed to be marketing themselves as anti-Britneys.
Toure: “It’s almost like, you know, it’s sort of Ralph Nader. If you don’t like that candidate, vote for me. You know, if you don’t like Brittany, Avril is here with her tie and looking messy.”
Avril Lavigne sent out some mixed messages about Britney in an interview with Dateline last year. In contrast, part punk part pop singer Pink addressed her Britney issues head on.
But Britney is 21 now, and all that talking behind her back doesn’t seem to get to her so much anymore. By this spring, she had finished her break, and gone back to the recording studio. The Britney Spears publicity machine was about to kick into overdrive to promote her new album “In the Zone.”
And when Britney spears wants media attention. Britney spears usually gets media attention. This fall she appeared topless on Rolling Stone and bottomless on Esquire. Chuck Closeterman watched the Esquire photo shoot, then interviewed her for the magazine. just what is it about this girl that keeps us all watching?
Dateline convened a distinguished panel of Britneyologists, writers who cover music and popular culture for major publications. They all agreed. It’s not about the music.
Elizabeth: “Britney has a very odd mix of a puritanical streak which is very strong mixed with this completely unabashed sexuality.”
Chuck Closeterman “She appeals to teenaged girls by being someone they could be friends with. She appeals to their fathers by being essentially a teenaged pop stripper.”
It’s that old good girl/bad girl split. Strange thing is, these reporters say, Britney Spears just won’t admit it.
Keith: “She really refuses to acknowledge the image that she’s put out there you know?”
Esquire reporter Chuck Closeterman calls his interview with Britney, just after he watched her do this photo shoot, the most surreal experience of his career.
Chuck Closeterman: “We had a discussion about whether or not she sees herself as kind of a sexual icon. And it’s not that she denied it. She acted as if this had never occurred to her before. She honestly acted as if this had never crossed her mind.”
Kotb: “But wait, was this just an act, Chuck? Was she— do you think she was just sort of playing a dumb blonde?”
Chuck Closeterman: “Well, I’m not sure. I mean, she is either, like, the most savvy entertainer I’ve ever dealt with, or the least self-aware person I’ve ever met.”
As for all the semi nudity? Britney insisted it was no big deal. Growing up in her house, she said, she used to walk around naked all time. After all, it’s hot in the South. Chuck was put off by what he saw as Britney’s denial. But Rob Haskell, who wrote the Britney profile in W, has a different take.
Rob Haskell: “There’s something so refreshingly guileless about her. You know, I’ve met so many celebrities, and there’s always that kind of mask of perfection. But with Britney, you really do sense that you’re with a real person. She squeals, she burps, she giggles. You know, it’s frickin’ this and frickin’ that.”
Britney seemed to like Rob, too. And she gave him a big scoop. She had been sure Justin was “the one,” she told Rob, and they had consummated their relationship. So surprise, surprise. Britney spears was not a virgin. As if to underscore the point, she posed for the most controversial pictures of her career. It was the best selling issue in W’s 11-year history. Joe Zee was the stylist for the W photo shoot.
Kotb: “I’m not a prude or anything, but I have to admit when I opened that mag and looked I was like oh my God you see chains you see things that look like S&M bondage it does take a lot of people aback.”
Joe Zee “I have to admit it’s very tough. It’s hard, but I think it’s so interesting that she can cross those borders and push those envelopes.”
And Britney still had an envelope or two left to push. In case you were on Mars for the summer, we’re talking about the defining Britney moment of 2003, that mouths-wide-open kiss with Madonna at the MTV Music Awards.
Writer Toure watched the intergenerational diva smooch. But he knows it wasn’t spontaneous at all. He saw them practice it in rehearsal.
Kotb: “Did you notice any hesitancy on Britney’s part?”
Toure: “No, not really.”
Toure: “No, not really. Not really.”
It sure looked like a carefully crafted career move to titillate the audience and generate headlines. But when asked about it, Britney once again played the innocent. She told the British chat show hosts Richard and Judy this kiss was just a kiss. And it was a big deal back home though. while lips were locking in Manhattan, tongues were wagging in Kentwood. The folks in Britney’s hometown hadn’t seen the latest magazine photos of Britney. So, of course, we showed them.
First we showed them two the cover of Esquire. Then we showed them what was inside. So it’s probably not too surprising that Britney’s childhood pastor is disappointed with the direction her career has taken.
Pastor: “Her choices that she has made would not be in keeping with what I believe was her upbringing and what I believe was the foundation that was laid.”
The pastor says what he’s seen and read about his former church choir member has him concerned.
Pastor: “A lot of older girls and younger girls look to her and how she dresses her dance steps and whatever and a lot of that is suggestive and as a result I think it sets a very bad example.”
When we asked the pastor what he would say to Britney now, his answer was clear.
Pastor: “I love her and care about her. Am I disappointed of some of the things I read and hear about her? Yes, I certainly am but that doesn’t mean I love her any less.”
Then 1,298 miles away, in Times Square, we met up with a crowd of people who think Britney sets a fine example. But Britney’s new style may not going over too well in the demographic that was once her strongest base.
Kotb: “Give me one word to describe Britney Spears. Sophia?”
Kotb: “Is that a word?”
Sophia: “In my vocabulary it is.”
Kotb: “What do you think when you see her now?”
Rachel: “Oh god, not her again.”
Sophia: “I mean I don’t know anybody in my grade who — well there might be one person, but she moved to Florida — who would like Britney Spears.”
These girls say the music isn’t really the problem.
Sophia: “It’s not her songs. Her songs are normal, the words, the everything, it’s the way she sings them that isn’t normal.”
Kotb: “What are you talking about, how does she sing them?”
Sophia: “Well first of all, how she’s not really wearing anything.”
Sorry Sophia, ever since the video for “Slave” came out, Britney’s been going for a more adult audience. And that trend continues on her new CD “In the Zone.” And she knows if she wants it to sell big, she’ll need to keep everyone watching. But for Britney, that’s no problem.
The first video from “In the Zone,” “Me Against the Music” with guest star Madonna, is already a smash hit on MTV. And the lyrics on the album? Well, a review on the MTV Web site described them this way: sex, sex and more sex.
So will the songs just get raunchier? Will Britney Spears keep taking off more and more, in live shows and on her videos? Perhaps there’s another path. Ten-year old Sophia has some tough advice:
Sophia: “Stop doing this to yourself. I mean is that kind of person she wants to be, an immature, wearing nothing, move your body kind of singer? Or does she want to be something, does she want to be something even— not the Beatles, but something that people will recognize and think, ‘Boy they were good.’”
Writer Toure says we should all just relax, and let Britney be Britney.
Toure: “She’s inevitable. I mean, like the young sexy white blond who’s going to be like that star sex symbol thing.”
Toure: “Like that’s like a job that must like we must have a vice president, we must have that. We had Marilyn Monroe. We had Farrah Fawcett. Madonna had it for a minute. Like if Britney left, they would have auditions. Somebody else come and fill this job. It’s in the Constitution. That job must be filled.”
But don’t hold those auditions for the next sexy blonde icon just yet. From Star Search to Mickey Mouse to school girl to siren, Britney’s been in the spotlight for more than a decade now, and she’ll probably stay there.
Kotb: “Ten years from now, where is Britney Spears going to be? Give me your prediction.”
Toure: “Britney will still be here in 10 years. I do not bet against Britney.”
The odds are pretty good that Britney Spears will be heading back to Hollywood. Her fans haven’t seen much of her in the movies. She’s only had one major role in a feature film, but she says she’s now looking at a script she’s pretty excited about. Her CD, “In the Zone,” will be in record stores Tuesday, November 18.