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Cover Story: The state of Britneydom

Teen-pop queen declares 'I'm on the verge of being a woman'

Friday, November 02, 2001

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

It's not easy being Britney Spears.

No, really.

 
 
Concert Preview

Britney Spears

WITH: O-Town.

WHERE: Mellon Arena.

WHEN: Tonight at 7:30.

TICKETS: $41.50-$68.25; 412-323-1919.

   
 

On the one hand, yes, she's made more money in the past few years than nearly anyone who reads the Post-Gazette will ever see. And yes, she's incredibly sexy. And famous. And dating a guy in 'N Sync.

But that's the problem. Everything she's worked so hard to gain just makes it that much easier to hate her. Or if not to hate her, to at least dehumanize her to the point where a person would actually stammer his way through the following question at a press teleconference in support of Britney's latest tour (which makes a stop at the Mellon Arena tonight) and album:

"This is a little personal question," he begins, "so you can slap my face verbally if you want to. But I asked a lot of people.... And I mean this in a nice way. This is not a nasty question. But I asked a lot of people.... I told them that I was going to be talking to you, asking you questions... and of course what it is, is they wanted to know, if you're a virgin then how... I don't know how to put this in a nicer way but I mean are there other ways that you and Justin [Timberlake of 'N Sync] work things out?"

It's unbelievable, like nothing else I've ever heard a human being ask another human being, let alone a total stranger. And what makes it worse -- or if not worse, at least a little more depressing -- is that Britney (who, it should be noted here, is only 19) never loses her composure (well, unless you count the nervous giggle). It's as though she knows the question -- and the interviewer -- all too well, brushing it off with the cool reserve of a well-coached child star.

"Umm, we can go to the next question."

Giggle.

No one else attempts to get the inside dirt on Britney's sex -- or lack thereof -- life.

But it's clear that many don't approve of Britney Spears or what she's doing.

Some attempt to trip her up, expose her as an empty-headed puppet.

In return, she's just as charming, as humble, as sweet a person as you'd ever hope to meet. In talking about how meaningful the songs she's written on her latest effort are to her, she says "it's like your baby," adding, with a laugh, "I mean, I don't know if I'm the best songwriter in the world, but you know, I had a lot of fun doing it and hopefully, I'll get better and grow."

One interviewer seems to relish pointing out that Britney goofed in crediting Pat Benatar for "I Love Rock N Roll" (a song she covers on her latest album), when, in fact, it was a Joan Jett hit (as though we all know who sang every song that topped the charts when we were 3 to 4 months old).

"Oh!," the singer gasps, embarrassed. "Thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm a total dork."

Or just a kid.

A common theme in every Britney interview, it seems, is the age of her fans and how appropriate -- or inappropriate -- the sexual nature of Britneydom is for fans who may well listen to her latest record holding Tommy Pickles dolls.

"Have you thought about the message that you send," asks one reporter after complimenting Britney on a "hot and horny record," one he compares to Madonna's "Erotica" along the way to wondering, "Do you think about them getting this message of sexuality at a pre-sexualized age?"

Again, it's obvious from Britney's answer that she's heard it all before.

"I think it's, first of all, very flattering," she says, "that such young kids look up to me because the innocence of them is a really beautiful thing. But I think it's honestly up to their parents to explain to them that I'm a performer and that when I'm on stage, it's my time to perform and express myself, that I don't wear those clothes to the supermarket or to the ballgame. Little kids, just like when they go into their mom's closet and they dress up in their mom's clothes, it's fine. It's their time to play at home. But that's not what they're supposed to wear out into reality and out into the real world."

Another interviewer has a problem with her singing "hell" and "damn" on "Britney," asking her, "What about parents who don't want their kids to hear that?"

Suddenly, the cool reserve and Southern charm are out the window.

"I guess they just shouldn't buy the album," Britney snaps. And then, a long pause later, Britney tries to spin it with, "And honestly ... you know, when I say hell and damn, I say it out of frustration in my songs. It's not like a normal term of endearment."

Damn is what she's feeling now, though.

The idea that it's up to parents to explain her sexy image to the pre-teen fans (or even ban it in their house) is something of a running theme with Britney, since at least the second album.

"Well, I know when I was younger, I looked up to people," Britney says, "like, you know, Janet Jackson and Madonna. And they were major inspirations for me. But I also had my own identity and I knew who I was, you know. So I think it's very flattering for them to look up to me -- definitely. But I think they should all know that in their own rights, we're all special, you know. We're all beautiful beings. And it's very flattering, oh my goodness, that they look up to me. But I just sometimes think it's kind of lame when someone places a label on someone as being a role model. Because when I go on stage, I do my thing and I perform. And that's my time to express myself. But when I come off, I trip and I burp and I fart just like everybody else."

And anyhow, she says she'd like to reach an older audience with this, her third release, an idea that leaves one interviewer wondering if she plans to leave those pre-teen fans behind.

"Definitely no," she says. "I just want, you know, an older generation maybe to pick up on it as well."

Then, with a laugh, she adds, "And have it all."

Another writer asks if she consciously tries to mature as an artist at the same rate as her audience matures.

"Really, maybe I should think that deep," she replies, with a laugh. "But honestly, I think when you grow as a person, you're going to grow as an artist as well. And I just think for this -- my third album, I mean I had to grow creatively. And I couldn't do, like, "Baby One More Time Number 3," you know? So for me as a person, I just had to change it up a little bit and just pray that -- pray -- that people will think that's cool, you know, or appreciate it."

Spears herself is, as she sings on "Britney," "not a girl, not yet a woman."

Where exactly does that leave a person?

"Honestly, I guess it depends on what your definition of a girl and woman is," she says, like Clinton, only sexier. "I think my definition of a girl is someone who hasn't experienced her life at the fullest potential yet, very naive, and, you know, she's still growing. And a woman is one who has, you know, fulfilled her life, and she has a lot of wisdom -- gained all the wisdom that she needs.... She's just completely lived her life the way she needs to. And she knows herself in and out. And I think that I'm kind of right in-between there. Yeah, I'm on the verge of being a woman. But it's just -- it is kind of hard, though, because since I have grown up in the spotlight, people place these things on you to be a certain way, you know, even -- not even necessarily my fans or anything. It's the people around me. They treat you a certain way when you're like 16 or 17. And it's up to you to stand up and say 'OK, I need my own identity. I need to grow and be an adult and do things on my own.' And it's just a matter of you standing up or a matter of me standing up and saying that. And I think a lot of teen-agers can relate to that because they're going off to college, and their parents want them to grow up and be this wonderful independent person, but yet at the same time they want to feel needed. And they're like, I want them to be my baby forever, you know. So I think it's a teen-age issue."

Many of the issues Britney tackles on her third release are teen-age issues. Dancing. Lusting. Being babied. Growing up. As she says in the opening moments of the lead-off single, "I'm a Slave 4 U," "I know I may be young, but I've got feelings, too/ And I need to do what I feel like doing/ So let me go and just listen."

What you'll hear is the edgiest, most exciting single Britney's ever done, a weird, exotic slab of Princely funk with the Neptunes producing and plenty of heavy breathing and whispering come-ons. "Baby, don't you want to dance up on me?" It's a shame she used the pole dance last time out. This cut is ripe for that.

As the artist explains, "I've been really inspired by a lot of hip-hop and R&B, so when I went to this record -- before I was even recording it -- I was going to clubs and stuff and the music that was really standing out for me was the Neptunes. Every time a song came on by them I was just like, 'Man I have got to get up and dance.' So, you know, 'N Sync had worked with them and I told Jive about it. I was like 'I really want to work with them.' We recorded some songs together and we just hit it off and, you know, the music they do for me is just, you know, kind of where I'm at right now and it really suits me and who I am."

That's why they put it out before the album.

Just like Britney wanted.

"I've been really fortunate," she says, "that every time that I come up with the idea of what the single's going to be, everyone really agrees."

And if the critics disagree?

That's just another part of why it isn't easy being Britney Spears.

"You know, I'm not really here to, you know, please the critics," Britney says. "I'm here to please my fans, you know. So that's what [critics] are. They're here to criticize people. So who cares about them? I just want to please my fans and hopefully they'll, you know, see beyond [the critics] and, you know, see me for who I am."

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