For Spears, maturity is, like, cool

First, she just wanted one more “hit.” Then, “oops,” she did it again. Now Britney Spears wants us to know she’s not a little girl and, in fact, is just a “slave.” What to make of the third release of teen pop icon Spears? She’s growing up, and getting ever more naked to prove it.

As Britney announces in the first moans of “I’m a Slave 4 U,” the first single and opening track of her new self-titled album, she might be young, but she’s got feelings too. These feelings include her opinions on boys, dance music, adolescence, and being harassed and overprotected. What a grand departure from the usual pop fare! It may be standard, mediocre insincerity, but the lyrics to The Princess of Abs’ new songs have a more personal slant; she gets writing credits on five of the CD’s 12 tracks.

There’s more to this spunky Mouseketeer than boobs and “virginal” giggling. Clearly, Britney plans on taking over the world a la Madonna. Even Vogue thinks she’s capable of it, featuring her on the December cover with the headline “Britney Spears set to inherit Madonna’s throne.” Her first film, tentatively titled “Crossroads,” is due for release in February 2002, and as she explained to Carson Daly during the weekendlong MTV Britney blitzkrieg, she has no plans to stop her exhausting schedule of recording, filming, touring and MTV Music Video Awards stripteases.

Her talents at self-marketing are equally admirable. Example — a fan asked her on Tuesday’s TRL (oh, if only all of you had free cable) if she could go back in time to any place, who would she want to see? To which she responded, “I’d really love to see Elvis.” What a perfect segue to hawking her HBO-televised Las Vegas concert later this month!

An essential difference between The Material Girl and The Girl Most Likely Composed of “Extra” Materials, however, is that Madonna is and always has been at the helm of her own career, with her fingers permanently planted on the pulse of American pop culture, selling millions of records and changing the world at the same time. Britney exists at the eye of the massive media campaign surrounding her, at the whim of both the middle-aged men who created her and those who fantasize about her.

While Madonna pushed the limits of what they could show on television, Britney’s management seems bent on seeing how long we’ll believe her “family values in a jeweled thong” act and still buy her records for our little sisters. Madonna will be recorded in history as one of the most influential and important women in entertainment, Britney simply as one of the most embarrassingly successful.

As for the music itself, Britney is not too shabby. “I’m a Slave 4 U” is one of the hottest pop singles this year, and the video, in all its sweaty, hedonistic glory, is an instant classic. Of Spears’ personal contributions, the cutesy disco ballad “Anticipating” is fun enough, and “Boys” is an envelope-pushing (when you consider her claims of wholesomeness) smutfest. While these efforts stand equal with the rest of the album’s better tracks, producers The Neptunes are responsible for the booty-shakin’ boom-clat of “Slave,” the high point.

The second planned single, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” which includes British singer Dido in the writing credits, is a well-executed ballad founded on a strong piano melody. It comes across as a hybrid of advice to her young female fans on how to deal with puberty, and an explanation of her girly but not childlike attitude.

In interviews, Spears says she is proud of the album because it showcases her growth “as a person and as an artist.” She chooses to display this growth musically by moaning and informing her audience multiple times that SHE’S NOT A GIRL. That’s the message. We get it. Probably those middle-aged guys who, much like Bob Dole in the Pepsi commercial, tell themselves “down boy” when they hear her offer to “turn this dance floor into our own little nasty world (nasty!)” on “Boys” get it too.

Is she encouraging the stalkers by celebrating her advancement beyond jailbait age? Probably she’s figured out that her innocent ho public persona sells a lot of records. But as long as she can parade her 11-year-old sister around with her on MTV, she maintains her “street credibility” with the kids.

Low points of the album are, expectedly, numerous. The fact that Britney can’t really sing is something backup singers and production tweaking can only go so far to hide. She has expanded her repertoire to include such feats of vocal manipulation as squeaks, whispers and heavy breathing. On “What It’s Like to Be Me,” she even gets help from boyfriend Justin (Timberlake to his friends), who wrote the song and fills out the bubblegum sound with his far superior voice.

The most disturbing and inexcusable moment on Britney comes at track number seven, where an obviously misguided Spears sings a cover of “I Love Rock and Roll.” If Joan Jett were dead, she would be rolling in her grave. I wouldn’t be surprised if every dead person rolled in their grave due to the release of this heinous “tribute” to a musical genre Spears has nothing to do with. And we thought “Satisfaction” on “Oops, I Did it Again” was bad.

Comparisons to Madonna aside, denying Britney her place in American history is a mistake. The release of her third album is easily the most anticipated pop moment since Sept. 11, perhaps with the exception of Michael Jackson’s Invincible, which isn’t all that relevant. Her domestic album sales will surely indicate what the American public is looking for as we collectively deal with terror and war. Will we turn to saccharin pop escapism or yearn for Morrissey-esque depression or Radiohead introspection? Spears and her ilk are hoping “it’s gonna be me-ay.”

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