Who is Britney Spears? A year ago, long before her promo interviews became considered worthy of national TV coverage, that would have been an entirely reasonable question. Back then, Spears was just another conveyor-belt pop kid, a Jive Records recording artist singing and dancing in front of sugar-crazed kids in American malls. Yet, in February 1998 Britney Spears had become the youngest solo performer even to have a simultaneous No 1 US album and single. Over here first UK single "One More Time" sold half a million copies within the first week of release making it the biggest chart debut in British history.
The starting point for all this is the Britney sound. Teen-pop is driving the entire American music business at the moment. In the wake of the Spice Girls phenomenon, American record companies realised that they had no bands that teenagers wanted, and, more significantly, that teenagers' parents would allow them to listen to. Unlike rap, swingbeat or Marilyn Manson's goth metal, the Britney sound is the perfect anodyne panacea for all - innocent, non-judgemental teen pop with boundless energy, neat dance move and just a little bit of sex.
The Baptist daughter of a building contractor and a second grade teacher from Kentwood, Llouisiana, Spears spent her pre-teen years mimicking Mariah Carey on route to gymnastic lesson, and singing in local talent show and national commercials. After auditioning for the Mickey Mouse Club in Orlando, she became a mouseketeer at the age of 11. She has the fresh, clean, corn-fed good looks of Middle America and, importantly, she's a believer. This portrait of a naive religious innocent sits awkwardlywith the image that Britney's lawyer Larry Rudolph is marketing. Rudolph sees Brithey as a solo Spice, a Backstreet Girl. Her look, described in America magazines as "adult teen" and "baby babe" is best evidenced in the video for One More Time, where a pony-tailed school-uniformed Britney dances like Paula Abdul down high school corridors. "She's the girl next door", says head of Jive Records Barry Weiss, "Every girl wants to be like her and every guy wants to be with her and get to know her. There's kid appeal".
This "kid appeal" already appears to be getting out of hand. For her Rolling Stone cover feature, notorious photographer David La Chappelle discovered Brithey's glamorous inner cliche by dressing her in bra and pants and sticking her in a bedroom full of fluffy kids' toys. This flirting with grown-up sexuality pushes the Britney appeal into darker territory. An uninvited young male fan recently showed up at the Spears family house demanding to meet with Brithey, and her concerts are attracting a high proportion of single middle-aged men. However, the school look is all part of expanding her appeal and, with it, the Britney industry. Recently a Philadelphia producer named William Kahn filed a complaint against Spears, her parents and Jive Records, claiming it was he who'd launched Britney's career. The case was settled out of court but it won't be the last attempt to cash in on Britney mania. The money is certainly out there, especially with the teen audience buying power of over $100.