Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

With so many uncertainties facing us in the new year, it is comforting to know there’s one thing we can pretty much take to the bank: We’re going to be seeing a lot more of Britney Spears.

There was a time when one could hold out hope that Britney Spears would go the way of so many other tweener sensations. No such luck. She finished 2001 with as much year-end coverage as anyone this side of Rudy Giuliani, and this year looks to bring more of the same. She’s a shoo-in for a People’s Choice Award next week, and on Feb. 15 she will make her big-screen debut in the partly self-financed film Crossroads.

There’s no greater measure of Britney’s ascendance to Madonna-hood than the emergence of Britney rage. I’m not just talking about the predictable Barney-like loathing felt by parents hounded by their 9-year-old daughters into buying Britney dolls and CDs. Britney rage has taken on a global, political flavor. Last fall, when most of New York was obsessing about the World Trade Center, a few intrepid cultural critics were traveling around Manhattan defacing billboards advertising Britney’s live concert special on HBO. The perpetrators singled her out as the symbol of all that is wrong with capitalist society.

Britney rage has several sources. One is the sober concern that all that cleavage and bumping and grinding sends the wrong message to the legions of prepubescent girls who make up her most devoted audience. There is the envy inspired among the masses by her multimillion-dollar commercial endorsement deal with Pepsi (witness the gleeful coverage of her caught swilling Coke in public). And there’s contempt for the empty slickness of her packaging.

But nothing seems to incite Britney rage like the Virgin Thing. Her claim of chastity, which was perfectly plausible when she embarked on pop stardom at 16, has become more incendiary as her bra-cup size has increased and her act has become more suitable for a strip club. The sheer brazenness of using a claim of sexual innocence to sell titillation drives Britney’s critics nuts.

Britney haters are eagerly awaiting the release of Crossroads with the hope that it will be a Glitter-like pop-diva fiasco. The odds are in their favor. According to whisperings from a London screening, in one scene Britney comes bouncing down the stairs in her scanties and barges into her father (Dan Aykroyd), who, understandably if inappropriately, has something of Bob Dole moment. Rumors that this and other scenes were reshot with more clothing prompted a spokesman for the film to reassure the public that Britney “will sing, dance and cavort in skimpy clothing just like her fans expect her to.” Whew, that’s a relief.

These sources also report that many of Britney’s fans will be “surprised” by a scene that strongly suggests that her character, a high-school grad on a road trip, succumbs to sexual passion—with an ex-con, no less. And that’s not all: The film’s themes include rape, underage drinking and teen pregnancy.

But why would this be a surprise to anyone, be they 9 or 19, who has seen Britney’s act? Thanks to the virginity gambit, this prefabricated A&R-executive-mixed concoction has done something one would not think possible since Madonna introduced masturbation into her act: She’s made sex shocking again. And she’s done it not by suggesting vaguely “deviant” sex, as Madonna did, but with good old-fashioned shake-your-booty T&A.

The virgin-whore schtick seems to work its charms even on those who decry it. Chuck Klosterman’s scathing sum-up of Britney 2001 in Time, for example, is almost entirely fixated on her claims to be a virgin. Noting that she lives with ‘N Sync’s Justin Timberlake, the Ken to her Barbie, Klos terman accuses Britney of cynically allowing 12-year-old girls to “believe the dreamy guy living with America’s just-past-jailbait superfox is perfectly content to let her lie around in her underwear, never getting pushy while she plays with stuffed koala bears and sucks Tootsie Pops.” This reads less like the reverie of a 12-year-old girl than the fantasy of an adult male journalist.

What began as a savvy bit of positioning for a kiddie-pop idol has evolved into an essential attribute. The older Britney gets, and the more unlikely her claim seems, the hotter it makes her. Her private virtue gives her something to transgress onstage—and lets her audience do so with her.

Britney Spears didn’t invent sexual hypocrisy any more than she invented the belly button. But she has exploited both masterfully. For the sake of her career, we can hope Justin Timberlake is mighty patient.