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Britney Spears and 98 Degrees cause a fan frenzy in New Jersey

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Mark McGrath, Britney Spears

What a difference six months can make. Last December at New York radio station Z-100’s Jingle Ball megaconcert, Britney Spears was hanging around backstage like a Madonna wannabe. No entourage, no reporters, no gaggle of fans. Fast forward to Friday’s Zootopia showcase celebrating the third anniversary of the station’s morning show, and it was Britney — with her trademark glittery eye shadow and baby-blond hair extensions — who created the animal-house atmosphere at the Meadowlands Sports Complex, causing kids to drop their ice-cream cones at the sound of her voice as they raced back to their seats.

Offstage, it was Britney’s management team who created a circus, refusing to let people within five feet of the young singer. In fact, her handlers were so insufferable that on Monday they became the talk of the morning show. ”They were the worst,” cried Elliot Segal, the Zoo’s cohost. ”They’re going to ruin the poor little girl!”

Britney might be the hot new thing, but in concert she was eclipsed by the blazing 98 Degrees, who haven’t exactly been lying around the beach since their December Jingle Ball appearance. (The quartet’s latest chart-topping single, ”The Hardest Thing,” is new in stores.) ”The last six months have really been a whirlwind,” 98’s Nick Lachey tells EW Online, ”and we’re really hopeful for our future.” So thankful are these self-proclaimed ”spiritual” guys that they say a prayer before every show. ”We’ve done that from the very beginning,” says Jeff Timmons. ”It’s just something that’s really important to us, to pray to the higher powers that be to watch over us.”

Group prayer, however, isn’t a preshow ritual for the Nashville-based Christian band Sixpence None The Richer, who performed their smash hit ”Kiss Me.” ”We need to pray together more,” lead singer Leigh Nash sheepishly admits. ”But we don’t…. Sorry.” Nash settles for giving herself a little pep talk before performing. ”Sometimes I do a little fight scene with myself just to get some sass up,” she says. ”I’m kinda intimidated on stage, so it helps me break out of that.” Before Sixpence’s turn in the spotlight Friday, Nash turned to the arms of her husband for comfort, and both stood swaying to UB40’s performance of ”Red, Red Wine.”

For the young teen crowd, however, it could have been Neil Diamond (”Wine”’s original singer) up there instead of UB40 and it would have been about the same. ”I wasn’t surprised the kids didn’t really know who we were,” says UB40 saxophonist Brian Travers. ”It’s just great for us to play and have them look at us and go, ‘You’re older than my dad.”’ While Britney Spears would be wise to envy UB40’s durable 20-year career, the band’s candid rapport with the press would have her handlers jumping off a bridge. Revealing his smoke of choice, for instance, Travers says: ”Marijuana. It gives you some time away from everything.” Before, of course, dutifully adding, ”I wouldn’t advocate it for anybody’s kids. It’s purely me. I’m 48 years old. It’s my choice as an old man.”

As for the young men, all-grown-up former New Kid Jordan Knight was equally candid, laying out his goal for the new millennium: ”Survival.” His former band mate Joey McIntyre, who earned a spot on Friday’s bill with this year’s omnipresent prom song, ”Stay the Same,” took pains to emphasize just how much he has matured since his first trip around the Block. While peeling off his jean jacket to display a sparkly tight black tank top and black leather pants, McIntyre yelled to the crowd: ”I ain’t a kid anymore! I’m a MAAAAAAN!” Oh, behave!

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