Pythons don’t bite.
At least that’s what they told her. Then again, they told her only what she needed to know. And the fact that pythons kill by slowly squeezing every last breath out of their victims’ lungs was not, apparently, something Britney Spears needed to know.
So there she was on Sept. 6, just seconds after slinking her way out of a cage with a tiger: a 19-year-old girl, all tarted up, bumping and grinding on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards, blissfully unaware of the coiled reptilian killing machine around her neck. As for whether she was also unaware of the dizzying array of sexual semiotics and jackhammer-subtle innuendo she was giving off by having a seven-foot albino python wrapped around her neck is, of course, another matter entirely.
“We thought the whole thing was going to be about the tiger. I mean, I’m in a cage with a huge tiger! But no one says anything about that. The image of me with the snake — that was the big thing.”
How could it not be? After all, as America’s reigning taboo temptress — again, she’s 19 — Spears couldn’t have picked a tidier metaphor for the forbidden than wrapping herself with a giant snake, despite the fact that her slithering dance partner was so “sticky” and “slimy” that it made her break into hives after she touched it for the very first time.
But you wouldn’t have sensed the squeemishness watching her writhe around to her new single “I’m a Slave 4 U” in a teensy emerald-green top and matching short-shorts — the two separated by miles of tanned midriff with a lone jewel beaming out of her belly button like a thousand-watt spotlight. Or, for that matter, seeing her bucking on the arched back of one of her male dancers. To be honest, if she weren’t singing, you might have thought you were witnessing a floor show in a Bangkok gentlemen’s club. Because there it was: America’s most famous virgin in a giddy, frozen moment of pure carnal excess. Backstreet Babylon. And when she opened her mouth to sing, out came the cooing mantra of the new Britney Spears. The all-grown-up Britney Spears…
All you people look at me like I’m a little girl…
Somewhere between the first-class kiddie glitz of Orlando’s Disney World and a lower-budgeted pit-stop attraction on the outskirts of Tampa called Dinosaur World lies the town of Lakeland, Fla. If you’re a teenager here, there isn’t a whole lot to do other than troll the drive-thru windows of an endless archipelago of fast-food joints. Unless, of course, you’re Britney Spears, in which case there’s more going on in Lakeland than you could possibly want.
For starters, there’s the matter of ironing out the last-minute choreography kinks for her 32-date North American tour kicking off in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 1 (the start was bumped five days when Spears got the flu, and later, one more day because of a logistical snafu). Then, less than a week after hitting the road with 17 semi trucks jam-packed with arena gear, there’s the release of her funkier, more mature third album, Britney, on Nov. 6. Next, there’s a live HBO concert from the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas on Nov. 18, where she’ll be prancing and preening through waterfalls and bungee-jumping. And when all of that madness is finally over, she’ll have to kick-start Britney Inc. all over again when her feature-film debut, Crossroads, rolls into multiplexes in February.
In between each step of this frantic will-to-pop-power campaign, Britney will occasionally have to suffer through the only thing she doesn’t positively love about being Britney…
“Y’all fixin’ to do an interview?”
Yes, Britney Spears dreads interviews.
As her chipper assistant Felicia floats this down-home question, she escorts me into Spears‘ dressing room. We’re backstage at the Lakeland Center — a small-time hockey rink routinely used for tour prep because of its proximity to Orlando, teen pop’s epicenter — where Spears is running through the minutiae of her upcoming road show. Despite the room’s cold cinder-block walls and claustrophobic dropped ceiling, Spears‘ lair has been transformed into her very own Barbie Dream House. Scarves in every color of the rainbow have been draped overhead to cozy things up. The place reeks with the sickly sweet teenage aroma of vanilla-scented candles. And in the far corner, sitting atop her television set like a sort of puppy-love shrine, is a framed photograph of boyfriend Justin Timberlake, in fur coat and cowboy hat, throwing a signature ‘N Sync pose.
Spears plops down onto a black leatherette sofa and pretzels her legs lotus-style. It takes a minute or two to make sense of the visual disconnect between the video vixen who shimmies on MTV in rip-away nudie suits and the giggly girly-girl before you.
First of all, she’s tiny. Five four if you’re feeling charitable. Her Luh-weeez-ee-ana accent is as bouncy as a trampoline. And for someone not exactly known for modesty, she appears to be dressed for a nunnery, albeit a fairly sporty one: Her hair is pulled up in a Pebbles Flintstone topknot; she’s emphatically Abercrombie & Fitch in a pair of blue sweatpants and white sweatshirt zipped up to the throat; and she sips a fruit smoothie through a long red straw while working a piece of gum as if she were angry with it.
In short, the polite and unjaded Spears looks nothing like the come-hither, going-on-20 Britney pouting on the cover of her new album — an album whose sultry, deep-groove single “I’m a Slave 4 U” contains the following defiant declaration:
I know I may be young/But I’ve got feelings too/And I need to do what I feel like doin’/So let me go…
But then you notice Spears‘ hands. Her nails are lacquered with an expensive-looking French manicure. Very adult. And yet, on one of her fingers sits a plastic gumball-machine trinket–a pink heart-shaped ring that flips open to reveal a tiny cache of lip gloss.
Like a boxer who’s actually a soft-spoken pussycat outside of the ring, Spears is a complex contradiction: Is she a girl or a woman? The fact that her particular contradiction traffics in sex has helped make her both a times-22 platinum superstar and a lightning rod for parental concern. It’s a fine line to dance on — with or without a snake. Just ask Madonna. And Spears doesn’t exactly help clear things up. “I find it so funny that people find me so interesting,” she says, laughing. “And I hate when they’re, like, ‘Define your image.'” In fact, the thought of answering this question one more time makes Spears shriek like a schoolgirl getting her pigtails yanked. “I don’t know what my freakin’ image is! I just do my thing.”
To be honest, it’s hard to tell if “doing her thing” includes playing coy or if she’s swept up in some cultural debate even she can’t begin to fathom. Her Crossroads director, Tamra Davis, thinks Spears is an active participant in the virgin-whore gambit: “She definitely plays with that duality.” But for her part, Spears wants you to believe that she’s shocked — shocked! — by the barely-legal brouhaha that has been swirling around her ever since she shook her moneymaker through the Lolita-in-a-plaid-skirt “…Baby One More Time” video. “I guess it’s because I do have a younger audience that, you know, parents worry about the role model thing…. But when I was younger, I looked up to people, but I never wanted to be them. I always had my own identity. I’m an entertainer when I’m on stage…and they need to explain that to their kids. That’s not my job to do that.”
She pauses to collect herself. “There are so many other teenagers out there that dress more provocatively than I do and no one says anything about them.” Maybe she’s right. Maybe the Bubble Yum debate says more about us than it does about her. “How can I explain this?” She exhales and focuses her thoughts. “I don’t see myself — hand on the Bible — I know I’m not ugly, but I don’t see myself as a sex symbol or this goddess-attractive-beautiful person at all. When I’m on stage, that’s my time to do my thing and go there and be that — and it’s fun. It’s exhilarating just to be something that you’re not. And people tend to believe it.” Then Spears begins to crack up. “I guess I just pull it off very well.”
On the cover of her debut album, ...Baby One More Time, an innocent 17-year-old — by way of Kentwood, La., and The Mickey Mouse Club TV show — looks out from a pink background with a blinding white Dentyne smile. There are 11 songs on the record, and each one seems to carry the same G-rated message: I just fell in love for the first time; my boyfriend just dumped me; and now I’m lying brokenhearted on my Hello Kitty sheets waiting for him to pick up the phone and take me back.
Almost three years later, Spears is the one doing the dumping on her new album. She will turn 20 in December, and if there is a theme to the Britney record, it’s this: Get over it, she isn’t a little girl anymore. Spears cowrote five of its songs and had a strong hand in choosing each track’s producer, among them such dance-club Midases as the Neptunes and Rodney Jerkins. And dammit, she’s the one calling the shots. “When I was listening to the record the other day I was like, ‘Wow, this is my baby.’ This…is…me.”
Like the Prince-ly spelling on “I’m a Slave 4 U,” Britney sounds as if she’s spent time at Paisley Park. It’s not a radical overhaul, but it is a noticeable shift in color: from bubblegum pink to fire-engine red. And regardless of whether you like the music, the older Britney feels a lot more sincere than her guilty-pleasure kiddie pop. “Well, it’s just more me,” she says. “That’s why we chose ‘Slave’ as the single, because that’s where I’m at. Not that I’m a slave for anybody!” She giggles, daintily transferring lip gloss from pinkie to lips. “But the vibe of the song, it’s very sensual and sexy without being too provocative.” This coming from a girl who, in the song’s perspiration-soaked video, virtually has the sweat licked off her. “I’d get bored singing the same type of songs all the time. I mean, I still love my old stuff, but you have to extend yourself and grow.”
The question is: Will her fans — many of whom aren’t even old enough to be called teenagers yet — extend and grow with her? Or does she even want them to? It’s no industry secret that the teen-pop juggernaut has lost some of its steam. Spears, the businesswoman, seems to have thought about all of this already. When it’s suggested it would have been easier to sell a ton of records by not changing her sound, she shoots back: “Right. And that was a matter of me standing up saying what I wanted. Because there were a couple of people that were like that…. There was a time, like a year ago, when I felt like everything was just not cool. And they mean well. But it was just a matter of me waking up one day and being like” — here she affects the gravelly voice of a tough-as-nails union boss — “This is how it’s gonna be!”
Spears lets out a fit of nervous laughter again, as if she’s not sure she should be talking about record-label matters or biting the hands that have fed her multimillion-dollar Pepsi endorsements. “Honestly, in my heart — my instincts tell me it’s not going to sell as much as Oops and …Baby. But at the same time I think this is one of the most important records I’ve ever done. Because I think people will listen to it and have more respect for it — an older generation.”
She’s already got one convert in Francis Lawrence, the director of her “Slave” video. “When [teen] pop first came around, I have to say I was one of the people who was not feeling it,” he says. “But Britney’s done the smartest thing she could have by growing up and letting her taste in music grow up. I just don’t know if the people who have been listening with her are going to grow up with her. I mean, a 7-year-old might dance around in her room to ‘…Oops, I Did it Again,’ but ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’?”
It’s a typical urge for any teenage girl to want to break out of her gilded cage. And in addition to grabbing more control of her career inside the studio, Spears seems determined to take more of a lead outside of her work. She’s moved out of her parents’ home in Kentwood and bought her own $3 million spread in the Hollywood Hills. She’s rebelled with three tattoos, including a fairy on the small of her back that plays peekaboo from the waistband of her powder blue panties. And instead of being chauffeured, she wants to drive her own car these days (a new silver Porsche, although she has no clue what model it is) and pump her own gas. She’s even taken some baby steps toward making her private life not so private anymore.
When Spears revealed her chastity during the opening salvo of Britneymania two years ago, she may have been entering a bargain with the public she hadn’t quite thought through. How does she hold on to her privacy when her virginity has become a national watercooler topic?
Actually, she may have found herself a savvy little loophole. While in real life Spears has, she’s said, resisted this rite of passage, her new movie — the aptly titled three-girls-on-a-road-trip drama Crossroads — just may help her ease into adulthood. In the film Spears has an on-screen love affair with costar Anson Mount. According to Davis, the movie’s director, Spears was insistent that if her character was going to have a love scene, she had to be having sex for the right reasons (and with the right angles and editing, apparently, since Crossroads is PG-13). “She’s kind of grown up in front of all of our eyes, so she’s like our little girl in a sense,” says Davis of the public Britney. “So we’re all kind of protective of her in a way.”
As for her offscreen relationship with Timberlake, the recently less-reticent singer explains, “Before, I wouldn’t really say that much about it because I didn’t know where we stood.”
So, where do you guys stand? Spears blushes, and yes, swirls her pinkie into her ring of lip gloss. “We stand very good,” she giggles. “I’m very happy.” Then she uncorks a long, dreamy sigh. “Very, very happy…yeahhh.”
Spears stops cooing and looks up as if to say: Okay, you got enough, pal?
With enough time for one more question before she heads out to the arena to run through her stage show, I ask her to imagine how it could all go wrong. Because whether she’s a girl, a woman, or a provocative hybrid of the two to help move units, Britney Spears‘ life seems charmed. So I ask her to picture herself 10 years from now, when the folks from VH1 come knocking to tape her Behind the Music fall from grace.
Her doe eyes turn cold. But surprisingly, after a few seconds of silence, she’s game and playfully details a nightmare scenario.
“First, the worst thing that could happen is if my boyfriend would break up with me. I would be totally devastated. And then, after the depression,” she says, laughing, “maybe I did some dorky movies that were just bombs. Then, I don’t know, s—. Then I did another album that didn’t do very well. And then it’s back to working at my granny’s deli. Back to rolling quarters and boiling crawfish and smelling like a fish on my dates.”
Not to worry, Britney: Over at the Piggly Wiggly, Justin says all is forgiven.