December 24, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

When Britney Spears addresses the guy she hopes will hit her one more time (with the truth, not his fist, she’s hastened to explain), she calls him her ”baby” in a growly moan that would do a veteran soul singer proud. ”Oh, bay-buh, bay-buh” is her refrain, and that throaty purr, combined with the pert video that was all over MTV like milk chocolate on a Ding Dong, turned the 18-year-old Spears into an end-of-century sex kitten who’d humble Humbert Humbert. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, since Spears bypasses Nympho-ville and zooms straight into the Mall-lands of America, where her public appearances make prepubescent fans scream with innocent delight. It’s like the Knack (a teenybop act that peaked before Britney was born) once said: ”The little girls understand.”

What the little girls in Spears’ sphere get is that their idol is one confident role model who’s chosen her own influences well: a bit of Janet Jackson in her take-charge dance moves, a smidgen of Mariah’s sultry sassiness, some Stevie Wonder in her croon, and, behind the scenes, Backstreet Boys mentor Max Martin cowriting and coproducing unshakable pop hits. Spears’ ’99 debut, …Baby One More Time, has sold more than 9 million copies, and her non-mall stadium tours were sellout hormonal fits. One non-setback: Rumors she’d guest-star on Dawson’s Creek came to naught. (Wise career move, Brit — have you seen the show this season? A young woman in your position shouldn’t have to share screen time with an aging harlot like Jen or a mope-a-dope like Pacey.) She’s also weathered her first controversy — speculation that Kentwood, La.’s Baptist-raised sweetie (”I’ve always been really religious,” she told EW. ”I was brought up in the church, but I can still party!”) has had her chest enhanced. (For the record: accusation denied.)

Spears knows where she’s coming from, artistically speaking. She sees her art through the mists of ancient pop history: ”There was a period when R&B was really strong. You didn’t hear any pop. It was like New Kids on the Block, and then all of a sudden it just went away.” Britney, on the heels of the Backstreet Boys, helped bring pop back. And, on the much higher heels of the Spice Girls, she’s taken girl power to higher ground. Where ’80s predecessors Tiffany and Debbie Gibson had to maintain at least a pretense of white-bread innocence, Spears has tapped into hip-hop’s free-flowing sensuality without scaring off kids or their ‘rents, duplicating beats that are funky but not so freaky they can’t be reproduced by little girls in front of their mirrors. (At this point, even Mariah’s co-opting Britney’s butterscotch hair, with matching lipstick, and youthful, semi-porn sweatpant chic.) In 1999, she was the brightest reflection of prepubescent longing and joy.

”My audience looks at me like a girlfriend,” says Spears. ”That’s how I was trying to portray it on stage, like, ‘All of us girls out there!’ Instead of being, like, I don’t know, ‘I’ve got a man and duh-duh-duh.’ I didn’t want the jealousy thing.”

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