AROUND THESE PARTS, the complaint heard most often from readers of America's premier journal of conservative political thought is: "Why don't you have more coverage of teen queens and pop princesses?" It's a fair question, one that prompted me recently to head to my local multiplex to catch the movie debut of Britney Spears--the undisputed queen of pop princesses--in her new film, "Crossroads." As MTV viewers are well aware, Britney is "not a girl, not yet a woman." She sings as much in the movie's theme song/companion video. Since my wife often notes that in both word and deed, I'm not a boy, not yet a man, I seemed a perfect draw for this assignment. Traditionally, Spears has staked a constituency among two demographic groups: female 'tweens (not an elementary schooler, not a teenager) and older, lustier males (not ethically unimpeachable, not in jail). For this latter group, the release of "Crossroads" is something of a holy day, rivaled perhaps only by December 2, 1999 (the day Britney made everyone's impure thoughts legally acceptable by turning eighteen). So as not to be lumped in with these wankers, I hauled along my 10-year-old niece. On the car-ride over, she thanked me for bringing her, but put me on notice that the "cool kids" in her class hadn't been into Britney in about a year. Neither did they give much truck to Christina Aguilera, the Backstreet Boys, or "N'Stink," as she now calls them. As for 98 Degrees, she wasn't even certain "if they still make CDs, they're like, out." Instead, she listens to what any self-respecting white girl who goes to an exclusive private school and takes horseback riding lessons would listen to: gangster rap. It hits her where she lives. Still, she was eager for a retro walk down memory lane--back to when she was 9. And I was eager to watch Britney dance on her bed in seductively snug panties while singing Madonna songs, as she does rather skillfully in the film's first few minutes. From there, things fall off dramatically. "Crossroads" is the story of three childhood friends who've grown apart, but who come back together for a post high-school graduation cross-country road trip. Each of them has their own cross to bear. Mimi has a scummy boyfriend. Kit is knocked up and unmarried. Lucy (Britney) has a father played by Dan Aykroyd. But they overcome these obstacles to light out in the inevitable yellow convertible, driven by Ben, a hooligan with a heart of gold, who is beyond cool, which we can tell by the wool ski-cap he insists on wearing in the middle of June. From there, the rest of the film is a blur of Herbal Essence product placements (Britney is paid big bucks to get the urge to go Herbal), Waffle House feasts, spontaneous outbursts of song, silly girl talk, premature yet tastefully considered sexual relations, and some mature language. (Britney evidences her acting chops by convincingly breaking up a catfight, saying, "I'm so sick of this arguing, bitching, and fighting every damn second of the day!" Not a girl, indeed.) As road movies go, "Crossroads" is no "Easy Rider" (come to think of it, "Easy Rider" was no "Easy Rider" either). Actually it's downright bad, but in a harmless, forgivable sort of way. In fact, "Crossroads" isn't even the worst movie named "Crossroads." (That honor belongs to the 1986 offering that featured Ralph Macchio as an aspiring blues singer.) When the lights came up, my thugged-out niece was even back on Team Britney. And I must admit that compared to other crossover film imposters (Cindy Crawford in "Fair Game," Mariah Scarey in "Glitter," Madonna in everything she's ever done), Britney looked downright Oscar-ly. Sure, she tends to subscribe to the whispery Tori Spelling school of Acting: If you're going to act badly, do so quietly. But she was effective at essentially playing herself. Which brings us back to square one. "She's not a girl, she's not a woman, what is she?" I asked my niece. "A S-L-U-T," she replied in a brief relapse of player-hating. This unfair charge, of course, has been the locus of most Britney-bashing, in everything from rap songs to I-hate-Britney websites. The Star this week reports that after saying she'd remain a virgin, she shacked up with 'N Sync boyfriend Justin Timberlake. Numerous reports have claimed she had her breasts augmented. And one reporter claims to have overheard the formerly chaste 20-year-old teen queen say that chocolate for her is "just like an orgasm" (in fairness to Britney, the reporter was British). What these legions of puritans are missing, however, is that though Britney may have reversed her mating policy, she never held herself out as a model of Victorian restraint. From her first video, "Oooh Baby, Baby," in which she took advantage of her school's relaxed dress codes by slinking around the hallways in a yummy-tummy baring Oxford, Catholic schoolgirl mini, and thigh-high stockings, one got the sense that this was an innocent who would steal her way around the basepaths. In fact, this contradiction (the doe-eyed Louisiana girl who used to sing in her church choir, but who also starred in a "Slave" video where she was blanketed by back-up dancers in a sweaty group grope) is, in some way, responsible for her appeal. Britney is, in the words of classic rockers T-Rex, the perfect amalgam: "Dirty Sweet." She appeals to the unicorns-and-rainbow set, as well as their hairy-palmed fathers and brothers. This is why she has so outdistanced her priggish competition. She is dirtier than Jessica Simpson, who is so wholesome she hurts your teeth, who boasts in nearly every interview how she plans to make her precious-flower delivery to her 98 Degrees singing boyfriend only on their wedding day. And she is sweeter than Christina Aguilera, whose ambition you can smell, and who comes off like the town teeter-totter--on which everyone's had a ride. There's no need for the Star to run stories casting Aguilera as a trashy little trollop, since from the time of her first video, "Genie in a Bottle/Rub You the Right Way" (in which she, well, rubbed herself the right way), that's pretty much a given. But there is more to Britney than just sex, or the lack of it, as I learned from the large corpus of Britney literature: Amazon.com reports 45 Britney books, 46 if you include the novel she "co-wrote" with her mother and their ghostwriter. As Britney writes in her "Crossroads" movie diary, she's a not-a-girl-not-a-woman who likes to give Volkswagens to her assistants, who stops for stray puppies, and who likes to eat "yummy meals from craft services" and then take a nap. In the indispensable "I Was A Mousketeer! The Inside Story About Your Favorite Mousketeeers" (the early '90s "Mickey Mouse Club" was to future pop royalty what the Algonquin was to snarky writers), we not only learn that Britney was the youngest person ever to have a number one album and single simultaneously, but that her fave color is baby blue (the same as Justin's!). As Jackie Robb, author of "Britney Spears, The Unauthorized Biography" reports, Britney is not just a talented dancer, serviceable singer, and expert lip-syncher with an ever-expanding bosom. She is a channeler of undeniably accessible pop songs, like "E-Mail My Heart" ("Anyone with a computer can relate to this one, I think," says Brit). And while critics have lined up around the block to take a chunk out of the not-a-woman-child--the only singer ever to have her first three albums chart at number one--by claiming she is a flash in the pan, the era of Teen Fluff that she has presided over has now lasted twice as long as the ridiculously over-praised grunge era of the early '90s. These same critics are fond of claiming that Britney and her ilk have larded up the pop charts with tripe--a fair concern. But for the last two-and-a-half decades, anyone in search of good music has had to go somewhere other than the pop charts. Were we really much better off when Chumbawamba, Right Said Fred, or Flock of Seagulls were ruling the roost? At least when Britney serves up her lukewarm pap, she does so while gyrating in ridiculously tight clothes. This anti-Britney hysteria is actually reminiscent of another scare campaign, the one which accompanied the advent of the much-loathed Barney nearly a decade ago. It's no accident that Britney and the purple dinosaur are twinned, for not only have Barney's fans then, grown into Britney's fans now, but the two bear some striking resemblances. Both are cuddly and round (Barney being obese, Britney being toned, but like a perfectly-marbled Delmonico, containing just enough baby fat to get the job done). Both have generously-spaced eyes and remarkably large heads. Both have a knack for refreshingly mindless song lyrics. Barney sang "It's cold / Brrrr / I wish I had fur / I wish I was a Bear with furry, furry hair / It's cold / C-C-C-C-Cold." In her song, "Soda Pop," Britney sings "Open a soda pop / Watch it fizz and pop / The clock is tickin' and we can't stop / Open a soda pop / Bop-shi-bop-shi-bop." When critics openly scoffed at a screening of "Crossroads," Britney remained unflustered. "Everything the critics like, I hate," she countered. Thirty-seven million record buyers seem to be with her. Perhaps it's time for us to sheath our swords, to allow the warm water to envelop us, to let our Britney defenses down. It's easier than you think. At the end of one of her biographies, I took the "Could you and Brit be Best Friends?" quiz. Answering ten questions, which covered a range of activities--from what Britney and I would do on our day off, to what I would do when my friends at school are gossiping about Britney--I failed to score a perfect 10, which would have indicated that I had "Total Girl Power!--You and Britney would definitely be buds forever." But even as a former Britney critic, a breed which her biographer writes "takes pleasure in their own nastiness," I still managed to score a seven. What that means for Britney and me: "Not Too Bad--You know a lot about Brit, and would probably get along famously with her." Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
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