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She's Not That Innocent

music critique by Matthew Webber

When Britney Spears sang, "I'm not that innocent," she finally declared what many already suspected. Few post-pubescent males who saw her sexy schoolgirl routine in her first music video, "Baby One More Time," were calling her innocent. Most of them were calling her a babe. Parents of impressionable girls couldn't call her innocent after she stripped to a sheer bodysuit during her infamous MTV Video Music Awards performance. They probably called her unprintable names.

If any doubt about her innocence remained, her first video from her third album, Britney, erased it. In "I'm a Slave 4 U," Britney's dance moves are so hot that other dancers literally lick the sweat from her face. This happens while she is wearing her underpants on top of her low-riding jeans and after she has asked everybody whether they "wanna dance up on" her.

Britney doesn't feel guilty about all this attention because, as she says in the song's intro, "I know I may be young, but I've got feelings too, and I need to do what I feel like doing." Apparently, what she feels like doing is revealing her midriff and much of her chest, but since she is "young" and has "feelings," we are supposed to forgive her. A previous lyric to the contrary, she wants to be viewed as innocent after all.

Most of Britney's songs deal with her coming of age. In "Baby One More Time," she is a heartbroken teenager who sings, "My loneliness is killing me." In "Stronger," she lets us know she's matured because, as she sings, "My loneliness ain't killing me no more." The title of a new song encapsulates her theme: "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman."

This adolescent dilemma is common and important, and an artist such as Britney Spears has as much a right to discuss it as Madonna, Judy Blume or Sylvia Plath. However, one problem with Britney is that, up until this stage of her career, she hasn't taken responsibility for her messages. Another problem is that, up until now, most of the messages she's been expressing have not been hers; she's merely been a mouthpiece (and the most palatable face and body) of her male songwriters, producers and directors. If she's been a slave for anyone, she's been a slave for the people who created her image. This is what makes her so dangerous a spokesperson.

Britney constantly defends her right to wear whatever she wants, and it's true she has that right. Like Charles Barkley before her, she claims she's not a role model, and she's right that she shouldn't be. However, when an 11-year-old girl knows all the words to all of her songs, has seen all of her videos and now thinks it's cool to wear hip-hugger pants, Britney is one of the biggest role models in that girl's life. A girl can only consume Britney's looks, body type and gyrations so many times before she starts to apply them to her still-developing self.

Maybe it really is okay for girls to be sensual. Maybe some girls do become women (to use Britney's terminology) sooner than others. The main reason Britney, Madonna or a novel like Forever are so controversial is because our culture hasn't quite figured this out. A girl could more easily digest these messages if Britney would try to explain them. Instead, she attempts to absolve herself through some sound-bitten mumbo-jumbo about her artistry.

People shouldn't hate Britney because of her sexy image. They should hate her because she pretends to own it, when really it owns her. She can't explain her message because, well, she just can't. The message was never hers; she's just one of its youngest and most curvaceous messengers. She deserves whatever criticism she gets, even if (and especially because) she doesn't understand it.

Issue 9, April 2002 | next article

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