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Success Is Sweet . . . and Spicy

Pop sensation (and sultry cover girl) Britney Spears is the reigning teen queen.

April 14, 1999|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took a busted knee for Britney Spears to realize that she has the world at her feet.

In the whirlwind three months since her debut album's release, the 17-year-old singer hit No. 1 on both the nation's album and singles charts. Fans mob her, national magazine covers are devoted to her and Catholic school skirts have become a mini fashion craze thanks to her hit video.

But caught up in a blur of interviews, hotel rooms and airports, Spears found that none of it seemed real.

Then in early March, Spears returned to her tiny hometown of Kentwood, La., to nurse a cartilage injury suffered during a Los Angeles video shoot.

"When I went home, that's the first time it all started to sink in," Spears said last week on a return trip to Los Angeles to finish the beach-scene video for her next single, "Sometimes."

"Not that long ago, I was going to basketball practice every day and doing homework, just being completely normal. . . . When I went back home, I realized how much everything had changed from that."

At home, the limping Spears did chores, gabbed on the phone and stayed up for late-night talks with her mother. The big local topic was the upcoming grand opening of the town's first Burger King. "It's sooo country there," she says, "but I love it."

So, last week, with her knee deemed fit for dance duty, Spears "cried and cried" when it was time to leave Kentwood and actively resume her throne as the reigning teen queen of pop. Up next: Japan for promotional events ("Is it cold or hot there?" she asks), a flurry of talk-show appearances in May and then, beginning June 28 in Pompano Beach, Fla., her first headline tour. It includes a July 31 date at the Universal Amphitheatre. She has also inked a deal with the makers of "Dawson's Creek" to appear in three episodes of the hit television series next season.

"Never in a million dreams could I have imagined all this," Spears said as she sipped coffee in the deserted cafe of a Hollywood hotel. "I'm very blessed."

For the uninitiated, Spears has tapped into the huge teen pop market with her album's title cut, " . . . Baby One More Time," which features a throaty, seductive hook and a mild funk vibe. The video depicts Spears as a parochial school vamp with a bare midriff, grinding through Paula Abdul-style choreography in campus corridors.

With the Spice Girls nowhere in sight, Spears (along with Brandy and Monica) has taken over as the girl powerhouse of pop. Youthful girls may want to date the dreamboats in 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, but when they lip-sync in front of the mirror, it's Spears' album they crank up.

The Spears explosion on the music scene was the result of a carefully lit fuse.

After Jive Records signed the alumna of the Mickey Mouse Club in October 1998, the label teamed her with Swedish producer Max Martin (Backstreet Boys, Ace of Base) and writer Eric Foster White (Whitney Houston, Hi-Five).

The resulting album, a mix of syncopated, sugary up-tempo numbers and a few ballads, has been slammed by critics for slickness and lack of emotion. The age of the target audience is clear from the cover art (Spears beaming coyly, looking even younger than she is) to such song titles as "Soda Pop" and "E-Mail My Heart."

The label and Spears' managers then sent the singer across the country to meet radio executives and, following the lead of 1980s teen wonder Tiffany, to play mini-concerts in suburban malls. Jive posted her music on the World Wide Web and offered it in snippets via a toll-free number. Spears was a known quantity to many fans by the time she toured as the opening act on last year's 'N Sync tour.

So when " . . . Baby One More Time" was finally released as a single in October, followed by the album in January, Spears became an "overnight" sensation. The careful strategy clearly helped Spears, her manager says, but the real success was landing in a market hungering for teen pop.

"People were tired of grunge and songs about people doing drugs or getting shot," says manager Johnny Wright, who also represents 'N Sync and until last year managed the Backstreet Boys. "There was a big void for uplifting, up-tempo, positive music."

The Spears persona packaging includes one other element: sex appeal. Though the singer says her image is "wholesome, a role model," her hit song and video have a lusty undercurrent, and there was no mistaking the titillation factor in the recent Spears cover story and accompanying photos in the April 15 issue of Rolling Stone, which sent eyebrows arching throughout the music industry, where several executives half-jokingly called it "child pornography." The bedroom poses, the dewy come-hither looks, the prose dedicated to Spears' "honeyed thigh"--by the end, the Norman Rockwell neighborhood kid suddenly seemed more like a Vargas girl.

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