By Mark Guarino
Britney Spears is not a great singer. And she’s hardly a dancer.
So how has the teen pop star managed, in just two years, to sell about 20 million albums and counting?
Spears has done it with the backing of Jive Records and a savvy management and legal team whose razor-sharp marketing strategies have built a profitable worldwide phenomenon out of the girl next door.
“Britney is a brand, not a personality,” said Robert Stone, an entertainment licensing expert whose clients have included Whitney Houston and the TV series “Baywatch,” though not Spears. “Behind the scenes, it’s well choreographed and nothing different than the WWF,” the World Wrestling Federation.
Teen stars are nothing new. But with each album, Spears proves to be much more formidable than the Ricky Nelsons and Debbie Gibsons who have preceded her.
At 19, though, Spears soon will outgrow the world of teen pop. What will come next for the former TV Mousketeer?
The marketing machine behind Spears has a plan for that, too, slowly but surely working to position her as an adult star – though it isn’t yet clear whether the public wants her sitting at the grownups’ table.
“Britney’s a phenomenon,” said Stone, CEO of Stone America Marketing, a firm that leverages endorsements and licensing arrangements for celebrities. “They’re marketing geniuses. They’ve been brilliant about it.”
Spears’ evolution spans three record albums, peaking with the just-released “Britney” and her world tour, which arrives Wednesday for a sold-out show at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
Spears was discovered by Jive Records, the independent label that engineered today’s teen pop boom. Originally based in South Africa and co-founded by two former members of a Motown cover band, Jive was designed with that Detroit R&B powerhouse label in mind.
Like Motown, which sculpted vocal groups like the Supremes and the Temptations from scratch with in-house stylists, songwriters and choreographers, Jive has carefully appropriated the attitude and fashion sense of today’s early teen market.
First, the label hired its own stable of songwriters and producers. Then it turned to Lou Pearlman, the Florida-based talent mogul who created both the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync. Pearlman was motivated by the success of New Kids On The Block in the late ’80s and worked to duplicate it 10 years later, but on a grander scale. Jive handed him the keys to do just that. Although Jive still is technically an independent label, it’s a powerhouse, with albums distributed by BMG, one of only four major labels in the world.
With so few labels controlling so much of the marketplace, acts like Spears are tailored more like products than like art in the traditional sense, creating a culture shock in the industry.
“A lot of (record executives) were really passionate about the music. That doesn’t really exist anymore,” said veteran rock producer Al Kooper (Bob Dylan, Lynryd Skynryd, George Harrison). “People just go, ‘She has a great body, we should sign her. We’ll worry about the other stuff later.’… It doesn’t produce great music.”
Making the woman
Spears’ three-album output has, step by step, aimed for a wider market share, from the preteen market two years ago to college-aged teens today.
The star progressed from cherubic photo spreads and songs about puppy love on her debut, “…Baby One More Time” to hot-bodied images on “Britney” and songs that flirt with sex – even though she says she’s still a virgin.
Hollywood image consultant Sam Christensen says Spears’ management is taking her basic, girl-next-door image and simply highlighting it ever so slightly as she – and her audience – age together. Working at both levels is key, he said, to keeping an audience for the long term and adapting to the inevitable changes it’s going through at the same time.
“She has retained that mythic thing of the idealized, perfect little girl and what she became was the perfect little sex vixen,” he said.
Of course, growing up in public also translates into more opportunities to sell products. With her debut, she appeared in “Got Milk?” ads. The last time Spears came to Chicago, she performed beneath a stage-size Tommy Hilfiger banner at the Rosemont Theatre and she and her entire troupe were dressed prominently in Hilfiger clothing. This year, she signed an exclusive deal with Pepsi and will pitch the drink in TV ads as well as from the stage.
The gradual climb up the product ladder is exactly on course with Spears’ own development as an adult, Stone said. “Each year she grows up, her endorsements deals and sponsorships and marketing goes up with that age,” he said. “In two years she might endorse American Express because she might be eligible for a credit card.”
Spears manager Johnny Wright and lawyer Larry Rudolph carefully ration her endorsements. “They haven’t (been) exploiting her to the point of Harry Potter,” Stone said. “They’ve been very protective of oversaturation from the merchandising side. If they play their cards right and aren’t too hungry and don’t oversaturate, the endorsements could last a long, long time.”
All this might please her accountants, but not the casual music fan – or the concerned parent.
Eric Brown, communications director for The Center for a New American Dream, a not-for-profit watchdog group outside Washington, D.C., that promotes consumer responsibility, says that masquerading commercialism as pop music is pure exploitation.
“Marketers are getting extremely savvy on how to hook kids,” he said. “Parents are really, really incredibly torn. They want their kids to love them, but it’s hard to buck this trend when advertisers are spending $2 billion to make their kids buy things. How can parents compete with that?”
Lisa Sellers, a parent with 7-year-old twin daughters living in Lake Zurich, said that it doesn’t matter to her if Spears “has a million products, as long as she’s promoting a good message,” but too often, the singer sabotages herself.
“Two years ago when she decided to take her clothes off on MTV, we decided we didn’t need to buy any more of her albums,” Sellers said. “Even though she’s growing up, she needs to remember her target audience is 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds. Since that happened, in our home we haven’t bought anything Britney Spears related.”
New kid no longer
The journey from a teen to adult star is a bumpy ride with few survivors. Just ask Joey McIntyre.
“A lot of people see me as an ex-New Kid, but I don’t take that personally,” said McIntyre, who, in the mid-’80s was in New Kids On The Block, the blockbuster vocal group comprised of five Boston teenagers.
McIntyre currently is acting on Broadway and has released two solo albums. He said the way managers overexpose teen stars is damaging when they become adults.
“I accept the responsibility for that. You sign one piece of paper and then your face is everywhere,” he said. “But it happened and you move on. But it hurt our credibility.”
Even compared to 10 years ago, he said, “it’s such a bottom-line business.” Although teen pop existed long before the ’80s, New Kids was the first group to successfully translate the mania to the concert arenas.
The person who took the most notes during that time was Wright, a fellow Bostonian who used to drive the New Kids tour bus and later moved to Orlando to work with Perlman, discovering the Backstreet Boys. Today, Wright manages ‘N Sync and co-manages Spears.
One day, the New Kids phenomenon was over. “There was no transition. We were done,” McIntyre said. “People saw this (new generation of teen pop stars) coming and they were like, ‘This is money, let’s get a boy band now.’ They know the marketing, they know how to make money with these things. There’s a whole new generation of record labels.”
Spears’ own reported idol is Madonna. Elements of Spears’ current tour mimic Madonna’s most memorable theatrical images, including her “Material Girl” video.
But the idea that Spears will become the next Madonna might be no more than a wish. Madonna dropped out of college and headed to New York, where she became heavily involved in the city’s underground dance scene. By the time her star rose, she was a full-fledged adult who proceeded to create cultural trends by tweaking mainstream society’s sensibilities using irony and wit.
Spears, on the other hand, was meticulously groomed for stardom before she was legal to drive. And her savviness comes from following trends, not necessarily creating them.
“There’s a total difference as far as marketing,” said Stone. “During (Madonna’s) heyday, she was already a grownup. What’s really happening with Britney is that she’s going from teen to tween and up to that third level where Madonna started at.”
The only thing she has in common with Madonna is helping to sexualize young fans who are at a presexualized age. Spears might endorse virginity, but in her attempts to show maturity – her suggestive snake handling in concert, writhing with a chair in a music video – her message is R-rated.
“As a mom, it bugs me that she wants it both ways,” said Carol Weston, an author of books for young girls including “Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You” (HarperPerennial). Weston said Spears is “inadvertently giving off a mixed message. A 12-year-old wearing a belly shirt and short skirt is saying ‘look at me, I’m sexy’, but she’s just living her life and dressing the way her role models dress.
“It’s a disservice to titillate 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds. They deserve to be children as long as possible.”
Spears, however, insists she’s not a role model, even though she’s “very flattered.” “I don’t wear those clothes to the supermarket or to a ballgame,” she said in a prepared statement. As for her fans, she said dressing like her is the same as when they “go into their mom’s closet and dress up in their mom’s clothes … it’s like their time to play at home.”
Will bubble gum pop?
There are slight indications that the teen pop boom has peaked for yet another decade. This year, ‘N Sync’s latest album, “Celebrity,” failed to meet expectations and opening sales for Spears’ new album were far below those of her last.
But music is only the first phase. Early next year she will star in her first feature film, the next step for the former teen star gearing up to last longer than most of her fans’ attention spans.
Her main rival, Christina Aguilera is in the same position, recently telling Time magazine, “I have to move away from (teen pop). Even if the label said I had to make another record like that, I don’t think I could. Getting older, you just don’t want to sing fluffy.”
Aguilera already is aligning herself with veteran divas like Aretha Franklin and Celine Dion in concert on VH-1 and made the very noncommercial adult move of releasing a Spanish language album. Spears, on the other hand, still tours with prepackaged boy bands like O-Town.
Her limbo, said image guru Christensen, is the inevitably cruel trap for pop royalty forced to never completely give up the crown by the very people who have shaped their entire career.
“Col. Parker never let you forget why you identified with Elvis when he was 17 until he died,” he said. “The Colonel knew (Elvis) was the bad boy you didn’t want your daughter to date and he kept that myth going until Elvis fell over.”