American youth culture doesn't get much safer than Britney Spears.
The former "Mickey Mouse Club" diva has sold about 20 million copies of "...Baby One More Time" and "Oops ... I Did It Again," mostly to pre-teen girls. The music is upbeat and the lyrics are flirty. The music videos are rather slinky and, come to think of it, Spears is being marketed as a PG-13 fantasy doll.
Surely nobody out there in Culture Wars territory is worried about Britney Spears? After all, she's a born-again Bible Belt Baptist and she sang "Jesus Loves Me" at the audition that landed her a recording contract. But she also seems to be a normal, All-American girl who grew up loving Madonna, "Dirty Dancing," MTV, "Dawson's Creek," Cosmopolitan, Jackie Collins novels and Abercrombie & Fitch.
Who is Britney Spears? All of the above.
She is a "confusing postmodern mix of spirituality and teasing schoolgirl sexuality" and that's one big reason why she is important, according to the Center for Parent-Youth Understanding in Elizabethtown, Pa. Most of all, stresses a research paper on the group's Web site (www.cpyu.org), her music urges children to follow their feelings.
"Spears pulls no punches when it comes to talking about her Baptist faith. She speaks of praying nightly and her love for God," argues this report. "But in true postmodern fashion, her verbalized commitment doesn't mesh with the sexual messages of her visual image. Granted, none of (her music's) lyrical content is overtly sexual -- one reason Spears is a darling of so many parents. But Spears' does put forth a subtle and seductive image of female adolescent sexuality."
However, some critics believe the writers and producers who shape Spears' songs have slipped in a few naughty images. Her early song "Soda Pop" sounds innocent. But the singer tells a boy, "We might start riding to the music tonight... A wicked time to the end. ... We'll flex tonight until they break down the door ... And we'll go on and on until the break of dawn."
Spears told Rolling Stone that she did ask Swedish pop maestro Max Martin to edit "Born to Make You Happy," because it "was a sexual song. ... Because of the image thing, I don't want to go over the top." And in a British interview, she told her critics: "If I have on a short skirt, it doesn't mean that I have low morals. I have very high morals. I don't believe in sex before marriage. I don't believe in drugs or even smoking. I believe in God."
Meanwhile, rumors keep circulating. There are reports about who she is dating, what Christian college she may attend, what movie she will make, where she goes to church and what surgical steps she has or has not taken to improve her figure. All of this is vitally important for untold millions of consumers -- literally around the world -- between the ages of 8 and 14. How long will Spears be this hot? Does it matter?
"Britney's no monster, that's for sure. ... But bare midriffs and almost-sensual lyrics can leave the young confused," said Richard Ross, who teaches youth ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He is best known as a strategist behind the True Love Waits movement, which urges young people to save sex until marriage.
The key, said Ross, is that parents must strive to stay informed about what is happening in youth culture, especially when it comes to knowing about the worldviews of the superstars who serve as today's mass-media role models.
The fact that Britney is a Baptist is interesting. But that seems to have little to do with her music. Meet the new Barbie, same as the old Barbie.
"Parents shouldn't trust a used car salesman ... just because he says he's religious and he sits in a pew near them at church. Right? I think the same thing is true with the media," said Ross. "Parents may be pleased when artists who are idolized by their children seem to hold values that are higher than the cesspool of today's culture. But that doesn't mean they should let those artists shape their children's values and lives."