Sure, the underaged, overheated former Mouseketeer captured the attention of the zeitgeist, as only a rouged, lipsticked and pigtailed teenager in a mini-skirted uniform could. But ever since, the robotic choreography and awkward lyricism of Spears and her peer group -- "N Sync, Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera -- has been inexorably moving teen pop further away from its more highly charged roots in R&B.
That's nothing new, of course: From Elvis to Eminem, white performers have done few things so well as to co-opt black music forms, then scrub them clean for mainstream audiences. But in the whitewashed vision of sexuality perfected by Spears and adopted by fellow ex-Mouseketeers, lurks a discomfort with sex not shared by others in their age bracket.
Which brings us to Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, touring together behind a pair of albums that boast the sexual finesse of a Porky's character fumbling with a bra strap.
Timberlake's debut solo CD, Justified, positions him as an aspiring loverman whose self-consciousness outweighs his self-assurance; despite the fact that the songs were guided by heavyweights Timbaland and Neptune, Justin lacks the vocal wallop to make their sexiness convincing. Stuck as he is, somewhere in the awkward narcissism of adolescence, even his pillow-talk foreplay -- "You're a good girl and that's what makes me trust you" -- sounds distressingly banal. Besides, much of Justified takes its musical influences from Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson, and we all know how sexually well-adjusted the King of Pop turned out to be.
But if Timberlake displays a naive swagger that could conceivably ripen into sexual maturity, Aguilera seems to have skipped the maturation process altogether. From the sultry innuendo of her breakthrough single "Genie in a Bottle" ("gotta rub me the right way"), Aguilera went straight to last October's release, Stripped, at which point she began to pose nude for Rolling Stone, appeared publicly in outlandishly skimpy get-ups and made salacious comments in the press (do we really need to know about her genital piercings?). It's hard to take seriously the resulting sexed-up tart, a cartoon image that's especially disappointing given Aguilera's formidable vocal talents.
Tellingly, along with Spears, both Timberlake and Aguilera can trace their show-business roots back to Disney's squeaky-clean Mickey Mouse Club, where they were inducted at puberty. During their employ by that corporate paragon of cultural homogeneity, they seem to have suffered a blow to their self-expression that has caused them to turn to sex in a desperate effort to individuate, while at the same time their music fails to express emotions that would affect anyone over the age of 16. It's all too apparent that years spent learning faux-funky dance moves and towing the line as teen-pop mannequins have left Timberlake and Aguilera less developed than other non-Mouseketeers their age. Avril Lavigne and Michelle Branch, even Timberlake's contemporaries in Hanson, have all gone on to define themselves through their music, without a heavy reliance on sex.
Not that anyone joins the Mickey Mouse Club in a quest for artistic definition. Like American Idol, it's a ticket to fast-track fame, and one that apparently leaves its members disastrously ill-prepared to deal with life in the adult world -- even as they pretend to have been around the block. While they may by now make more money than all of 106.5 The End's mewling nu-metal bands combined, it's becoming more and more clear: Instead of turning 12 and earning their Mouse ears, Justin and Christina might have made a more sound choice, all those years ago, to pick up a guitar and join a band.