- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

In February, a Newsweek article chastised girl-gone-wild Britney Spears and fellow members of what it called the “Brit Pack” for possibly engendering “a generation of ‘prosti-tots’,” or youngsters who favor skimpy clothes and shopping over schoolwork.

So what, you may respond. This is far from the most scathing indictment of the recent rehab grad out there, and she’s been getting flak for this same issue since 1999, when she posited the schoolgirl as sex symbol in her “… Baby One More Time” video.

What’s particularly striking about the piece, though, is what’s absent from its seven pages: a single mention of Miss Spears’ former nemesis, “Dirrty”-girl Christina Aguilera. In fact, the authors argue that Madonna passed her bad-girl torch to Miss Spears through a much-talked-about kiss at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards — forgetting that the exchange was, figuratively speaking, more of a three-way between Madge and both bottled-blonde teen poppers.

Somehow, one star’s careful orchestrations and the other’s reckless decisions have altered our current perceptions of them so greatly that it’s changed the way we remember them, too.

Let us recall that when the two young singers exploded onto the scene in the late ‘90s, they seemed to have been cut from the same cleavage-and-thong-revealing cloth. At first, neither one seemed to transcend the saccharine teen-pop genre, and both relied heavily on their, um, “assets” to sell their brands; Miss Spears may have been a “slave,” but her counterpart wanted someone to “rub her the right way.”

Those who weren’t put off altogether by the singers’ sexualized images and generally fluffy tunes were polarized into opposing camps, with everyone from school lunchrooms to the cola companies taking sides. The battle of the bimbo-ish blondes was so powerful that it spawned a musical backlash from musicians touted as the “Anti-Britneys”: women like Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton, who fought against bare midriffs with honest musicianship.

For at least a few years, Miss Spears and Miss Aguilera were running a two-horse race to become the next queen of pop. Then, at some point, the scales started to tip inexorably in favor of the latter — culminating for a mass audience, perhaps, with Miss Aguilera’s stunning tribute to James Brown at this year’s Grammy awards. Now, the previous rivalry is almost impossible to fathom.

The winner of the 2000 Best New Artist Grammy, Miss Aguilera slowly but surely proved herself to be the superior talent while simultaneously toning down her lasciviousness, upping her glamour quotient, and finding a respectable hubby in Jordan Bratman.

These days, she can get away with wearing lace chaps in concert because man, can she sing — and also because she’s successful, career-minded, driven and outspoken. What’s a little skin when these other attributes so clearly draw a positive role model?

Meanwhile, her counterpart has come to epitomize the worst fears of moms who’ve decried the scandalous stars from the outset; without a thriving artistic vision and steady (or very good) work output, she’s become a caricature of the hyper-sexualized image she created, with few positive contributions to offset her pantyless partying and SUV slaying.

While Miss Spears will never possess her former competitor’s powerful pipes, she does have the potential to rebound from her great fall — if Mariah Carey did it, she can, too. If she aspires to someday move beyond tragic tabloid topic and join the ranks of functioning humans and working musicians, she might do well to take a lesson or ten from Miss Aguilera.

First off, Miss Spears must have a heart-to-heart with herself and develop some short- and long-term career goals. If she wants her music to eclipse her damaged image, she should — like Miss Aguilera — figure out who she is as an artist, where she wants to end up and realize that it’s going to take constant re-evaluation to stay on track.

Miss Spears seems to have a whole lot of cooks in her career kitchen, so this brainstorming session may require directing Mama Lynne and other oxygen-stealers out the door.

Once she’s charted a course for the future, Miss Spears should take a few deep breaths and — again like Miss Aguilera — take her time with her records.

“I never wanted to rush through something,” Miss Aguilera said in a recent teleconference. Though she’s only put out three English-language, non-Christmas studio releases, each one has been as close a representation of her artistic vision as possible. Her label and handlers have, in turn, rewarded each new popular success with greater autonomy.

It also helps to do some homework; by listening to the artists that “paved the way” for her, Miss Aguilera has been able to pinpoint the sound she’s after. Prior to working on her latest album, “Back to Basics,” she even put together a two-disc mix of “all the old music, classic songs that I absolutely love, from Otis Redding to James Brown to Billie Holliday” so that her producers could be on the same page.

Which leads to the next point: Pick your collaborators wisely, Miss Spears. We hear that super-producer Timbaland (born Tim Mosley) is in your camp and offering his services. Take him up on it.

Miss Aguilera has racked up numerous Grammy nods and wins with the help of her friends in the studio, in the booth and on stage — from Linda Perry (who wrote the stunning ballad “Beautiful” and contributed to “Basics”) to Herbie Hancock (whose “Possibilities” record she appears on). She’s even got Elton John and Diddy on that list, and counts Etta James (whom she once met) as a fan. These names are perhaps a bit too A-list for Miss Spears, but it doesn’t hurt to shoot for the moon, right?

In addition to carefully choosing her musical partnerships, Miss Spears must learn to choose her friends and lovers more wisely, and must concurrently rid herself of the tendency to set herself and acquaintances up for public scrutiny.

Activities to be avoided in all circumstances include: acting, starring in a reality TV show (“Britney & Kevin: Chaotic” was the beginning of the end, honey), forgetting undergarments, holding hands and donning matching outfits in public with Paris Hilton, cheating on a guy that most of the world’s female population would die for, and partaking in a wedding ceremony that in any way involves the word “pimp.” Seriously.

If the once pop-princess accomplishes all these feats, she can finally stop looking inward and start looking at the world and what she can do to make it better. Miss Aguilera has penned and performed songs about domestic abuse and the definition of beauty, teamed up with several organizations working to combat AIDS, and sponsors a shelter for battered women and children.

What have you done for mankind lately, Miss Spears?

If all else fails and the road back to pop star is too rocky, we hear that Miss Aguilera’s been hiring a lot of backup singers and dancers for her “Basics” tour; since you can’t beat her, Britney, perhaps you should join her.

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