In our index of leading cultural indicators, one measure of the
state of the youth culture is to check out the awards shows on MTV. This
year's "Video Music Awards" hinted at a trend that's becoming more obvious.
Yesterday's singing queens of the teen scene have become today's avatars of
hooker chic. Gossip columnist Liz Smith spoke for many when she
characterized the outfits of pop stars Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera
as "hooker get-ups."
For her part, Aguilera told Rolling Stone that the critique was
unfair, since she was only playing a hooker on TV: "If I was in a back alley
at midnight and wearing a get-up like that, I could see, yes, that's a
little bit hookerish. But I'm at a damn awards show! I'm an entertainer! I'm
playing a part ... That's the only time I dress up like that."
But it's not just a one-night act. It's become a career. The
marketing campaign is all about selling what they call "XXXTina." The
campaign's motto comes from the diva herself: "To be honest, I'd really like
to go too far."
Aguilera is trying to tear apart every shred of whatever
half-innocent teen-girl vibe she gave off when she broke out three years ago
at the age of 19. Now you can see her naked with just a guitar on the cover
of Rolling Stone. (The article went 28 paragraphs deep before they talked
about her music instead of her raucous behavior.) The writers at Maxim
Blender magazine approvingly noted that in their cover photo she's "dressed
like a hooker from the Sci-Fi Channel."
Aguilera's new album, "Stripped," (featuring her topless on the
cover behind cascading hair) matches the magazine covers in touting the joy
of sleaze. Her first single and video, "Dirrty," demonstrates her new
"deliberately unpretty sexuality," with plenty of get-it-on lyrics and
crotch-wriggling dance moves. Another album track is "Get Mine, Get Yours,"
which the so-called artist describes as about "casual sex ... just what the
title is: I'm in it to get mine, and you get yours. We can do this and just
Clearly, it's nothing new for musical acts popular with teen
girls to perform sexually charged lyrics. But the biggest stars have been
well into their twenties before they took a commercial swing for the
libertine scene. Madonna was 26 when she first broke out in 1984, and she
didn't get racy until "Like a Virgin" a year later. Janet Jackson broke out
at 20 with songs like "Let's Wait Awhile." She grew a little edgier at 23
("Someday is Tonight"), and then adopted the Madonna model at 27, with a man
holding her bare breasts in the album art.
The latest crop of teen divas are trying to keep their careers
going as they age out of the teen years along with their audience. So
they're all going "adult," in the most lurid sense of the word. Britney
Spears, who just turned legal at the bars, quickly went from wearing a
school-girl uniform just a couple of years ago to wearing nearly nothing,
singing hits like "I'm A Slave 4 U." Even LeAnn Rimes, who broke into the
country-music scene at 14, has tried to break into the pop-music scene with
a new video featuring her walking around in sleazy wear.
What's left out of their desperate marketing equations is how
these younger pop stars have been looked up to by girls as young as 6. When
Sesame Workshop polled girls aged 6 to 11 about what famous person they
would like to be, "girls were most likely to choose a teen pop culture icon,
usually Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera." There's one reason to be
happy that not every childhood dream comes true.
All of this music-video prancing downplays what great singers
have usually been admired for: their talent. Music critics have long snubbed
Britney Spears as A-plus looks, C-minus singing. You could understand why
she would try to bury her music in flashy fashions. But it's sad that
singers with true pop-singer pipes like Aguilera and Rimes feel the need to
turn up the sleaze factor to pump up their sales numbers.
They might want to take a look now as Whitney Houston returns
with her latest album. She's had her share of personal problems, but I'll
bet she won't be touting her sins in a hot new video. She's never stooped to
moans and groans when her singing is plenty enough. Now, if only
record-store tallies could convince the others that "hooker chic" is not
good for business.