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 become 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 have fun."
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 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, 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 six. When Sesame Workshop polled girls aged six 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.