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Who's that girl?

AS I WATCHED the Britney Spears movie Crossroads, a curious thought struck me: what's everyone's favorite Billboard star going to do next? What other tricks does Britney have up her sleeve for after the Lolita-pop vixen well runs dry? Or, for that matter, what about those other female singers primarily banking on their barely legal chic? When pop's stranglehold on the charts eventually starts loosening up, the big question will certainly nag some of them: is there a career left after the shopping mall closes down for the night?

I know "pop" is not a dirty word, because Britney's ex-boyfriend's band told me so ("It's all about respect" ... and here I was thinking it was all about product marketing and making a quick buck off the bloom of youth! Damn you, inner cynic!). But Britney, the most promising and ubiquitous of those who coo teen spirit, is now in her 20s and is already trying to establish herself as a brand name past the jailbait sale date. Listen to her eponymous new album's first single, the Neptunes-produced, future-funked-up "I'm a Slave 4 U," which tries to court Prince's demographic (and spelling sense). How many prepubescent girls are dancing around in their rooms to that? Unless they're related to Vanity or Apollonia, probably not a lot.

Alas, there's still a movie and a few more Max Martin-sanctioned tunes to sell: Cue "Not a Girl (Not Yet a Woman)," torn straight from her pretty pink diary. The video for this last gasp of teenybopper balladry might be telling us more than Britney thinks. Syrupy enough for the core fan base, sultry enough for her older male admirers, it intersperses film clips of Her Britness traipsing bare-midriffed around rocky enclaves, singing about being stuck in that transitional mode between youth and feminine maturity. I'm no Freudian analyst, but having the perpetually blossoming teen idol perched on jutting, phallic cliffs at the edge of a canyon has a subtextual message. Those evident curves and come-hither stare she's been parading around are symbolism enough, thanks, but even in hip-huggers, why does she still seem like a kid dressing up in her mother's sexy clothes?

She wants to grow into her "womanly" dance music era à la Madonna, but Britney may be stuck on a playing field she helped to construct. Sex, spectacle, and youth have always sold well, but thanks to her, they're now serious prepackaged prerequisites for female pop. Just ask Pink. When she came onto the scene two years ago, the young Philly native just seemed like another flash in the pan, rocking an all-too-familiar mall-friendly sound, choreographed videos, and a catchy gimmick (her name is Pink and her hair is ... pink!) to go with her sex appeal. Then she began playing up her "street" toughness, dyed her hair blond, and recorded a duet with Aerosmith. She's still "pop," technically, but at least she's trying to distance herself from that ghetto of confining girliness.

But even she still feels the heat. "Tired of being compared / To damned Britney Spears," she sings on her latest tune, "Don't Let Me Get Me." In case we weren't getting the gist, the video syncs up a stereotypical record producer pointing to the secret of success on a chalkboard: cartoon bimbo with a large chest = $$$, and pop = star. The next line is even more telling, however: "She's so pretty / That just ain't me." Dramatizing the song's self-loathing lyrics as a high school outcast, Pink rages against her own mocking reflection, begging to be somebody, anybody, else. When she's transformed into a musical pinup minus an identity, however, she feels even worse.

Pink's plea for salvation from self-destruction runs closer to angsty nü metal than the shiny, happy people she's supposed to be keeping company on the charts. When she takes the stage to make it her own way at the video's end, her inferiority-complex cry actually turns into a reaffirmation of keepin' it real(ish); you'd never hear half those girls out there singing about how they're their own worst enemy. She may sound upbeat and bubbly, but it's not because she's the industry's growth-stunted puppet. The rebellious streak might be just another gimmick, but she's headed in the right direction. And you at least get the feeling that if you were to ask her and Britney to look in the mirror and answer the question "Who's that girl (not yet a woman)?," one of them would know the answer.