Can Britney Spears have her cheesecake and eat it, too?
On Britney, her new album released yesterday, she takes a different, more mature tack from her first two blockbusters, which have sold a combined total of more than 20 million copies, largely to pop music's youngest fans. On it, she writes some of her first songs, documenting her transition from teen star to grown-up entertainer.
"Actually, this album is the first album that I've ever really written on," Spears told reporters in a teleconference. "It's just that much more special because you put your heart all over it, and it's like your baby.
"I just think that this album is really a reflection of me, and I just thought the simplicity of Britney just fit," she says, chomping potato chips and expanding on her album during a break in rehearsals for her tour, which began last week and arrives Dec. 21 at the MCI Center.
Her tour will be featured on HBO's Live from Las Vegas Nov. 18. And early next year, Spears makes her movie debut in Crossroads, in which she stars as a geeky overachiever who - surprise - isn't all she seems.
Spears, whose 1999 debut ... Baby One More Time was the biggest-selling album by a teen-age girl, turns 20 next month.
"I'm on the verge of being a woman, but it's kind of hard, though, because since I have grown up in the spotlight, people place these things on you to be a certain way," she says.
"And it's up to you to stand up and say, 'OK, I need my own identity. I need to grow and be an adult and do things on my own.'"
If it sounds a little bit like Janet Jackson's treatise in her breakthrough Control, so be it.
Spears, for her part, claims to have been "majorly inspired by Janet and everything that she does." But mostly, "I really just went by what I was feeling at the time and what I was going through. And through that, that's how we came up with all the songs."
With titles including "Overprotected," "Lonely" and "Let Me Be," some of the songs on Britney aren't quite as autobiographical as they seem.
"What It's Like To Be Me," for example, was not written by her but by her boyfriend, Justin Timberlake of 'N Sync, with Wayne Robson, the director of her tour.
"It's talking about a girl in a relationship, and the boy doesn't understand what she's going through," Spears says. "And before she's going to open up to him, he has to realize what she's about."
The mature theme might confuse her youngest fans, but growth is necessary for Spears, who was criticized as essentially repeating the sound of her 13-million-selling ... Baby One More Time on her 8 million-selling sequel last year, Oops! ... I Did It Again.
"I couldn't do, like, ... Baby One More Time, No. 3," she says. "For me as a person, I just had to change it up a little bit and just pray that people will think that's cool."
And if it means earning an older audience as a result, so much the better. Still, as a pop star with a huge young audience, she is getting some heat about Britney's content.
Add in a stage show that's been described as more strip club than Mickey Mouse Club, and Spears will have her hands full defending herself as a role model for the young.
"It's kind of like being an actress when you go on stage," says the chirpy Spears, who, when not in the spotlight, bears little resemblance to the breathless hottie in her videos.
"I have one song, 'Lonely,' that's like a rocker song," she says. "You know, I really can't relate to that song, but that's the funnest part of what I do. That's like being an actress. It's part of being a performer."
The more grown-up Spears has become a media phenomenon by signing lucrative deals with Pepsi, HBO, McDonald's and a variety of beauty products. Her growing power now has her role models - Madonna, Michael Jackson, Cher - pursuing her.
During the first promotional stops for Music, Madonna was frequently seen wearing a T-shirt with Spears' name on it. The two finally met this summer, when the older star's tour opened in Philadelphia. Spears told Vogue she was so excited about meeting her idol that she acted like "a goob."
If Spears ever becomes a full-fledged media mogul like Madonna, one of her first projects may involve her sister. At 11, Jamie Lynn already has dreams of following in her big sister's wake. "She has a better voice than I do," Spears reports.
She plans to bring Jamie Lynn along for a three-week chunk of her tour this fall. Not so much to show her the ropes of being a teen diva but to reconnect with her family. Making a record, filming a movie and preparing for a world tour haven't left her much time to get back to tiny Kentwood, La., her hometown.
Another reason Spears hasn't been around is her relationship with Timberlake, himself a teen pop star and former Mouseketeer. Although they long denied it, the two have been together for several years. Last December, they bought a Los Angeles mansion together for a reported $3 million.
Spears won't talk much about her life with Timberlake, except to say that she's "devastated" because she has to go on tour without him. While she's previously talked about saving sex for marriage, she's now mum on the topic.
With "I'm a Slave 4 U," you don't need to see the video to know that Spears had some impure thoughts in mind. And that's just fine with her.
"Honestly, when I heard the song, I thought it was one of the most sensual songs that I'd heard," she says. "I've never done anything like that before. The song is really in your face, and the beat is very different, very hip-hop and R&B-driven.;"
Even if Spears doesn't fully understand the sexual image she projects, she troupes on anyway, playing the heck out of her role as pop's premier sweetheart-vamp.
Roger Catlin is music critic for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service also contributed to this article.