Britney's New Spin

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Britney--she's not just for kids anymore.

The eye- and ear-popping new tour starring "the reigning queen of teen pop," as Spears has been introduced of late, is unequivocally a show that a lot of discriminating pop fans over 20 might latch on to--if they can get past any biases toward someone as unrelentingly perky as this 19-year-old pop phenom and sex kitten.

The big question is whether, in consciously reaching out to an older demographic, Spears will sacrifice the fans who gave her the keys to the kingdom in the first place?

Some parents have been reluctant to take their preteens to see what's been touted as a darker, more mature production, although plenty were still on hand Tuesday when the former Mouseketeer played to a near-capacity house at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, a night before her tour reached Staples Center in L.A.

But despite some mildly exotic numbers featuring mysterious characters that might have been plucked from a Cirque du Soleil troupe, it's only sporadically more sexually charged than her previous tours. Think of it as the difference between PG and PG-13.It is, however, more thoughtfully conceived in its overarching attempt to explore the process of growing up, through the eyes of one adolescent who has the whole world watching her.

The 80-minute extravaganza, featuring an all-stops-out set that covered three-quarters of the arena's floor, opened with "Oops! ... I Did It Again." It wasn't simply a way to launch the evening with a hit, but a conscious effort to set the tone via the lyric in which Spears boasts, "I'm not that innocent."

She fleshed out that theme--literally and figuratively--with many of the songs drawn from her just-released third album, "Britney." The sentiments aren't always artfully expressed or exceptionally deep, but Spears put them across as honest expressions from a young woman going through a transition that's both confusing and liberating.

The performance is framed as "a dream within a dream." That conceit is a rather slight excuse to help justify the parade of costume and set changes, the constant being the most flattering displays imaginable of the world's most famous navel.

Most shows by teen-pop performers develop into nothing more than random acts of hyperkinetic choreography, but Spears' work ethic and genuine charisma infuse much of her lightweight material with a sincerity her peers can't touch.

The only time that sincerity is undermined is when Spears professes not to understand the sexual fantasies exploited in her songs, videos and concert production numbers. If Bob Dole is in on the gag, certainly Spears must know more than she's letting on. Since she's constantly asking not to be treated like a little girl, maybe it's time she stops acting like one.

Her show is generally more impressive than the new album. The one exception was the loss of some canny album production work on songs such as "I'm a Slave 4 U" amid the decibel-happy, bottom-heavy sound mix.

In any case, it's a demonstrable step forward for Spears, even if we're not talking Springsteenian integrity or a Peter Gabriel-level rock-as-theater experience. The more fitting yardstick would be a big-bucks Broadway musical built on razzle-dazzle lighting and choreography, hummable pop tunes and a genuinely endearing main character at the center.

Opening acts such as O-Town, on the other hand, make pop music's original made-for-TV band, the Monkees, look better with every passing year.

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