Two hours before the concert starts, a woman with three young girls in tow storms into a Tinley Park gas station near the New World Music Theatre and rolls her eyes. “You can tell where we’re going,” she says to no one in particular. “I’m already nauseous.” The girls are wearing identical sun-bleached Britney Spears T-shirts, and their faces are painted with sparkly butterflies. They weave through the other whiny children and exasperated moms waiting in line for the bathrooms. “Just watch,” the woman mumbles on her way out, “in five months they’ll hate her, just like the Spice Girls and ‘N Sync. I wanted to see the Dixie Chicks.”

Britney’s got the crowd worked up before she’s even set foot on the massive stage. A large splatter of vomit colors the sprawling black asphalt at the main entrance, and ambulances are poised to whisk away those who faint. One ten-year-old graphically complains to anyone who’ll listen that she had to drip dry because there’s no toilet paper left in the port-o-potties. While waiting for their parents to finish one last cigarette, anxious little girls climb the chain-link fence separating them from the action. Glazed teenage eyes and practiced smiles meet the camera for an I-Zone Polaroid ad campaign. The pictures are arrayed on placards proclaiming devotion to Britney. A middle-aged scalper in cutoff shorts and a stained button-down shirt gleefully sells tickets to a mother and daughter. A security guard saunters over like a cocky mall cop: “Hey, you can’t sell those tickets.”

The scalper grins crookedly and says, “Your supervisor told me you’re an asshole. Don’t tell me what to do. I make $100,000 a year.”

“Oh yeah,” the security guard scoffs, “you really look like you make that much. Now get outta here.”

Resigned parents plunge into the sea of pink-clad brats inside the theater. Wiggly, feral children run loose like greased pigs, ramming into shins. Oversexualized preteens and desperate twentysomethings aimlessly wander from corporate-sponsor booth to hemp jewelry tent. If they’re not clutching a Britney poster or balancing a tray of cheese nachos on top of a sausage pizza, they’re carrying single roses and frosted mirrors airbrushed with photos of their beloved teen vamp. For every hundred girls ages 6 to 13, there are three high school boys in windbreaker pants and visors, two prissy guys with carefully sculpted facial hair and a gold hoop in each ear, and one geeked-out man in a Britney T-shirt with a heart painted on his face.

A five-second Schooly-D sample on an endless loop hisses through the amphitheater. Shrieking frantically, kids and parents scramble to their seats. No Authority, yet another boy band marketed to soak the panties of 12-year-old girls, harmonizes cheap lyrics over piercing treble and rectum-rumbling bass. It’s loud, but not much else. “I’ll give you girl / what your daddy can’t afford,” they sing, taunting the poor girls who tried their best to emulate rich bitches. Middle-income parents are clearly irritated. The appropriately named group limps through its four-song set, its languid, impotent dance moves lit by unflattering fluorescent green spotlights.

By now it’s painfully clear the crowd that once seethed in unison outside the gate has divided along class lines. All the Coppertoned teenagers with cell phones, glittered shoulders, tube tops, and shiny polyester pants stand on the lawn, their platform shoes ruined by the mud and wet grass–the price of a seat is too much for their meager mall-job income. Sitting obediently in assigned seats are the preteens and toddlers, and their parents. Wealthy moms sit in the front rows with perfectly groomed daughters in matching shirts and pigtails. The little kids dance as provocatively as the teens on the lawn. When No Authority sings “Hit me with your seven digits, baby!” tiny girls shout out their phone numbers, and their parents don’t bat an eye.

Who is this band trying to seduce? Almost everyone remotely cute is underage. The closest they’ve come to sex is an accidental encounter with their mothers’ black lace bras in the laundry.

The members of No Authority introduce themselves as they strut before the audience. Two of the four boys play out sexual stereotypes: there’s the S-M one in bondage pants who crawls on the floor like a slave, and the Chippendales stand-in with a spastically gyrating pelvis and surprisingly hairless armpits, his ripped shirt revealing a bulging chest. One teenage girl has “I Love Danny” scrawled in magic marker on every bare inch of skin. She screams and hyperventilates when he’s in the spotlight. A jealous girl with snow cone blue lips and teeth turns around to snarl at the marked-up fan while another glances at her mother and pretends to throw up.

No Authority blows kisses through peace signs and casually jogs off the stage. Double-chinned baby faces with vanilla-frosted eyelids and lavender lip gloss assume bored expressions while the stage is prepared for the next band. Ten minutes later Innosense comes on. Five girls in dazzling, tissue-thin halter tops and tight, rhinestone-encrusted acid-washed jeans wildly swing air lassos or prance around like deranged ponies. “This song goes out to y’all out there who like to surf the Web!” one chirps, and a solitary mom claps her hands a foot above her head.

There’s nothing innocent about this band. They sing about champagne bubble baths and beg the boys to show them how to ride. “Baby, take me down,” they demand while performing cheerleader moves at warp speed. A precocious five-year-old girl wearing peacock blue eye shadow shakes her hips and haughtily points her finger. A father muses, “They could be the next Spice Girls,” then launches into a story of feeling ripped-off by ticket brokers for the Spice Girls’ concert. “That is,” he continues, “until I saw the look on my daughter’s face. Her happiness was worth way more than I paid for those tickets.”

He’s right. The excited looks are priceless on the thousands of cupcake faces with Kool-Aid mustaches. Girls absentmindedly play with their flimsy feather boas, and binoculars swiftly move from the stage to the rest of the audience. They’re the real show, not the karaoke freak-outs onstage. This is the first concert for many of these kids. Giggling to each other, a few shyly ask me how old I am. We talk about school (they like math best) and what they want to be when they grow up (singers and hairdressers top the list). They say they liked Britney’s hair when it was longer and one day, when they have kids, they want to name their daughters after her. One girl cups my face in her tiny hands and says that I look like Britney (I don’t).

Though she holds huge sway over most of the female population under 12, it’s still way too easy to slash Britney’s swelling sails. Her not-so-fancy footwork alone makes her an easy target. She can’t sing on cue and doesn’t write most of her songs. Her makeup consistently clashes with her outfits. She’s neither a hardcore diva nor a soft-core porn kitten. Her needs appear to be simple. “I don’t know if I’d really want to be a princess,” says the young lady with a tanning bed in her tour bus. “If you have everything, what do you have to strive for?”

Britney doesn’t threaten anyone, and she doesn’t make her fans feel inferior–that’s exactly what makes her bubblegum culture’s “It” girl. Like Britney, her fans have had to cut their long hair to shoulder-length layers due to overfried highlights. Like Britney, most people shouldn’t wear couture. For those bullied by Mariah’s power octaves, Jessica Simpson’s eager purity, Madonna’s seasonal image overhaul, Courtney’s tough glamour, Christina’s city skank, Jewel’s princess-fantasy poetry, and Mandy Moore’s MTV ubiquity, Britney’s averageness is refreshing. There’s nothing particularly spectacular about her, aside from her stardom. Her latest record, Oops…I Did It Again, may have outsold the debut week of any other record by a solo artist in history, but hardly anyone bought it solely for the music. Britney makes everyone feel good about being mediocre. It’s like hearing that the grizzled hermit or dowdy bank teller won the lottery. Her fame reassures us that one can, in fact, turn banality into gold.

One lanky 19-year-old guy explains that he’s obsessed with Britney because she’s “fun and cool.” Several teenagers say “she’s pretty” and “I like her clothes.” The Society for Future Husbands of Britney Spears–a Web site on which guys (and a few girls) list their “qualifications” for being a potential mate–says she’s “the ideal life companion. I mean she’s got it all.” It cites a variety of reasons: “has hit videos on MTV, talks with a really cute Southern accent, and…she’s deathly hot!”

These days Britney’s less Mouseketeer than Epcot Center, embracing the cyber-babe within. She does have an engaging stage show. Her tour manager explained to the photographers that “Britney will come onstage from the sky in a metal ball with projections behind her, kind of like a Pink Floyd show. Just an FYI.” The giant metal ball floats around the stage like that thing in Phantasm, Britney hatches from the silver shell, and light explosions flare. Everyone screams. A few little kids start crying. From the 25th row the choreography is excruciatingly clunky, as is Britney’s self-consciousness. When she lip-synchs the wrong words, she does an improvised twirl or little scream to make up for the mistake. She’s unsure of her footing. Her right breast temporarily pops out of her miniature halter top, and she makes no attempt to hide the quick adjustment to cover herself. Waves of relief wash over the audience. Britney’s normal.

She’s not hiding anything, not trying to fool anyone. She’s half naked onstage, twirling around a pole stripper style, singing about how innocent she isn’t. A commercial plays on the huge screens, but most of the audience think it’s a new song. “I got the urge / the urge to herbal,” she teases, pushing shampoo. Kids don’t know that sex sells; they just know when something’s attractive and appealing. And when they try to emulate that image without being aware that it’s just a marketing ploy, they grow up faster but with less knowledge of how and why than if they were simply enlightened by their parents.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos by Suzy Poling (Britney on stage, back of a fan, Britney poster covered in handwritten notes..