britney spears -- 2/23/16

Today's selection -- from The Song Machine by John Seabrook. Britney Spears was discovered in the search to assemble an all-girl singing group to compete with the Spice Girls:

"[The] Spice Girls were huge, and just as Lou [Pearlman]'s boy bands [the Backstreet Boys and NSync] had proven even more popular than the comparable British offerings, so Lou thought he could do Simon Fuller one better on the distaff side too. In 1997, working with Lynn Harless -- ­Justin Timberlake's mother -- Lou began auditioning girls for his group, which was to be called Innosense. Harless suggested another former cast member of the Mickey Mouse Club. Not only could she dance and sing, Harless said, she could also act, and she had been schooled in the same clean-cut and wholesome Disney values that had shaped Justin. Her name was Britney Spears.

"Born in December in 1981, in Mississippi, Britney Spears grew up in Kentwood, a small town in southern Louisiana. She was fifteen when Pearlman auditioned her. She had been in show business for half her life at that point. Her mother, Lynne, was a day-care supervisor and her father, Jaime, was a boilermaker and construction worker whose prob­lems with alcohol plagued the family. Britney found order and control, both absent in her home life, by performing at local talent shows, where she first made a name for herself with the power of her voice. When she was eight, Britney auditioned for and was awarded a spot on the Mickey Mouse Club, in recognition of which her hometown would later declare a 'Britney Spears Day.'

"But the Disney producers eventually decided Britney was too young to be a Mouseketeer, and so, on the advice of a Disney talent scout she went to New York, where she was taken on by an agent, Nancy Carson of the Carson-Adler talent agency, who specialized in child perform­ers. Lynne and her daughter lived in a small apartment in the theater district, and Britney attended the Professional Performing Arts School. She was cast as the understudy to the star, Laura Bell Bundy, in the off-Broadway musical Ruthless! In 1992, before the musical premiered, she got to the finals of Star Search, the Ed McMahon-hosted television talent show. But she finished second, which crushed her, and after four months of long nights backstage at the theater, she and Lynne called it quits and went back to Kentwood. Britney was replaced by another unknown child actor named Natalie Portman.

Britney Spears on Star Search

"The following year she auditioned for the Mickey Mouse Club again, and this time secured a spot among the seven new mice on the show; her cohort included Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, and Christina Aguilera. She and Lynne moved to Orlando in the summer of 1993, and Brit­ney's show-biz career began in earnest. In addition to acting, singing, and dancing, she learned to smile for the paparazzi, sign autographs, and how to conduct herself in interviews and 'meet-and-greets,' Brit­ney was a model student of these show-business mores, and a dutiful if unimaginative pupil in the school Disney created for Mouseketeers (where controversial subjects, such as evolution, were avoided). As the principal of the 'Mickey Mouse School,' Chuck Yerger, later recalled in Britney: Inside the Dream by Steve Dennis, 'In all that she did, Britney gave the distinct impression that if an adult says do something, you do it. She truly felt that all adults and people in authority were good people, who had her best interests at heart.'

"After the show was canceled, Britney went back to Kentwood, where she tried to reenter normal American teen life: proms and homecomings (she was voted 'Junior High Most Beautiful'), shopping and movie dates. But she did not give up on her show-biz dreams. In 1996, she contacted a New York-based entertainment lawyer named Larry Rudolph, who represented the Backstreet Boys and Toni Braxton, and, it so happened, Lou Pearlman. Upon meeting her, Rudolph sensed 'a certain inexplica­ble quality' about the thirteen-year-old, and agreed to represent her. She auditioned for Innosense; Pearlman liked her and had a contract ready for her to sign. But Britney backed out of the contract at the last minute, deciding she would rather try for a solo career.

"Not long after that, Rudolph sent Spears a tape of a song written for his client Toni Braxton, which Braxton had recorded but ultimately rejected for sounding too young. Rudolph advised Spears to sing it just the way Braxton sang it, and to make her own demo and mail it back to him. Upon receiving the demo, Rudolph sent it around to various labels, and garnered the interest of three: Mercury, Epic, and Jive. He arranged for Britney to audition for each of the three respective A&R teams, and in July 1997, Lynne and her now fifteen-year-old daughter flew to New York.

" At the sony building, a Philip Johnson-designed postmod­ernist skyscraper with a distinctive 'Chippendale' top, Britney met Epic's vice president of A&R, Michael Caplan. ... Upon meeting her, the forty-year-old A&R man was unimpressed. 'I was expecting a true artiste,' he later told Steve Dennis, 'and in walked a shy little girl.' Britney performed a clutch of Whitney Houston songs for the Epic execs. 'She came in,' Caplan went on, 'warbled "I Will Always Love You," and I couldn't wait for it to end. Her complexion wasn't great, her voice wasn't great ... so we passed.' "


John Seabrook


The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2015 by John Seabrook


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