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Riff Raff 

Wednesday, Aug 4 1999
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A Star Is Boring For critics, journalists, and other folks who work with words for a living, one of the great things about pop stars -- sometimes the only thing -- is that they allow one to use the word "phalanx" with impunity. Examples: "Surrounded by a phalanx of security personnel, [insert big-name movie star here] arrived at the courthouse for an indictment hearing about his sixth drug arrest in two months"; "A phalanx of police officers were forced to remove [insert big-name rock star here] from the crowd after she attacked a heckler with a broken beer bottle."

And so it was that Britney Spears, the 17-year-old pop singer whose single "Sometimes" has been hovering around the Top 20 for over 11 weeks and whose debut album ...Baby One More Time has spent nearly 30 weeks in the Top 10, appeared -- phalanx included -- at Union Square on July 29 to sign autographs for 250 fans, contest winners herded into a secure area at the foot of the stage. Of course, this created any number of security issues. First, Ms. Spears is, quite notoriously, just 17, with all the liability problems attendant to that. Second, she's out in public, and open-air appearances -- even in Union Square -- can be hotbeds of danger. Not for you -- you're not a pop star, sorry -- but certainly for Spears: One enormous member of the phalanx paced around the stage and peered closely at the rooftops of the surrounding buildings before Spears herself appeared. And third, Ms. Spears is famous. How famous? So famous that a lot of people -- mostly adolescent fans -- were willing to go downtown and watch her sit in a chair and scribble for the better part of an hour. Hence the phalanx.

Macy's co-sponsored the appearance along with Tommy Jeans, and, as the Macy's spokesperson pointed out, "We're trying to protect her from ....," and then trailed off. From ... what? Nosy questions, surely: Does she or doesn't she? Did she or didn't she? Will she or won't she? How does the fact that she's an icon to both 15-year-old girls and dirty old men affect her? Is it fair to expect anything more than lightweight perky pop from a 17-year-old? Any thoughts about Michael Fredo, the opening act of her 50-city North American tour, and perhaps the first pop singer named after two Corleone brothers? Is she sick of the phalanx?

"Off-color stuff?" I suggest.
"Yes," the Macy's rep says, exhaling.
12:52 p.m.: Standing on the stage, a DJ for local pop station Z95 ("The only radio station playing Britney Spears" -- well, in San Francisco anyway) introduces Andy Hilfiger ("Tommy's brother!"), who points out, "Tommy Hilfiger, Tommy Jeans, we're in the house!"

12:55 p.m.: "I think I see somebody coming," the DJ exclaims. "I think I see somebody coming!" False alarm: Ms. Spears makes a beeline for a TV interview tent. Said DJ is forced to improvise, quizzing the crowd about Ms. Spears' home state (Louisiana), and passing out station bumper stickers to crowd members, letting them know that if Z95 finds the sticker on their cars, they can win tickets to see 98 Degrees (squealing), N'Sync (louder squealing), and the Backstreet Boys (tympanum-damaging squealing). No mention is made of the fact that few of the attendees are old enough to qualify for a learner's permit. Noting that the station has "more guys calling up than we've got girls," he also cautions that "this is a clean, clean thing today."

1:12 p.m.: Ms Spears is still "doing some very important television interviews," and the DJ is reaching for something to say; "Anybody having a birthday today?" Just then, Ms. Spears shows up, sits down, and starts scribbling. Fan walks up, fan says hi, fan gets autograph, fan gets hurried away by bodyguard. The entire process takes approximately six seconds per person.

And it's a process that gets pretty boring pretty quickly, though occasionally a reporter bends Ms. Spears' ear, and at one point a person meets with consternation from the phalanx when he somehow makes it into the line twice. All of which reminded Riff Raff of a scene in Don DeLillo's 1985 White Noise that we thought would be of interest to Britney Spears fans (granted, Beth Peters' True Brit: The Story of Singing Sensation Britney Spears is a worthy read as well, but it's always nice to branch out). In the novel, two college professors make a trip to "The Most Photographed Barn in America," where one tells the other pointedly that "Nobody sees the barn" -- everybody's there to see something that people have taken a lot of pictures of, but nobody cares whether it's actually a barn or not. So, Britney Spears is a big damn barn; that's our assessment, and we're sticking to it.

The signings done -- right on time, 2 p.m. -- Ms. Spears caps her Sharpie, stands up, and, surrounded by a phalanx of security guards and SFPD officers, is led to the back seat of a car, which jumps a Post Street median and speeds up Powell.

"Shake it for us, Britney!" a man calls out.

Guitar? Check. Bass? Check. Drums? Check. Clothes? Umm .... Moon Trent isn't giving up hope. Earlier in July, the Timmi-Kat Records owner was hoping to stage some live nude performances by local bands at Baker Beach ("Jeez, What's a Musician Gotta Do to Play Naked in This Town?" July 14) but wound up bending to the will of the National Park Service, which disapproved. A more easily discouraged soul would look into a new angle, but Trent is persistent: He's now in discussions with the Edinburgh Castle to realize his naked-band dream there on a regular basis. Edinburgh Castle booker Ray Wilcox says they're still working out the details, but in the meantime, the first "Event Formerly Known as Baker Beach Bands in the Buff" is scheduled for Aug. 19. Trent is encouraging interested bands to contact him at timmikat

-- Mark Athitakis

Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to mathitakis@sfweekly.com, or mail it to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.

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Mark Athitakis

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