By Stephen M. Silverman
October 07, 2002 10:00 AM

Of all things — given Iraq, the economy and the Yankees losing to the Angels — The New York Times devoted considerable space on its front page Sunday to an analysis of the career of Britney Spears, who will turn 21 on Dec. 2.

The landmark could present a dilemma, the paper reports, noting that “the qualities that made her accessible and popular as a teenage star may be precisely the ones choking her career as an adult, leaving her looking like an unseemly parody as she tries to become a grown-up recording artist.”

Also noted: Despite having sold 52 million albums worldwide in the last four years (and making between $40 million and $50 million a year as a result), Spears has seen her sales figures steadily slide — from 24 million for her first album, to 19 million on the second, to 9 million on “Britney,” which was released last November.

Personally, too, there have been problems. This year, her parents divorced, she and Justin Timberlake split up and her aunt (with whom she is close, according to The Times) is being treated for ovarian cancer.

As Spears told PEOPLE in August, she planned to take a six-month break from work. But this week she will return to the recording studio in Los Angeles, “looking at new ideas,” said one of her managers, Larry Rudolph. “She knows she will be changing.”

And while there are no definite plans for a new album, Rudolph said Spears might take a more overtly sexual approach, similar to that on her recent singles, “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Boys.”

Clearly, surmises The Times — citing a growing Britney backlash, best signified, perhaps, by a Web site “devoted to tracking what appears to be the fluctuating size of her breasts” — something must be done.

Observes Craig Marks, editor of the music magazine Blender: “She needs to come back with a new second act.”