FEATURE: Britney Spears and a Mighty Debut Single …Baby One More Time at Twenty




Britney Spears and a Mighty Debut Single


IN THIS IMAGE: The single cover for Britney Spears’ debut single, …Baby One More Time/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images 

…Baby One More Time at Twenty


I recently produced a piece that…


IN THIS PHOTO: Britney Spears (circa 2018)/PHOTO CREDIT: Herb Ritts

asked whether Pop music is capable of producing anthems. By that, I do not mean a simple genre called ‘Pop’: I mean every genre that is popular and visible in the mainstream. It has been years since I have encountered a song that can live through the ages! Think about those tracks you recall to mind and provoke great memories and, for most of us, they are from many years back! I think of the Britpop anthems of the 1990s and stuff that was coming out around then. The way I see it; there was this glorious radius where the three or four years prior to 1994 were spectacular and building up that revolution and, from then until, say, 1998/1999, there was this further move that kept the quality high and embraced new sounds. The 1990s as a whole was a great time for music but it was especially brilliant when it came to those bold and memorable Pop tracks. From the best British bands through the U.S. girl groups and the fantastic Pop coming from the country – we were spoiled for choice and enjoyed a rich regency. One thinks of Pop music coming from teenagers now and you might cringe and think the resultant sound is good to be dreadful. To be honest; most of the best Pop music/mainstream stuff you find is from established artists or that which lacks commercial ambition.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Britney Spears in 1998/PHOTO CREDIT: Christian Storz

Think back to 1998 and, in terms of Pop anthems, one song stood out: ….Baby One More Time. The debut of the U.S. icon took everyone by surprise and sent shockwaves through music. I am not saying it was as bold as Punk or as seismic as Britpop but, as introductions go, it was one of the more impressive of the decade. I will talk about Britney Spears’ debut single and why it signalled the arrival of a rare talent but, before then, a bit of background on Spears and, indeed, the music that was around in 1998. In June 1997; Britney Spears was in talks with her manager Lou Pearlman about the possibility of joining the female Pop group Innosense (remember them?!). Lynne Spears, Britney’s mum, sent the entertainment lawyer Larry Rudolph a tape of her daughter singing a karaoke version of Whitney Houston with some pictures attached.


IN THIS PHOTO: Britney Spears in 1998/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Rudolph was impressed and felt, rightly, here was a potential star he wanted to send to labels. He wanted a professional demo, and so, the process began. Rudolph sent Spears an unused Toni Braxton song and she recorded her vocals. Spears travelled to New York to meet with four labels but, in the case of three of them, found the same problem: they wanted all-girl/all-boy bands who were in vogue at the time. They felt there was not going to be a 1990s version of Tiffany or Madonna. The 1990s would see other female solo artists become Pop icons – even though Madonna was very much active in 1998 – and they felt groups were the commercial dollar.


 IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for Britney Spears’ album, …Baby One More Time/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

It would be understandable for an ambitious and excited Spears to feel rejected and downhearted after being rejected by three labels. The fact they outright disliked her vocals/song – it was merely a case of her being a solo artist – meant a pleasing call from JIVE Records changed everything. Senior A&R man Jeff Fenster stated Spears’ debut has pop, drive and determination. For someone of that age (she was sixteen at the time) to deliver something commercial but have a lot of emotion and nuance come through was a rarity. Spears was not delivering a song in that very pale and predictable way many Pop artists did. There was emotional range and you could tell she meant every word that was being sung – something that impressed Fenster a great deal. Fenster and the label were also not seeing Spears as this disposal and easy-to-label star many labels were trotting out. There was something personal and distinctly ‘Britney’ coming from that tape. After the label’s president Clive Calder ordered a full album, there was this whirlwind period where Spears met with producers and flied to Sweden. Spears saw herself, at aged sixteen, as a sort of Sheryl Crow-type artist but for a slightly younger audience. When at the studios in Stockholm, Sweden; Spears was shown a song that was originally written for Backstreet Boys and TLC.


 IN THIS PHOTO: The Backstreet Boys in 1998/PHOTO CREDIT: Spin

The fact they rejected the song led to Spears’ revelation: …Baby One More Time would sound wrong in the hands of the Backstreet Boys and is a little too ‘Pop’ for the savvy, feisty and unique TLC. Spears knew the song would be a hit and JIVE felt the same – it was the first step of her career and arguably, it is her crowning moment. Spears went on to record anthems like Oops!... I Did It Again (2000) and Toxic (2003) but many feel her debut song tops those. The single cover for …Baby One More Time showed this fresh-faced, slightly sullen teenager who was cute and, to be fair, almost child-like in her appearance. The video, as I shall explore, subverted all expectations and showed that, even at sixteen, Spears was no ordinary and modest star – she was pushing boundaries and getting people talking!

The album, …Baby One More Time, was released in January 1999 and, again, showed Spears as this rather cute and sweet teenager – although there is seductive and sexual edge to her smile/pose. Although there was another smash on the album (You Drive Me) Crazy; it seemed like the lead-off single was the definite high-point. This retrospective review, written in 2006, praised …Baby One More Time’s title cut but was dubious about the remainder of the record:

“...Baby One More Time is inexorably linked with image. It is challenging to listen to any of her songs without picturing the corresponding video, or her Rolling Stone cover, or her 2000 MTV Video Music Awards appearance, or her 2003 VMA kiss with Madonna. But Britney has adopted (or has had forced upon her, depending upon your interpretation) a series of contradicting images throughout her career, and especially during her ...Baby One More Time phase. She was being marketed as an icon of innocence alwhile being not-so-subtly promoted as a sexual being. She sang of sex and lust while championing her professed virginity in interviews. The cover of the very album at question features Spears in a wholesome getup with an angelic smile on her face - but her pose is hardly a marker of chastity with the focal point being quite inappropriate for 16-year old artist being sold to 12-year old girls…


With the exception of the terrific title track, ...Baby One More Time is a collection of either competent pop songs underwhelmingly executed or underwhelmingly written pop songs competently executed. Attractive pop gloss coats even the most absurd of the tracks, making them, at the very least, well recorded, produced, and arranged. But I can't picture Spears looking back on this album with any sense of pride or accomplishment. Is it any wonder that she won't be performing 'E-mail My Heart' or 'Soda Pop' on the next tour" They're downright embarrassing. But ...Baby One More Time is an interesting album in that it offers a marker for Spears' progression as an artist, as a celebrity, and as a woman”.

If Spears would find greater consistency and critical acclaim on her second and third albums; it is clear her debut single was a glorious moment for Pop that announced this rare and distinct personality. Max Martin wrote …Baby One More Time and, as his chart success and prolificacy shows; he seems to have this secret formula when it comes to penning a Pop gem. He wrote Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life and the Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way; he has co-written/written songs like I Kissed a Girl (Katy Perry) and Blank Space (Taylor Swift). He is the songwriter with the third-most number-one (Billboard Hot 100) singles ever (twenty-two), behind John Lennon and Paul McCartney. As a producer, he has the second-most Hot 100 singles to his name (twenty) – behind the twenty-three of Beatles producer George Martin!

It seemed like Martin was the perfect man to help bring Britney Spears’ magic and marvel to the world. …Baby One More Time is a song in the key of C minor and has a 4/4 common time signature. With compositional elements similar to Robyn Carlssons’ Show Me Love – drum patterns, wah guitars and piano hits – it is a big and interesting song that unites brilliantly physical vocals with an evolving, changing and colourful composition. One of the reasons why Britney Spears’ debut single hits right away is because …Baby One More Time announced its presence instantly! There is no time for a build-up or any sort of mystery: you are right inside the track and it struts right out of the traps! The lyrics, I guess, are about longing and wanting to rekindle a relationship. The subject matter brilliantly complies with the history of Pop and themes relatable to a teenage audience (mainly girls) but does not do so in an ordinary and by-numbers way. It may have been written by Martin but you can believe every word is from the diary of Britney Spears. The ellipsis at the beginning of the song’s title follows the words “Hit me...” Maybe having that full title would provoke images of abuse, kinkiness or some kind of fetish – many people around the time felt the song was about sadomasochism or being hit!


 IN THIS PHOTO: Blur in the 1990s/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press

In fact, as Spears stated, it was more about that emotional hit and rush of lust she had with this guy; the need to get that back and reignite her soul! It is clear Pop music was going through some changes towards the mid/late-1990s. We has seen the Britpop era end around 1997 and, to many, it felt like more American guitar music was taking over. There was this transition and no real gems in the market in terms of radio-friendly, mainstream songs. Spears started this revival that led to some brilliant Pop revelations. I will come to that but this cornerstone of the Pop market arrived in a year (1998) where the likes of Madonna and Lauryn Hill were reigning. The Queen of Pop (Madonna) was embracing a more electronic, moody and different sound to the one we were used to – in many ways, Spears was following in the footsteps of an early Madonna. Massive Attack (Mezzanine) and Beastie Boys (Hello Nasty) brought out these big and edgy albums whilst Hole’s Celebrity Skin kept the spirit of Grunge, Alternative-Rock and Alternative alive. It was an album that helped start a mini-revolution of its own and Dance music found a new gem in the form of Fatboy Slim’s You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. Beck’s Mutations and Manic Street Preachers impressed with This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. Alanis Morissette’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie was turning heads…

1999 saw brilliant albums from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eminem; Blur, The Chemical Brothers and Moby. Blink-182 and Mogwai were busy and, as you can see, the years when the single and album of the same name were released…it wasn’t as though Spears had a lot of like-minded company! Maybe it was this sudden spark that arrived in this harder-edge and less Pop-orientated market that catapulted …Baby One More Time to strange heights. Maybe the albums market was not primed for Britney Spears but there were great and accessible singles from Sheryl Crow (My Favourite Mistake), Barenaked Ladies (One Week) and Faith Hill (This Kiss) that meant Spears’ debut song was not such an oddity. Aside from a couple of confident and anthemic Pop numbers in the form of The Boy Is Mine (Monica ft. Brandy) and You Get What You Give (New Radicals); there was nothing similar to what Britney Spears was putting out. We had Garbage telling us to Push It and Madonna had her Ray of Light but there was no other young, female U.S. Popstar that was bringing something so intense, evocative and memorable to us! We would see great Pop solo artists come about and we left some behind but, in 1998, Spears seemed to be in a league of her own and just what the music market needed!


 IN THIS PHOTO: Britney Spears in 2018/PHOTO CREDIT: @francesiacuzzi

I will end by looking at its legacy and how its video helped augment the song’s brilliance but this great article from the Independent caught my eye. Celebrating twenty years of …Baby One More Time; writer Lucy Jones reflects on the song’s wonder and layers:  

Listen to it 20 years later and it’s still a startling, catchy pop song (although the optics of the video are more obviously problematic). But what actually, apart from a heady dose of personal nostalgia if you grew up in the Nineties, makes the song so good? First off, two words: Max Martin.

The songwriter’s musical background was eclectic. He grew up in a small island off the coast of Sweden listening to Elton John, Queen, Vivaldi, Mozart, Depeche Mode and the Bangles. He learnt how to read and write music thanks to a public music-education programme, and formed a glam-rock band called It’s Alive. Their albums bombed, but you can hear in the songs Martin’s acute understanding of pop, and his ability to use a voice to communicate emotion. He also landed a record deal with the late, legendary Swedish songwriter and producer Denniz PoP on Cheiron, who hired him and nurtured his songwriting talent. He started writing for Backstreet Boys, Westlife and Robyn. But “...Baby One More Time” was the first major commercial hit for the multimillionaire songwriting powerhouse...


IN THIS PHOTO: A shot from the video for …One More Time/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Nigel Dick

The beat’s straightforward, four-on-the-floor rhythm with punchy, crashy backbeat kick and compressed snare drums is typical of early Max Martin. The dynamics are simple and solid. The “bridge” is more repetition of what we’ve heard before rather than a middle eight of completely different harmonic structure. The bottom drops out of the music and Britney’s voice is accompanied by a simple piano before the song crescendos into a maximalist: “I must confess! That my loneliness! Is killing me now!”

He’s also talked about changing the energy of the first, second and third chorus of a song. “It’s all about getting the listener to keep his or her concentration.”

Of course, it’s not just about Martin. Britney’s “baby voice”, which is different to her natural voice, is signature and instantly recognisable from the first “Oh baby baby”. According to Martin, she had a “good sense of catching the melody, performing it, taking it to another level. That’s what you’re looking for as a songwriter.” She is often adept at communicating the emotional content of a song”.

There are some songs that succeed and have a disappointing video or those that can be elevated by a great promotional clip but, in the case of …Baby One More Time; the incredible song and its eye-catching video were pretty evenly-matched. Nigel Dick directed the video – the British director has directed over five-hundred, including Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? – and that gained some flak from his peers. The original idea was to have Spears in a T-shirt and jeans but that got changed to a schoolgirl uniform.

One can only imagine the sort of reception someone like Dick would get if he were to pitch this video today and the idea of having a teenager playfully strutting in a school uniform and, to be fair, coming across as sexual and uninhibited…it would raise eyebrows at the very least! A lot of parents showed disapproval and felt Spears was a bad role model. They felt a teenage girl should not show her midriff and others felt she was being objectified. Teenage boys were hooked whilst teenage girls found this bold and relatable artist who gave them confidence and, through her music, compelled them. Say what you want about Britney Spears and the bored Catholic girl suddenly coming alive and rebelling – it is considered one of her most iconic videos/looks and, against a music backdrop that was glorifying girl and boybands; Spears was standing alone as this new and unique teenage Pop idol that was not just a commercial puppet and singing predictable, routine songs! …Baby One More Time has been covered by the likes of Travis and The Dresden Dolls and was listed (by Rolling Stone and MTV in 2000) as one of the twenty-five best Pop songs since 1963. VH1 ranked it as the second-best tracks of the 1990s and many ranked the video as one of the finest of the decade! The single sold over nine-million copies and remains one of the best-selling of all-time.

Right away, even with some weak albums on her debut album, Spears became a phenomenon and was seen as one of the most risqué, edgy and controversial female stars of the time. The drive of post-millennial teen Pop music was spearheaded (no pun intended!) by her and this was no fluke. Spears was not new to the industry when her debut single broke – she has worked as a Mouseketeer and was a well-known actor/singer – and Spears created the same kind of storm as Nirvana and Dr. Dre. MTV and the widespread airing of the music video ensured …Baby One More Time went down in history and Spears, like Madonna in a way, was seen as this figure who was a cross between child-friendly and sweet and this male fantasy – someone who was sexually desirable (despite the fact she was a teenager at the time!) but completely commanding and confident. Maybe songs like Toxic and You Drive Me Crazy are slightly stronger in some ways; …Baby One More Time arrived in the perfect place and time. If it were introduced today, I feel it would be a big hit but many might saw they were similar artists around and it was not as that uncommon. Music has seen the death of Grunge and Britpop and the sort of albums that were arriving in 1998 were very different to what Britney Spears was about.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Britney Spears backstage before her concert on the on the Oops!… I Did It Again Tour in Philadelphia on 7th July, 2000/PHOTO CREDIT: Dave Hogan/Getty Images

With very few young Pop singers/bands about - aside from the likes of Backstreet Boys and TLC – I am not shocked …Baby One More Time made such an impact and opened up new horizons. We are all familiar with how Britney Spears developed and where her career would go – even now, twenty years later, she is still making music and is in the U.K. very soon. She has released some great singles/albums but none that have gained the same acclaim and interest as her debut offering. Spears helped bring about a new Pop wave and inspire many; it was this brilliant and eye-opening song that hit you and stayed in the head and, twenty years down the road, still evokes fond memories and compels you to sing alone (or at least mime!). I was still in high-school when the song was released (I am only a couple of years younger than Spears) and it was big news in the playground. A lot of my school peers were listening to whatever was in the charts or something like Five. Ace of Base were around and Moloko and Kid Rock appealed the ‘cooler’ kids. In the weeks before Britney Spears debut single; album releases from The Cardigans (Grand Turismo came out 1st October (1998) and Queens of the Stone Age (their eponymous record was out on 6th October).

They sort of summed up what music was about until that point and aside from some fairly similar Pop acts – I think B*Witched were popular in 1998 – it was a very different music scene and one that was not quite prepared for Britney Spears. Some fairly accessible Pop from Cher, Billie and New Radicals sort of gave us a soft landing but, to be honest, Spears outgunned, outstripped and overtook them all. …Baby One More Time turned heads and opened eyes back in 1998 and, twenty years (and a day) after it was unreleased; have we seen a more impactful and instant Pop song? Surely there has not been a finer debut and I feel modern mainstream music could benefit from another Britney Spears.  I know Spears herself is proud of the song – a recent Tweet saw her mark the twentieth anniversary of the track – and I am sure she would be one of the first to say she has not really been able to better …Baby One More Time. It was a rare and brilliant song that came from nowhere and, even this many years on, is seen as one of the…


 IMAGE CREDIT: @britneyspears/Getty Images

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