The Number Ones: Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time”

 


According to one of our preferred sources:


The chosen one. The princess who was promised. The child of destiny who was not in Destiny’s Child. It’s Britney, bitch.


The rise of Britney Spears was a product of its moment. It came out of the convergence of certain trends and decisions and lucky breaks. But her arrival, smashing into public consciousness like a comet into the earth, felt inevitable at the time. Today, looking back, it feels just as inevitable — as though Britney Jean Spears could’ve been born anywhere, in any circumstance, and she still would’ve become one of the most famous people on the planet before reaching adulthood. That kind of feeling can only come out of an earthshaking pop moment, and “Baby One More Time” is nothing if not that.





At this point, the details of Britney Spears’ early life feel like the stuff of a comic-book origin story. McComb, Mississippi and then Kentwood, Louisiana. Daycare-supervisor mother. Construction worker father. Southern baptist church choir. Dancing lessons. Talent shows. Boundless ambition. A failed Mickey Mouse Club audition. A move to New York, learning her trade at the Fame school and serving as an understudy on an off-Broadway musical. A televised performance, singing the Judds’ “Love Can Build A Bridge” on Star Search and losing. (At the time of Britney’s birth, the #1 song in America was Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical.” How could it have been anything else?)




In that Star Search video, Ed McMahon asks the 10-year-old Britney Spears if she has a boyfriend. She doesn’t because boys are mean. McMahon says that he’s not mean, so how about him? I don’t know if this was the first time Britney Spears was made to feel uncomfortable about some kind of intrusive public question regarding her love life, but it certainly would not be the last. Years later, Britney Spears would sing that all of us look at her like she’s a little girl. (She didn’t write that line, of course.) The real problem was that the world never looked at her as a little girl, even when she was a little girl. Then, when Britney Spears was a grown woman with kids of her own, she had her adult rights stripped away from her for years on end. But that’s a fucked up story for another column.

In 1992, just after her 11th birthday, Britney had her second audition for The Mickey Mouse Club. The first time, the show’s producers thought she was too young. After the second audition, though, Britney became a Mouseketeer. She joined a class of performers that included future pop stars Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and JC Chasez, all of whom will appear in this column, as well as future screen stars Ryan Gosling and Keri Russell. This cast of photogenic kids would spend a couple of years singing and dancing for their screaming peers. For a few of them, this was practice.




The Disney Channel cancelled The Mickey Mouse Club in 1994, when Britney Spears was 13. Britney and her mother moved back to Louisiana. Britney played high-school basketball and briefly flirted with becoming a normal teenager. It didn’t stick. Britney’s mother contacted Larry Rudolph, the high-powered New York entertainment lawyer who would eventually become Britney’s manager, and then her conservator. One of Rudolph’s clients was Lou Pearlman, the odious figure who assembled the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC. Britney auditioned for Pearlman, who was putting together a girl group called (yeesh) Innosense. Pearlman offered Britney a spot in the group, and she almost took it, but she decided at the last moment that she wanted to be a solo artist instead. Larry Rudolph could help with that. (Britney chose wisely. Innosense was a group for six years, and they never made any hits.)


Larry Rudolph set up auditions with three labels, and a 15-year-old Britney flew to New York with her mother. The first two labels passed. The third was Jive Records, which was still mostly a rap and R&B label at the time. At her audition, Britney sang Whitney Houston songs a cappella. In John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine, the former Jive A&R exec Steve Lunt has a gross quote that foreshadows a lot of things that would happen later: “Her eyes were rolling in the back of her head as she was singing, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘That is really weird, but it’s going to look great on video.’ It was old-school church meets modern-day sex. But in fact it was because she was so nervous.” (Again: 15 years old.)


Jive didn’t just sign Britney Spears because she had a good voice. The people at Jive knew that things in pop music were changing. There was a whole new generation of consumers, teenagers and preteens, who wanted the sort of big, bright, proudly plastic pop music that had fallen out of favor in the ’90s. Two 1997 chart-toppers, the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” and Hanson’s “MMMBop,” served that demand, and a whole new precision-bubblegum assembly line was just starting to take shape in Sweden.




Karl Martin Sandberg came from Stockholm. His mother was a teacher, and his dad was a cop. In the early ’90s, Sandberg got his start as the frontman of an unsuccessful Swedish hard rock band called It’s Alive. It’s Alive arrived too late to really capitalize on the whole glam metal thing, but their timing was good in other ways. In 1994, It’s Alive recorded Earthquake Visions, their second and final album, at Cheiron Studios in Stockholm. Cheiron founder Denniz Pop, the man who essentially invented the Swedish teen-pop assembly line and who co-produced Ace Of Base’s “The Sign,” noticed that Sandberg had a gift for melody. He took Sandberg on as a protege, and he gave him a new name: Max Martin.




Max Martin got his first production credit on “Wish You Were Here,” a 1994 track from the goofy-ass Swedish dance-pop group Rednex. (Rednex’s only Hot 100 hit, the deathless 1994 novelty “Cotton Eye Joe,” peaked at #25.) In 1995, Max Martin co-produced Ace Of Base’s single “Beautiful Life” with Denniz Pop and Ace Of Base member Jonas Berggren. “Beautiful Life” peaked at #15 in the US, and it became the first of many, many hits to feature Max Martin’s name in the credits.




A year after “Beautiful Life,” Lou Pearlman sent the Backstreet Boys to Sweden. Pearlman, a con man who’d made a fortune leasing out private jets, had put together this group of toothy and good-looking American kids. Denniz Pop’s whole idea with Cheiron Studios was to combine big rap and R&B-style beats with bright, dizzy melodies, and the Backstreet Boys, who thought of themselves as R&B singers, were an idea vehicle for that sound. The Backstreet Boys’ self-titled 1996 debut album caught on in Europe first, and they broke out in the US a year later. That’s when “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” a song that Max Martin co-wrote and co-produced, reached #2. (It’s a 7.)




“Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” is still the Backstreet Boys’ highest-charting US single. But even if Backstreet couldn’t get to #1, they still became a sensation. The melodies from the Cheiron team were clean and sharp and explosive, and they powered Backstreet to cultural-phenomenon status. The group’s debut album eventually sold 14 million copies in the US alone. At the same time, Max Martin also had tremendous success with the Swedish teenager known as Robyn. In some ways, Robyn was almost a European answer to all the young American R&B stars of the late ’90s — Usher and Aaliyah and Brandy and Monica. In 1997, two different Robyn singles reached #7 in the US — first “Show Me Love,” then “Do You Know (What It Takes).” (They’re both 8s.) Robyn co-wrote both songs with Max Martin.




When Jive signed Britney Spears, Clive Calder, the South African businessman who founded the label, had the idea that Britney Spears could be an American Robyn. (Britney hasn’t gotten there yet, but she still has time.) Britney thought she’d be making music that was more in the adult contemporary zone; The Song Machine quotes her saying that she’d imagined something like “Sheryl Crow, but younger.” Jive had other ideas. The label already had the Backstreet Boys on its roster, and it saw money in continuing to mine that Swedish pop sound. In one meeting, Calder said, “If the Backstreet Boys are the New Kids On The Block, then this is Debbie Gibson.”

Max Martin did not write “Baby One More Time” for Britney Spears. When Martin wrote the song that he called “Hit Me Baby (One More Time),” he thought it was R&B, and he thought that the song should go to TLC. They rejected the track. Years later, T-Boz told MTV, “I was like, ‘I like the song, but do I think it’s a hit? Do I think it’s TLC?’… Was I going to say, ‘Hit me baby one more time’? Hell no!” Martin also offered the song to Robyn, but she didn’t record it, either. Britney Spears, 16 years old and just signed, was not in a position to turn songs down, but she wouldn’t have turned down “Baby One More Time” anyway. She loved it. Britney flew to Sweden — her first time overseas — and recorded that song and a few others with Max Martin.

Max Martin had sung on the “Baby One More Time” demo himself, multi-tracking his own harmonies. The song is a gleaming, beautiful example of the Max Martin method. It’s the hardest kind of ear candy, and it announces itself immediately: Those three pounded-out piano notes, the merciless thump of the drum machines, the squelchy guitars and bass-pops that imply funk without ever moving away from the mechanistic thud of the beat. Martin co-produced the track with Rami Yacoub, a Palestinian-Swedish musician who was part of the Cheiron Studios braintrust; Martin credits Rami with adding the R&B touches that don’t ultimately sound R&B at all. On “Baby One More Time,” the melodies hit like serotonin bursts, and the lyrics barely make any sense at all.


Martin has referred to his approach as “melodic math” — the scientific art of picking words that will submit to his melodies. Martin didn’t grow up speaking English, but he did grow up listening to pop music in English, so the meaning was always secondary to the sound. That’s how he writes, too. Martin regularly mangles English-language grammar and slang because it’s not important to him. With “Baby One More Time,” he figured that everyone would understand the whole “hit me, baby, one more time” refrain meant “call me,” that it wasn’t about violence or S&M. Jive changed Martin’s title to “Baby One More Time,” trying to avoid controversy. (Technically, the title is “…Baby One More Time,” but I’m not typing a million ellipses into this column.) It didn’t work. Maybe that weird S&M frisson helped the song become indelible, inescapable. With everything else that we know about Britney Spears’ career, would you doubt it?

“Baby One More Time” is not a song about violence. It’s about outright romantic desperation, and Martin’s lyrics are written in near-mythic terms: “My loneliness is killing me, and I must confess, I still believe.” It’s simple pop stuff, and it sounds elemental. Some of that is the sheer blinding focus of Martin’s songwriting and production, and some of it is the way that Britney Spears sings it.

Britney Spears never met Denniz Pop, who died of stomach cancer in 1998, at the age of 35, though Pop was still credited as one of the producers on Britney’s debut album Baby One More Time. The night before she recorded “Baby One More Time,” Britney didn’t sleep much. Instead, she listened to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” over and over, using it as a kind of guide. (“Tainted Love” peaked at #8 in 1982. It’s a 9.) Later on, Britney told Rolling Stone, “I wanted my voice to be kind of rusty… I wanted my voice to just be able to groove with the track. So the night before, I stayed up really, really late, so when I went into the studio, I wasn’t rested. When I sang it, I was just laid back and mellow — it sounds cool, though. You know, how it sounds really low in the lower register — it sounds really sexy. So I kept telling myself, ‘Britney, don’t get any rest.'”

Britney Spears’ natural singing voice was always deep and intense; you can hear that as far back as her Star Search performance. On “Baby One More Time,” she leans into her lower register hard, and she also weaponizes her Southern drawl. The result is one of those perfect metaphysical pairings of singer and song. As a melodic construction, “Baby One More Time” is sharp and cold and immaculate. The bridge alone is a marvel of engineering. But “Baby One More Time” wouldn’t work if it didn’t have a singer who could lean into the song, focusing and grounding it. Britney Spears is that singer. Britney invests “Baby One More Time” with force and personality. She makes the song hers. It’s tough to imagine anyone else recording the song. (Try to imagine the TLC or Robyn versions. It’s baffling to consider.) At the same time, it’s hard to imagine Britney using any other song to introduce herself to the world. Britney Spears and “Baby One More Time” were always meant to be together.

“Baby One More Time” is all about feeling someone else’s power over you, about waiting for a sign. But on “Baby One More Time,” Britney sounds fully in control. On the chorus, Britney sings some of her own back-up vocals, harmonizing with Max Martin. Together, they sound like an army. But even when Britney is on her own, even on the voice-and-piano breakdown at the beginning of the bridge, she never sounds vulnerable. She sounds like she understands her own power completely.

In the video, she looks like she understands that power, too. The “Baby One More Time” video remains the single most iconic image of Britney Spears — the high-school hallway, the pigtails, the Catholic school uniform. That was all Britney. Jive hired the veteran music-video director Nigel Dick, who’d done clips for Tears For Fears and Guns N’ Roses, among many others. (He’d just made a couple of Backstreet Boys videos.) Dick thought he was making a video for kids, so he proposed a kind of live-action anime idea. Britney wasn’t into it. In an Entertainment Weekly oral history, Dick tells the story: “She said, ‘I want to be in a school with a bunch of cute boys and do some dancing.'” She got what she wanted. The costumes in the video all come from Kmart. Britney was the one who had the idea to tie her shirt up and show her midriff.

The “Baby One More Time” video is a strange and uncomfortable artifact. Britney Spears was 16 when she made “Baby One More Time” and shot the video, and she was 17 when the song reached #1. The stories about that point in Britney’s career show a level of autonomy; it was, after all, her decision to rock that particular outfit in the video. At the same time, the video is absolutely a case of a child being sexualized. People were using this kid to get rich, depicting her in ways that would advantage them and potentially disadvantage her. That prefigures whole sad saga of Britney’s career, from the Rolling Stone cover shoot that came out a few months after “Baby One More Time” to the conservatorship that kept her from exercising any degree of control over her personal or professional life until she was deep into adulthood.

In the “Baby One More Time,” Britney stares down the camera with total confidence, to the point where it’s almost unnerving. She’s a born star. But confidence is not the same thing as power, and questions of power are a whole lot more relevant to the Britney Spears experience than questions about confidence. The woman’s story is a grotesque parody of a music business that profits from young people’s sexuality. That knowledge doesn’t take away from the iconic status of the video, but it complicates it. I always thought I saw power and control in the “Baby One More Time” video, and I’m not so sure now. Britney Spears was a little kid who was just getting started in the music business. How much power or control could she have possibly had?

The “Baby One More Time” raises all kinds of gross questions that probably don’t have answers, but that didn’t make it any less effective. That video still found its intended audience. Jive actively sold Britney to the same young-girl demographic who already loved the Backstreet Boys; Britney’s debut album literally ends with a Backstreet commercial. To promote “Baby One More Time,” Jive used the Tiffany teen-pop playbook. Britney toured malls, performing the song in food courts with a couple of backup dancers and then attempting to charm radio hosts and program directors in different markets. But “Baby One More Time” really took off because of that video. Britney’s timing was perfect. The single came out in September 1998, two weeks after MTV aired the first episode of its after-school video countdown show Total Request Live. “Baby One More Time” dominated the early days of TRL; viewers voted it the #1 video of 1998.

The Baby One More Time album came out in January 1999, and it debuted at #1, selling more than 100,000 copies in its first week. A few weeks later, the single reached #1. The single sold a million copies, and those sales, more than radio play, pushed it up the charts. The album was double platinum within a month, and it was diamond within a year — the biggest-selling album of 1999. To date, Baby One More Time has sold a staggering 14 million copies in the US alone. Its second single, the ballad “Sometimes,” peaked at #21, but Britney made it back into the top 10 when “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” another song that Max Martin co-wrote and co-produced, peaked at #10. (It’s a 9.)





The numbers are huge, but they only tell part of the story. “Baby One More Time” was the big bang for the TRL era, the last golden moment right before the record industry’s internet-era crash. (Clive Calder is the richest man in the history of the music business, and “Baby One More Time” is a huge part of the reason why.) The single kicked off the endless public Britney Spears psychodrama, which is still very much happening today, and it also marked a moment when pop got bigger and bolder and brighter and dizzier. My book The Number Ones, which is coming out in November, is about the 20 most pivotal chart-toppers in Hot 100 history. There’s a chapter on “Baby One More Time” in there, and its inclusion was obvious. I didn’t even have to think about it.

“Baby One More Time” had an impact that went way beyond millennial teen-pop and the whole Britney Spears story. It’s also the first chart triumph for Max Martin, who is now one of the towering figures in the whole saga of popular music. At this point, Max Martin has written or co-written 25 #1 hits — more than anyone in history who wasn’t a Beatle. (John Lennon, who comes in at #2 on the all-time list, has 26 chart-toppers; it’s all but certain that Martin will catch up to him. All-time champion Paul McCartney, who has 32, is safe for now.) Max Martin’s approach, so mathematical and calculated, will have a huge impact on this column, and not just because of his own songs. This century, pop music pretty much sounds like Max Martin.

Pop music sounds like Britney Spears, too. Britney’s whole life story is so fucked-up and sad for so many reasons, but that story also has plenty of triumphs. “Baby One More Time” announced Britney Spears as a generational figure, a born pop star. She made good on that promise. Britney Spears won’t return to this column for a surprisingly long time, but we will see her again.

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