DUN DUN DUN. 20 years ago today, three low piano notes introduced the world to a girl named Britney Spears—and pop music was never the same again. “…Baby One More Time,” her debut single, would reach number one in every country it charted it and become the best-selling single of 1999 in the UK, as well as one of the highest-selling singles in history. The now iconic music video brought in floods of controversy, as did Spears’ overall image, and before anyone could blink, Britney was a bonafide pop star and household name—and the face of cultural anxieties surrounding the behavior of young girls.
Some pop songs are just so catchy that they become ingrained in our popular culture as well as our brains, and their instant popularity often distracts from their technical brilliance. To this day, it still astounds me that “…Baby One More Time” was Britney Spears’ debut single. Her very FIRST song. As far as debut singles go, it’s truly a triumph in every sense of the word—the kind of song you can’t help but pay attention to, even if you don’t like it, a feat very few other pop artists have achieved since then. In fact, it’s hard to come up with another pop singer who made such an impact with their first song, and then managed to maintain such a successful career in pop music thereafter. The catchiness of “…Baby One More Time” still sounds revolutionary and different today that it comes as no surprise why it was so popular at the time—and perhaps why it was so controversial.
Despite everything, it must be said that the lyrics of “…Baby One More Time” are more risqué and subversive than any song a teen pop star had associated themselves with up until that point—the track’s title was originally “Hit Me Baby (One More Time)” and had been offered to numerous other artists including 90’s girl group TLC, who turned it down almost immediately as they believed the title and lyrics would suggest and condone domestic violence. In fact, Britney Spears didn’t even expect her music to be so popular or revolutionary at the time—after a short-lived run on the 1990s revival of The Mickey Mouse Club, she struggled for several years to establish a career as a pop singer and eventually signed with Jive Records in 1997. She originally said she envisioned her music sounding like that of Sheryl Crow, “but younger more adult contemporary.”
That quickly changed when her label appointed her to work with Swedish pop music producer Max Martin, to which Spears said it “made more sense to go pop, because I can dance to it—it’s more me.” But, unfortunately, the pop music that Spears was about to release would never be perceived as so simple and innocent that all people were going to want to do was dance. It’s a wonder if Max Martin and his team could predict what kind of impact their work with Britney would have. She recorded her entire debut album with them in Sweden between March and June 1998 and the first song was released in October, “…Baby One More Time,” renamed after Jive executives believed the title would indeed suggest domestic violence. Martin explained years later that when writing the song he believed “hit me” to be slang for “call me,” but North American pop music listeners are, unfortunately, not that innocent. But it was the single’s music video that premiered on MTV in November 1998 that would propel the song and Spears to instant controversy.
Filmed in the high school that served as Rydell High in Grease, the “…Baby One More Time” music video wasn’t originally intended for controversy. Initially, the plan was to have Spears in a cartoon setting to attract the attention of young children, but Britney was immediately uninterested—she instead proposed a new idea for a music video that would take place in a school. She described it as “just a fun video” that teenagers could relate to: “You know, being in school, they’re bored, they want to get out of school. Then we go out, and then there’s a lot of dancing.”
With Spears dressed in a Catholic school girl outfit (already venturing into risqué territory, given its erotic undertones), every single item of clothing worn in the video came from K-Mart and the most expensive piece was $17, but it was another seemingly meaningless fashion choice that would seal the video’s fate—Spears decided that she and her backup dancers would tie up their shirts, thus exposing her midriff. Parent associations were quickly outraged at the decision to show the midriff of a 16-year-old girl in a music video, to which Spears famously responded: “Me showing my belly? I’m from the South; you’re stupid if you don’t wear a sports bra [when you] go to dance class, you’re going to be sweating your butt off.” But the real controversy wasn’t really about what Spears was wearing or the video, but rather the issue of cultural ambivalence regarding taboo behaviors surrounding young girls.
“Me showing my belly? I’m from the South; you’re stupid if you don’t wear a sports bra [when you] go to dance class, you’re going to be sweating your butt off.” —Britney Spears
Infamously blurring the lines between unsexual child and hypersexualized adult, Britney’s image in the early years of her career was the constant subject of discussion and debate—she’s even been said to have the most famous midriff in history countless times. Wesley Yang, in his essay “Inside the Box” in n+1 in 2009, compared the music video to that of “Girlschool” by heavy metal band Britny Fox since they both featured “a classroom full of Catholic schoolgirls gyrating to the beat in defiance of a stern teacher” though ultimately observes, “But that was a sexist video by a horrible hair metal band that exploited women. Britney Spears was something else—an inflection point in the culture.”
Parents started forbidding their young girls from listening to Britney Spears, since she was the one who was being shamed for her image as a pop star—textbook Freudian psychology even dictates that after appearing provocatively in popular culture she would have somehow rightly opened herself up to being shamed, just by acting in a way that is “forbidden” to others. But whether she realized it or not, Britney Spears was redefining notions of what was taboo and what was not for the millennial teenager. People did not so much hate Spears for the way she acted as a teen but hate the behavior in which she indulged that was somehow taught to be forbidden to young girls. Thus, Spears merely becomes the scapegoat for cultural anxieties and taboo behaviors surrounding young girls. It seems that any sort of censoring or manipulation of the song or music video is just putting a bandage on a cultural issue—one that criticizes young girls for how they act—and it would have perhaps been more productive to discuss why the music video bothered the public, rather than criticize Britney Spears for it.
Britney continued to push provocative boundaries despite the theme of hypersexualized child being at the forefront of her early career, from the double meaning of “I’m not that innocent” on Oops!… I Did It Again and more on her Britney and In the Zone albums. Whether or not it was intentional, what they say is true—any publicity is good publicity, and the controversy would work wonders for Spears and her career, not to mention her remarkable performance and vocal ability that she still maintains today, and catapult her to the forefront of almost every pop cultural conversation—where she would remain, for better or for worse, for the better part of the next decade. Largely notorious personal struggles, all of which were heavily publicized, sent her career off the deep end by 2007—but Brit has since picked herself up and kept going like any true star would. The way the media treated her for years is arguably the reason Spears has become more reserved and less animated in public appearances for the last several years, but when the right moment comes along, her natural charisma and genuinely charming personality—the ones we met back in 1998 on “…Baby One More Time”—still shine through.
If we consider other hit pop songs with killer hooks, like Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head,” Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” or even Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” a lot of them aren’t very lyrically sophisticated whatsoever, yet they still stick in your head and you can’t help but pay attention. “…Baby One More Time” is the love child of a high-quality pop song with an irreplaceable hook that sealed the deal, and a young girl beaming with genuine talent. Purists or fans of “real music” may still scoff at pop songs like these ones, calling them generic or inauthentic or useless, but songs that are reliant on often nonsensical choruses are the ones that are going to stick, whether we like it or not. It just happens, and in my experience, life truly gets a hell of a lot better when you just let it happen. 20 years later, Britney Spears and “…Baby One More Time” reminds us that it’s practically impossible for something to be game-changing without breaking a few rules. Not only did Britney redefine notions of what it means for young girls to behave, but she also reminds us time and time again of the magic of a pop song that you just can’t get out of your head.