In Party Like It’s 1999, I’m marking my birthday June 25th by reviewing every Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit from my birth year 1999 along with other notable hits from the year.
Britney Spears- “…Baby One More Time”
HIT #1: January 30, 1999
STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks
“I wanted the song to be called “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” To me it was obvious that it meant “so let’s do it again” or “try this once more.” But it was a big controversy. I was very naive thinking that Americans would accept that kind of a title. They were very scared radio would not play it and they were probably right, since she was a debut artist.”
That’s Swedish producer Max Martin. He had just written a song about wanting an ex-lover to call one more time. Trying to express it in the limited English he knew, Martin came up with “hit me baby one more time.” He meant it as slang for a phone call thinking that’s what Americans used.
That’s not how actual Americans heard it. At first listen, the title came across as a reference to domestic violence or S&M. The title got changed but the lyric stuck. It didn’t matter in the long run. Once Martin got a rising teen idol to sing his track, it exploded upon release turning that artist into an immediate phenomenon. It also helped to propel Max Martin’s brand of carefully articulated pop music into the spotlight beginning an impressive hit-making streak that’s still going on to this day.
Right from the moment it comes on, “…Baby One More Time” introduces itself as a classic. The three-note piano riff, the mechanical drum beat, the sexy purr of “Oh baby baby,” and the wah guitar before we get into the verse. The image of a barely-of-age Britney Spears dancing in a tied-up Catholic school outfit in pigtails. It’s a song that’s been imprinted on a generation of music listeners becoming a major cultural touchstone of the ’90s.
Growing up in small-town Louisiana, Britney Jean Spears had been preparing her whole life for stardom. (The #1 song in America the week of Spears’ birth: Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical.”) She began performing as early as three years old singing and dancing. She started going to a New York performing arts school and made her national television appearance on the popular talent show Star Search but lost. In 1992, Spears got a role in a revival of Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club alongside fellow future stars Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, and Keri Russell. (Christina Aguilera will eventually appear in this column.) The show only lasted two seasons before it was canceled.
Still determined, Spears set her sights on a music career initially auditioning for a girl group called Innosense before pulling out and venturing on a solo career. Soon, Spears auditioned for a series of labels many of them rejecting her feeling that audiences weren’t into teen girl singers anymore in an era of boy bands and girl groups. Eventually, Jive Records caught wind of Spears and after auditioning was signed to the label.
The label set her up with Max Martin who at this point was already shaping the teen pop boom of the late ‘90s with acts like Robyn, Backstreet Boys, and *NSYNC. After meeting Spears, Martin had a song for her in mind called “…Baby One More Time.” He had written it a year before with fellow producer Rami Yacoub saying to Fred Bronson in Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits, “I write on the Dictaphone. I came up with the melody first. I wrote the chorus—you just hum it in.” Yacoub, according to Martin, would soon add a more R&B/urban feel to the song stating he’s the reason the song sounds the way that it does.
Martin and Yacoub initially offered “…Baby One More Time” to the girl group TLC feeling that the song’s style would fit with the group who also had a 1992 hit titled “Baby-Baby-Baby.” (“Baby-Baby-Baby” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.) But the group declined. Speaking about the decision years later member T-Boz said, “I was like, I like the song but do I think it’s a hit? Do I think it’s TLC? I’m not saying ‘hit me baby.’ No disrespect to Britney. It’s good for her. But was I going to say ‘hit me baby one more time’? Hell no!” It didn’t hurt the group in the long run as they managed to have a big 1999 themselves which will be showing up soon in this column. They also offered it to Robyn but didn’t go anywhere.
After recording the song with Spears, Martin and his team felt good about the song. They were initially going to call it “Hit Me Baby One More Time” before Jive’s president expressed concerns regarding what I listed above. In reality, “hit me baby one more time” was a case of non-English speakers not using English correctly. Martin refused to change the lyric but did change the title to “…Baby One More Time.”
Upon the single’s release in October 1998, Spears embarked on a tour of shopping malls, talk shows, and music shows to build up hype for her song and the ensuing title album. It all worked out to great effect. “…Baby One More Time” debuted in the Hot 100’s Top 20. Upon release in January 1999, the …Baby One More Time album debuted at #1 on Billboard’s album charts and stayed there for six non-consecutive weeks selling over 8 million copies in 1999 becoming the year’s second best-selling album only behind the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium. The album would later be certified diamond currently selling over 14 million copies.
All of this success is already amazing for a new artist but Spears’ breakthrough was also helped by “…Baby One More Time’s” music video and a new pop-cultural phenomenon that helped videos like hers gain popularity. In September 1998, MTV premiered Total Request Live (TRL) which played the top ten most requested music videos from 10-1 as well as becoming a major stopping point for artists. The show quickly became a popular after school ritual for kids at the time many of them gathering outside the show’s building in Times Square and calling into the show requesting the music videos they wanted them to play.
It was a major change for MTV who had avoided playing pure pop music on the channel for much of the ’90s. The channel had cultivated a cool image in the decade playing mainly alternative and hip-hop. Playing songs from the Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC before then would have gone against their cool image. Talking to John Seabrook in The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, MTV’s former programming head Andy Schoun said, “The whole channel was Top 40, but we were the arbiters of cool, and that made it harder for us to play that stuff. What changed was when TRL, a countdown show, was launched, then you could say, “Here’s what’s most popular, let’s put it on, we didn’t pick these things—you did! That’s what allowed us to play pure pop.”
The music video for “…Baby One More Time” also has a fun story of its own. Directed by Nigel Dick (yes that’s his actual name), the video was originally envisioned by Dick as an all-animated venture to which Spears objected wanting the video to take place at a school to relate to her fans while also incorporating dance scenes. She came up with every idea including the schoolgirl outfit. Thinking the outfit was dorky, Spears came up with the idea to tie up the shirts.
In the video, we see Spears sitting in class bored tapping her pencil waiting for the bell to ring. Once the bell rings, Spears and her dancers get into a dance routine in the hallway while in their school uniforms. After the first chorus, Spears is outside in the school’s parking lot doing another dance routine in a pink athletic outfit. Soon after, Spears is sitting alone in the gym watching a basketball game in between shots of Spears and her dancers doing a routine. As the video ends, Spears is back in the classroom indicating that the whole video was a daydream.
The video is arguably just as much of a cultural touchstone as the song itself. It got played heavily on TRL and MTV to the point that when TRL ended in 2008, “…Baby One More Time” was honored as the most requested song in the show’s history. Britney Spears with pigtails dancing in a tied up schoolgirl outfit is probably one of the most famous images of her career. While the song didn’t popularize teen pop in the late ‘90s, it certainly encapsulated it in a way no other song of the era does. You’ll notice I haven’t said much about the actual quality or whether I think the song’s good or not. It’s not good. It’s a tolerable piece of mediocrity.
“…Baby One More Time” is as simple as lyrics can get. Spears is singing about the aftermath of a breakup being all lonely which she describes as killing her wanting her ex-boyfriend to call her up one more time. Even though “hit me baby one more time” isn’t a line any native English speaker like myself would write, it’s still obvious to me as a phone call despite the imperfect translation. There isn’t much more to the song that what it suggests. The bridge is just repeating the chorus in a different style and on the final chorus the bridge and chorus are all combined for one final payoff.
In a way, the song shares much with the song it replaced at #1, Brandy’s “Have You Ever?” in being songs reflecting on what went wrong in a relationship while desperately wanting to be with this boy. But where “Have You Ever?” was sleepy and emotional, “…Baby One More Time” is in your face and desperate. While Spears does give off a hint of sadness, it’s not treated as a sad song. The lyrics act as more of a vehicle for Britney Spears and Max Martin.
“…Baby One More Time” was Max Martin’s first #1 hit as a producer and right away it shows his main qualities as a producer. One major element of Max Martin’s productions is his molding of American R&B and pop stylings. Free from the racial signifiers that dictate American music, Martin and his fellow Swedes could make music that appeals across demographics while still dedicated to catchy pop hooks. Speaking to Seabrook, Steve Lunt, Jive’s A&R head at the time, put it best about Martin, “Max, at that point in his career, thought he was writing an R&B song. Whereas, in reality, he was writing a Swedish pop song. It was ABBA with a groove, basically. But all those chords are so European, how could that possibly be an American R&B song? No black artist was going to sing it. But that was the genius of Max Martin.”
That influence shows up on “…Baby One More Time.” It’s essentially a bubblegum teen-pop version of American R&B in the ‘90s. It’s not a surprise a group like TLC didn’t see themselves singing it. Aside from not fitting with their female empowerment image, sonically it would have been out of place. For as indebted as Martin was to R&B, I can’t imagine “…Baby One More Time” going over well with R&B audiences. It still has that pop and European touch that makes it Max Martin. ABBA with a groove indeed.
To give credit where credit is due, that melody is killer. Once you hear “…Baby One More Time” you cannot forget it. It’s a song that’s destined to play in your head forever. Some of the production touches like the wah guitars and rubbery slap bass add a lot to the song and its catchiness. While it may be enough to stick with me, it’s still pretty generic teen-pop. Nothing else to raise it aside from the song’s legacy.
Britney Spears has never been cited as a spectacularly amazing singer but it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off “…Baby One More Time” the way she does. She sings the song in an innocent yet raspy sexual style that fits with the pop/R&B edge the production pulls off. She makes a desperate wanting a man in your life anthem sound cool. It’s the type of delivery that made Spears so appealing in her early years. That still doesn’t mean it’s anything great. Part of my problem with Spears is how she’s more about image over substance. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing for an artist but her songs especially later on aren’t great with all the image and production taking more precedent over Spears’ singing. But at least early on she managed to find a formula that worked for her and her limited range.
Admittedly, this song isn’t exactly for me. This blog is me expressing my opinions on the various music that Americans have gone crazy over. Sometimes this means going against what people consider to be classic songs. While I can express my disinterest in a song, I can still understand why others would like it and why it’s been fondly remembered. That applies to “…Baby One More Time.” It’s a song that I myself don’t really care much for or like but I can see why people remember it as a major piece of ’90s music.
While Britney Spears would continue to have massive success, it would be almost a decade before she got back to #1 with 2008’s “Womanizer.” (It’s a 4.) For Max Martin, the success of “…Baby One More Time” was only the beginning of the impact he would have on pop music. In over two decades, Martin has written or co-written 23 #1 songs on the Hot 100. He’s only behind John Lennon and Paul McCartney for the most written #1 hits. I’ve already talked about a few of his productions in my column The Ones of the ‘10s and many more will follow. From his continued success, it looks as if Martin could easily get within Lennon and McCartney’s long-held record.
BONUS BEATS: Bowling for Soup released a pop-punk version of “…Baby One More Time” for the soundtrack to 2003’s Freaky Friday. Here’s their version:
(Bowling for Soup have never gotten a Top 10 single. Their highest-charting single, 2004’s “1985,” peaked at #23.)
And here’s the Freaky Friday scene where Chad Michael Murray and Jamie Lee Curtis sing along to Bowling for Soup’s cover as well as the scene where Chad Michael Murphy sings “…Baby One More Time” to Lindsay Lohan:
(Lindsay Lohan has never gotten a Top 10 single. Her highest-charting single, 2005’s “Confessions of A Broken Heart (Daughter to Father)” peaked at #57.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2009 episode of Being Erica where Erin Karpluk does a hilarious poetry reading of “…Baby One More Time:”
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine singing along to “…Baby One More Time” in 2013’s Spring Breakers:
(Selena Gomez will eventually appear in my The Ones of the ‘10s column. Vanessa Hudgens’ highest-charting single, 2006’s “Breaking Free,” with Zac Efron and Andrew Seeley peaked at #4. It’s a 5.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2016 Saturday Night Live skit where Ariana Grande parodies Britney Spears’ singing in “…Baby One More Time:”
(Ariana Grande will eventually appear in my The Ones of the ‘10s column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Anne-Marie parodied the “…Baby One More Time” music video in the video for her 2018 track “2002” and also references the song on its chorus. Here’s the video:
(As a lead artist, Anne-Marie peaked at #11 with 2018’s “Friends” with Marshmello. As a featured artist, Anne-Marie’s highest-charting hit was 2017’s Clean Bandit and Sean Paul collaboration “Rockabye” which peaked at #9. It’s a 6.)