Music

Revisited: Britney Spears’ ‘Baby One More Time’, 16 Years On

If you're familiar with the modern myth of Lolita, it was clear how this was going to pan out.

This article was originally posted in April.

1998: the era of spaghetti straps, Y2K and Dawson’s Creek. Heads were topped with highlights and frosted tips, and women had weird hair too.

Sixteen years ago today, Britney Spears released ‘…Baby One More Time’, the first single of her debut album, which became a cultural touchstone for an entire generation.

The song topped charts across the world, claiming the number one spot on Australia’s ARIA charts — which back then was determined by the sale of actual physical CD singles. While you try and recall what CDs looked like, let’s look back at how a sweet Southern gal got literally messed up by the bad old business of pop. It’s Britney, bitch!

The Late ’90s, When Pop Ruled

By 1999, pop music had long wrestled grunge off the top spot of cultural dominance, thanks in no small part to five charismatic pop starlets ‘zig-a-zig-ahh’ing their way into the hearts and underarms of young girls everywhere (AND SOME COOL YOUNG GUYS, OKAY). And if the Spice Girls were the spark that lit the flame, then Britney was the bushfire.

Britney-Spears-Christina-Aguilera-The-Mickey-Mouse-Club

From bottom left: Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, three other people.

Britney Jean Spears emerged into cultural consciousness as teenage virgin from the deep South of America, a former Mouseketeer with an athletic body, great dance moves, and a singing voice like a baby with a cold trying to do a Jessica Rabbit impersonation.

So how was it that Britney Spears and ‘…Baby One More Time’ became the generation-defining pop event that we didn’t even realise we needed?

The Song

As a pop song, ‘…Baby One More Time’ is pretty damn great. It opens with a sting of piano (DA-DUM-DUM) that instantly identifies it, not unlike the opening of ‘Crazy in Love’, or the Law and Order segue. What follows is a trope of late ’90s pop motifs: affected vocal lines, snare drums, and wah-wah guitar. The breakdown with chimes and heartfelt piano lets you take a big dramatic breath before ramping back up to the end of the track.

Lyrically, Britney breathe-sings her way though standard pop themes, e.g. ‘love good; heartache bad’; ‘I can’t live without you’; ‘come back to me.’ But what set it apart in 1999 was a momentarily jarring lyric around which the song is built, in which Britney asks her beau to “hit” her “one more time”. There are not-so-subtle connotations of domestic violence or drug use on display, but don’t worry — Brit’s just playing, y’all! This nubile yet infantilised teenage girl just wants one more opportunity to show her rejected sweetheart how she feels.

Like a significant number of incredible pop songs, ‘…Baby One More Time’ was produced by Swedes — specifically Max Martin, Rami Yacoub and Denniz Pop (shockingly, not his birth name) who between them have written or produced exactly one bazillion hits. Originally rejected by Backstreet Boys and TLC (who passed on it because of the potential lyrical undertones of domestic violence), Spears’ management thought their newly-signed 15-year-old ex-Mouseketeer would be the perfect vehicle.

‘…Baby One More Time’ was a global pop phenomenon, retaining the #1 spot here in Australia for nine weeks. Before artists like Beyoncé were basically Netflixing entire visual albums, the music video was a singular piece of marketing – and Britney’s debut does not disappoint.

The Video

Spears’ arrival as the new Princess of Pop was tightly bound to her debut incarnation, forever linked to her brand as pop star/icon. Who can name Britney Spears without conjuring the image of her as uniformed schoolgirl, skirt hiked up and midriff exposed, provocatively dancing down a high school hallway?

Slickly edited, the video is a genius piece of marketing, revelling in Spears’ baby doll beauty, accomplished dance moves, and subsequently toned physique. It begins with impatient schoolgirl Spears killing time until the clock strikes three. As the track kicks off, Britney leads a phalanx of other private school girls dancing down the hall for their male counterparts.

There is a high amount of dancing in the video, playing to Spears’ strengths. Her acting in the clip is (thankfully) limited to wistful looks towards her scorned ex, played by Britney’s REAL LIFE COUSIN (“Just keepin’ it Southern, y’all!”).

The midriff dance-a-thon in the school gymnasium comes to an abrupt end with Britney doing a high leg, crotch-revealing kick direct to camera (“There’s more of this coming soon, y’all!”) as the school bell rings, with all the teens dutifully rushing out (presumably to class and not straight under the bleachers). The final shot is a return to schoolgirl-Britney, back where we first found her, smiling secretly to herself (“It was only a daydream, y’all!”).

Catchy hook + sexy-yet-innocent music video = a star is born.

The Legacy

Other popstars quickly followed Britney’s lead, but none could reach her level of success. Coming right behind Britney was fellow Mouseketeer and the eternal Jan Brady to Britney’s Marcia, Christina Aguilera, creating the perfect marketing binary: the illusion of competition. And of course who could forget Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, genre-jumpers Gwen Stefani and Jewel, and a number of Disney TV series aimed at extending the teen pop fantasy — thanks to which we now have Miley Cyrus, who shares both manager and trajectory with Spears.

‘…Baby One More Time’ was the hook from which the rest of Britney’s career was hung: an adult woman forever dressed as a fantasy schoolgirl. Madonna’s conical bra and Kylie’s hotpants may similarly capture those stars in a particular moment in time, but both were already established, confident, adult women. Britney grabbed our attention as girl-not-yet-woman, and profited from her image as a chaste Christian teen. She even had a sweet, steady boyfriend in fellow ex-Mouseketeer and N*SYNC frontman Justin Timberlake.

NEVER FORGET DOUBLE DOUBLE DENIM.

NEVER FORGET DOUBLE DOUBLE DENIM.

Thanks to the ensuring media circus that has followed Spears’ entire career, we later learnt that Britney was indeed “not that innocent”. Her oft-speculated breasts were fake, her much-lauded virginity had been lost while she still was barely out of mouse ears, and she broke poor Justin Timberlake’s heart.

We smelled blood in the water, and we wouldn’t rest until we turned her to chum.

The Meltdown

Following the incredible success of ‘…Baby One More Time’, Spears was essentially beatified as a cultural icon before she’d even finished puberty. It was almost inevitable she’d begin to exhibit signs of not handling fame, culminating in that infamous head-shaving, umbrella-wielding meltdown.

Throughout her entire career, Spears has been the perfect buffet meal in an era of rapidly increasing media consumption. While the ‘damaged diva’ narrative is not new (Vanity Fair still manages to sell magazines poking at the long-dead body of Marilyn Monroe), Britney came of age as our diet for entertainment news and content evolved with the 24 hour news cycle. We have been consistently consuming and regurgitating Britney Spears for 15 years now.

Was Britney a product of the era, or perfectly crafted to suit it? Looking back on the period following ‘…Baby One More Time’, she was marketed as the perfect pop star for the early millennium. It was a time when Christian values, specifically Southern values, affected US global policy, and Britney was essentially a Pepsi-drinking one-woman USO show. She could have easily been the daughter of then-President Bush, convincingly playing the part of a southern girl who espoused Christian values while her political ‘father’ waged a war on anything that didn’t conform to the idea of the free market.

Like Bush, Britney was less the mastermind of her fame, and more the vessel. That period of post-9/11 and freedom fries is remembered largely as one of extreme hypocrisy, where profiteering and nationalism hid behind the quest for freedom and democracy. To be fair, the comparison should end there: one of these examples inflicted torture on the innocent, and the other started the Iraq War. J/K, ya’ll!

Britney Baby One More Time

If you’re familiar with the modern myth of Lolita, it was clear how this was going to pan out. We can’t take advantage of an innocent girl then feign dismay when she ends up essentially barefoot, (twice) pregnant and emotionally damaged. In coveting this Lolita, we are all pop cultural Humbert Humberts, prematurely penetrating her with constant scrutiny and growing appetites.

An internet humourist far funnier/crueler than me once described Britney Spears’ career as “how we filled the sad, lonely years between the release of ‘Ray of Light’ and the invention of Lady Gaga.” Perhaps the problem is that we never expected the Britney buffet to last even that long. Each time we’ve sacrifice her to our appetites, Spears has re-emerged, a little more damaged and misshapen, but somehow still walking and talking (if barely singing and dancing).

Instead of applauding her resilience, perhaps we could help her stop begging to be hit one more time.

Nic’s writing has appeared in Hello Mr Magazine, Star Observer, The Needle Prick Project, and Cosmopolitan. You can find him on Twitter @nicheholas, or in his role as co-founder of HIV social umbrella The Institute of Many