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.The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.
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.
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 ****ed up story for another column.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ****. So I kept telling myself, ‘Britney, don’t get any rest.'”
Pop music sounds like Britney Spears, too. Britney’s whole life story is so ****ed-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.