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How “…Baby One More Time” changed pop music

How “…Baby One More Time” changed pop music

Twenty-year-old earwormsHow “…Baby One More Time” changed pop music

Such a potent combination of song, star and marketing has rarely been seen since its release two decades ago

Prospero

THERE have been many significant and powerful entries into the music industry. With the whimsical “Wuthering Heights” Kate Bush became, at 19 years old, the first female artist to top the British charts with a self-penned song. “I Want You Back”, one of many timeless numbers to roll off Motown’s famed production line, signified the start of the Jackson dynasty. When punk arrived in the 1970s it brought with it many arresting anthems: the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”, the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” and the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” . The greatest debut in the world of pop music took place 20 years ago, on October 23rd 1998. The first offering from a teen from Kentwood, Louisiana, named Britney Spears, the song began with three piano chords and an uncanny voice: “Oh baby, baby…”

“…Baby One More Time”, a plaintive lament on loneliness and longing, was a phenomenon. It reached the number one spot in every country in which it charted. It sold nearly 500,000 copies in its first week in Britain in February 1999 and went on to become the biggest single there that year, shifting 1.4m copies in total. Driven by the song’s impact, an LP of the same name sold 8.3m copies in America in 1999. After a decade of rap, rave and alternative rock, here was something that cut straight to the heart and emotional angst of teenagers, offered by an approachable young singer.

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It was written and produced by Max Martin, who said that the memorable melody came to him as he fell asleep (the Swedish musician is also responsible for the song’s strange turn of phrase, thinking that “hit” was American slang for “telephone”). Ostensibly bubblegum pop, there is an undercurrent of funk in “…Baby One More Time”, with wah-wah guitars, slap bass and those same three chords recurring throughout. The song exercises power and conviction without straying into melodrama. Backup singers join Ms Spears in a swelling crescendo as she cries “my loneliness is killing me” and “give me a sign”, but fall away for the more confessional verses and interlude to create contrast and drama (it is a karaoke classic for precisely this reason). It was neither as schmaltzy as Mr Martin’s earlier work with the Backstreet Boys, nor as vigorous as his later hits with Kelly Clarkson.

Mr Martin has said that Ms Spears’s performance elevated his work as she had a “good sense of catching the melody, performing it, taking it to another level”. Indeed, there is something about the song that seemed perfectly suited to Ms Spears, then 16 years old. Snide commentary that she was a manufactured star designed to target certain demographics missed the mark: she understood that Mr Martin’s lyrics harnessed the irrational urgency of teenage emotions, and delivered that message with honesty.

“…Baby One More Time” had been shopped around to popular acts like TLC and Robyn but, fortuitously for the teenage singer, they turned it down on account of the words, which they thou ght might be misconstrued as referring to either violence or sex. It was in fact that ambiguity that generated interest among some listeners. The lines were blurred further with the release of the song’s music video in November 1998, where Ms Spears appeared as a bored Catholic schoolgirl, her hair in scrunchies and her shirt tied up to reveal her midriff. Much of it was the singer’s idea: she wanted the video to have dance scenes and reflect the lives and interests of her fans. Critics have commented on the disturbing coquettishness of the video, but it, too, was a hit. In 2008, MTV’s “Total Request Live” show deemed it the most “iconic” video broadcast in the show’s history.

Pop music is renowned as fickle and always in search of the next big thing, but “…Baby One More Time” has endured. It remains catchy and captivating 20 years later; to date, the song has sold more than 10m copies worldwide. Even Rolling Stone and VH1, outlets which have ten ded to prefer rock music, include it in their lists of the greatest songs of all time. That is partly the move towards “poptimism”â€"a sense that the genre deserves the same critical appraisal as other artformsâ€"but it is also because it is an example of pitch-perfect songwriting matched with a talented and appealing performer. It was bound, in the words of an executive at Jive, Ms Spears’s recording label, to be “a fucking smash”.

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