Remember Britney Spears’ “… Baby One More Time”? Of course you do! After all, it’s almost as famous today as it was back in the ’90s. The tune is an amazingly catchy bit of bubblegum pop that most of us can’t help but sing along to. But it’s fair to say that the lyrics have raised more than a few questions – and eyebrows – over the years. So what does the song actually mean? Well, there’s a remarkable story behind that.
When “… Baby One More Time” hit the airwaves in 1998, it was like nothing else around. At the time, Aerosmith, The Goo Goo Dolls and Will Smith were the ones to beat. So there wasn’t much music out there that appealed to the typical tween and teenage girl. Sure, there was Brandy and Mariah Carey. But Spears was different. And she was about to change the game.
Then, of course, there was that video. You know the one with 16-year-old Spears dancing about in a school corridor? It genuinely took the world by storm! Music expert John Seabrook told Entertainment Weekly in 2018, “MTV had, up to that point, tried to resist mainstream pop, because they wanted to be perceived as cool… But I think with Britney [Spears], and the video in particular… it really changed MTV.”
But no matter what MTV’s idea of “cool” may have been before, Spears and “… Baby One More Time” redefined it. The song reached number one in multiple countries across the globe. On its very first day of release in the U.S. it sold 500,000 copies, according to The Guardian. And, of course, that’s the kind of success that can change a life in many different ways.
For their retrospective on “… Baby One More Time,” Entertainment Weekly also spoke to John Ivey – president of CHR programming for iHeartMedia. He remembered, “Britney had the second level. People saw this video and thought, what is this girl? Because everybody latched onto this immediately. It wasn’t very long after that, she was on Rolling Stone.” See? Game. Changed.
Spears had suddenly gone from complete unknown to massive star. The media dubbed her “the Princess of Pop,” and it was a title that seemed to suit. Multiple female singers tried to emulate her success in later years – think Mandy Moore and Christina Aguilera – but Spears remained the ruler of that particular music scene.
Times have, of course, changed a lot since 1998. And “… Baby One More Time” is still a popular song – one of the classics of its genre. It’s the sort of tune you might find yourself humming without really paying attention to the lyrics. But public perception of the song has evolved – as has perception of the young woman who sang it.
Many people must have wondered what kind of career the 16-year-old Spears had ahead of her. As it turned out, she remained hugely popular and her talent didn’t go anywhere. But Spears began to experience the same drain on her mental health faced by many young superstars.
Even though Spears didn’t write all of her most popular songs, many of them still seem to reference the troubles she was having in her life. When you look back on them, some lyrics could practically be foreshadowing what was to come. For instance, 2000’s “Lucky” is all about a superstar wondering, “If there’s nothing missing in my life, then why do these tears come at night?”
And 2004’s “Mona Lisa” – which Spears co-wrote with lyricists David Kochanski and Teddy Campbell – hints at an unhappy state of mind as well. She was starting to shed her bubblegum-pop image at that point and aim for a more grownup market. In that particular song, Spears intones, “Everyone’s watching as she starts to fall, they want her to break down.”
Spears was under a lot of pressure as she tried to transition out of being a teen star. Her relationship and subsequent breakup with Justin Timberlake made headlines – and not always good ones. After the split, the latter released his famous song “Cry Me a River,” which everyone knew was really about Spears.
After leaving Timberlake, Spears found love again with Kevin Federline. But there were problems in that relationship, too. They got married very fast and had two children together, but then just after the second birth Spears filed for divorce. Unfortunately, around that point she was starting to display more and more erratic behavior.
It’s very well documented what happened next. In 2007 Spears had a public breakdown, and she ended up being sent to psychiatric hospitals twice the following year. Sadly, the media reaction was far from sympathetic. Jumping back to the lyrics of “Lucky” – Spears really wasn’t supposed to have anything missing from her life.
At the end of 2008 Spears’ father Jamie was granted a conservatorship over her. That meant she could no longer make legal decisions about her own money. Instead, the singer’s father and attorney Andrew Wallet would do so instead. And eyebrows were raised at the time, since conservatorships are usually used for those with severe disabilities.
Interestingly, the conservatorship is still ongoing to this day. But ever since the era of “… Baby One More Time,” Spears has had a vast army of fans on her side. And concern about the conservatorship would eventually grow into a whole movement called #FreeBritney. There have been documentaries about the issue, and other celebrities including Miley Cyrus and Cher have expressed support.
Much has been made about how much agency Spears ever had over her career. Was “… Baby One More Time” a hit because of her talent and media savvy, or because of external forces? Had Spears been basically just a carefully constructed product made to appeal to teenage girls? Well, the answer to that second question would appear to be “no.”
In Entertainment Weekly’s 2018 piece about the creation of “… Baby One More Time,” they spoke to all the people who’d had a hand in the song and video. Barry Weiss – the president of Jive Records – remembered meeting the young Spears for the first time when she came to do an audition.
Weiss said, “[Spears] was wearing a black cocktail dress and high heels. She sang live for us: Whitney Houston ballads, Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton. She really was a good singer. She looked amazing. She was like, 15 years old. And we kind of thought, ‘Wow, this is really left of center. There’s no female pop artist out there right now.’”
John Seabrook remembered to Entertainment Weekly, “Clive Calder – who was the head of Jive – signed her to a provisional contract. This was a very significant moment in pop history: the signing of Britney Spears as a sort of girl-next-door teenager – rather than as a Whitney Houston-esque diva.”
Jive hired Swedish songwriter Max Martin to create a song for their potential new star. He remembered meeting Spears for the first time in the Entertainment Weekly piece, saying, “She was 16. She thought I was a 50-year-old producer from the old school. I had really long hair at the time – I looked like Ozzy Osbourne. It was pretty obvious that she had something, even though she was very quiet and very shy.”
Spears liked Martin upon meeting him, as well. In 2018 she told The Guardian newspaper, “I was pretty young at the time, so I was nervous, but he was so nice and put me right at ease.” She went on, “I think Max [Martin] is a genius. It all just came together and felt right. In my opinion, [he] is the greatest songwriter of all time.”
Anyway, Martin went back to Sweden and began work on “… Baby One More Time.” He told the magazine, “I came up with the melody first. I wrote the chorus; you just hum it in. Thanks to [my co-producer, Rami Yacoub], that song sounds the way it does. He is much more urban and R&B than me. I’m more of a melody man. So, he’s a big reason that the song turned out the way that it did.”
But did you know that the song wasn’t even intended for Spears at first? Weiss remembered, “[Executive] Martin Dodd had this demo, which was then called ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time,’ and he sent it into us and said, ‘This is a song Max had written for TLC, but they didn’t really want to cut the record.’” He went on, “When the song came into us, we thought, let’s cut this with [Spears].”
A backup vocalist named NaNa Hedin also spoke to Entertainment Weekly. She said, “I remember that I thought the song was for teenagers but the production was filled with a grown-up attitude and with sounds that I really liked. I was so impressed by how a guy like [Martin] and the other writers could write lyrics that got into the hearts and spoke to teenage thinking.”
But what did those lyrics actually mean? Of course, despite the title change the bit of the song everyone remembers goes, “Hit me baby one more time.” TLC – the people the song was originally supposed to go to – were reportedly dubious about that lyric, too. And Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins was asked about it back in 2013.
Asked by MTV News what she thought of the song she passed on, T-Boz answered, “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 [Spears], it’s good for her. But was I going to say ‘hit me baby one more time’? Hell no!”
According to Tim Bower’s 2012 book Sweet Revenge: The Intimate Life of Simon Cowell, “… Baby One More Time” almost got sold to Cowell for him to give to Five – the band he was managing at the time. When Martin said no Cowell reportedly told him he was mad, but we know who got the last laugh there!
The “hit me” part of the song also apparently caused troubles, because it was constantly misinterpreted. Seabrook remembered to Entertainment Weekly, “Before the song came out, nobody in America liked the hook, ‘Hit me baby one more time.’” Though there was one simple reason for that – the language barrier between Sweden and America.
Seabrook said, “What it really was was the Swedes using English not exactly correctly. What they really wanted to say was, ‘Hit me up on the phone one more time’ or something. But at that point, [Martin’s] English wasn’t that great. So it came out sounding a little bit weird in English. But when they tried to get him to change it, he said, ‘No, it can’t be changed. That’s it.’”
Barry Weiss told the magazine, “I actually changed the lyric. I was concerned about going to U.S. radio with a song called ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time.’ I don’t know if I’m proud of this or not: I came up with the ‘… Baby One More Time.’” But even today not everyone knows for sure what the lyric means.
The song turned 20 years old in October 2018, and Cosmopolitan magazine ran a headline asking, “Just checking: do you know what ‘… Baby One More Time’ is really about?” The article itself said, “The song – which turns 20 this week – is a beautiful hodgepodge of three piano notes, bubblegum pop goodness, and lyrics that still don’t make sense to this day.”
Even if people don’t understand the “hit me” part of the song, they probably remember the music video, though. The making of it – and Spears’ role in that – also came up in the Entertainment Weekly piece. It was originally supposed to be something very different to how it ended up.
Barry Weiss told the publication, “Nigel [Dick, the director] came up with an idea, like, [Spears] is in outer space. She comes and lands on Mars on a spaceship, and then she breaks into this dance routine.” But Spears herself hated the idea and said, “This is horrible. No way am I doing this. This is really cheesy.”
According to Dick, the whole school theme of the video was Spears’ idea. He told Entertainment Weekly, “Your initial reaction to this is, I’m being told by a 16-year-old-girl what I should do… [But] this girl is 16 and I’m a grown man; perhaps she has a better perspective on her audience than I do. So, I swallowed my pride.”
Speaking to MTV back in 2009, Dick said, “My idea originally was just jeans and T-shirts, and we were at the wardrobe fitting and Britney holds up the jeans and T-shirts and says, ‘Wouldn’t I wear a schoolgirl outfit?’ Every piece of wardrobe in the video came from Kmart, and I was told at the time not one piece of clothing in the video cost more than $17. On that level, it’s real. That probably, in retrospect, is a part of its charm.”
The rest, of course, is music history. As soon as the song was released, good reviews came flooding in. Billboard magazine wrote “‘…Baby, One More Time’ chugs with an insinuating faux-funk beat and super-shiny synths. Spears has a charming kewpie-doll voice that has a soulful quality that leaves the listener intrigued and wondering where she’ll go with time and experience.”
The song quickly went platinum, and Spears also picked up several awards off the back of its success. At the 1999 MTV Europe Awards she won not only Best Song, but also Best Female, Best Pop, and Best Breakthrough Artist. She also performed the song at the 2000 Grammys – although Spears didn’t win that year.
Such is the legacy of “… Baby One More Time” that in 2020 Rolling Stone named it the greatest debut single in music history. The famous publication said that it was “one of those pop manifestos that announces a new sound, a new era, a new century. But most of all, a new star.”
The article went to say that the tune “is an apocalyptic thunder-clap of a song, with Max Martin’s mega-boom production. The only detail he screwed up was the incredibly annoying ellipsis in the title.” But at least now we know why and how it ended up in there!
But jumping back to the present day, fans still worry a lot about Spears’ conservatorship – even though lawyers for her father have insisted everything is fine. No one is sure yet what the future holds for the former child star, they just hope it’s a happy one. That might be why “… Baby One More Time” is so appealing. Regardless of the lyrics, it’s just nice to see the young Spears enjoying her early career so much.