Before Britney Spears was a pop icon, she was just a girl from Louisiana looking for a chance to sing. Her mother’s intuition, the advice of a family friend, and a great demo earned her a solo deal with Jive Records and a narrow escape from a contract with notorious ‘90s conman Lou Pearlman. The deal with Jive Records paired her with master songwriters Max Martin, Denniz Pop, and Rami Yacoub for recording sessions, resulting in Spears’s game-changing debut album, …Baby One More Time. While critics had mixed feelings on the bubblegum pop classic, the album introduced Britney Spears to the world and skyrocketed her career, making her an international pop icon before she could legally drink.
…Baby One More Time is a bubbly, boy-crazy album that carefully walked the line between innocent teenage love and sexy mischief in both execution and promotion. From the release of “…Baby One More Time” it seemed that all eyes were on Spears–some of which were more welcome than others. The media was obsessed with her every move, bolstering her and tearing her down in equal measure, constantly pushing the limits of what was appropriate to say about a teen star. The album brought her to three tours, various awards show appearances and more.
You can’t talk about …Baby One More Time without discussing its title track. What is perhaps Spears’ most iconic song was originally offered to both TLC and British boy band Five, both of whom rejected it. Thankfully, the song landed with Spears, who made it the famed track it is today. “…Baby One More Time” is a catchy breakup song about a girl who’s just looking for her ex to give her any sign, one that blew up with the release of its infamous Catholic school girl music video. The iconic three-note piano intro has been compared to those of “We Will Rock You,” “Start Me Up,” and even the Jaws theme–high praise for someone that was dismissed by many. A range of artists have covered it over the years, including the Dresden Dolls, Bowling for Soup, Ed Sheeran, and of course, the Glee cast in their “Britney/Brittany” episode. With the song selling over 10 million copies and consistently making best pop song lists, Spears couldn’t have debuted with a better single than “…Baby One More Time.”
“Sometimes,” the second single from the album, served as a foil to the angsty, provocative “…Baby One More Time.” “Sometimes” is a ballad about a girl who’s too shy to share her true feelings with her boyfriend. Similar to other ballads like “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart” and the hopelessly dated “E-mail My Heart,” “Sometimes” was praised as a decent ballad with a well-rounded sound, but criticized for being rather forgettable. Album highlights like the dance-y “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” the Natalie Imbruglia-esque ode to dedication “I Will Be There,” her bossa nova-inspired cover of Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” and of course, “…Baby One More Time” were the upbeat, catchy tracks that drew everyone to Spears in the first place.
The album–and by extension, Spears herself–attracted a fair amount of controversy. The “hit me” in “…Baby One More Time” drew concerns for perceived violence, though it was intended as a more innocent take on the slang “hit me up.” While fourth single “Born to Make You Happy” is a catchy song about a young woman being dedicated to her boyfriend, the name can be taken to a more lecherous place by the wrong person–especially considering how young Spears was at the time, and how quick the media and music industry was to sexualize this would-be high schooler. The 1999 Rolling Stone cover story provides a quick snapshot of this revolting tendency. “Britney Spears extends a honeyed thigh across the length of the sofa…The BABY PHAT logo of Spears’ pink T-shirt is distended by her ample chest, and her silky white shorts…cling snugly to her hips. She cocks her head and smiles receptively.” Steven Daly writes, lewdly painting Spears as this generation’s Lolita. It’s absolutely infuriating to revisit.
While not everyone was expressing their opinions exactly like this, they were doing their misogynistic best to belittle pop music, teenage girls, and Spears herself, deciding that she was a vapid flash-in-the-pan pop act that wouldn’t last the next few years. A NME reviewer gave …Baby One More Time a dismal review, saying that “We seem to have reached crisis point: pubescent pop is now so rife that 17-year-old Britney ‘lizard-lounge’ Spears is already halfway through her lucrative showbiz career…hopefully, if she starts to live the wretched life that we all eventually do, her voice will show the scars, she’ll stop looking so fucking smug, she’ll find solace in drugs and we’ll be all the more happier for it. Now grow up, girl. Quick!”. His name has been lost to the internet, but Spears’s sure hasn’t.
While these critics predicted her quick downfall, Spears was breaking commercial records all over the place. …Baby One More Time debuted at the top of the Billboard 200, making her the first new female artist to hold the number one spot on both the Billboard Hot 100 List (“…Baby One More Time”) and the Billboard 200 (…Baby One More Time), and the youngest female artist to do so. Her debut album ultimately sold more than 25 million copies and was certified fourteen times platinum, making it Spears’s best-selling album and one of the best-selling albums of all time. It also earned Spears her first Grammy nominations.
Not everyone ignored these successes. Some recognized that Spears might not be the best singer, but she certainly had that it factor that could change a musical generation. “…Baby One More Time is well-composed, tightly arranged, and even with Spears’s vocal limitations it goes straight for the proverbial pop jugular…[it] will be remembered as one of the cornerstones of pop music in general, and it is a strong front-runner as the prototype for the late 90s pop resurgence,” Amanda Murray of music community Sputnikmusic said. Murray was entirely correct. Spears’s debut not only launched her own international superstardom and her twenty-years-long career, but ushered in a new era for pop music, one where the boy bands of the late ‘90s had to share the stage–and spotlight–with solo female pop acts like Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, and Mandy Moore, creating a teen dream pop boom the likes of which we haven’t seen since.