Happy 20th birthday to Britney Spears’ debut album …Baby One More Time, released on January 12th, 1999 — a truly avant-garde full-length that permanently changed how music sounded. The Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync were having hits already, but they were doing straight-up mainstream pop compared to the alien apocalyptic robot-disco stomp of Britney. You could argue the BSBs’ “I Want It That Way” was the last gasp of 20th-century pop, just as “ …Baby One More Time” was the first gasp of the 21st. She’s been predicting the future ever since.
Not bad for a small-town Louisiana teen making her first record. Max Martin wrote and produced the title hit, but it wouldn’t have meant a thing without the menacing way she growls “ooh, baby, baby.” As Britney told me in 2000, she spent the night before the session listening to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” (“what a sexy song”), her model for the vibe she was going for. “I wanted my voice to be kind of rusty,” Britney told me. “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 sexy. So I kept telling myself, ‘Britney, don’t get any rest.’”
It makes all the sense in the world Britney was aiming to sound like “Tainted Love” — the breathy New Wave decadence of a U.K. art poseur flouncing like a Motown diva. But she took that erotic-cabaret sound somewhere new, with her own down-home growl. “I was praying every night,” she said. “ ‘God, please, help them play it on just my radio station at home.’ And then they did. Then all of a sudden, it’s playing on all the big radio stations in New York. And everything just started happening for me, and I was just like, wow, you know?”
The title hit is such a classic, it’s easy to overlook how weird and disturbing it sounded when it first hit MTV in time for Christmas 1998 — so flamboyantly artificial, so post-Mentos inhuman. Who was this? Was she Swedish or Swiss or Icelandic? Was she just Not of This Earth? You could tell the lyrics were written by somebody who’d barely met the English language — oh, that irritating ellipsis in the title. (I ignore the ellipsis whenever possible, because as Brit would say, it’s my prerogative.) But there was something otherworldly about it. TLC later claimed they turned down the song, but it would have been all wrong for TLC or any other certified grown-ups. Can you imagine a worldly-wise adult like T-Boz selling a teen-psycho line like “When I’m not with you, I lose my mind”? No way. Only Britney.
The whole album was packed with hits. “Bops” and “bangers” were not invented yet, but I move that “Soda Pop” get grandfathered in as a bop — a bizarro reggae move as irie as Sugar Ray. “E-Mail My Heart” is the most-mocked track (justifiably, I admit), but it stands as the last great dial-up love song, a ballad of desktop-computer romance from the age of Angelfire and Geocities. Britney spends the song hitting refresh, looking for some sign of validation from her crush — is that so different from how we all spend our time now? Yet another future she predicted.
“(You Drive Me) Crazy” blatantly used the exact same backing track as the Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life” — Max Martin, have you no shame? — but somehow that just made us all love both songs even more. (“Larger Than Life,” the boy band’s girl-almighty salute to their fans, was the perfect feminist turf for them to share with their Brit-muse.) “Crazy” became the theme for the Melissa Joan Hart/Adrian Grenier rom-com and its MTV video, where she and Melissa immortalized their all-too-brief BFF status. (The world deserved more “Brit pretends to be a waitress” videos.) The ladies bonded in her iconic guest turn on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Sabrina: “You’re always surrounded by people!” Britney: “Sometimes that’s the loneliest place to be.” Too real.
But the lost classic is “Sometimes,” which became her all-important second hit. (In 1999, a year full of one-hit wonders, the jump from one-hit to two-hit status was tougher than the jump from zero to one.) “Sometimes” is weirdly forgotten today, but much more than “ …Baby One More Time,” it defined the Britney persona the world would come to know and love over the years. She sings in the voice of an ordinary American girl with too many feelings — everything she spent her first hit pretending not to be. In the video, she mopes around the beach sighing over the cute guy (she creep-peeps him via tourist binoculars). Nobody understands except her squad of elfin dancers, who frolic around her in a heart-shape on the pier. “Sometimes” made her a mainstream star and pushed what could have been a one-shot into a franchise wearing Vegas plates. Blink-182 got famous parodying it in their career-making “All the Small Things.” This was also the hit where Brit debuted her signature video move, rolling up her eyes at the camera. The Sensitive Upblink became her trademark, and she owned it until Ariana Grande came along — in Ari’s “Problem” video, she finally shattered Britney’s record for upblinks-per-minute.
Britney ends the album perfectly by making her explicit claim on the grand pop tradition, covering Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On.” Brit and Cher had a deep connection — she was just a little kid when she started belting “If I Could Turn Back Time” on the state-fair circuit. It began the tradition of Brit’s awesomely sacreligious cover versions, from the Stones’ “Satisfaction” (on her next album, changing “how white my shirts could be” to “how tight my skirt should be”) to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock & Roll.” “The Beat Goes On” sums up everything Britney does on this album — inserting herself (and her audience) into the story of pop music. Like the song says, “History has turned the page.” La-di-da-di-di. La-di-da-di-da. The beat goes on.
After “The Beat Goes On” fades out at the end of the CD, there’s a spoken-word thank-you from Brit. “It means so much to me that you enjoy listening to my songs as much as I love singing them!” Then she gives a preview of the upcoming release by her labelmates the Backstreet Boys: “Hit it, guys!” In other words, her debut album ends with an ad, which is perfect in itself. The CD single “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart” had another message, one to put on your answering machine: “Hi, this is Britney Spears and sometimes my friend can’t come to the phone, and this is one of those times. So leave your message at the beep and baby, they’ll call you back one more time!”
“So much attitude in that song,” Britney told me in 2000, recalling the moment she first heard the demo of her first hit. “I was so happy because there’s a lot of good songs out there, but it’s rare when you can take a song and really put your name all over it and put your personality into it.” That’s what she achieved on her debut. She’d go on to make more albums, score more hits, inspire more scandalous headlines. But on …Baby One More Time, she proved she was here to stay.