Sep 14

BRITNEY SPEARS – “…Baby One More Time”

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#817, 21st February 1999

bomt How was I supposed to know that something wasn’t right?

It was a gilded age: the commercial zenith of the music industry at the end of the 20th century. In America, its apex as a money-making force came in 1999 when – adjusted for inflation – $71 per head was spent on music, a small box set for every man, woman and child in the country. Other countries hit the summit a little later, but they hit it. Did the industry see a crisis coming? Certainly – the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed in the USA weeks after “….Baby One More Time” was released. But the biz was surely overconfident, it had seen its way through busts before. In 1981, when Britney Jean Spears was born, the industry was financially stagnant, caught in a recession-hit decline after the unsustained mini-boom of disco. It climbed back thanks to technology, and kept climbing. CD revenues rose and rose, and the machine to ensure they would not stop rising grew slicker and faster: radio, TV, promoters, manufacturers, labels, press and retailers meshing ever more efficiently in the pursuit of getting people to take home silver discs. And here we are at the top of the growth charts: peak pop.

The idea that pop had become mechanised soon became a weapon against the industry, a justification for forcibly free music. The list of those grew very familiar in the early 00s: rising CD prices, the mistreatment of artists by rapacious labels, convenient info-utopian philosophy – these reasons were regularly joined by “manufactured pop”. If the product was worthless and generic, why not just take it? And if you were to ask these pirate revolutionaries, who makes manufactured pop? Name me an act – I suspect Britney Spears would have been quick to their lips. Every ancien regime needs its Marie Antoinette.

So it’s time to dig into what “manufactured” means. Because, unquestionably, Britney was trained and raised as an entertainer from a very young age – even if the decision to make her a solo pop star was taken relatively late. And the pop world she emerged into was massive and complex and finely geared, not quite as businesslike as a Unilever or a Glaxo SmithKline, particularly at the edges, but aspiring in that direction. “Machine” doesn’t seem an awful description of it.

At the same time “manufactured” has an inevitably disdainful edge never really felt by other labels in other times who applied production-line principles to their music: Motown, most obviously, whose industrialisation of soul was generally described with purring approval for Berry Gordy’s Fordist vision of pop. And why not? The music was brilliant. Something else is happening when Britney and her peers are called manufactured. The implication is not just that the songs or playing are kit-built, but that the performers themselves are interchangeable, barely more than automatons. If millennial pop is a machine, then – according to this idea – Britney is not the owner or the operator, merely the product.

Do we need a different metaphor? Does Britney deserve one?

One hint towards an answer comes from listening to “…Baby One More Time”. Because, fifteen years on, two things jump out at me. One is, yes, how steely and immediate and effective this is compared to the (often very charming) bubblegum of Billie, B*Witched et al. “…Baby One More Time” is a ruthlessly lean, superbly constructed pop song: a track with awesome momentum earned by impressive economy, where every note or idea leads to a payoff, and each payoff sets up the next one. It’s a song with a fantastic ending – that final touchdown of “hit me baby one more time!” – but that ending is earned by the bit before where Britney drops the “I must confess / that my loneliness…” bridge, which in turn draws power from being a sneaky inversion of the rest of the song (where it’s the belief she’s confessing, not the loneliness), and so on all the way back to the iconic intro, a four-note knock on fame’s door given in full confidence it will be answered.

But the second thing that jumps out at me is that, for all the clockwork marvels of the construction – something she had nothing much to do with – what “….Baby One More Time” really, really sounds like is a Britney Spears song.

There have been an endless stream of studio leaks, abandoned vocal takes and live howlers which – apparently – prove how weak Britney’s untreated vocals are. But however they got that way, the vocals that appear on record aren’t just competent, they’re distinctive – Britney-as-vocalist may not have much range or skill but texturally her throaty southern cluck is unmistakable. It’s a percussive instrument – that first “oh bay-beh BAY-beh” and the pause straight after it is classic Britney. As of “…Baby One More Time” her voice is still the lead instrument – it’s not until the breakthrough into full-on R&B and club pop that she (and the producers) can really start playing with it, and with her role in the song. As such it has to do things it isn’t totally suited to – the melisma on “how could I have let you go-oh-oh-oh” stretches her thin, for instance. But even at this very early stage there’s no mistaking her.

So Britney isn’t interchangeable – but might she still earn that manufactured tag by being an automaton, a producer’s puppet?

Questions of agency in this high-stakes, professionalised form of pop are very murky. For instance, take two central decisions around Britney’s first single, ones that critically shaped what ended up in front of the public: what the music sounded like, and what the video looked like. In both cases, we know what Britney wanted. For the music, she would have preferred Sheryl Crow-style AOR – a good fit for her husky voice – and acquiesced to her management or label’s wish for bright, upbeat dancepop. (On the album, traces of AOR creep in – odd guitar solos here and there, though this may just be a natural function of bored session musicians doodling in the margins of a teenpop record).

For the video, meanwhile, her managers wanted something generically romantic – the singer and some hot dude or other. Britney had other ideas: she suggested the school setting and the dancing. Which, very obviously, works a lot better – it keeps the focus on her, fits the song (she’s dumped the guy, so best to keep him as a marginal presence), puts it in a setting her audience knows, and most crucially gives a better showcase for her dancing.

(Which is all the video looks like now, midriffs and all – a perpetual-motion song-and-dance number, its controversial sting long drawn by shifting standards. There are better records to talk about how the media obsessed over Britney’s sexuality – and how the Britney publicity machine fuelled that. For now, it’s enough to note that some of the Baby One More Time era coverage, like her first Rolling Stone story (“INSIDE THE HEART, MIND AND BEDROOM OF A TEEN QUEEN”, Britney clutching a plush Teletubby on the cover) surely stepped over a line into creepy Lolita territory. For me the video doesn’t get there, though the furore around it helped set the future press agenda.)

Both these decisions – the musical one Britney disagreed with, and the visual one she came up with – were the right ones, crucial to the single becoming a sensation. If we’re keeping a creative autonomy scorecard, this is a creditable tie. But the whole debate over who came up with what is also a red herring. Even if Britney had zero input into anything, it’s her name up there in lights – the whole enterprise depends on her. The idea that you can dig into the credits and origins of modern corporate pop to find secret lines of creativity and influence is a true one. But to imagine those stories are more important than the public ones can be a seductive fantasy of insider knowledge. Britney Spears, like every modern pop star, is the frontwoman of her own career: the story begins with her. It’s like politics, that other great bit of modern theatre: every candidate is the creature of a party machine. But the individual candidates – their strengths, foibles and priorities – matter. They are the story.

So if “manufactured” is unfair, what is the right metaphor for Britney’s relationship to the pop machine? Scanning the pop culture of the late 90s gives us a better possibility: mecha, the Japanese anime genre where beautiful, tragic youth fuse themselves to sublime, state of the art machines. Britney is not the machine’s puppet; she’s its pilot.

Pop culture’s relationship to “the system” – the societal machines it exists within – is regularly rewritten. The 21st century is a cybernetic era defined by the power (and vulnerability) of complex, interdependent global systems – the climate, the economy, the internet. So the inescapable symbiosis of human and machine – and how the doomed symbiotes cope with it – is as relevant and resonant a cultural metaphor in the 00s as ideas of “the road” and flight from the system were in the 50s and 60s. And such fusions became the dominant form of pop – singers and performers in entwined collaboration with nomadic producers who might end up superstars themselves.

The specific machine that Britney is piloting has a well-known engineer: Max Martin, writing and producing his first number one record as part of his Cheiron Studios production team. Even fans who have never begun to map the circuitry of contemporary pop have heard of Max Martin – and “…Baby One More Time” was a compelling introduction. Those big percussive chords – a statement of intent at the start of the single – became a signature trick of Cheiron and its later imitators. Martin was in a hard rock band at one point before hooking up with the late Denniz Pop and the other Cheiron boys, and you can hear the unashamed, aggressive theatricality of glam threaded through his work.

“Baby One More Time” has other debts to pay, though. It’s shot through with imagery of religious faith and doubt – “I confess”, “I still believe”, “Give me a sign” – and I don’t think it’s fanciful to hear traces of other 90s Swedish pop: the grandiose post-ABBA kitsch of Alexander Bard’s Army Of Lovers project. Their mighty and absurd “Crucified” is a prototype for the kind of fervour “Baby One More Time” trades in. Queen meets ABBA, then: not a bad marker to put down.

But the religious overtones in Britney’s song are mostly there as intensifiers for her emotional state: they raise the stakes, putting a reunion with an ex on the level of spiritual salvation, and making present despair seem starker. This is the thing about the “pilot” metaphor for 21st century machine pop: in mecha stories, the focus isn’t usually on the machines but on the young people inside them and their emotional arcs. And “…Baby One More Time” introduces a major emotional motif in Britney’s pop – doomed, melodramatic, helpless obsession. Not since some of the darker corners of the Shangri-La’s catalogue and the 60s girl group boom has a pop star been so abject, so often, as Britney Spears.

It’s the paradoxes that give “Baby One More Time” its power – a song of self-negating regret performed and choreographed as a statement of total confidence. A generational shift in pop that’s also a restatement of one of its oldest and truest beliefs – that teenage feelings matter, even the dumb and disastrous ones. An ebullient new star born at the onset of the industry’s long twilight. The machine pop age “Baby One More Time” heralds will be one whose pleasures generally come shadowed by complications. In this case – as with all her records when I listen to them now – the shadow is cast not by Britney’s youth, but by her future. The sixteen year old raised to be a star with the drive to insist that her first video be made on her terms is now thirty-two: for the last six years her life and finances have been under the total legal control of her father. Britney’s story, like the record industry’s, has so far not ended happily. Its beginnings, at least, were magnificent.

(This entry, and probably most of the Britney ones, is indebted especially to Isabel Cole’s Britney Week on One Week One Band. Thanks!)



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  1. 31
    Tom on 29 Sep 2014 #

    #29 “Good Vibrations” isn’t a great comparison – I don’t think Max Martin has ever really gone for that kind of ambitiously symphonic expansion of his style, he’s an iterative producer more than an experimental one. (There are more experimental producers on the horizon, though none have the kind of monomaniacal desire to make THE GREAT SINGLE that helped send poor Brian mad). A better comparison might be “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, a record I like less than this.

    Britney’s staunchest fans would find it hard to deny, I think, that (like Elvis) she does not express herself best through the medium of interview.

  2. 32
    iconoclast on 29 Sep 2014 #

    #31: I presume by “#29” you really mean “#28”?

  3. 33
    Andrew Hickey on 29 Sep 2014 #

    Re: the Max Martin thing — Tom’s point seems reasonable to me. I was a sneery rockist Mojo reader when this came out, and I remain completely ignorant of any post-2001 pop music except what I heard in a brief period working in an office that had pop radio playing in 2004. *I* know Martin’s name, which suggests he’s permeated into the general consciousness as much as, say, Stock-Aitken-Waterman or Holland-Dozier-Holland or Diane Warren…

  4. 34
    mapman132 on 29 Sep 2014 #

    #30 That’s actually a very good point – it’s also why even in an era of ascendant single sales due to downloads, the likes of Bieber have never had a US #1 and probably never will (he’s topped the sales chart, but God help the DJ who attempts to play Bieber on the radio).

  5. 35
    Mark M on 29 Sep 2014 #

    Re28/31: I’d argue there is zero correlation between being a good interviewee and actually being good at whatever it is you’re being interviewed about.

    Which is not to say that being a good interviewee isn’t a very useful skill for anyone who wants to be a popstar etc. In the context of public discussion of the arts, Roland Barthes’ Death Of The Author is a chronic non-starter.

  6. 36
    Tom on 29 Sep 2014 #

    I think being a smart, articulate interviewee is likely to be one of the factors that make people more likely to believe you have plenty of autonomy and agency within your career. And from a fan perspective good interviewees are more relatable for me too – but these days boring interviews are as much a consequence of close PR management as they are any characteristic of the artist, something you can immediately tell by comparing certain interviewees with their Twitter feeds…

  7. 37
    JLucas on 29 Sep 2014 #

    Is Max Martin the Phil Spector of modern pop?

    Not to cast any aspersions on his personal life, but musically you could make a strong case. …Baby One More Time is the culmination of his reinvention of a classic pop trope – the pretty young ingenue expressing broad, simple emotions (albeit with a potentially dark undercurrent). Britney is on her way to becoming a major star, but right now she’s everygirl – limited voice, unthreateningly pretty, the school uniform was a genius move not because it titillated older men but because it created a mirror into which her audience could see themselves.

    Martin and Denniz Pop had already had a few hits – honing their craft working with local artists to moderate success (‘Tell Me What You Like’, a 1998 Eurohit for Pop’s wife Jessica Folcker, is essentially a dry run of …Baby One More Time), before graduating to up-and-coming US acts like the Backstreet Boys after Robyn’s early hits caught American ears.

    By the time Britney’s parent album had ended its shelf life, the market was flooded with imitators – Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore – while the pop stars who preceded her were forced to up their game or be swept away (we’ll see how the class of 97-99 accomplished this with varying degrees of success over the next few years).

    The specific shiny pop sound that characterises Britney’s early hits faded out like any other trend, but giant pop choruses never fall out of fashion, and so Martin endures. The pop stars that have enjoyed the greatest success with him in recent years haven’t tended to be the trend-hoppers or the button-pushers, but the more professional, middle of the road pop stars who build their careers on daytime radio and arena tours – P!nk, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry etc. Few producer/songwriters have updated their sound so successfully without really updating it at all.

    The case for the prosecution: He writes so many of these songs, that they must be factory packed, formulaic, soulless, ‘manufactured’. But his biggest hits are far from throwaway. Look at the biggest, most memorable pop hits of every year from 1999 onwards and you can guarantee Martin had a hand in at least one of them. The songs endure.

    Charge #2: Being factory produced, they render the singer interchangable. Sometimes that’s the case. There are Martin songs so straightforwardly good that anybody could make them a hit. But we’ve established that Britney Spears, for all her shortcomings, couldn’t have been a more perfect vessel for this song. By accident or design (it was originally rejected by TLC and 5ive, neither of whom heard anything special in it), it landed in the lap of a pop singer who could render a good song iconic. That’s the magic of pop right there.

  8. 38
    enitharmon on 29 Sep 2014 #

    @33 I used to think a rockist was somebody who did creative things with sugar and peppermint essence until I discovered Popular. And now I find I are one! I don’t think it’s sneery to expect musical performers to be able to sing and/or play their instrument, so “rockist” is a badge I wear with pride.

  9. 39
    AMZ1981 on 29 Sep 2014 #

    The expectation around Blur’s Tender was that it would replace Britney Spears at number one after a week. I recall reading an article in one of the teen magazines (and I can’t recall how I came to be reading it as I certainly didn’t buy it) how the number one spot had been devalued to the point where the next three number ones (this, Blur and the next bunny along) could be easily predicted. Chart watchers breathed a sigh of relief when Britney held on to finally end the run of one week wonders.

    To be fair to Blur Tender did sell enough to scrape into the top forty of the year (which most of the number ones preceding it didn’t) and interestingly managed more weeks in the top ten than their previous lead single from a new album managed in the top forty. However, and if Britney was inescapable on teen pop channels, the serious music press was obsessed with Blur’s upcoming album which was well reviewed and tipped to become a classic; if anything it was almost their Be Here Now. It has its moments (Coffee and TV) but even fans would probably struggle to tell you the last time they played it. Meanwhile a lot of contemporaneous American pop punk (Pretty Fly being an example) still fills floors at rock clubs.

  10. 40
    James Masterton on 29 Sep 2014 #

    Baby One More time sold an astonishing 464,000 copies to debut at the top of the charts. Leaving out the Fucking Diana Record, that was the biggest single week sale by any track since Robson and Jerome did a similar number with Unchained Melody in the summer of ’95, and both were the fastest selling singles since Do They Know Its Christmas did sales of 751K, 960K and 882K in the run up to the end of 1984. This was utterly jaw-dropping stuff.

    And #39 is right, Britney beating Tender to land a second week at the top was a welcome relief after what was becoming a predictable parade of instant Number One hits. I was one of the writers who flagged it up at the time. We’re all hoping Meghan Trainor manages something similar over the next few weeks.

  11. 41
    Rory on 29 Sep 2014 #

    Having spent the weekend practising a Max Martin song for my first ever attempt at karaoke (in a few hours’ time… gulp), it’s good to hear this one again. I don’t think I’d ever seen the video before – my mind was elsewhere in ’99 – and I’m rather bemused that this is what set a thousand tongues wagging. Having moved to the UK during peak paedo-hysteria, I can see why Britney At School would have set off alarms, but really, midriffs = jailbait? Every teenaged girl in the Western world south of 50°N was baring her midriff in the late 1990s. It smacks of that episode of The Goodies where Tim-Brooke Taylor gets over his hangups and puts on a t-shirt with a hole showing off his belly-button.

    The lyrics, too, sound harmless once you hear “hit me” as “give it to me” rather than “I would like some of your finest domestic violence, please”. Sure, the implication of violence is a hook, and an unsettling one if you take it literally, but as the violence equivalent of sexual innuendo it’s hardly Carry On Bashing. It’s no more unsettling than the scores of people who proclaimed Britney Spears the Enemy of Music for daring to have a catchy pop hit, and I remember plenty of those on the mailing lists and Usenet groups of the day. Why does the implication of “hit” have to be literal hitting, anyway? Why not “this song has ‘hit’ written all over it”?

    The key hook for me isn’t that, though, it’s the inflection on “give me a sign”, which sounds like Max Martin’s homage to Benny and Björn.

    A great track. I’d go an 8.

    Not my favourite Max Martin song, though. That would be the scandalously unbunnied “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, which I only have to practice a few more times (along with [bunnied phone-themed 2012 hit] and – I may come to regret this – “Survival” by Muse).

  12. 42
    James Masterton on 29 Sep 2014 #

    I’m sure it doesn’t really need spelling out, but the “hit me” part of the lyric is a cultural reference which didn’t translate properly across the Atlantic.

    Americans came late to the SMS party and even in 1999 many American mobile networks didn’t really do text messaging (and even then your plan still meant you were charged for receipt as well as sending). Instead it was common amongst teens to have two-way pagers, devices on which you could bash out a message and send it to a friend. Getting a message on those was known as “a hit”, hence Britney is asking her beau to drop her a message to let her know he still cares.

    It eventually became argot for any kind of written message, hence Eminem a year or so later writing “hit me back, this is yours, Stan”.

    (oh yes, and Americans being charged to receive SMS messages was arguably what drove the development of alternative online platforms such as BBM and Whatsapp). But anyway Britney, yes. Remember when she was ‘dating’ Justin but claiming to be celibate?

  13. 43
    Andrew Farrell on 29 Sep 2014 #

    #40 Not all of us! #notinmybass

  14. 44
    Rory on 29 Sep 2014 #

    Thanks, James @42, that was news to this non-American, non-teen-in-1999, non-mobile-user-in-1999 non-Britney-obsessive.

  15. 45
    James BC on 29 Sep 2014 #

    Trivia: the song is exactly 3:30 long, which according to the Popjustice website is the ideal length for a pop song. Popjustice generally cites HMBOOT as proof if anyone queries the assertion.

  16. 46
    leveret on 29 Sep 2014 #

    #41 – The (fairly mild) controversy seemed to be more about the presentation of a ‘schoolgirl’ as an object of lust, rather than the midriff-baring per se, if I remember rightly.

    A friend bought the CD single – it included a fold-out poster of an airbrushed Britney, looking like a wholesome corn-fed dolly (somehow I always thought she was a Midwesterner – her Southern roots are news to me), with some schmaltzy gushing ‘handwritten’ note from Brit, saying how delighted she was that you had bought her single. It gave off more of a Debbie Gibson/Amy Grant do-gooder vibe and felt a bit at odds with the image given off by the video.

  17. 47
    Tom on 29 Sep 2014 #

    I think the counter-objection is that the video isn’t really presenting her as an “object of lust” primarily – it’s ensemble dancing in a bunch of outfits, and if you look at a later video (a bunnied one set on Mars springs to mind) which is also an ensemble dance routine, the camera angles are way more obviously salacious. On the other hand, you can perfectly well argue that school uniforms have been so completely appropriated by pervs that there’s no way to do something like the BOMT routines without them looking dodgy.

  18. 48
    mapman132 on 29 Sep 2014 #

    Hey, is that the first animated GIF in the winner’s circle at the top of the page or had I just never noticed before?

  19. 49
    Tom on 29 Sep 2014 #

    It is! A special treat from Steve M. Whether future circle pictures will continue to move is unknown – much as we’d all like to see a bunch of Irish fellas getting on and off their stools, it’s up to him.

  20. 50
    Matt DC on 29 Sep 2014 #

    Is this the moment where the 00s really begin? The first #1 from the generation of pop stars who will dominate most of the next decade, a lot of the faces who start to appear from now on are still prominent today. Britney isn’t quite that any more, but this feels like the start of something, although I think the pop boom that’s about to kick off take a couple of years to filter through to the Number One spot.

  21. 51
    iconoclast on 29 Sep 2014 #

    #38: looks like it’s you and me against the world again, lone voices of reason crying out in the aesthetic wasteland, etc, etc, etc. I’d add “… and to have some form of creative input more substantial than deciding what to wear for the video”, otherwise it’s just another marketing exercise. Never mind; its all part of lifes rich pageant.

    I wouldn’t call myself a “rockist”, though; the distinction between “why should I settle for this when there’s half a century’s worth of vastly superior popular music to listen to instead” and “popular music reached perfection when I was fourteen years old and there’s no reason to listen to anything made afterwards” is a bit too subtle for some people, it seems.

  22. 52
    Steve Mannion on 29 Sep 2014 #

    The GIF comes in anticipation of the impending 15th anniversary of “Burn All GIFs day” and our avoidance of the prospect of bloggers everywhere having had to obtain a licence to GIF: http://www.geek.com/news/today-is-burn-all-gifs-day-566485/

    Worth noting that during Britney’s second week at #1, Blur’s ‘Tender’ was joined by SIX other new entries in the top 10 such was the glut of double-edition/discounted first week sellers. But not even Shawn Mullins himself however could bring her down.

  23. 53
    Kat but logged out innit on 29 Sep 2014 #

    IMPORTANT: Britney does a BACKFLIP in the video! Well, ok, a ‘backwards walkover’. That’s got to be at least a BAGA level 3 badge already. Did Madge ever do a backwards walkover? If she did, it has been blanked out of my mind. In fact the only 90s Popular artist I can think of who has done one in a #1 video is Mel C in ‘Wannabe’ (possibly Howard or Jason in Take That but I think their flipping was mostly early doors, pre-#1s). By all means prove my memory wrong dudes :)

  24. 54
    Steve Mannion on 29 Sep 2014 #

    There’s some background backflippery in the video for Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ iirc, but sadly not from Rick.

    Sadly the video is not on YouTube so we’ll never know for sure.

  25. 55
    Andrew Hickey on 29 Sep 2014 #

    Iconoclast — the only person who’s been called a rockist in this thread is 20-year-old me. By 35-year-old me. Quite why you and Enitharmon have assumed that you were being labelled by that, I don’t know…

  26. 56
    mapman132 on 29 Sep 2014 #

    #52 It seems to have now disappeared from the header. No more smiling Britney for me :(

  27. 57
    thefatgit on 29 Sep 2014 #

    the .gif is still giffing for me ;)

  28. 58
    Andrew Farrell on 29 Sep 2014 #

    I think it’s closer to “A walkover occurs in this video by someone wearing clothes similar to Britney” – said person does a very agile proper backflip later!

  29. 59
    Kat but logged out innit on 29 Sep 2014 #

    Oh my god it’s TRUE, curse my suspended belief! I can’t believe I didn’t twig that all these years. Song now ruined, I revise my score down to a 6 ;_; ;_; ;_;

  30. 60
    Andrew Farrell on 29 Sep 2014 #

    Once again, I have ruined Britnxmas.

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