Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time kicked open the doors for a generation of pop provocateurs
Original release date: January 12, 1999
In the hands of any other pop star, a song like …Baby One More Time would have just been a hit. At the command of Britney Spears, the song – and its subsequent album of the same title – altered the course of pop music and launched the career of one of the most successful recording artists of all time.
…Baby One More Time is iconic. At just 17 years old, Britney Spears shouldn’t have become the biggest star on the planet. Commercial pop in the 90s had centred around boy bands, Britpop, balladeers and female singer-songwriters like Alanis Morissette. Hell, even Madonna had gone all Earth Mother by 1997. Britney, with her pigtails and girl-next-door charm, was somehow an oddity.
This underdog status gave Britney Spears space to experiment with her place in music. Pop’s box ticking didn’t apply, which gave her the ability to carve out her brand: pop focused specifically on the experience of young women and teen girls, performed by a young woman living out those experiences in real time. Singing about the hyperbolic highs and lows of love, heartbreak, sexuality and the hedonism of adolescence, Britney’s seemingly naive allure became her weapon. Presented as the relatable, down-to-earth Southern belle she was, the public’s opinion of her was often limited to just that. Her intelligence and self-awareness, however, broke through to her fans at full speed. Britney represented every underestimated teenage girl around the world.
In 1999, …Baby One More Time was the catalyst for pop’s revolution. Britney was the self-aware pop rebel, flirting with controversy and public opinion from the offset. The commercial music of the 90s had become stale and Britney – perfectly coquettish, intensely relatable and vocally distinctive – was the perfect antidote.
And it all started with …Baby One More Time. With her malleable vocals and enviable star power, …Baby One More Time introduced the world to her chameleonic approach to pop. Britney Spears attacked genre like a master curator, picking sounds and sonic flavours with bold-faced shamelessness. On …Baby, she doesn’t so much interpolate different genres, but stitches them together through inventive production to create monstrous pop hits.
Songs like Thinkin’ About You weld together R&B and funk with bubblegum production. (You Drive Me) Crazy takes scuzzy guitars and glues them to disco and dance-pop. On Soda Pop, Britney’s does her best Mariah Carey-meets-Toni Braxton impression on top of dancehall beats and acoustic guitars. A song like Born to Make You Happy takes on the watery texture of trip-hop and marries it with dance beats to create a song that, somehow, drips in inescapable melancholia. Britney, quite bizarrely, even rounds out the album by a souped-up cover of Sonny and Cher’s The Beat Goes on, subtle hints of the vocal filters that would later go on to characterise her career.
We may not immediately think of Britney as the blueprint, but her off-centre approach to pop became today’s standard. The democratisation of music has diversified people’s tastes while also opening up avenues for artists to explore different sounds. Popstars like Charli XCX have adopted Britney’s chameleon pop, taking it into the future with genre-bending mixtapes like Pop 2 and Number 1 Angel. Newcomers like Rina Sawayama owe much to Britney’s shapeshifting sonic exploration, proving once again that it’s possible to colour outside the lines of pop’s expectations while embracing its most recognisable tropes.