Grungy. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall”. 90s music was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era and why is it still important? 60 songs that explain the 90s is back for 30 more episodes to try and answer those questions. Join Alarm Music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla walks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. In Episode 61 of 60 songs that explain the 90s—yes, you read that right – we’re breaking down Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time.”
I think I mentioned at some point that I was dreading this. I was afraid to do it, if we are honest. If I’m being honest. Sufficient. Let’s do it. This week it’s Britney Spears. It’s “…baby again”. It’s time. Here in May 2022, Britney Spears, more than any other human being I’ve mentioned in the previous 60 episodes of this endeavor, is an extremely complicated present tense concern. She’s a walking, talking, dancing, Instagram-dominating minefield of personal and professional, emotional, moral and ethical conundrums. She is an unsettling, if at times quite heartening, ongoing saga.
In how long do you think I can summarize this saga? OKAY. In 2007, while battling for custody of her two children with future ex-husband Kevin Federline, Britney suffered a high-profile public crisis. Stay there. For her own protection – chilling quotes – she was placed in legal conservatorship, a dystopian and infantilizing arrangement in which an armada of lawyers (led primarily by her father, Jamie Spears) controlled Britney’s multimillion-dollar finances, her career and, by extension, most of his life. Britney now says she wasn’t allowed to remarry or have another baby; she now openly describes the treatment under this arrangement as abusive.
This guardianship, which began in early 2008, nevertheless remained in place for the next 13 years. She released a bunch of other albums. (“Piece of Me” from his fifth album, Blackout, from 2007, is the best song of Britney Spears. Just sneaking that here.) In 2013, she hit Vegas. In 2016, the New York Times posted a deep dive into this guardianship, which has galvanized the #FreeBritney movement. A legal and socio-cultural battle on multiple fronts has raged in courtrooms and on the sidewalks outside courtrooms and on TikTok and what have you got for the next five years. Meanwhile, the Britney Spears Streaming Service Documentary Industrial Complex sprung up to document these affairs, and these films were often an opportunity to revisit the first five years of Britney’s career, full of slobbery interviewers and other avatars of what I would euphemistically describe as “one-handed journalism” and predatory paparazzi fucking Justin Timberlake.
Britney prevailed and her conservatorship was dissolved in November 2021, and she will most likely spend the next few years happily pursuing the bejesus of some motherfucker. It wasn’t so fast, as the summaries say, but what are you going to do? There are — there most likely always will be — hourly updates on the life and times of Britney Spears. In fact, we better check real quick if anything is wrong with her today as I write this. Today is Monday, April 11, 2022. There’s probably nothing new to report—SHE IS PREGNANT. We discovered this today. It’s fantastic. Honestly, it’s fantastic. Congratulations Britney and Sam, her husband.
You see, though, this is crap I’m talking about. Part of my fear is just a function of not wanting to be old fashioned. I can’t write, let alone write and then record, a Britney Spears thing fast enough to keep up with the torrent of Britney Spears news. By the time you hear this, Britney Spears will likely have single-handedly terraformed and colonized Mars. That’s fantastic, Britney.
OK, so why am I doing this if I’m so scared to do it?
Because this song is perfect, That’s why. Objectively perfect. Objectively cataclysmic. The exhilarating gasp of the ascent – the melodic, dramatic ascent – of that fucking chorus. It’s been a total anachronism, for about eight years, but this chorus, hearing it now, I imagine a desperate, in love young person – choose your gender, personalize your situation – tapping these lines in a desperate iPhone text message and lover. my loneliness is killing me. i can hear the little one tick tick tick tick when words cross the screen, then are deleted, then cross the screen again. tick tick tick tick. The thirst. The discomfort. Growing despair. Typos. The awful suspicion that you’re going to be “left to read”, as the kids say, or as the kids said, at some point in the last decade I think. Nevermind. Listen: an objectively perfect, cataclysmic chorus tends to cataclysmically resolve – the chorus tends to culminate, melodically and dramatically – with a single word, and so it is, in this case, with the word sign.
And ideally, you bring it home with a title that’s somehow both gleefully disconcerting and overtly disturbing.
This line first hits exactly 60 seconds into the song. The entire song is exactly three and a half minutes long, plus an extra second, to pull you together. 3:31. I don’t want to accept this as a coincidence. Seems accurate to me. It feels mathematical. You can kind of feel the equation. So. “…Baby One More Time” – this ellipse is both disturbing and disconcerting – is the first ultra-blockbuster single from a certain Britney Spears, a Mickey Mouse club former student and native of McComb, Mississippi. She grew up primarily in Kentwood, Louisiana. The song was released in September 1998, when Britney was 16. She’s 17 when the song hits no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1999 – that’s the no. 1 song in America, and eventually about twenty other countries. That same month, January 1999, it served as the opening track on Britney’s ultra-blockbuster debut album, also called … Baby one more time, which also hits no. 1 on the Billboard album charts and eventually sold 14 million copies in the United States alone.
It’s quite mathematical. “…Baby One More Time”, the song, as you may know, was written by rising Swedish mega-producer Max Martin, who co-produced it with fellow prolific Swede Rami Yacoub. Between “…Baby One More Time” and the 1999 Backstreet Boys hit “I Want It That Way” – which we discussed back when our episodes were about a third to a fifth longer than they are now – based on those two songs alone, Max Martin would more or less single-handedly define the sound of global hit pop well into the 21st century. Ecstasy, exuberance, lyrical perplexity, precision, math. He’s a mathematician. Melodic mathematics.
But I’ve said enough math. Enough Max Martin too. We make arbitrary decisions on this show as to what interests us and what doesn’t. No offense to Max, but I’d much rather talk about, say, Britney’s triumphantly apocalyptic diction on the song “…Baby One More Time.” The megaton explosiveness of its syllables. Each syllable triggers a cue. Each syllable leaves a crater. Each breath is a bomb.
To listen to the full episode, click here, and make sure to follow on Spotify and return every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.