Britney Spears’s …Baby One More Time Is Weirder Than You Remember

Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

The first time Britney Jean Spears ever left America was to go to Stockholm in 1998. It was spring, and in less than a year, the fruits of ten days of labor there would be out in the universe. With it, the hardest-working, most successful teenage superstar of the 1990s would have a debut album. Prior to that, she was just a 15-year-old Mouseketeer — a former classmate of future ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake, future ex-rival Christina Aguilera, and Ryan Gosling. On her first international voyage away from her small hometown Kentwood, Louisiana, she met a bunch of bearded Swedish producer-songwriter dudes (no disrespect to the now-monolithic Max Martin, and the sadly departed Denniz Pop), and together they made pop history and miscellany.

Perhaps that context is why …Baby One More Time (named, of course, after the Goliath breakthrough single) is the listen it is 20 years later. It wasn’t the reactive album conception we’re accustomed to now. It came before album rollouts were meticulously mood-boarded in the wake of one viral online hit, and plotted with the use of some neurotic, algorithm-assisted A&R development program. Spears’s debut was a bunch of songs she’d recorded before her opening statement changed the course of popular music.

That single — and title track — moved the earth with its first bars. Those first few seconds still sound like an intergalactic alarm clock rousing us from a faraway planet inhabited by horny robots. “DUR! DUR! DUR!” they warned. The Millennium Bug was coming to wipe us out and MTV was the most likely host for the final dance party. The single remains one of the signature pop songs of its ilk, borrowing from the school of Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync but with a new melodramatic, turgid molasses of beats and piano stabs that sounded as heavy as the distress their lovesick narrator suffered.

There is no second “… Baby One More Time” on the record. Her third single “(You Drive Me) Crazy (The Stop Remix)” was the closest contender, but still planets away from that entrance point. To listen to Spears’s debut front-to-back is to travel back to a distant past where the wool was willingly pulled over audience’s eyes and fans were satisfied with being hit over the head by a song without needing to know the who, where, and what from whence it came. This was before we gained a bird’s-eye real-time view of the warts-and-all process of cherry-picking backwoods talent on X Factor. It was before that accessibility worked the other way, and the likes of Lorde could launch a career online from the end of the Earth. Nobody in a pre-social-media era demanded logical intent from their overnight superstars. The aim was to use the vessel that was Spears and build a catalogue of danceable teen bops for her to perform in the malls where she made her first touring appearances. The LP’s clean fun also established a foundation from which she’s since built a career far longer than this album ever anticipated. The foundation is listenable and enjoyable, yet questionable, flawed, bizarre, and epically over the top.

Spears had a voice that was bigger than her life story so far. It was not the voice of an innocent small-town girl. “…Baby One More Time” could be sung by a 15-year-old or a 40-year-old. Spears’s voice was perhaps a problem. The Britney-isms were fine, great even: bay-buh versus bay-bee, and an inflection so nasal that one of her backing vocalists once told the press she pinched her nose while recording her takes for the album to match Spears’s. Those affectations lend her a sort of pop-star weirdness, but it’s the rich depth of her voice that creates an issue: It’s too serious for frivolities, like a ball gown she can’t fit into yet but has to wear anyway. In attempt to match it, her collaborators tried both adult contemporary and tween jingles on her in the hopes something would stick.

Take the reggae-inspired “Soda Pop,” a song riffing on the addictive nature of soda (“open the soda pop, bop-shee-bop-shee-bop”). You may ask again: What planet did this come from? The charming bamboozlement of “Soda Pop” notwithstanding, silliness is not Spears’s legacy. Pain, solitude, gut-wrenching rejection — this is where she lives. Not to shade her performance on “Soda Pop.” There is not another singer in the world who could run lines around the lyric “the pop keep flowin’ like it’s fire and ice,” and ready it for a highly anticipated debut album release. Artists like Billie Eilish are decidedly not recording a “Soda Pop” at the moment.

More confusing than “Soda Pop,” however, is her presentation. The consistent message of Spears’s story arc has been the innocent-until-proven-otherwise mantra. Her album’s material conflicted with her physical presentation. What she did with her body and what she said via her mouth were worlds apart. For example, contrast the album-cover art with her first Rolling Stone cover. The latter was shot by David LaChapelle, and featured Spears on her bed in lingerie, a Tinky Winky doll brushing her nipple. Oh to be a fly-on-the-wall during the decision-making process about which Teletubby was going to work best. Even after two albums, Spears remained on the fence with her third record, Britney, concluding at the age of 20 that she was “not a girl, not yet a woman.” But the seeds of the oversexed virgin enigma were born on …Baby One More Time with its advanced lyrical appeal to the perils of thwarted romance.

The schmaltzy “I Will Still Love You,” a homogenous duet with Don Philip about undying love so burdensome the tryst sounds like life imprisonment. Then there’s single “Born to Make You Happy,” which is emo-level tortured. “I don’t know how to live without your love,” she sings on the piano-driven hit. She was 16, channeling emotions that are on par with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (incidentally, nobody was pretending those guys were just holding hands). She plays the doting, subservient girlfriend, always on the other end of the phone, neither a threat to the school jock nor to his mom and dad. And yet she burns with the desire of a thousand Jackie Collins novels.

It made sense that this was Spears’s oeuvre. She would reveal on TV appearances that she was a student of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. She was eager to be considered a singer-songwriter. Before the train pulled out from the station, she was looking to position herself as a younger Sheryl Crow. After sexing up the Catholic-school-girl look, she was a lifetime away from Crow, but the songs were rooted in a similar world of romantic balladry; one in which love is as intoxicating as it is near fatal. There are hints at her own inspirations too. Natalie Imbruglia in “I Will Be There” — a guitar-based number, which has a post-chorus wailing guitar line that borrows heavily from “Torn.” Cher is referenced with a great cover of Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” which came before Cher resurrected her career with “Believe” and auto-tune.

The album is also a time capsule for the desperate, but still lucrative, state of MTV in the late ’90s, appeasing the erratic genre-bending of the network’s jukebox before it imploded. It features a ton of, at the time, commonplace production bells and whistles: the sci-fi whirring effects transitioning into verses (“Sometimes”), the copious cowbell (“(You Drive Me) Crazy”), the sprinkles-of-stardust keys (“Deep in My Heart”), the bouncing synths (title track). Stepping into the future was the song, “Email My Heart” — which Rolling Stone called “pure spam.” In an interview from 1999, Spears discusses its inception: “Everyone’s been doing emails, and it’s [called] ‘Email My Heart’, so… everyone can relate to that song!” Turns out Spears would have the last laugh considering the intimacy of our online discourse two decades later.

The critic Jon Caramanica wrote in the New York Times that Spears’s blueprint of pop is but one subsection of the genre now, which makes sense when you listen back. We live in an age where pop is supposedly controlled by us, not them. This album does not sound like supply meeting demand. Nobody would have streamed most of …Baby One More Time if it came out now. It’s a mess. And yet it’s her biggest seller to date. Producing five hit singles, it made her the Antichrist among critics and purveyors of “real” music. In its review of the album, NME wrote: “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.” It was a different time.

Looking Back at Britney Spears’s Debut Album