Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
This is a story about a girl named Britney.
Picture it: the late ’90s. The (mostly male) bombast of hair metal and grunge has been ground to glitter under the Union Jack platform shoes of the Spice Girls and their pop-till-you-drop, zig-a-zig-ah zeitgeist. Yet even as those deities shuffle off to pop heaven’s great spice rack, male acts once again crowd the marketplace, namely the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC clawing it out for record sales, Total Request Live fan love and, of course, space at the makeup mirror.
Aside from the then-ubiquitous Miss Cleo, who would have guessed that the next lady pop savior would be a lil’ ole Louisiana country gal? But then, in came the gum-chomping bombshell Britney Jean Spears, gyrating into the Billboard Hot 100 penthouse in January 1999 with the catchiest pop song of the entire era.
Powered by an instantly iconic three-beat intro, the best Swedish pop music production available and her secret weapon of Southern-sweet-tea-sexuality, Britney claimed her first number one and the lifelong worship of millions with the album (released January 12, 1999) and title track “…Baby One More Time.”
Britney Spears — “…Baby One More Time”
Besides benefiting from super Swede Max Martin’s magic wand, you see, Britney captured the world’s attention the way few artists ever do: while Grandpa might be ogling …Baby’s titular ellipsis, little Susie could dance along at home! Britney’s ability to fall back on her “aw, shucks, y’all” persona proved a brilliant move when she wisely swung the pendulum back from sex kitten with “Sometimes,” a beachy ballad espousing her innocence, vulnerability and ability to form a heart with her backup dancers.
Britney Spears — “Sometimes”
It’s strange to think about it now, but back then Britney seemed exceptionally savvy, serving up music video perfection over and over again as …Baby One More Time sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and spent six non-consecutive weeks riding pole position on the Billboard 200. Like her hero Janet Jackson, Britney ensured that each of her new music videos was a multimedia event that revealed a new aspect of her artistic persona. You know, like Melissa Joan Hart’s BFF in the “Stop! Remix” of “(You Drive Me) Crazy.”
Britney Spears — “(You Drive Me) Crazy”
Best of all, …Baby One More Time offered intriguing glimpses into “the real” Britney, whose relationship with *NSYNC’s Justin Timberlake sent both of their celebrity stocks skyrocketing. It was fun to imagine Britney and Justin goofing around to the “bop-she-bop” playfulness on “Soda Pop” and even more so to fantasize about Britney cooing that she was “Born To Make You Happy” in her vows at their inevitable all-denim wedding. (Most fun of all was wondering what address you could use to follow Britney’s advice and “E-Mail My Heart.” Probably email@example.com.)
Still, as virginal as she claimed to be, no one gave good controversy as well as our girl, who claimed that her Britney Jeans were all natural and simply the result of a healthy growth spurt. Although they were well covered-up in “From The Bottom Of My Broken Heart,” she kept tongues — and other appendages — wagging by hiring a porn director to lens the squeaky-clean clip. Oops! She played us again…and we only loved her all the more for it.
Britney Spears — “From The Bottom Of My Broken Heart”
The best part of it all, really, though, was how fun the whole thing was: the album, Britney’s ascension, the way she wore her global superstardom with such genuine delight that we were eager to vote for her on TRL and practice her music video dance moves and throatily groan her lyrics into countless hairbrushes. Little did we know, but never again would Britney seem so uncomplicated, so happy, so young. Back then, all we wanted from her was to succeed and when she did, we fell further under her spell.
More than just a teen idol, Britney was pegged as the “new Madonna” or “the new Michael Jackson,” and those comparisons made sense. Her appearance on the scene with …Baby One More Time marked a turning point in music and pop culture, with America’s fascination with Brit — as an icon and as an idea — revving up to the point where her influence was seen in countless acts who followed: everyone from Christina Aguilera, Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus to Lorde and Charli XCX.
That’s how large a shadow …Baby One More Time cast, over Britney and over the world. We know now that Britney paid a high personal price for her success, but the music remains: an exuberant, singalong seismic shift that is the best teen pop album — the most enduring and vital — of its era. Flaws and all, it still sounds like being young and plugged into music and pop culture around the turn of the 20th century. More than that, it’s a blueprint for superstardom that no one’s quite been able to live up to ever since — not even, at times, Britney herself.
But no one could, really. No one could be that audacious and charismatic and self-confident and vulnerable and sweet and sexy, not after everything that happened afterwards. But, once upon a time, she was, and we were, and that’s the best thing about pop music, isn’t it, that with a song or an album, we are suddenly our best, younger selves once more — for three minutes at least?
So let’s celebrate our A.B. (After Britney) existence and look back 15 years ago with wonder and awe, remembering how it felt, how it sounded, how it changed everything, when Godney first growled her gospel while thrusting her pelvis at the math teacher.
The Britney celebration doesn’t stop here — we’ll be hosting a …Baby One More Time Twitter listening party today at 3 p.m. EST! Hit us (baby) then right here, and have your album all cued up and ready to go.