Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks 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—yep, you read that right—we’re breaking down Britney Spears’s “... Baby One More Time.”
I think I mentioned at some point that I have been dreading this. I have been afraid to do this, if we’re honest. If I’m honest. Enough. Let’s do it. This week, it’s Britney Spears. It’s “... Baby One More Time.” It’s time. Here in May 2022, Britney Spears, more than any single human I have mentioned in the previous 60 installments of this enterprise, is a tremendously complicated present-tense concern. She is a walking, talking, dancing, Instagram-dominating minefield of personal and professional and emotional and moral and ethical conundrums. She is a troubling, though occasionally quite heartening, ongoing saga.
How quickly do you think I can summarize that saga? OK. In 2007, while fighting for custody of her two children with soon-to-be-ex-husband Kevin Federline, Britney suffered through a high-profile public meltdown. Leave it at that. For her own protection—scare quotes—she was put under a legal conservatorship, a dystopian and infantilizing arrangement wherein an armada of lawyers (led primarily by her father, Jamie Spears) controlled Britney’s multimillion-dollar finances, her career, and by extension, pretty much her entire life. Britney says now she was not permitted to get remarried or have another baby; she now openly describes treatment under this arrangement as abusive.
That conservatorship, which started in early 2008, nonetheless remained in place for the next 13 years. She put out a bunch more albums. (“Piece of Me” off her fifth album, Blackout, from 2007, is the best Britney Spears song. Just sneaking that in here.) In 2013, she hit Vegas. In 2016, The New York Times published a deep dive into that conservatorship, which galvanized the #FreeBritney movement. A multi-front legal and sociocultural battle raged in courtrooms and on the sidewalks outside courtrooms and on TikTok and what have you for the next five years. Meanwhile, the Britney Spears Streaming Service Documentary Industrial Complex sprung up to document these affairs, and these films often doubled as an opportunity to revisit the mega-gross first five years or so of Britney’s career, full of slobbering interviewers and other avatars of what I will euphemistically describe as “one-handed journalism” and predatory paparazzi and fuckin’ Justin Timberlake.
Britney prevailed, and her conservatorship was dissolved, in November 2021, and she will most likely spend the next several years gleefully suing the bejesus out of some motherfuckers. That wasn’t that quick, as summaries go, but what’re you gonna do? There are—most likely there will always be—hourly updates in the life and times of Britney Spears. In fact, we’d better check real quick to see if anything’s up with her today, as I’m writing this. It’s Monday, April 11, 2022. Probably there’s nothing new to report—SHE’S PREGNANT. We found this out today. That’s fantastic. Sincerely, that’s fantastic. Congratulations Britney, and Sam, her husband.
See, though, this is the shit I’m talking about. Partly my dread is just a function of not wanting to be out of date. I cannot 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 actually hear this, Britney Spears will probably have single-handedly terraformed and colonized Mars. That’s fantastic, Britney.
OK, so why am I doing this if I’m so afraid to do it?
Because this song is perfect, that’s why. Objectively perfect. Objectively cataclysmic. The exhilarating breathlessness of the ascent—the melodic and dramatic ascent—of this fuckin’ chorus. It’s a total anachronism, by like eight years, but this chorus, hearing it now, I picture a desperate, lovelorn young person—pick your gender, customize your circumstances—tapping these lines out in a desperate, lovelorn iPhone text message. My loneliness is killing me. I can hear the little tick tick tick tick as the words cross the screen, and then get deleted, and then cross the screen again. Tick tick tick tick. The thirst. The unease. The escalating desperation. The typos. The terrible suspicion that you’re gonna be “left on read,” as the kids say, or as the kids used to say, at some point, in the past decade, I think. Never mind. Listen: A chorus this objectively perfect and cataclysmic tends to cataclysmically resolve—the chorus tends to peak, melodically and dramatically—with a single word, and so it is, in this case, with the word sign.
And ideally you bring it on home with a title that is somehow both cheerfully bewildering and flagrantly ominous.
That line hits for the first time exactly 60 seconds into the song. The whole song is exactly three-and-a-half minutes long, plus one extra second, to gather yourself. 3:31. I am not willing to accept that as a coincidence. That feels precise to me. That feels mathematical. You can somehow sense the equation. So. “... Baby One More Time”—that ellipsis is ominous and bewildering as well—is the ultra-blockbuster debut single from one Britney Spears, a Mickey Mouse Club alumnus and native of McComb, Mississippi. She grew up mostly in Kentwood, Louisiana. The song is released in September 1998, when Britney is 16 years old. She is 17 when the song hits no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1999—it is the no. 1 song in America, and ultimately 20-odd other countries. That same month, January ’99, it serves as the leadoff track to Britney’s ultra-blockbuster debut album, also called … Baby One More Time, which also hits no. 1 on the Billboard album chart and ultimately sells 14 million copies in the United States alone.
That’s enough math. “... Baby One More Time” the song, as you may be aware, was written by burgeoning Swedish megaproducer Max Martin, who coproduced it with fellow prolific Swede Rami Yacoub. Between “... Baby One More Time” and the 1999 Backstreet Boys smash “I Want It That Way”—which we discussed back when our episodes were roughly one-third to one-fifth as long as they are now—based on those two songs alone Max Martin will more or less single-handedly define the sound of global blockbuster pop well into the 21st century. The ecstasy, the exuberance, the lyrical bafflement, the precision, the math. He’s a math guy. Melodic math.
But I said enough math. Enough Max Martin, too. We make arbitrary decisions on this show as to what interests us and what does not. No offense to Max, but I would much rather talk about, say, Britney’s triumphantly apocalyptic diction on the song “... Baby One More Time.” The megaton explosiveness of her syllables. Each syllable triggers an aftershock. Each syllable leaves a crater. Every breath is a bomb.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.