Feels like yesterday, but times have changed: Britney Spears' 'Baby One More Time' is 20 today

Released on October 23, 1998, the debut of then 16-year-old Spears came out before the iPod and when the internet was still dial up for most people. And that is why her success story will never be repeated

A screen grab from the Britney Spears music video - Baby One More Time.  Courtesy JIVE Records
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Here's a fact sure to make certain you all immediately feel your age – Britney Spears' … Baby One More Time is 20 years old today.

Inhale a deep breath and absorb the anthemic 'loneliness' that has been 'killing' Britney for two whole decades. Even the dots that punctuate the song’s title feel dated, a cute late ’90s affectation.

Released on October 23 in 1998, Spears' debut isn't just one of the 40 best-selling singles ever – joining the elite rank of ten million-plus sellers alongside YMCA, Macarena and Kung Fu Fighting – and it's way more than simply the soundtrack of a generation. And it's not just the song which launched Spears' career – it's the song which launched the last career of its kind.

We’ll simply never know Britney’s type again – a stratospheric superstar so successfully born of a cynical corporate machine. It’s not a coincidence that no song has crossed the landmark eight-figure sales mark since Britney’s pink-bunned pigtails – that no singer has reaped the riches of ten-million physical singles sales since. Because that machine doesn’t exist anymore.

The year 1999 was the peak of recorded music sales in the USA – the moment when music was at its most lucrative, but regimented, with a key roster of four record companies dictating the vast bulk of what we heard and bought. A childhood feature of Disney's The Mickey Mouse Club TV show rampantly groomed for fame, Spears is the last in a line of manufactured female icons, following in the footsteps of eccentrically aging divas such as Mariah Carey and Cher, both of which her Vegas-residency late career seems ever-closer to resembling.

At the turn of the millennium, the iPod wasn't born yet. The internet existed, but only in dial-up for most. The concept of streaming the entire history of popular music from your Nokia phone would have looked like something from Star Trek. What new music was heard primarily reached listeners through the culture-jamming uniformity of music television.

Singer Britney Spears signs autographs for fans during an appearance in front of the Park MGM hotel-casino in Las Vegas, Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. Spears announced her new residency at the Park MGM's Park Theater beginning in February 2019. (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
Singer Britney Spears signs autographs for fans during an appearance in front of the Park MGM hotel-casino in Las Vegas last week. Photo / AFP

It is also no coincidence that the legacy of … Baby One More Time's video is as great as its music. Legend holds that it was Spears who swapped up director Nigel Dick's planned jeans and t-shirt costume – and came up with the crucial trick of tying a knot at the midriff of her hastily purchased white supermarket shirt.

Fuelling a worrying pre-occupation with school uniforms, Spears' stunt pushed barriers of taste just far enough to burn a hole in the world's collective retinas – Billboard readers voted …Baby One More Time the best music video of the 1990s, with a wailing 40 per cent of the populace, while Jam!'s audience declared it the third most influential video in the history of pop music.

It also launched the career of Max Martin...

And then there's the music. Because … Baby One More Time didn't just launch Britney. It launched the career of Max Martin – and arguably the whole modern age of celebrity super-songwriters. Rejected by Backstreet Boys and TLC, …Baby One More Time would eventually offer Martin his first, precious, career-defining number one record. Today, he holds credits on more Billboard chart-toppers than anyone since Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

Swedish songwriter and music producer Max Martin receives the Polar Music Prize at the Stockholm Concert Hall. AFP.
Swedish songwriter and music producer Max Martin receives the Polar Music Prize at the Stockholm Concert Hall. AFP.

Martin is the evil professor behind unshakeable earworms from Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl, Maroon 5's One More Night to The Weeknd's Can't Feel My Face. His staple of 23 chart-topping hits dwarfs Spears' haul – Martin also penned her fifth and final number one, 2011's Hold it Against Me – and his legacy is far greater than the singer's. Today, the Swedish hitmaker is not struggling to stay relevant, nor forced to take Vegas residencies, à la Britney, to stay on top.

Instead Martin’s influence has held a huge sway over the last decade of popular music, through his own work and that of his “disciples”, which include Savan Kotecha, Dr Luke and Shellback, whose collective client-base – One Direction, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Pink – represent a particularly prevalent brand of modern music.

Yet this genetically mutated strand of earworms might never have been gestated had the Swedish super-producer not clocked his first number one, sung by some 16-year-old called Britney Spears, with the almost prophetically named … Baby One More Time.


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