The endurance of ‘Baby, One More Time’ gives us all hope

Olive Pometsey

Olive Pometsey on Britney Spears and her debut single, 20 years after its release

23 October 2018 08:46

It was probably during the early hours of the morning that I first saw an image of the Internet famous ‘Britney Spears wall’ (the origins of which seem impossible to source) pop up on my Tumblr feed. The words ‘My loneliness is killing me, Baby One More Time, 1998’ followed by ‘My loneliness ain’t killing me no more, Stronger, 2000’ had been blown up in a very serious-looking font and affixed to a large white wall in what appeared to be a gallery space. Finally, someone had recontextualised the lyrics of one of my childhood favourites to suit my new 2011 post-emo, but still kind of depressed, tastes. ‘Wow, Britney Spears was actually really deep,’ I thought, before smugly reblogging and adding both songs back into my iTunes library.

The fact that the chorus of one of the bestselling pop songs of all time opens with a confession of crippling loneliness may not seem significant to some – particularly in the now uncomfortable context of a 16-year-old Spears shimmying down a school corridor in a sexed-up school uniform – but Britney’s vulnerability is central to her contemporary stardom.

Released as her debut single on the 23 October 1998, ‘…Baby, One More Time’ catapulted Britney into worldwide success whilst she was still just a teenager. Within a year, the song had reached number one in 18 countries, and it has since sold over 10 million copies worldwide. As soon as we hear the first three ‘duh, duh, duhs’, we’re now all collectively conditioned to sing her first words, ‘oh, baby, baby…’, through our noses. In karaoke bars, people from all walks of life suddenly feel compelled to belt the song’s climactic bridge with a dramatic oomph that few other songs can inspire – fists clenched, eyes closed, heads thrown back. ‘I must confess, that my loneliness, is killing me now-ow-ow-ow-ow,’ seals the deal. That’s when even the most rigidly anti-pop punters crack.

Of course, Britney Spears didn’t write the lyrics herself – in fact, the story of how producer Max Martin came up with essentially random lyrics to fit his winning melody is the reason that the song can be awkwardly misinterpreted to be about domestic abuse (Swedish-born Martin thought ‘hit me’ was American slang for ‘call’). ‘My loneliness ain’t killing me no more,’ in 2000’s ‘Stronger’, however, was a product of the pair working together once more, and I can’t help but wonder what inspired Martin to slip in that response lyric to his earlier work of ‘melodic math’, where the lines apparently served no other purpose than to act as a vehicle for the tune.

Recorded in November 1999, just a year after ‘…Baby One More Time’s’ release, lines such as ‘I’m not your property’ and ‘I don’t need nobody, better off alone’ assert Spears’ independence as a bonafide pop icon, and many have theorised that they were directed at her record label, who had previously steered her away from her vision of producing music that was like Sheryl Crow’s, ‘but younger more adult contemporary.’ It was an anthem of empowerment and an emancipation from her ‘not so innocent’ school girl image, however, a ‘Stronger’ Britney wasn’t what audiences wanted, and the song peaked at 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

Now, when we think of Britney, it’s difficult to not picture her with a shaved head, furiously wielding an umbrella in 2007. Following a series tabloid scandals, a divorce, an overnight stint in rehab, and the death of a close family member, she broke down under the scrutiny of the paparazzi’s lens, and it’s an event that will forever be entrenched in pop culture’s history. ‘From an early age I always felt that everyone was testing me. If [something] was not in place, it would have been enough to get me to this point of anxiety. I could get overwhelmed by a lot of very small, disproportionate things,’ she said reflecting on the event ten years later. ‘I think I had to give myself more breaks through my career and take responsibility for my mental health. There were many decisions that were made for me and that I didn’t make myself.’ Clearly, when she sang ‘I’m not your property as from today’ in 2000, it was all for show.

‘Britney survived 2007, you can handle today’ is a meme-turned-slogan that now adorns mugs and t-shirts available to buy from Amazon; her public breakdown now a motivational catchphrase for our Monday morning brews. Meanwhile, she’s just completed a world tour and has announced that she’ll be starting a new residency show in Las Vegas in February. A beacon of resilience, Britney probably is a lot stronger than she was yesterday, but for real this time.

When I start to feel like my loneliness is killing me – which, as a 24-year-old London newbie, I must confess, is quite often – nothing perks me up like quick a scroll through Britney’s Instagram feed. Full of home videos of her dancing, working out and painting, alongside memes that say things like ‘why be moody when you can shake your booty?’ and ‘I just stepped on a cornflake, now I’m a cereal killer’, it’s an account where she appears to simply post whatever she wants, with a complete disregard for what other people think. At first, I followed to laugh at the absurdity of her random posts (‘I’m getting a little cuckoo, that’s why I’m standing on this table, I have no idea why,’ she announces in one video), but now, I keep up with them in an act of admiration.

20 years on from ‘…Baby One More Time’, Britney has faced more public humiliation and hardship than most, but we’re still rooting for her and buying tickets to her shows. Her vulnerability is both endearing and inspiring, and even when we’re at our lowest, a sing-a-long to her debut single of pop perfection can do a lot to raise our spirits. Just remember, Britney has made it through two decades of oppressive control from her management and tabloid judgments. You can make it through today.