Song: ‘…Baby One More Time’
Artist: Britney Spears
US chart peak: 1
Release date: October 23, 1998
Writers: Max Martin
Producers: Max Martin, Rami
Quintessential Max moment: EVERY SINGLE GLORIOUS SECOND OF IT
Video synopsis: Era-defining, megastar-launching, controversy-generating brilliance
Is this the best song of all time? Is it? I’m genuinely asking.
So much has been written about ‘…Baby One More Time’, and it’s so embedded in popular culture, that it’s sometimes easy to forget its brilliance. Or take that brilliance for granted in some way. We all know the stories of how it was offered to other people, and Britney recorded it on a hangover, but I don’t really want to get into that here. It deserves to be enjoyed solely just as a piece of art that will eventually be hung in the Louvre.
With that in mind, below is a breakdown of the song in ten second intervals, written ‘live’ (sort of). I suggest you listen to it on a loop while reading it because there is not an ounce of flab on this song. There are no wasted moments. Every line is a hook, every pre-chorus bit is as good as most other proper choruses. The vocal is perfect. It’s both a time capsule back to the halcyon days of the late nineties and a song that could be a massive hit today. Just when you think it’s taken you to melodic heaven another little element unfurls. This song defined a decade, launched a megastar and has re-shaped pop music for years to come.
Max wrote this song ALONE. There are no other writers on this song. If, after reading all 65 of these write ups, you’re still questioning whether Max is a genius then I can’t help you, sorry. I’ve done my bit.
Ladies and gentleman, the greatest song of all time* (*certainly Top 5):
Is there a more iconic (in the true meaning of that word) opening to a song in the history of pop? Maybe ‘Billie Jean’, but otherwise no. You could play that chiming synth riff to anyone with a functioning set of ears born in the last twenty or so years and they’d immediately know it was this debut single from Britney Jean Spears. Under those glorious clangs is that staccato off beat that seems to be made from a male gasp (Max? Probably). It’s also got a proper, very Max, white funk groove to it, the tempo that bit slower than you sort of expect it to be.
The vocal then kicks in exactly at the eleven second mark, that oddly accented, deliciously thin twang of “oh baby baby” basically kickstarting a whole career. As well as the breathy beat and the synthesised piano riff, we now get some white funk bassline and even some distant wah-wah guitars.
The pre-chorus also kicks in exactly on the 31 second mark, which is interesting isn’t it? Or is it? Probably not. Actually it all goes to shit in this section because 40 seconds ticks by and she’s midway through that glorious build into the chorus…
The synth crash at the 42 second mark is literal perfection, obviously helped by the chorus itself which is a masterclass is teen anguish (“my loneliness is killing me” is so gloriously OTT) and perfectly finessed melodic genius. Honestly, I could marry this chorus, divorce it, impregnate it after a drunken night and marry it again because of peer pressure.
Ah those “still believe” backing vocals! SO GOOD.
And there it is, the pay off the chorus constantly builds to; “HIT ME BABY ONE MORE TIME”. It’s the bit everybody screams along to, drunk or sober. It’s the bit where when you first hear it you’re a bit like ‘oh but what does that actually mean?’. It’s the bit TLC were like ‘wait, is that about domestic violence? Yeah we’re not going to sing that, sorry’. Then it all just simmers back down again, fully aware that the chorus has done its job for now. 69 seconds in and there’s a brilliant “ooh yeah” backing vocal, Britney’s voice showcasing that personality that no one seems to give her credit for.
More of the same. The verses are just as important to the whole thing though aren’t they? Each line is as good as the main hook in most pop songs.
The “Show me / how you want it to be” line with all those fading in and out backing vocals!
That glorious chorus crashing in again. “Aaaaannnd I”.
Second go round for the chorus and this is definitely the time everyone at the wedding is on the dancefloor and uncle Trevor’s got his tie off and auntie Karen’s still a bit annoyed about his roving eye, but everyone else is dancing so why should she sit this one out.
The “oh baby baby” bit gets the time to shine on its own, almost as a post-chorus now. There’s also some lovely “oh oh oh” bits where Britney uses a nice falsetto.
The “ey ey ey” part here definitely sounds like Robyn does on her two Max Martin singles. In fact, a lot of ‘…Baby One More Time’ is a refinement of those early Robyn tracks (she turned the song down), just as Britney was thought of as a refinement of the popstar template Jive were looking for at the time. 125 seconds in and a proper Max Martin staple appears in the shape of that glorious middle eight. Suddenly the music all drops out, the clouds part and out comes Britney cooing “oh baby baby, how was I supposed to know?” like a slightly damaged angel.
“I shouldn’t have let you go-o-o-ooo-o-ooo-oo”.
Suddenly that bridge bit kicks in and the confessions she was delivering in the chorus have been ramped up to a light mania. That “I must confess, that my loneliness, is killing me now” bit should be scrawled across all teenage notebooks during a first love.
Then we get “don’t you know I still believe, that you will be here and give me a sign”. Brilliantly the “don’t you know” bit is broken up with a beat between each word, making it perfect to shout along to before the real pay off kicks in…
“Hit me baby one more time!”. Pure pop orgasm. Then – THEN – Max reverts back to the original chorus and the “my loneliness” bit sashays back in, those twinkly synth bubbles lighting it up like a pop Christmas tree.
Ah man the bit at 3:06 when that bridge bit (“I must confess”) crashes headlong into the original chorus! I want to drown in these ten seconds.
Oh god it’s so good this bit. Britney’s voice carries just the right amount of pent-up longing, frustration and teenage lust. The “I still believe” bit!
Of course it doesn’t end on a fade out, are you mad? It snaps shut like a shelled mollusk hiding a unique pearl.
Here it is again. Why not, eh?