It was the year of SM:TV Live on Saturday mornings, Pokemon cards in the school playground, and a solar eclipse. Oh – and also the year of some stellar pop music. This is The Story of Pop: 1999, our new weekly look back at the biggest UK chart hits of 20 years ago. This week: a superstar debut for an American teen pop princess…
It’s quite fitting really that the recent BBC Four documentary on Max Martin and the Cheiron production team was one of our picks in this week’s #CatchupRoundup. Because twenty years ago this very week, perhaps the song they’re most famous for working on made its debut on UK shores. It’s hard to try and write about when so many other more learned commentators and critics than I have already done so, so perhaps my own memories will be a good place to start.
The first time I ever saw the young, 17 year old former Mickey Mouse Club star Britney Spears was one cold and uneventful Thursday evening in early February 1999. I was in Year 5 at school at the time, and Thursdays on BBC Two were usually a special night back then: The Simpsons, followed by The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, followed by The O Zone. The latter, for those unaware of it, was a weekly music magazine show presented by Live & Kicking host now Heart FM breakfast DJ, Jamie Theakston and Top of the Pops’ very own Geordie wonder, Jayne Middlemiss.
It was the latter who gave an interview with the then unknown Britney in a Covent Garden shopping centre. It’s an interesting interview to watch back now, this wide eyed Southern smalltown girl getting her first taste of London, unaware that she was about to become one of the biggest popstars of her generation. Remembering where you were when you first saw or heard ‘…Baby One More Time’ is a bit like asking those growing up in the 60s where they were when JFK was assassinated. It was a defining moment.
If you asked me to name what I think are ten of the greatest pop songs ever written and recorded, then Britney’s debut single is in that list for me. Pure pop was undoubtedly experiencing a purple patch at the end of the late 90s, but, our very own Billie Piper aside – who even then seemed much more parochial a proposition – there wasn’t really a potentially mega huge female solo star that would be to that time what say, Madonna had been to the 80s. Originally offered to both Five and TLC, Jive/Zomba who had signed Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC as well as Britney felt confident it was the song for her.
That three chord piano riff in the intro is so simple but so effective – it announces exactly what song it is within two seconds. This funk influenced, melody led storming pop monster with an epic chorus is the pop song that is so very hard to get right in practice. And that’s before you’ve even got onto that video. The mix of innocence with mild flirtation, of thinking outside of her humdrum, high school existence was an intriguing mix, and she looked like a superstar from the get go.
Where the UK was concerned, it was the video that really helped cement her position as the one to beat for many years afterwards. Airplay statistics from that time suggest that the pop cable channel The Box, where viewers could phone in to request music videos, were playing the video at least twice hourly in the run up to its UK release of Monday, 15th February 1999. It at least goes some way to explaining why it shifted a phenomenal 463,000 copies in its first week on sale – the fastest selling debut single ever at that time.
But just as the UK became one of the 21 countries to make it a number one single, replicating its Stateside success on the Billboard charts, Britney was otherwise indisposed to perform it on the following Friday’s Top of the Pops, owing to a leg injury she sustained on the video shoot for the single’s immediate follow-up, ‘Sometimes’. They had to make do with the video instead for the fortnight it remained at the top – but for once, this wasn’t a problem. If anything, it’s weekly airing ensured it would go onto sell 1.5 million copies by the time it completed its chart run 19 weeks later to make it by far and away the biggest selling single of 1999 in the UK, making Britney the youngest ever artist to achieve such a feat.
With two decades removed from its sensational debut, it’s hard to drive home to a much more distracted yet ever connected audience just what an important record ‘…Baby One More Time’ was. Without it, there would have been no Christina Aguilera. No cash-in attempts from Mandy Moore and Jessica Simpson. Hell, even the likes of Ariana Grande and Katy Perry wouldn’t be here today if Britney hadn’t broken down the barn door for them to follow through. Its legacy is the reason the smalltown girl from Kentwood, Louisiana is still the global mega star that she is today.
Don’t forget to follow our playlist on Spotify – updated weekly so you never miss a song from the story of pop in 1999. And you can leave your memories of the songs below in the comments or Tweet us, using the hashtag #StoryofPop1999.