Twenty-five years ago today, Britney Spears released her debut album …Baby One More Time and kicked off the last dominant megatrend of the monoculture. From its title track’s first three notes, as ominous and unmistakable as the theme from Jaws, the message was clear: pure pop music was back. And this time, everyone had permission to enjoy it. The song and the album aren’t just crammed full of hooks, they’re a sweet, sexy transmission from a more innocent time. Twenty years later, we need to hold onto that wholesomeness as our world burns down. Oh baby, baby, how were we supposed to know?
In late 1998, the pop charts were chaos. The R&B that had dominated the middle of the decade and made stars out of Jodeci and Ginuwine was fading. Post-Nirvana alternative radio was in its Local H and Fuel-fueled end stage. Quirkier rock bands were making music for pop radio: This was the era of Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” Fastball’s “The Way,” and New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give.” The few young mainstream-pop women tended toward the chaste: Jennifer Paige’s “Crush,” Merril Bainbridge’s “Mouth,” and Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever” would have sounded right at home on Christian radio.
The Billboard charts hadn’t been this shapeless since 1982, just before Duran Duran and Human League broke through, when the top 10 was littered with Juice Newton, Dan Fogelberg, and the theme from Chariots of Fire. Something new was on the way, and as it had in the decade before, MTV would drive it.
I was there for Britney’s first appearance on TRL, and I can tell you: it was less a visit than an invasion. The name “Britney Spears” had been bandied about on N’Sync fan forums before; she’d been Justin Timberlake’s rumored girlfriend, and the band’s opening act on their first North American tour. But once that debut single dropped, it was clear: she wasn’t just coming, she’d be staying. She took the MTV studios the way Daenerys did Dragonstone—but instead of making us bend the knee, she taught us how to shimmy the shoulder.
At the dawn of Total Request Live, the majority of the pop songs were done by the boys, particularly those of the Backstreet (and N’Sync and 98 Degrees, and then a whole second tier of boy bands from England or Orlando that I’d have to Google). “I Want It That Way” and “I Want You Back” were twin works of pure Swedish-born pop genius, sure signs of what was to come. But there was a problem. They were sung by boys, and the rules of high school are clear and rigid: Young men are not permitted to enjoy the pop music performed by other young men, particularly ones who dance. Our country’s Jeremys mostly concerned themselves with the nü-metal sludge of Korn and Limp Bizkit lest their masculinity be called into question.
But everyone has a place in their heart for a good pop song, and Britney Spears’s navel gave them a portal into enjoying it. Plausible deniability, even; “I’m just watching this video because she’s hot,” a boy could say, and nobody needed to know that he’d be listening to it again on his Discman later.
Boys, forever music’s most timid and fragile audience, were at least partially on board, and nothing stood in the way of pop music’s dominance. Nü-metal began to sputter around the time of Chocolate Starfish and the Hot-Dog Flavored Water, when pop exploded. Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, and Britney all had first-week album sales of over one million in the two years that followed. American Idol would debut in 2001, Justin Bieber would post his first YouTube video just a few years after that, and early Max Martin protegée Robyn would quietly dominate throughout. Pop has remained strong; P.O.D. petered out.
Of course, some boys were on board with pop music from the start, and unique among the pop stars of the time, Britney seemed to acknowledge them. By putting her more exuberant male dancers front and center in her videos and tours, she allowed the pre-gays in her audience to feel seen and supported. On her first Rolling Stone cover, Britney clutched Tinky Winky, then the most controversial Teletubby after having been outed by televangelist Jerry Falwell. (This country has been insane for a very long time.) Spears courted the gays in a way no mainstream pop artist had done since Madonna, and look around the audience if she ever does get around to that next Vegas residency: We’ve remained loyal.
There was charisma, uniqueness, and nerve with Britney—but there was also talent. While not a vocalist on the level of Christina Aguilera, there was also no danger Britney would bludgeon you about the ears with her range the way Christina would. Hers was a more intimate voice, nasal and languid—the sound of a trusted friend on the other end of a landline, Joey in Dawson’s Creek in vocal form. …Baby One More Time is perfectly calibrated to its exact cultural moment. “You Drive Me Crazy” would give a Melissa Joan Hart/Adrien Grenier romcom its title. In “Soda Pop,” Mikey Bassie offers the mildest and most radio-friendly post-third-wave-ska toasting. And right there at track 10, the zeitgeist-defining ballad “E-Mail My Heart.”
If there was grown-up professionalism in the way she did her vocals and choreography and media tour, there was also concern: Wasn’t she just a little too young for all this? It’s paternalistic of course, but not unfounded; we never give the young male pop star the excruciating scrutiny we do the female. How much do you know about the dating life of JC Chasez? Can you describe one outfit Nick Carter ever wore? (Okay, I can: On the TRL when the Backstreet Boys announced AJ was going to rehab, Nick wore a t-shirt that said “Grab-a-Bootie & Pinch,” and I’m still not over it.) Britney would be on the charts, but she’d also be under the microscope in a way that would make a person twice her age crumble. Her 2006 was on its way—you could even tell in 1999.