20 Years Later, Has Britney Spears Ever Lived Up to Her Debut Album?

On the 20th anniversary of "…Baby One More Time," we interrogate Britney’s place in the great pop pantheon and the album’s lasting impact on our popular culture.

When Britney Spears shimmied her way into the zeitgeist in the waning days of the 1990s, she was spoken about as if she were the second coming of Christ, or at the very least, Madonna. The hype seemed merited, after all, it had been years since someone broke through as massively as the 17-year-old Kentwood, La., native. And what a breakthrough.

Released on January 12, 1999, …Baby One More Time debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 album charts, the same week the album’s titular lead single peaked atop the Hot 100, making her the first new female artist, and the youngest female artist, to accomplish that feat. The album went on to spend six non-consecutive weeks at number one, 103 weeks on the Billboard 200, sell 14 million copies in the United States and 25 million worldwide, making it one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. It’s still the best-selling album by a teenage solo artist and Spears is still the youngest artist to receive the diamond award from the RIAA for selling 10 million albums. Billboard ranks it as the 41st “greatest album” in its history, based on sales and streaming data.

At the time, Spears’s record company, Jive, was hoping she’d break at least four million in U.S. sales. She, obviously, exceeded expectations, but expectations were pretty high for her to being with.

You’ve Got That Something, What Can I Do?: A Star Is Manufactured

According to multiple sources, Britney Spears always wanted to be a singer. She cleaned up on the talent show circuit before wowing Ed McMahon on Star Search and cutting her showbiz teeth on The New Mickey Mouse Club, alongside history’s most stacked bench of future superstars: Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Keri Russell, and Ryan Gosling. They were basically one Beyoncé short of tween world domination.

Music biz lawyer Larry Rudolph got a then-15-year-old Spears auditions with four labels on the strength of a demo she had cut of an unused Toni Braxton song. Three of the labels said no—they just didn’t see the viability of another Madonna, Debbie Gibson, or Tiffany since groups were the hot pop thing of the moment: Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync, Hanson, and the Spice Girls were all hitting hard and heavy. In fact, noted boy band manager (and, later, accused Ponzi schemer) Lou Pearlman originally wanted to sign Spears to his girl group Innosense, of whom everyone has surely heard.

In the mid-to-late ’90s, the music industry was inundated with white female singer-songwriters, a sort of backlash against the previous decade’s obsession with finding the next Madonna. Spears initially saw herself in the mold of a Sheryl Crow—“but younger, more adult contemporary,” she told Rolling Stone for that infamous Lolita-lite cover story—rather than the Material Girl 2.0.

"It made more sense to go pop,” Spears further explained, “because I can dance to it—it’s more me.”

However, Jive Records saw potential. After auditioning with Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing”—a bold choice for anyone let alone a 15-year-old Britney Spears—she was signed on the spot. Jive then teamed Spears with music producer Eric Foster White who worked with Britney over the course of a month to shape her voice—which one can tell from early, pre-fame performances was deeper, fuller, and less poppy—into the instantly recognizable nasal/baby whine it is today.

Spears recorded 13 songs with White, impressing Jive enough to fly her to Sweden’s Cheiron Studios, the hit factory behind the early cuts of Backstreet, ’N Sync, and a teenaged native with a penchant for dancing on her own, Robyn. Spears, however, felt something was missing.

“I had been in the studio for about six months listening to and recording material, but I hadn’t really heard a hit yet,” Spears, with just a hint of a side-eye, told Billboard in late 1998.

As is popular lore by now, Martin wrote the title track for TLC, at the behest of legendary record exec Clive Davis. T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chili passed on the song, as did the Brit boy band Five (come through “When the Lights Go Out”), but Spears fell in love with it.

“When I started working with Max Martin in Sweden,” she said, “he played the demo for ‘…Baby One More Time’ for me, and I knew from the start it one was [sic] of those songs you want to hear again and again. It just felt really right.”

Britney Spears is one of the last superstars to be molded by a star-making system. Before YouTube and Soundcloud, there were malls and teen zines. And in the summer of 1998, Jive trotted her out to 26 malls, underwritten by teen mags, and scored her sponsorship deals with ’90s staples Sunglass Hut and Tommy Hilfiger. By the time the now-iconic music video hit MTV in October of that year, the stage was set for a pop culture phenomenon.

Soda Bops: A Track-by-Track Breakdown

Here’s the thing about …Baby One More Time: It’s not a very good album. Time has certainly not been good to it (“Email My Heart” anyone?) but even contemporary reviews were less than kind. In Rolling Stone’s two-star assessment, the album was derided as another in Cheiron’s long line of “Eurofied impersonations of teen-targeted American R&B.” Which isn’t a bad thing—see: Ace of Base’s “Beautiful Life,” Robyn’s “Show Me Love,” or BSB’s “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)”—but the majority of the album is comprised of highly forgettable pop.

Britney has certainly had better albums— there’s a school of thought that will end your whole life if you say anything bad about Blackout—but the significance and success of her debut is due almost entirely to the title track. Because, well, it’s as perfect as pop music gets.

Here, a track by track breakdown of …Baby One More Time.

1. “…Baby One More Time” — A classic as soon as it dropped, Spears has rarely, if ever, hit this high watermark again. Maybe “Toxic.” Maybe.

2. “(You Drive Me) Crazy” — The album’s third single was actually re-recorded for the soundtrack to the Melissa Joan Hart vehicle, Drive Me Crazy, and “The Stop! Remix” remains the best and only acceptable version of this song. The album version is fine, but doesn’t quite knock like the remix.

3. “Sometimes” — The second single, this mid-tempo bop has a great bridge, a video featuring some fun choreo (and Brit with a conspicuously larger cup size, but who am I to judge?), and remains a fave of many a Britney fan and stan.

4. “Soda Pop” — Remember when ska was a thing white folks did? But hey, not everyone’s Gwen Stefani, as is evident on this ill-advised ska detour. However, Brit’s voice on this track sounds like her earlier, pre-Jive singing so it might be worth it just for that. Meanwhile, this song’s other claim to fame is its appearance on the legends-only soundtrack to Pokémon: The First Movie along with forgettable contributions from Christina Aguilera, Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync, 98 Degrees, Aaron Carter, Vitamin C (!), and Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton.

5. “Born to Make You Happy” — This is actually, low-key, one of my fave Brit songs. It’s a real solid bop. Though Max Martin is credited with the Spears sound, the song’s writers Kristian Lundin and Andreas Carlsson prove that the Swedes have had a lockdown on great pop songwriting for decades, here honing that pitch-perfect mix of melancholy and melody the world has grown to love.

6. “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart” — A treacly ballad that set the mold for all future Spears ballads, from “I’m Not a Girl (Not Yet a Woman)” to “Don’t Let Me Be the Last to Know” and “Everytime.”

7. “I Will Be There” — Uptempo filler that sounds a bit like Natalie Imbruglia’s immortal “Torn.”

8. “I Will Still Love You” — The sole duet on the album features singer Don Philip, best known for an unfortunate stint on The X Factor, where Britney said he just didn’t have the range. Which…okay. Philip claims the show’s producers forced him to come out as gay on live television, reducing him to tears. So the title of their song together is ironic for a number of reasons.

9. “Deep In My Heart”* — A latter day disco tune in the vein of S Club 7 and the A-Teens.

10. “Thinkin’ About You” — Fun but not especially memorable, though we do get Britney singing in a rare lower register.

11. “Email My Heart” — Honestly, what were we doing in 1998? Like, did people understand what email was and how it worked? Aside from having one of the worst titles of any song ever, this track is so self-serious and maudlin it comes off as nothing more than an unintentional joke.

12. “The Beat Goes On” — This cover of the Sonny and Cher classic was an interesting choice, and one that doesn’t really pay off. But points for trying it.

13. “I’ll Never Stop Loving You”* — To quote the great Margo Channing, “I detest heap sentiment” and therefore I kinda hate this song. However, this was the B-side to "(You Drive Me) Crazy" and is actually a cover, the original appearing on the soundtrack to the 1996 Sinbad "classic" First Kid.

14. “Autumn Goodbye”* — Who doesn’t love a song about seasonal romance? This is a fun uptempo number but, most importantly, it was the B-side to “…Baby One More Time.”

*Denotes the deluxe edition, which also features two remixes to “…Baby One More Time” that don’t add or subtract anything from the original.

Baby, All I Need Is Time: …Baby One More Time’s Impact & Legacy

The ’90s were dominated by rap and R&B, with several R&B princesses coming to prominence—Shanice, Aaliyah, Brandy, and Monica, the latter pair’s rumored rivalry spawning one of the biggest hits of the decade just as Spears was blowing up. In the ’50s and ’60s, white artists appropriated the songs and styles of black artists, often overshadowing their versions to greater success. The most famous example may be Big Mama Thornton’s “Horn Dog” which was re-recorded by Elvis Presley, launching him to superstardom. After all, “rock and roll” was just R&B sung by white boys.

Britney, at her best, was essentially singing the same kind of songs that Brandy and the girls were doing—fun, flirty, infectious R&B: You can probably imagine TLC’s version of “…Baby One More Time” with T-Boz’s raspy “Oh baby, baby” rolling over you like velvet; and “You Drive Me Crazy (The Stop! Remix)” is basically the best Janet song Janet never recorded.

But like Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, etc., etc., Britney was able to take a traditionally “black” sound all the way to the top of the charts—Britney literally replaced Brandy at number one on Billboard's Hot 100 when “…Baby One More Time” overtook “Have You Ever?” the last week of January 1999. Britney was, in turn, replaced by Monica’s “Angel of Mine,” but the age of the R&B princess came to an end in the early-00s as the age of the pop princess (i.e. white girls singing and dancing to R&B often written and produced by the same folks—your Neptuneses, your Rodneys Jerkins) crescendoed.

Spears's massive success certainly spawned a number of imitators—we wouldn’t have Jessica Simpson’s shoe line or Mandy Moore in This Is Us without her. Meanwhile, the fact that Britney and Christina never did a “Boy Is Mine”-esque duet of their own is one of the great missed pop-portunities of modern times. Still, trends ebb and flow and for every Britney there was, say, a Willa Ford. Soon, the blond pop princess went the way of the dodo and Britney went through her own set of growing pains, made painfully public. These days, when any troubled young popstar has a disturbing episode—from Justin to Demi—flashes of Britney shaving her head in a cry for help inevitably appear.

Spears was never taken seriously as an artist, but treated almost immediately as a novelty; that RS review describes her as an actress who “couldn’t land more than a role in an off-Broadway update of The Bad Seed.” She was also treated, from a very young age, as a sexual object, as is made cringeworthily clear in that aforementioned Rolling Stone cover story, which opens thusly:

Britney Spears extends a honeyed thigh across the length of the sofa, keeping one foot on the floor as she does so. Her blond-streaked hair is piled high, exposing two little diamond earrings on each ear lobe; her face is fully made-up, down to carefully applied lip liner. The BABY PHAT logo of Spears’ pink T-shirt is distended by her ample chest, and her silky white shorts—with dark blue piping—cling snugly to her hips. She cocks her head and smiles receptively.

She was 17 at the time.

As the years wore on, Britney became less a prototype and more a cautionary tale. That she was able to overcome a breakdown so well-publicized, to the point of schadenfreude, endeared her to a public that felt at least partially culpable in her youthful demise. The only thing people love more than a public breakdown is a public comeback.

While she has tried, with varying results, to grow as an artist, despite the increasingly limited expectations placed on her (where they were once so high), Spears never truly came into her own as an artist. Which is frustrating, considering, when reading articles about the young Britney Jean Spears, the level of ambition, the amount of personal agency, and the commitment to hard work she possessed, or is ascribed.

"For any artist, the motivation—the ‘eye of the tiger’—is extremely important," Jeff Fenster, Jive Records’ senior vice president of A&R, said of a young Spears. "And Britney had that. This is clearly a self-motivating person from a very young age.”

Rolling Stone called Spears “her own stage mother,” having pressed her parents to take her to her Mickey Mouse Club audition. Billboard, referring to her as a “young prodigy,” is sure to mention how “pleasant and engaging” she was on a tour of 50 radio stations. She didn’t want “world domination” like Madonna but she did want “total success around the world” and “maybe a movie or two.”

The Britney Spears of …Baby One More Time is very different than the Britney Spears of Glory. There used to be a fire within her evident in her live performances when she was actually performing. The Britney of today doesn’t really seem like she’s putting in that much effort or even enjoying it—this whole showbiz thing she has worked so hard to achieve. There’s a ton of Britney goodwill, spawning from her first run of hits from 1998 through the early aughts, which is impressive for anyone, and boosted by the guilt or sympathy felt for her setbacks. As a result, the Britney bar is notoriously low, especially since the bar for popstars has risen considerably since Spears started out.

While Britney is still walking through choreography and lip-synching through shows, Beyoncé is constantly re-inventing herself and redefining what it means to be a popstar. Lady Gaga is the heir apparent to Madonna’s blonde ambition. Even her contemporaries, Christina and Pink, have been able to evolve and challenge themselves and their fans. With Britney, there is no challenge. Her evolution is cosmetic. But, in all honesty, she doesn’t need to challenge or change or try that hard, as her fans will still shell out money for her Vegas residency, will still stream whatever album she claims is her “most personal” to date, and will still genuflect at the altar of their Godney.

Imagine if Michael Jackson’s first album was Thriller. If he just showed up, seemingly out of nowhere, with “Beat It” and became an instant superstar. That’s what …Baby One More Time was for Britney Spears. She knocked it out of the park on her first try, and she’s never been able to replicate its success because, well, the music industry has changed and so have the standards by which success is judged. Britney, however, has remained in a world unto herself—a relic of a bygone time, preserved in the amber of public opinion. With …Baby One More Time, we were treated to a slice of pop perfection, swaddled in innocuous fluff, which is an allegory for Britney herself: There’s a brilliant popstar (and a pretty good singer) somewhere in there, buried deep within a ton of filler.