Britney Spears’ ‘…Baby One More Time’ turns 25: How a rejected demo birthed the pop star of a generation

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Britney Spears’ ‘…Baby One More Time’ turns 25: How a rejected demo birthed the pop star of a generation

Max Martin knew he had a hit on his hands. After making a name for himself in the mid-’90s with the Backstreet Boys’ “Q

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Max Martin knew he had a hit on his hands.

After making a name for himself in the mid-’90s with the Backstreet Boys’ “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” and Robyn’s “Show Me Love,” the Swedish music producer began shopping around a song he had written called “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

Martin went to TLC first, as the R&B girl group behind smashes like “Waterfalls” and “Creep” was in the midst of preparing their first studio album in nearly five years. But Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas didn’t feel the track was a fit for them.

“Was I going to say, ‘Hit me, baby, one more time’? Hell no!” Watkins explained to MTV News.

And so Martin went back to the drawing board. He offered the track to his previous collaborators Robyn and the Backstreet Boys, both of whom also rejected it.

Enter Britney Spears, a promising 16-year-old vocalist from Louisiana who had starred on “The All-New Mickey Mouse Club” as a child and recently signed with Jive Records, the same label that the Backstreet Boys were on.

The song was released on Oct. 23, 1998.
Jive Records

After wowing Jive’s A&R with her rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing,” Spears was flown to Sweden for a week to begin recording her debut album with Martin. He played her a rough demo of himself singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” and, much to his relief, she loved it.

But suddenly everyone wanted a piece of what was once the most unappetizing pie in town.

English record executive Simon Cowell, who later gained fame as a judge on TV competitions including “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent,” caught wind of “Baby” not long after Martin gave it to Spears.

“Baby” skyrocketed Spears to fame.
Vevo/Britney Spears
Nigel Dick directed its iconic music video.
Vevo/Britney Spears

“I phoned up Max, and I said, ‘Max, please, please give me this song [for British boy band Five]. And he went, ‘No, I’ve promised it to someone else,’” Cowell remembered on the “Howie Mandel Does Stuff” podcast earlier this year.

“And I said, ‘Well, I’ll send you a Mercedes — literally a Mercedes 500 SL if I can have this song.”

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Martin wouldn’t budge, though, leading Cowell to warn the producer that he was making a big mistake.

“I went, ‘Max, let me give you some advice: No one is going to have a hit with a name [like] Britney Spears,’” he said.

Three artists, including TLC, rejected producer Max Martin’s demo.
Getty Images

“Baby” was the first of six songs that Spears and Martin recorded together during her week-long trip to Stockholm, and he was eager to play the finished product for Jive.

“I remember when we got it back with Britney on it, she had that ‘oh bay-bay, bay-bay,’ these ad-libs. We thought it was really weird at first. It was strange. It was not the way Max wrote it,” the label’s president, Barry Weiss, recalled to Entertainment Weekly.

“But it worked! We thought it could be a really good opening salvo for her.”

The “…Baby One More Time” album was released on Jan. 12, 1999.
Jive Records

Jive decided to make one change, though: the title, which, as TLC first pointed out, could’ve been misconstrued as an allusion to domestic violence. (Really, Martin meant “hit me up on the phone.”)

“I was concerned about going to US radio with a song called ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time,’” Weiss said. “I came up with the ‘…Baby One More Time.’”

The three-and-a-half-minute track was released on Oct. 23, 1998. It took off instantly and ultimately climbed its way to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on Jan. 30, 1999, thanks in part to its instantly iconic music video featuring Spears as a midriff-baring schoolgirl.

“I knew it was a great song,” she told the Guardian in 2018. “It was different, and I loved it, [but] I don’t think you can anticipate how a song is going to be received.”

Spears reflects on her career in her forthcoming memoir, “The Woman in Me.”
Gallery Books

Twenty-five years later, “Baby” remains one of the bestselling songs in music history. It was nominated for a Grammy, made Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list and has been covered by the likes of Ed Sheeran and Fountains of Wayne.

“Baby,” of course, had an even bigger impact on Spears, who skyrocketed to fame as a result of its success and became the greatest pop star of a generation.

The global superstar, now 41, will look back on her celebrated career in her highly anticipated memoir, “The Woman in Me,” which hits stores Tuesday.