Britney Spears’ career almost got off to a very different start.
In 1997, when music on the radio ranged from bubblegum dance (Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”) to gangsta rap (The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems”) to soft-rock power ballads (Céline Dion’s “All By Myself”) and everything in between, songwriter Max Martin penned a catchy pop track titled “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” He originally intended for it to be included on TLC’s album FanMail, but the R&B girl group ultimately rejected it. Instead of scrapping the tune, Martin decided to send it over to Jive Records, which had just signed a 15-year-old singer from a small town in Louisiana whom the label hoped would become its next big act.
Right off the bat, Jive executives had one major concern: They feared listeners would think the song condoned domestic violence. (It turned out that TLC’s Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins also sought issue with the lyrical content, as she told MTV in 2013, “Was I going to say, ‘Hit me baby one more time?’ Hell no!“) Luckily, the solution was a fairly easy one. “Hit Me” was removed from the title and replaced by an ellipsis, though the lyrics remained untouched.
The label invited Spears to a studio in Stockholm in March 1998 to record her vocals for “Baby.” Due to nerves and inexperience, the teen underperformed in the booth. She returned the next day feeling more relaxed and gave it another go. The second time around, she knocked it out of the park.
“I knew it was a great song,” Spears, now 36, told The Guardian in August ahead of the 20th anniversary. “It was different and I loved it.”
“…Baby One More Time” was released on October 23, 1998, as Spears’ debut single. She was just 16 years old at the time, but quickly made her presence known with the earworm’s instantly recognizable three-note introductory motif followed by her delivery of the now-iconic first line: “Oh, bay-beh, bay-beh.” Entertainment Weekly reviewed the track as a “candy-pop-with-a-funky-edge smash,” while Rolling Stone went on to call it “some of the best radio pop of the past decade-plus.” In January 1999, “Baby” secured the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, where it remained for two consecutive weeks. It found even longer success on MTV, which had the accompanying music video on heavy rotation each afternoon on TRL.
But like the song itself, the video got off to a very different start. It all began when director Nigel Dick, who had previously worked with rock bands such as Guns N’ Roses and Oasis, signed on to helm the project. “I’ve always been a fan of great pop songs, and this one impressed me right away,” Dick tells Us Weekly exclusively. “Once we started on the job, [Spears] struck me as extremely professional and hard-working.”
So hard-working, in fact, that the ex-Mouseketeer immediately took control of the vision. “The record label rejected my initial idea and simply said, ‘Britney has an idea. Why don’t you get on the phone and talk to her about it?‘” Dick recalls to Us. “Initially, I was a bit bent out of shape, and then I realized that A) I’d gone to an all-boys school in England, and that B) I was no longer 16, so perhaps Britney had a better grasp of what 16-year-old girls might want to see in a music video.”
Spears even made sure that she had a say in the wardrobe. “It was my idea to do the whole schoolgirl outfit and us being at school and having the dance numbers throughout it,” she told Vevo in 2012.
The “Baby” video was filmed over two days in early August 1998 at Venice High School in Los Angeles, the same location used two decades earlier for John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s movie Grease.
“It was really, really hectic and nerve-wracking because it was my first video and I was really nervous about how the end results were going to turn out,” Spears said in a behind-the-scenes video released at the time. “I remember the first day I was on the set when we were shooting ‘…Baby One More Time.’ There was, like, all these people there. I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ I didn’t realize it was going to be that big of a production.”
The video began with Spears sitting in class, tapping a pencil on her desk and staring at the clock rather than her teacher, who was played by her real-life assistant, Felicia Culotta. When the bell finally rang, Spears and her classmates ran into the hallway and began a choreographed dance routine. The budding pop star, with her hair in pigtails, wore her risqué take on a traditional Catholic school uniform: a gray cardigan over a short black skirt and a white button-down shirt tied around her midriff.
“She rejected my plan to wear jeans, T-shirts, etc. and said, ‘Wouldn’t I be wearing a school uniform?’” Dick recounts to Us. “It was a simple step to take her ideas on board. Plus, I really like it if the artist has a usable idea because then the video is truly something that reflects them and not who I think they might be.”
Throughout the shoot, Spears was “always ready to do another take,” according to the director.
“[She] impressed me a lot,” Dick tells Us. “I subsequently worked with another young female artist who wanted to do a dance video, and she said she wanted to ‘out-Britney’ Britney, and I thought, ‘You’ll have to work very hard to do that.’ In the end, the other artist didn’t even come close.”
Dick went on to direct three more of Spears’ videos: “Sometimes,” “(You Drive Me) Crazy” and “Oops!…I Did It Again.” He admits that he has not seen her since 2000, but he has continued to follow the many ups and occasional downs of her high-profile career.
“I enjoyed working with her,” he tells Us. “We did four videos together, and I subsequently became horrified by the way she was pursued by the media and was left to fry out in public. It broke my heart to see what happened.”
Two decades later, “Baby” remains one of the bestselling singles of all time and is widely regarded for redefining pop music. It scored a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance as well as three MTV Video Music Award nods. To date, the music video is the most-watched on Spears’ YouTube page, with more than 365 million views. “Baby” has also been a staple on all of Britney’s setlists, from her arena tours to her four-year Las Vegas residency, Britney: Piece of Me.
“It was such a fun and crazy time,” Spears told The Guardian in August. “It was a bit of a blur.”
Sign up now for the Us Weekly newsletter to get breaking celebrity news, hot pics and more delivered straight to your inbox!