One of the most consequential songs of the past two decades came to us through a translation error.
There’s a reason “…Baby One More Time,” which officially turns 20 this week, is prefaced in its title by an ellipses. Barry Weiss, president of Jive Records, now remembers being “concerned” about sending a song called “Hit Me Baby One More Time” to U.S. radio.
So how were those vaguely violent words ever written into the chorus that rocketed a teenage, Mickey Mouse Club alumna like Britney Spears to superstardom? “Hit me,” as it turns out, was mistaken as American slang for “call me.”
“Everybody thought it was some sort of weird allusion to domestic violence or something,” author John Seabrook remembered in Entertainment Weekly’s oral history of the song. “But what it really was was the Swedes using English not exactly correctly. What they really wanted to say was, ‘Hit me up on the phone one more time’ or something. But at that point, [Max Martin’s] English wasn’t that great. So it came out sounding a little bit weird in English. But when they tried to get him to change it, he said, ‘No, it can’t be changed. That’s it.’”
But qualms about the awkward language are what ultimately sent the song on its track to Spears, after being rejected by TLC. In her hands, “…Baby One More Time,” with its sensual vocals and bouncy slap bass, played a consequential role in ushering in the new era of bubblegum pop that came to define the late ’90s and early aughts.
When Seabrook released “The Song Machine,” his dive into recent pop history, back in 2015, his insight into the meaning behind “hit me” generated a burst of headlines teasing the revelation. In other words, nobody ever really knew what the line was supposed to say. (I always assumed it was a figurative plea for her to be “hit” with the sign mentioned in the prior line.) Here’s the chorus:
My loneliness is killing me and I,
I must confess, I still believe.
When I’m not with you,
I lose my mind.
Give me a sign,
Hit me baby one more time.
For mainstream female artists, the pendulum was clearly swinging away from confessional, lyric-centric singer-songwriters (Tori Amos, Paula Cole, Sarah McLachlan, Joan Osborne). With a chorus that culminated in a line nobody really understood, the international success of “…Baby One More Time” represented an early moment in that transition.
Amid the flurry of retrospectives published this week, the most interesting point of trivia I’ve read is that Spears had initially set out to make “Sheryl Crow music, but younger.” In its own commemoration of the song’s 20th anniversary, The Guardian aptly noted “…Baby One More Time” hit shelves “in the wake of Alanis Morissette’s hugely successful 1995 album Jagged Little Pill and its litany of imitators” and “presented a different angle to the prevalent idea of female angst.”
Alongside Morissette, “Pieces of You” may have worked well for Jewel in 1995, but by 2003 she was sexed up and wriggling to “Intuition.” Acoustic guitars were out, headsets were in. Although Spears initially set out to follow other women’s footsteps, a lot of female artists quickly ended up walking in hers.