Nothing explains the pop culture of the late '90s better than the original Total Request Live, and nothing screams TRL quite like Britney Spears' "Baby One More Time" video. In fact, the two definitely had a symbiotic relationship — the daily music countdown show hosted by Carson Daly premiered just two months before the "Baby One More Time" video hit the airwaves in November 1998, a month after the single was released. It was a win-win; TRL likely earned more viewers as fans of the former Disney star called in to vote for Spears' now-iconic video and hey, having the most popular TV show at the time play your video every day sure can't hurt.
It's hard to imagine a world without Britney Spears now, but at the time, no one was expecting her to be a star. Nigel Dick, who directed the "Baby One More Time" video, tells Bustle over the phone ahead of the video's 20th birthday that he had no idea who Spears was or whether the song, which he personally loved, would be such a hit. Neither did anyone else — the video premiered on TRL on a Friday afternoon, which wasn't exactly the biggest day, ratings, wise. Dick tells Bustle:
"When the video was released, I showed it to some people in my side of the business and they were very unimpressed by it. I happened to be proud of it and felt like I had a done a good job, which is why I was showing it to people. And they were like, 'nah' and halfway through they were already dealing with something else. So when it came out on TRL, a Friday [no one seemed to care]...It’s the same with the release of a movie. On Friday, you’re an idiot, and by Monday you’re a genius."
Choreographer Randy Connor also had no idea what he was getting into when he was called in by Jive Records, Spears' label to "develop" her as an artist. But he had a huge role in forming Spears as an artist and remembers that she had a lot of input on how things went down on set, whether it was the wardrobe, the premise of the video, or even the dance moves. It was a group effort, but Spears was in the thick of it, which says a lot about her talent — it's not easy for a 16-year-old woman to get people to listen to her. Dick tells Bustle that he remembers being "impressed by how professional she was." She, along with Dick, Connor, and the rest of the crew, didn't know they were making history.
Which is why even if you were more of a rocker who spent the latter half of 1998 listening to Limp Bizkit, or stanned hard for Monica & Brandy's "The Boy Is Mine," the TRL number one video just before 16-year-old Spears came onto the scene, you likely still know the words to "Baby One More Time" and at least some of the choreography. (Let's face it, it was part of all our after-school routines for months on end, at least until the "Sometimes" video came out in April 1999 and replaced it on the TRL countdown.) The backflips, Spears' longing looks into the camera as she sings about her loneliness, and of course, the skimpy school girl uniforms are just that iconic.
So, in the lead up to the video's 20th birthday, here are some of the decisions, according to Dick and Connor, that might have changed pop culture history as we know it — along with some other lesser known facts about the ever legendary "Baby One More Time".
It Was Almost Animated
Connor tells Bustle that he was present, along with Spears, during the planning stages of the video and at one point, they were seriously considering the idea of it being animated. (Hey, that was popular at the time!) Dick says that that idea must have been "floated" before he was called in. He tells Bustle that it was her idea to have it be set in a school, with a girl dreaming about boys.
Dick had no choice but to take Spears' word that this idea was better than anything else, especially since he had grown up in the U.K. without knowing anything about American schools. Or teen girls. He says:
"She came up with the basic part of the idea, she had a comment about the wardrobe, apart from that everything else was up to me. She did have a reasonable amount of input and that’s good because...I was a grown man, you know? I wasn’t a 16-year-old teenage girl. And I’d never been to a school with girls in it. I had no knowledge of what it was like to be in a school with girls and boys in it. So it was a good idea to listen to what she had to say."
It Took Over TRL — But Almost Never Hit #1
The video didn't premiere on MTV until mid-November 1998 and it wasn't until December of that year that Spears came to the TRL studio to introduce the video and greet fans in Times Square. But it wasn't until March 1999 that the video actually creeped all the way to the number one spot all of just two times, alternating with Korn, of all bands.
The rest of the time, "Baby One More Time" competed with videos from the Backstreet Boys and 'NSync for the top spot, and almost always came third. That didn't stop TRL from crowning it its Most Iconic Video ever when the original show ended in 2008, though.
That School Uniform Look Was Spears' Idea
Much like Connor remembers her taking a seat at the table to hash out what the video should look like, Spears told People in 1998 that it was her idea to tie up her button down shirt during the hallway scenes. "The outfits looked kind of dorky, so I was like, 'Let's tie up our shirts and be cute,'" she said.
Dick remembers the moment well, he tells Bustle, "In the original concept, I wrote that [she and the dancers] would be wearing jeans and t-shirts. But Spears turned to the stylist and said, 'Wouldn't I be wearing a school girls' outfit?' And I put my hand up to ask if were sure that was a good idea. But I was outvoted."
He adds, "I subsequently personally got a lot of criticism for [her outfit], and I think that says as much about the people making the criticisms than it does about me. I never went in with the intention to sexualize her."
All The Clothes Are From Kmart
Dick added in a 2009 interview with MTV that everything was done on the cheap. "Every piece of wardrobe in the video came from Kmart, and I was told at the time not one piece of clothing in the video cost more than $17. On that level, it's real. That probably, in retrospect, is a part of its charm," he said.
People Thought It Was "Too Sexy"
The American Family Association called for a boycott of Spears' album and tour after the one-two punch of her video premiere in November 1998 and then her March 1999 Rolling Stone cover, which it compared to Lolita. As for the "Baby One More Time" video, the group was upset that a 16-year-old girl was was "cavorting in a school uniform and singing the line 'hit me baby one more time.'" This was just the first of one of many calls for Spears to stop being "too sexy" throughout her career by conservative groups.
As Dick put it previously, it says a lot more about the groups critiquing the video than it does about him or Spears.
They Cut A 'Dirty Dancing' Reference
Connor tells Bustle that he loved working on the video, but that he was personally kind of bummed that some of his favorite moves were cut out. Dick doesn't remember if it was cut for any particular reason, but remember the scene in Dirty Dancing where Johnny lifts Baby up in the air and they dance super close?
Connor says that in one of the hallway dancing scenes, Spears and another dancer did a similar move, but it never made it to air. That, combined with the "cavorting," might have caused the AFA to pass out, so it was probably a good idea. You can see the "risque" moves in the rehearsal video above.
It Was Almost Never Spears' Song To Begin With
The song, written by Max Martin, was originally offered to many other stars at the time, according to Fader. Simon Cowell's U.K. pop group Five was offered the tune, Robyn, and most notably TLC. T-Boz said in 2013 that she thought "hit me," was a reference to domestic violence. She said, as reported by The Guardian, "I was like: ‘I like the song but do I think it’s a hit? Do I think it’s TLC?’ … Was I going to say ‘Hit me baby one more time’? Hell no!”
This Is What "Hit Me" Really Means
For what it's worth, both T-Boz and the American Family Association were wrong about the real meaning of "hit me" in the song. The Huffington Post reports that in John Seabrook's book of pop music history, The Song Machine, Martin explained his writing process. The poor, Swedish songwriter thought that "hit me" could be brand new slang for "call me," which in retrospect, is exactly what every teen wants their crush to do. Alas, even Spears couldn't make "hit me" happen.
Although the video was the product of deliberate hard work and planning, it was a lucky accident that the song eventually made it to Spears. And she made it her own, from using her gymnastics skills, nixing dorky costumes, and making sure it all jived with her personality at the time. It's that kind of leadership and talent that's made Spears, along with her epic first video, a living legend.