Play It Again, Max: How the Piano Riff to Britney Spears' 'Baby One More Time' Became the Most Iconic Hook of Its Era

Twenty years ago this month, Britney Spears released her epochal debut single “...Baby One More Time.” This week, Billboard celebrates the pivotal pop classic two decades later, starting with a look back at the three-note Max Martin piano riff that introduced Britney to the world.

By late 1998, the previously grunge-dominated ‘90s had shifted in focus to an R&B and pop hybrid that was largely the brainchild of one man: Swedish top 40 maestro Max Martin. After achieving worldwide success through his work with Ace of Base, Backstreet Boys and Robyn, Martin was enlisted to submit demos for a new artist recently signed to Jive records: a 16-year-old Mickey Mouse Club alum named Britney Spears.

“He came to America, and we introduced him to Britney,” remembers Steve Lunt, then an A&R executive for Jive. “And he said, ‘I think I’ve got just the song…’

That song was “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” an instantly striking example of what Lunt refers to as “a Swedish version of what [Martin] thought was R&B” -- a slowly building pop anthem based around funky bass pops, chirping keys, and most importantly, a syncopated three-note piano riff that introduces the song. “It was clear right from the very beginning of the song that it was something special,” Lunt says. “Obviously, it was a hit.”

The title of the song eventually shifted from the demo -- losing the “Hit Me” part, for fears it would be mistaken for a reference to domestic violence -- but the signature hook was largely unchanged on the recording, released as Spears’ debut single in October 1998. “We added more distortion to it, generally just enhancing it,” co-producer Rami Yacoub says of capturing the riff in his and Martin’s Stockholm studio. “That was rock solid [already], so we never touched it or strayed away from the blueprint.”

Though the “Baby” piano riff was almost stupefying in its simplicity -- a B flat followed by two C notes -- it quickly proved indelible through repetition, appearing three times in the first 13 seconds alone. By the end of one listen, the riff had been hammered into your brain for all time, making the song seem larger than life right from its opening measure. “As soon as you hear those notes, you know what song it is,” Lunt explains. “I can’t think of another song like that.”

And while the riff itself is straightforward, its use in the song is designed to be jarring and deceptive. “The rising movement of the three-note hook starts a full step below the key the song is written in, which in itself is unique -- you don’t expect it,” explains Kristin Yost, a piano expert and Executive Director for the Centre for Music Minds. “Combine this with the syncopated rhythm and punchy accents, and you get what I would call a power move. ‘Pay attention to me!’”

Its demand for attention was soon heeded: “Baby” debuted at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November 1998, and climbed to No. 1 the next January, staying on top for two weeks. It was the first No. 1 single for Spears, Martin and Yacoub, and would spawn countless soundalikes in its wake. “Being in A&R, I had every songwriter in the world trying to submit songs for Britney,” Lunt recalls of the period following “Baby.” “It’s amazing how songwriters who never wrote like that before in their lives were suddenly writing things that sounded like they were Swedish.”​

Still, none of the similar hits that followed could match the immediate impact of “Baby,” iconic from its very first notes. “The riff is like the bold accessory to an otherwise sharp-looking, all-black outfit; similar to say red, uniquely shaped glasses,” offers Yost. “The outfit is good on its own, but add a pop of something special -- and simple -- and all of a sudden the whole outfit stands out.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Oct. 20 issue of Billboard. 

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