What kind of world would it be if Britney Spears‘ debut single wasn’t “… Baby One More Time?” That impossible-to-image parallel universe would have become a reality if Simon Cowell had had his way. In an interview with the British music mogul/reality singing judge on the latest episode of his America’s Got Talent co-star Howie Mandel’s Howie Mandel Does Stuff podcast, Cowell revealed that he once offered the song’s producer/writer Max Martin a brand-new Mercedes for the track.
“I had a boy band at the time called Five, who I’d put together, we were just on the verge of breaking them from America,” Cowell told Mandel of the five-piece London act he signed to BMG/RCA. “Someone phones me from America and says I’ve just been played this song. It was written for TLC. TLC passed and he played me down the phone to me and was like, ‘oh my God, I’ve got to have this song.'”
That track, of course, was the one that eventually launched Spears into the pop stratosphere. Spears released her debut single in Sept. 1998 and it went on to become one of the best-selling singles of all time and topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for two weeks.
But it could have gone another way if Cowell had landed the deal with Martin. “So I phoned up Max and said ‘please, please give me this song,'” Cowell said in his first-ever podcast appearance. “And he went, ‘I’ve promised it to someone else.’ And I said, ‘well, I’ll send you a Mercedes 500 SL if I can have this song.'” To Cowell’s chagrin, Martin insisted that the track was already spoken for and that it was going to a new act the former American Idol baddie had never heard of.
“And he went ‘no, I’ve promised it to somebody else,'” Cowell said Martin told him. “And I said ‘who?’ And he went, ‘Britney Spears.’ And I said ‘Max, let me give you some advice, no one is going to have a hit with the name called Britney Spears’. She wasn’t even known.” Even though he didn’t get the song for Five, in the end Cowell told Mandel he thinks it was the right call.
“He’s honorable,” Cowell said. “He promised the song and he wasn’t going to break the promise, and look, he made the right decision… We’re still good friends now. Listen, I would have taken the car! And don’t forget, no one had heard of this girl before so he was not going to break his promise. So I missed out on that, but that’s how we met and became friends.”
Listen to the episode below (“… Baby One More Time” talk begins around 38:30 mark).