“Oh baby, baby.”
It’s been 15 years since Britney Spears leaned against a locker, gazed into a camera, and mouthed those three words. In one music video, the not-that-innocent 16-year-old in pigtails shimmied in her schoolgirl uniform, fast-tracking puberty for a nation of adolescent boys and crystallizing an iconic pop-culture moment.
Since the star-making “…Baby One More Time” debuted, Spears’s career has traveled well-documented peaks and valleys, but her first music video remains one of the most influential three minutes and 57 seconds from the turn-of-the-millennium. It simultaneously crowned a pop princess and canonized a sex goddess. It was the cataclysmic collision of spitfire upstart performer, brilliant pop song, and cheeky music video. It was the explosion of the long-burning pop music fireball that is Britney Spears.
What was it like to create such a significant moment in pop culture? To find out, we called up the “…Baby One More Time” music video director himself, Nigel Dick, who not only helmed Spears’s ab-baring coming out, but three more of her most memorable videos: “Sometimes,” “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” and “Oops!…I Did it Again.”
In a candid, sprawling chat that would make any ‘90s kid giddy, we talked about whose idea it was to go for broke with that schoolgirl costume, the controversy that surrounded the video’s sexiness, what Spears was like as a not-yet-famous 16-year-old, and why what’s happened to her and her persona can be so frustrating.
It’s been 15 years. Isn’t that crazy?
It’s frightening. Absolutely frightening.
What was your first impression of her?
She was a very sweet girl. She was obviously 16 at the time. She was shy. It was a very brief conversation, really. I was a grown man and she was a young girl. It’s not like we were going to hang out and talk about things you would if you were the same age. [Laughs] For both of us it was some kind of test, if you like, to see if we’d get on. It was quite short, sharp, and quick. I think she was in a dance rehearsal, I seem to remember.
But it was the song that sold you on her and made you want to do this, right?
Completely. It was just a great song, very well-produced. I’ve always been a big fan of great pop singles, right from when I was a young boy. The first time I heard, I thought this was a cracking record. I thought the picture they supplied me of Britney, which was actually the first album sleeve was a bit saccharine, I suppose is the word.
Whose idea was it to make the video something so brilliantly simple: a girl in high school, dancing with her friends?
Well I came back to L.A. and wrote a treatment, which everybody soundly rejected. It didn’t even get 1 on the Richter Scale. And they said, “Well, Britney’s got an idea. Get on the phone with her.” At which point, I was a bit nonplussed, because you’re thinking, “Oh, I’m going to be taking orders from a 16-year-old now, is that what you’re all saying?” But the thing that I realized was that I was English, she was American. She was the age group that we were trying to make the video for. So you suddenly think perhaps she has a better understanding of her key audience than I do, so perhaps it might behoove me to just shut my mouth and listen. She said, you know, I want to be in a schoolroom with a bunch of cute boys and have a lot of dancing. So that was the kernel of the idea.
It’s surprising, because I feel like when a young pop star like Britney comes out with so much record label support, you assume that everything she does it controlled by puppet masters: her representation, record execs, all of that. It’s nice to hear that she came up with that idea herself.
I mean, at the time that I worked with her she was always coming up with ideas. They weren’t always good ones, necessarily, but she was shy about sharing them. As I said, my experience of life was quite different from Britney’s experience. So you go, you know what? I need to listen to what this person has to say. It might not all be good, but there’s something in there which would make it unique for her. I’ve worked with many artists in my life, and I’ve realized that it’s better if there’s something of them coming through the video rather than a lot of me. Because it is for them. I’m tailoring a suit for them, and they’re going to have to live with it.
The iconic part of the video, obviously, is the school outfit. Whose idea was that?
That was Britney’s again.
So she’s the one who wanted to wear that!?
Well, I directed the wardrobe person to go and get wardrobe that I felt and thought kids would wear at school. And, again, being a grown man, I didn’t spend my time hanging out in kids’ schools. But you drive around, you see kids coming back from school, catching the bus, and what not. And they all seemed to wear jeans and t-shirts and have backpacks on. So we got a whole bunch of stuff like that. Britney took one look at all this and said, “Well, wouldn’t I be wearing a schoolgirl outfit?” I sort of went, “uhh, I don’t know about that.” Both my producer and the lady from wardrobe thought it was OK.
Why didn’t you think it was a good idea?
I raised a red flag and said, “Let’s take a step back for a minute. Are we sure this is a good idea?” And, of course, then, being women, they saw a completely innocent version of it. Then we went with it.
So you were concerned about the sex factor, with the level of sexuality she was portraying?
You know, I hadn’t seen the performance she was going to give at that point. We were in dance rehearsals. At some level, perception is everything. If you choose to look at the video and say it’s a cute girl dancing, you know, a cutesy thing—she’s just having fun with her friends, then that’s what it is. If you choose to say turn down the lights and get out your Mac, your old raincoat, it can become something different.
There wasn’t any directive at her, or conversation behind the scenes, about “sexing it up,” then?
We certainly didn’t go in there and say, alright let’s amp it up and make it sexier. This is what came out the box and we shot it. It was not amped to be anything. A lot of extra baggage has been attached to it, on some level. Certainly when she walks out and she’s got her shirt attached at the waist—the thing that I thought was most interesting were the little pink thingies in her hair. That’s what I focused on. It was really, as the best things are, a collision of events.
But this was quite the controversial collision of events.
Certainly there was some controversy about it, and I took a huge amount of stick for it. But I stood by what we did. It was who she was at the time. It wasn’t pushed in any particular way.
It wasn’t thrust on her at all, then? She wasn’t uncomfortable with it?
Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.
Because beyond “…Baby One More Time,” the first few videos of hers, which you directed most of, all had Britney wearing very sexual wardrobe: the tube top in “Crazy,” the red catsuit in “Oops!…I Did it Again.”
The next thing that happened after the video was made, she did a picture session for Rolling Stone with David LaChapelle, which was actually shot in her house, I believe. And that was very sexual. Then things got a bit crazy, and at that point a big effort was made by everybody—me included—to keep it under control a bit. From that point on, every video I did with her she wanted to get sexier and sexier. My argument to her was, look, you’ve got this audience now. You’re trying to accelerate your process along with them too fast. For the next year or two you can afford to be just a little bit more under control, and then perhaps you can go with it in that direction a bit later.
So she was enjoying all the attention she was getting for her sexuality?
I mean I’ve never had a daughter. I’ve never had a sister. But I’ve observed people who have kids, and the thing I’ve learned is that as they get into their late teens, as we all do, they start trying out things. They start pushing the limits: how short can I wear this dress? How low can I wear this neckline? You only have to drive past a queue of people waiting in line to get into a club now and they’re all dressed like hookers. So perhaps they won’t be like that when they grow up in another five years’ time, but that’s what everybody does. The difference is that most people are just going to a club. They’re not going in front of a bunch of cameras. When you’re going in front of a bunch cameras, you need to take a second look. Certainly, this opening salvo, so to speak, was within the acceptable limits, but I think a lot of people thrust a lot of perception onto it. It may have been subconsciously there, but they certainly pulled it out and made it front and center, I think.
How was she on camera at first? She did have some experience already, with The Mickey Mouse Club, but this was her first major music video.
She was great. To be honest, I didn’t really know about the Mickey Mouse background. The thing is, I’ve worked with many, many artists over the years, and you don’t know how they’re going to work until you do it. Sometimes the camera starts rolling and you get to the end of the first take and you go up and you go, “Great. Fantastic.” And inside you’re going, “Holy crap, this is going to be tough.” But with her, it was like, alright, we’re ready, let’s do this. And we did the first take, and it was wonderful. So I was like, OK, let’s move on. There was no feeling of, “Oh my god, I’m going to have to work really hard to get something out of this.” It was just: she’s got it. She knows what she’s doing. She’s taking direction. She was a very hard worker. I’m always impressed, every time I worked with her, how hard she worked. Of all the young stars of that era, she was the hardest working and the best prepared.
Did you have any sense when you were directing this that it even had the possibility of turning into something so iconic?
But were you pleased with it?
I just felt good about the work and I thought it was quite special, and then I showed it to a bunch of people and they were completely unimpressed by it. I thought, oh, this is worrying, because I think it’s quite good, but I guess my peers think it’s shit. What am I going to do? Then it came out on a Friday, and by Tuesday morning, I’m a genius. So it’s interesting how perception changes. Of course, a lot of that perception is because it hit a target with people her age. It really took off.
To say the least. What’s your reaction to its cultural impact?
The thing that I feel is that some videos I made I’m very proud of because I feel they’re mine on some level. I feel that the world has taken the “…Baby One More Time” video, and it belongs to the world now. That sounds a bit grandiose, doesn’t it?
I think it’s absolutely true.
I’m quoted as saying, “Whatever happens, I made a little ripple in pop culture.” For that particular point, I’m proud of that, because I’m a huge fan of music and pop culture and the rest of it. So to be in that process and be part of something that rich and have a page in the big book of pop culture is something to be proud of, I think. Or maybe not [laughs]. But I was there. Let’s put it that way.
And 15 years later, she’s still doing it. Have you and Britney stayed in touch?
I haven’t. I haven’t seen her since we did “Oops!…I Did it Again.”
What do you think of the direction she’s taken over the years?
You know, in the middle period there when things were getting rocky for her, I was very upset. I mean, I just felt that—I literally, at one point, wanted to get in my car, of course I didn’t know where she lived, but drive there and stand at the gate and go, “Fuck off and leave her alone! Just go away! Just bugger off!” You’re part of the problem. You’re a big part of the problem. I felt it was very cruel what happened to her.
It’s nice, though, that you got to work with her before any of this circus surrounded her.
I think it’s still on my website, but when we did “Oops!…I Did Again,” I wrote a long screed about how things had changed for her, and how when we made “…Baby One More Time” she was just one of the young kids on the set dancing. She just happened to be the one in front of the camera. We were on the school grounds for three days and nobody gave us any mind at all. “Who’s the video for?” “Britney Spears.” “Oh,” and then people would just walk away. And then six months later that completely changed. That weekend when the video was released, on Thursday afternoon she could walk into a 7-Eleven and order a Slurpee and nobody would pay any attention, and then by Monday morning all of that was gone and she could never go back.
When you watch the video back now, is there a moment in it that makes you smile because it brings back a particular memory of the shoot?
The moment when she’s just standing in front of the lockers and she just looks at the camera. It was a gag, a technique, that I used to employ at the time. Look away, look at the camera. Look away, look at the camera. And she just does it without any—she’s not self-conscious about it at all. It was wonderful to be able to work with somebody that young and who had that facility and who wasn’t affected or fake. That’s just who she was. It’s a true reflection of the spirit of this young person as she was at the time: joyful, energetic, fun, and bubbly.