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'...Baby One More Time' One More Time

Last night on The Voice, Adam Levine had a plan. It was a crazy plan. Contestant Tony Lucca had made it to the quarter finals with a sort of gently burly masculinity that came out in songs like "In Your Eyes" and "Beautiful Day," but judge Christina Aguilera remained unmoved. Considering that she and Lucca spent time in the trenches together on The All New Mickey Mouse Club in the mid-1990s, this was a problem.

That's when Levine, acting as Lucca's mentor, hatched his plan. In order to force Aguilera, and the voting audience at home, to stand up and take notice, it would require out-of-the-box thinking. It would require a huge risk. It would require a song choice that would blow everybody's mind.

It would require "...Baby One More Time."

Everything about the leadup to the performance was crafted to demonstrate just how insane Lucca was to even touch Britney Spears' teen-pop ode to barely-controlled horniness. In the prerecorded intro, Levine said, "We had this kind of wild idea to do a song so crazy that it can work." Host Carson Daly introduced Lucca as "ready to take a big risk" and went out of his way to avoid identifying the song ahead of time to maintain the shock of discovery. Afterwards, the judges fell over each other congratulating him for his daring.

Which is exactly what you do whenever you encounter an adult male with the guts to nonironically cover "...Baby One More Time." I know this because it's exactly the same response every single time it happens.

And it's been happening since at least 1999, when Fountains Of Wayne recorded their own version approximately three months after Britney's original was released. But if that version was hard to read – the difference between sincere Fountains Of Wayne and arch Fountains Of Wayne is a thin, nearly invisible line – the acoustic version that pre-Coldplay drama-rockers Travis included on their "Turn" single a year later was indisputably earnest.

There's even been a direct precedent for Lucca's performance, courtesy of Marty Casey's initially reluctant performance of the song on Rock Star: INXS back in 2005. That show was not only produced by The Voice's Mark Burnett but featured a house band led by Paul Mirkovich, bandleader for... The Voice. If you're counting, that means that he has, on two separate occasions, helped a male singing-show contestant tackle the same song, a song that a man would have to be crazy to tackle.

But what's weirdly ironic is that it's this very reluctance to touch it that's somehow turned "...Baby One More Time" from the wellspring of modern girl-pop into something of a dude-rock standard. There's even developed a bit of an understanding that men's versions need to be intense and brooding, as if to say, "I know I'm covering Britney Spears, but I am dark, bro."

That's as much a defensive pose as refusing to touch "...Baby One More Time" in the first place. By contrast, check out Richard Thompson's cover of "Oops!...I Did It Again." He may acknowledge that Spears is considered "a rather crass pop artist," but he makes it quite clear – in his immediate followup ("just my kind of person") and elsewhere – that that's other people's problem, not his (or Spears'). He plays the song because he sees its connection to centuries-old musical tradition, and because he loves it, and because he knows that the audience loves it, too, whether they'll admit it or not. And admit it they do, singing along by the end.

Thompson, of course, has been around long enough and been duly recognized for his mastery of both songcraft and guitarery that he can brush off the slings and arrows that might come his way for taking on "Oops!...I Did It Again." And "Toxic," "Womanizer" and others have certainly seen their share of covers. For most male singers, though, "...Baby One More Time" seems to have been tacitly set aside as the Britney song for guys who are just too damn real to sing Britney songs.

Granted, none of the others are former Mouseketeers. But it's unclear whether that complication makes it more risky or less risky for Lucca to have sung it last night. As evidenced by the shock with which The Voice presented that decision, what may be riskier is to actually mean it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Hirsh lives in the Boston area, where he indulges in the magic trinity of improv comedy, competitive adult four square and music journalism. He has won trophies for one of these, but refuses to say which.

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