If Britney Spears’ first single “ … Baby One More Time,” released in fall 1998, was a perfect piece of sweet, pink bubblegum, then the arrival of her debut album of the same name a few months later was a full pack of the stuff, promising more where that came from: 10 additional sugar hits for the teeny-bopper in training. The album came out almost exactly 20 years ago, on Jan. 12, 1999, and as these things go, it contained a fairly typical mix of hits and filler—for every “Sometimes,” Spears’ second single, listeners also got an “I Will Be There,” the kind of song you wouldn’t be able to pick out of an audio lineup.
But one track stood apart from the rest, even at the time. “E-Mail My Heart” was a love ballad with a digital twist: “Email me back and say our love will stay alive,” Spears crooned in the song’s chorus. In 2016, NME called it “the weirdest song [Spears] ever recorded,” elaborating, “What’s weird is that email and online culture weren’t even that nascent in 1999.” If the song already felt like a relic when it came out, the intervening decades have transformed it from a somewhat clumsy deep cut into a Web 1.0–era curiosity and shibboleth, the musical equivalent of that 1994 Today show clip where Bryant Gumbel asks earnestly, “What is internet?” It lives on in a famous GIF that depicts a wide-eyed Spears explaining the song’s genesis (“Everyone has been doing emails”) and in internet lists like the Ringer’s “Antiquated Tech Pop Lyrics Museum.” But the strangest thing about it might be that, even after all these years, no one can quite decide whether it’s good or not. When the matter came up in an episode of Rolling Stone’s Music Now podcast about “ … Baby One More Time,” writer Rob Sheffield declared, “Love that song.” “You do not love that song,” host Brian Hiatt shot back.
Is “E-Mail My Heart” an underrated jam, a waste of megabytes, or something in between? And who decided a teenage Britney Spears should sing a song about email, anyway? For answers to these questions, I decided to talk to the “E-Mail My Heart” songwriter himself, Eric Foster White. Actually, I emailed him. White also has credits with Whitney Houston and the Backstreet Boys, and he went on to found a mobile entertainment app called ShowMobile—suffice it to say “E-Mail My Heart” is not his proudest accomplishment, but he indulged me all the same. Our exchange, which has been condensed and edited, is below.
Slate: How did you wind up writing songs?
Eric Foster White: No pure songwriter remembers the answer to that one ;) All the ones who did it for the $ do.
What was the original idea behind “E-Mail My Heart”?
As a concept, the song was meant to be an update to a succession of songs (“Please Mr. Postman,” “Dial My Heart”) that tied popular forms of communication with a love interest. Anything “not done before” is almost automatically a hit candidate. Of course, most of them are not hits. And now we are drowning in hundreds of songs about texting and social media.
Do you remember how long it took you to write?
About an hour at the piano, once the concept was there. Lyric outline on a bike ride.
How did the song wind up on Britney Spears’ album?
I was the “anchor producer” on her debut album. I developed her signature vocal sound. I wrote and produced what became about half of the album while she was still signed to a development deal at Jive.
Did anyone then have a sense of what a success Britney would eventually become?
Yes. She had a very strong drive and a lot of charisma. She worked harder in the studio than any other artist I had worked with prior.
What was your opinion of Britney and that era of bubblegum pop at the time? What do you think now?
Pop music for young audiences always comes back around. Always, no matter what. Britney/Backstreet was five to six years after the total dominance of grunge. Today’s dominant music is rap, and a lot of it is mind-blowingly great. It will look different next cycle, but pop will swing back around. There will always be another teen idol, but Britney was very special. There will probably not be another Britney.
Do you remember anything else about “E-Mail My Heart” from the time?
We did a comic parody of it, privately, to spite one of her handlers. It never saw the light of day, never will ;) Not sure I can even find it.
What was the reaction to the song like when it first came out?
As an album track and not a single, it didn’t really “come out.” I hoped no one would notice it, haha.
You mentioned that this isn’t one of the songs you’re particularly proud of—
I had a No. 1–selling single on the album, “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart,” which was also a ballad but a far better song and production.
If you could change anything about “E-Mail My Heart,” what would it be?
Not write it?
Did you ever hear it performed live or encounter it on the radio?
Do you still earn any royalties from the song?
The gift that keeps on giving.
If you were writing a song about technology today, what would you focus on?
Everyone else has beat me to it.
What are your favorites of the songs you’ve written?
Best question. Every songwriter has a file of songs that never found their way to the public. Sometimes their personal favorite is in there. My favorite is somewhere in that file.