The Number Ones is a new column where I’ll review every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. It is, in other words, a shameless ripoff of the great British blogger Tom Ewing’s long-running column Popular, in which he’s spent more than a decade doing the same thing with the UK charts. (Popular is so good. Start with Ewing’s masterpiece on the Sugababes’ “Freak Like Me” and work your way backwards.) Since there have been more than 1,000 #1 singles, I’ll do one of these every day, or as close to every day as I can manage. And in a nod to Ewing, I’ll give all of them a grade, from 1 to 10.
How does this kind of thing happen? 1958 was only two or three years after rock ‘n’ roll crossed over and changed the course of American culture. And yet the biggest song of 1958 was a grandly hammy ballad, written and sung in Italian, about dreaming that your face is blue and that you can fly. Domenico Modugno, a little-known Italian singer-songwriter who’d later become a member of Italian parliament, co-wrote “Volare” after having a weird dream, and then he turned his song about that weird dream into a global smash. If nothing else, it serves as a welcome reminder that popular taste has always been a strange and inexplicable thing.
“Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)” won the main prize at Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival, and it came in third in 1958’s Eurovision Song Contest, but that doesn’t go far in explaining how it managed to capture the popular imagination in America. I imagine that the real answer has something to do with immigrant communities, which means that “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)” has a fascinating parallel in Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s 60-years-later smash “Despacito.” And if a random Italian song was going to blow up in America that year, we could’ve done worse. “Volare” is a pop chanson with an operatic sense of sweep, but Modugno sings it with a hint of playfulness, as if he knows the song’s sheer absurdity makes it at least a little bit funny. Modugno’s voice has real brio, and that kind of showmanship, it turns out, is the kind of thing that can transcend linguistic barriers. But today, the song registers as slight, almost self-consciously so. Orchestral swells don’t come much chintzier than that.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s David Bowie singing the song, in Italian, on the soundtrack of the 1986 movie Absolute Beginners: