The Number Ones

December 22, 1958

The Number Ones: The Chipmunks & David Seville’s “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

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.

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It started out as a clever-enough idea. In 1958, Ross Bagdasarian, a Broadway actor who’d had a pretty good role as a pianist in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window, started experimenting with speeding up his voice on tape, making it into a high-pitched effect. From there, he came up with the idea of the Chipmunks, three happy-go-lucky singing rodents. Taking the name David Seville, Bagdasarian released the novelty single “The Witch Doctor,” which went to #1 on one of Billboard‘s pre-Hot 100 charts. From there, a sequel was inevitable. And so: “The Chipmunk Song,” the song where the personalities of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore all begin to assert themselves. That was a hit, too, and a whole empire of cartoons and insufferable CGI-spiked kids’ movies was born.

Technically, “The Chipmunk Song” is a marvel. Working in a pre-electronic era, Bagdasarian had to manipulate tape speeds, play four different characters, and get the whole thing to hang together as a piece of music. He pulled it off, harmonizing with himself in inhuman high-pitched voices and then arguing with his own regular-voiced self. As a parlor trick and a feat of engineering, “The Chipmunk Song” is just staggering. As a piece of music, it sucks shit.

Even if Bagdasarian had been singing it in a regular human voice, “The Chipmunk Song” would still be an unbearably trite and treacly piece of holiday nothingness. Sung in those sped-up voices, it starts to feel like you’re hearing the fevered cooing of hell-demons. And when it gets to the end — when all three Chipmunks are demanding to sing the song again and Bagdasarian is telling them to stop and they devolve into near-wordless chattering white noise — it sounds like pure insanity. It sounds like the world ending.

And every year, like some witch’s curse, this song returns to us, playing over Rite-Aid speakers and TV-commercial montages, hounding us until the season ends.

GRADE: 2/10

BONUS BEATS: If you really want to test yourself, here’s the version of “The Chipmunk Song” that the Chipmunks recorded with Kenny G in 1994.

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