In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing 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.
In the past few years, the internet has noticed a phenomenon that’s now commonly known as “indie girl voice“: the strange way that certain singers bend and twist vowels into overlapping sounds, finding new resonances so that they can take up more room on songs that are generally instrumentally pretty sparse. “Indie girl voice” is just as common in straight-up pop music as it is in indie rock, but the label has stuck, mostly because it’s fun to make jokes about it.
But indie girl voice has existed since long before indie rock was a thing. You could argue that Hank Williams and Roy Orbison were doing variations on indie girl voice. And “Brand New Key,” the weird little novelty one-off from the folk singer Melanie, is so steeped in it that it could’ve shown up on an MP3 blog in 2008. And come to think of it, “Brand New Key” was technically an indie song, too.
Melanie Safka was a real-deal folk singer, a Queens native who started out performing in a New Jersey coffeehouse and then moved onto the Village folk scene when she was studying acting in college. Melanie is one of those weird cases — an American singer who blows up overseas before she can get arrested in her homeland. Melanie signed to Columbia and scored a couple of hits in European countries, but she was mostly an unknown when she performed at Woodstock in 1969. Playing that festival led her to wrote “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain),” her first American hit. (The wildly romanticized “Lay Down” got to #6 in 1970; it’s 6.)
After stints on Columbia and Buddah, Melanie and her producer husband Peter Schekeryk started their own label Neighborhood Records. (So “Brand New Key” was a self-released record, though the couple did have major-label distribution.) When Melanie wrote “Brand New Key,” she didn’t necessarily think of it as a single; it’s more of a fun, dizzy interlude on her LP Gather Me, which is otherwise a straight-up idiosyncratic folk record in that early Joni Mitchell vein. But “Brand New Key” ended up being memorable enough to overshadow everything else she ever did.
On the face of it, “Brand New Key” is a jaunty, innocent tune about being a kid with a crush. On the song, Melanie keeps rollerskating past the house of the guy she likes. She keeps hearing that he’s not home, until his mother finally tells her that he’s with someone else. And that’s when she starts to catch on: “Sometimes I think that you’re avoiding me.”
Heard from a certain point of view, it sounds like an innocent rumination on childhood, with ragtimey piano flourishes and vaguely doo-wop backing vocals that pull it right out of time. But “Brand New Key” also sounds like it’s about sex. The brand new key she’s singing about is supposedly the kind of key that people used to use to tighten rollerskates, but it could easily be something else. There’s a flirty edge to Melanie’s voice, and there are plenty of lines in the song that come off as double entendres: “Don’t go too fast but I go pretty far,” “I’m OK alone, but you’ve got something I need.”
Years later, Melanie herself claimed that she didn’t mean for “Brand New Key” to be a sex song, but she also admitted that it could’ve snuck in there subconsciously: “I thought it was cute; a kind of old ’30s tune. I guess a key and a lock have always been Freudian symbols, and pretty obvious ones at that. There was no deep serious expression behind the song, but people read things into it.”
She’s also got a weird story about how she came to write the song. She says that she’d been on a 27-day fast, drinking nothing but water. But shortly after breaking, she drove past a McDonald’s, smelled the food, and decided that she had to have some. She’d been a vegetarian, but she ordered a burger anyway. The smell of it immediately took her back to childhood, and she wrote “Brand New Key” in about 15 minutes.
“Brand New Key” is a loose and silly sketch of a song, the kind of thing that you can absolutely picture someone writing in 15 minutes. It’s blank enough that you can project all sorts of things onto it, and it’s knowing enough that those projections don’t seem too forced. “Brand New Key” remains a pleasant little nothing of a song. In a time when pop music was growing more expansive and symphonic, it’s a happy shrug.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Minnie Driver singing a parody of “Brand New Key” at the 2007 Independent Spirit Awards, turning it into a song about Pan’s Labyrinth and accidentally revealing that Guillermo Del Toro is incapable of clapping on-rhythm:
It’s not on YouTube, probably for obvious reasons, but “Brand New Key” also soundtracks the moment in Boogie Nights where Dirk Diggler auditions for Jack Horner by having sex with Rollergirl — a soundtrack choice that, it occurs to me now, was extremely on the nose.