The Number Ones

November 4, 1989

The Number Ones: Roxette’s “Listen To Your Heart”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

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Roxette could’ve easily been a glorious fluke. Before the improbable US success of “The Look,” Roxette were big stars in Sweden and total nobodies everywhere else. Success in America didn’t even seem possible; in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of No. 1 Hits, Per Gessle says that he and Marie Fredriksson started Roxette because they “wanted to do something in English and see if we could have a top-20 hit in Germany.” That was about the extent of their ambition.

But then an American exchange student took a copy of Roxette’s 1988 sophomore album Look Sharp! home to Minnesota and brought it to his local top-40 radio station. The station, almost on a whim, started playing “The Look,” and the song spread, mostly because the Minneapolis program director sent cassette copies to stations in other cities. EMI released “The Look,” and Roxette suddenly had an achievement a whole lot more impressive than a top-20 hit in Germany.

The mere fact that “The Look” found its way to #1 in America seemed like a storybook ending in itself. It did not seem like the sort of feat that could be repeated. “The Look” is an insidiously catchy synth-rock jam with lyrics that make no sense whatsoever. When Roxette came out of nowhere with that one, you could’ve been forgiven for assuming that they’d be one-hit wonders everywhere but Sweden, sort of like how a-ha stayed huge in Norway for decades after “Take On Me.” Instead, Roxette showed that they could do the power ballad, an extremely American song form, better than almost any American band. With “Listen To Your Heart,” Roxette stunted on the world, and they wound up with a second Hot 100 chart-topper. Even ABBA never pulled off that feat. Maybe ABBA should’ve written some power ballads.

Roxette’s Per Gessle never thought that “The Look” should be a single. He thought the big selling point of Roxette was Marie Fredriksson’s soaring howl, not his own throaty little croak. And even though “The Look” was a smash, Gessle was basically right. Fredriksson’s voice wasn’t the reason that Roxette caught on in America, but it was the reason that the duo stuck around. In Sweden, “The Look” had been the third single from Roxette’s Look Sharp! album. Before “The Look,” Roxette had released “Dressed For Success” and “Listen To Your Heart,” two songs built around Fredriksson’s voice. Both of those songs had been hits in Sweden, where “Dressed For Success” peaked at #2 and “Listen To Your Heart” topped out at #3. After “The Look” took off, both of those songs became the group’s American follow-ups.

“Dressed For Success” is a ridiculously catchy uptempo synth-rocker, a natural follow-up to “The Look.” It’s a great song, but it wasn’t a huge American hit. Instead, it peaked at #14 over here — a pretty standard chart placement for a follow-up single to a freak chart-topper. In the Bronson book, Gessle says, “‘The Look’ was almost a novelty record. I know there were a lot of radio stations who didn’t really believe in ‘Dressed For Success’ — not because they didn’t like it, but because they thought success wasn’t going to happen anymore.”

But “Listen To Your Heart” was undeniable. It was proof, beyond refutation, that Roxette had what it took to dominate American radio. “The Look” had only really hinted at that ability. In the liner notes of Roxette’s greatest-hits collection Don’t Bore Us, Get To The Chorus, Gessle pretty much admits that “Listen To Your Heart” is a straight-up pastiche, almost a parody, of American corporate rock: “This is us trying to recreate that overblown American FM-rock sound to the point where it almost becomes absurd. We really wanted to see how far we could take it.” They took it pretty far.

Those liner notes make it sound like Gessle doesn’t much like “Listen To Your Heart.” He also claims that after the song’s success, “we suddenly found ourselves lumped together with bands like Heart and Starship, which wasn’t the intention behind Roxette at all.” But in that Fred Bronson book, Gessle names a different inspiration: Robbie Robertson’s arrangement for Tom Petty’s wistful and ruminative 1985 jam “The Best Of Everything.”

“Listen To Your Heart” doesn’t really sound anything like “The Best Of Everything.” But “Listen To Your Heart” does sound a whole lot like Heart and Starship. It just sounds like a bigger, cleaner, more self-assured version of the ballads that Heart and Starship were making a couple of years earlier. (Starship never made anything that came close to touching “Listen To Your Heart.” Heart are another story.) With “Listen To Your Heart,” Roxette took all the excesses of synthed-out ’80s power balladry and pushed them even further over the top, coming up with an operatic slow-build wailer that’s almost Pavlovian in its effectiveness. Roxette knew how those songs worked, and they executed all the tricks with that freaky melodic ability that seems directly bred into a disproportionately large chunk of the Swedish population.

Unlike “The Look,” “Listen To Your Heart” is actually about something. Per Gessle co-wrote the song with Mats Persson, one of his bandmates in the pre-Roxette group Gyllene Tider. One of Gessle’s friends was going through a hard divorce, so Gessle wrote a sort of vague lyric about making it through heartbreak. The lyrics still have the general sense of linguistic dissonance that always seems to come with songwriters who don’t speak English as their first language. But that dissonance can help make those songs poetic, or at least, as in this case, weird enough to be interesting: “There are voices that want to be heard/ So much to mention, but you can’t find the words/ The scent of magic, the beauty that’s been/ When love was wilder than the wind.”

But this is Roxette, baby! Words don’t matter! With Roxette, what matters is the combination of gleaming texture and bulletproof melody. “Listen To Your Heart” opens with its main riff, played first on a piano and then on some expensive-sounding extremely-’80s keyboards. (Clarence Öfwerman, Gessle’s co-producer, played the keyboards.) From there, “Listen To Your Heart” hits all the satisfying power-ballad clichés: The screaming guitar solo, the final key-change, the false ending. The song has the kind of chorus where you can sing along by the second time you hear it. Really, singing along to “Listen To Your Heart” is almost involuntary. When the song is calling to you, there’s nothing else you can do. And the song also has Marie Fredriksson, who could sing the ever-loving fuck out of a power ballad, from the vaguely consoling first verse to the final “goodbyyyyyyye.”

Single-location music videos tend to get a little boring, but the “Listen To Your Heart” video has one location, and it rules. That’s mostly because the location is stunning. Roxette filmed the clip in the ruins of Borgholm Castle, a 13th-century fortress on the Baltic Sea. They band plays in the courtyard, and the crowd packs in, waving sparklers and doing the classic power-ballad sway. Director Doug Freel, who’d previously done Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” video, mostly keeps the camera up high, taking in the whole majestic scene, and Fredriksson radiates stadium-sized starpower everywhere. Roxette later said that Freel didn’t understand that he was in a real castle; he thought it was a set built for the video.

“Listen To Your Heart” has a curious little historical distinction: It’s the first #1 hit on the Hot 100 that was never released as a vinyl 45-RPM single. Vinyl was on the way out, and the CD hadn’t quite taken over yet. “Listen To Your Heart” inaugurated a brief little blip where the cassingle was king. Two months after “Listen To Your Heart” had its week at #1, the Look Sharp! album went platinum in America. It had one more hit left to go. The pumping single “Dangerous,” which also had a video shot at Borgholm Castle, peaked at #2 early in 1990. (It’s a 7.)

Even after Look Sharp! exhausted its supply of potential singles, Roxette still had bangers on deck. I’m happy to report that we’ll see them in this column again.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: In 2003, the Belgian dance duo DHT recorded a deeply sentimental trance cover of “Listen To Your Heart” — one of those weird dance hits where the beat only drops when the song almost over. It took time, but the DHT version of the song eventually became a global smash. DHT’s “Listen To Your Heart” even cracked the top 10 in the US — thanks, in part, to a version of the track where the beat never drops, which did well on the Adult Contemporary chart. Here’s DHT’s video for their cover:

(DHT’s “Listen To Your Heart” peaked at #8 in the US. It’s a 5.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Juvenile’s 2009 track “Listen” is basically a full-on cover of “Listen To Your Heart,” with a singer named Q Corvette singing a not-good version of the “Listen To Your Heart” chorus. Here’s Juvenile’s take:

(Juvenile will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Michigan SoundCloud-rap pioneer Bones going in over a ghostly, slowed-down “Listen To Your Heart” sample on his 2014 track “Lightning”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jody Comer’s Villanelle enjoying “Listen To Your Heart” in a scene from a 2019 Killing Eve episode:

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