The Number Ones

June 16, 1990

The Number Ones: Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

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.


Julia Roberts sits in the limo, crushed, trying not to notice as Beverly Hills fades away around her. From the fancy hotel balcony, Richard Gere watches her car fade into the distance. She’s a sex worker, and he’s a corporate-vampire yuppie who’s hired her to spend time with him while he’s in LA for business. They’ve developed feelings for each other. (He’s also saved her from being raped by his buddy George Costanza, a scene that will age weirdly in all sorts of ways.)

In a few minutes, Gere will show up at Roberts’ apartment building, hanging out of his limo sunroof and blasting opera, then clutching a bouquet of flowers in his teeth so that he can climb the fire escape. But that’s not right now. Right now is the sad part. It’s the goodbye, the moment before the final endorphin-rush ending. Everyone who has ever watched a romantic comedy will know that this is a false finish, that we’re just building up to the big fairytale finale. But everyone involved will have to suspend disbelief for a little while, and the soundtrack is a big part of that.

For 1990’s Pretty Woman, quite possibly the biggest and most beloved romantic comedy in history, the soundtrack for the false-finish moment is a Christmas song written three years earlier as a failed bid for German radio play. When that failed Christmas song soundtracked Julia Roberts and Richard Gere’s sad moment, it became a global smash. For a couple of years, that’s just how things went for Roxette.

Roxette’s career is its own kind of fairytale: two Swedish pop veterans, unknown outside their homeland, taking off worldwide after an American exchange student returns home from Sweden and convinces his local radio station to start playing their song. After Roxette’s unlikely breakout with “The Look,” the duo continued to crank out hits, including another chart-topper in the power ballad “Listen To Your Heart.” And then, thanks to Pretty Woman, Roxette reached back into their catalog and hit worldwide with a slightly altered version of a holiday song that they’d recorded back when they couldn’t get arrested outside Sweden.

Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson didn’t have American stardom in mind when they formed Roxette. Instead, as Gessle later explained, the duo “wanted to do something in English and see if we could have a top-20 hit in Germany.” At first, the plan didn’t work. When Roxette released their debut album Pearls Of Passion in 1986, a couple of singles made the top 10 in Sweden, but Germany wasn’t interested. Roxette were signed to EMI in Sweden, but none of the label’s other national branches wanted anything to do with the duo. Finally, as Per Gessle remembers, someone at EMI Germany pointed out that there weren’t many Christmas songs coming out in 1987 and that Roxette should “come up with an intelligent Christmas single.”

Per Gessle wrote “It Must Have Been Love (Christmas For The Broken-Hearted),” an operatically shattered track about being forced to spent the holidays alone, specifically to fulfill that assignment. The song follows a pretty standard power-ballad format — booming gated drums, echoing Edge-style guitar clangs, plinky keyboard notes. In the late ’80s, those sounds were standard, and so were those sentiments. But Roxette, as ever, had a way with pop clichés. They came up with grand, stately melodies, and they delivered those melodies with clarity and precision. Marie Fredriksson, an absolute powerhouse singer, wailed with focused passion, selling Gessle’s jangled and vaguely linguistically confused lyrics as if she was going through hell in the studio booth.

For whatever reason, though, the people at EMI Germany heard “It Must Have Been Love (Christmas For The Broken-Hearted)” and decided that it wasn’t what they wanted. Roxette’s song reached #4 in Sweden, but EMI didn’t even release the single in Germany.

Two years later, Roxette didn’t have to worry about their label refusing to release their records in Germany anymore. After “The Look,” Roxette were huge around the world, and they were busy. The duo released a ton of the tracks from their 1988 sophomore album Look Sharp! as singles, and their global touring and promotional duties kept them busy. Those songs kept hitting, too. After “Listen To Your Heart” fell from #1, Roxette released “Dangerous,” the final single from Look Sharp!, and it peaked at #2 in March of 1990. (“Dangerous” is a 7.)

When Disney’s Touchstone Pictures subsidiary got in touch with Roxette to ask for a song for a new romantic comedy, Roxette were simply too busy to write something new. The duo sent Touchstone their old Swedish records, as well as the demos that they’d recorded for their upcoming album. Touchstone’s music executive Chris Montan, who’s still president of music at Disney, fell in love with “It Must Have Been Love (Christmas For The Broken-Hearted).” But Pretty Woman wasn’t a Christmas movie, so Montan needed the group to tweak the song slightly so that it would fit.

Tweaking “It Must Have Been Love” wasn’t exactly a hard thing to do. The song only mentioned Christmas once, so Gessle kept Marie Fredriksson’s original vocal intact, only changing the word “Christmas” to “winter.” Gessle also took out the fake sleigh-bell sounds from the song’s intro. (Honestly, he could’ve kept them. I wouldn’t have known those were Christmas-song effects without being told.) The renamed “It Must Have Been Love” was only barely different from the single that Roxette had released in Sweden in 1987. But Touchstone’s Chris Montan had been absolutely right. “It Must Have Been Love” fit that Pretty Woman scene beautifully; it might as well have been written for the film. And while pop music had changed between 1987 and 1990, “It Must Have Been Love” still absolutely worked on the radio.

There’s always a fun disconnect in Roxette’s lyrics — the peculiar poetry that can come when English is not a writer’s first language. “It Must Have Been Love” doesn’t have the delightful absurdity of “The Look” working for it, but the song’s lyrics are still about halfway to total gibberish: “Lay a whisper on my pillow/ Leave the winter on the ground/ I wake up lonely, this air of silence in the bedroom and all around.” Still, if you’re looking for emotional resonance, “It Must Have Been Love” has it.

“It Must Have Been Love” is about a post-breakup moment where you have to look back and consider whether your feelings really had been genuine, whether you were both suffering from mutual delusion or what. The towering chorus conveys that confusion well enough: “It must have been love, but it’s over now/ It must have been good, but I lost it somehow.” (With the word “Christmas” deleted, “It Must Have Been Love” loses a tiny bit of oomph, since post-breakup Christmases really, truly are the worst.) The song doesn’t quite have the strange melodic force of “Listen To Your Heart,” but it comes close. The song delivers the grand clichés of American studio-pop with a rare sense of meticulous cleanliness. A lot of that comes down to Marie Fredriksson, who howls the song out with real power, especially after the obligatory key change hits.

In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Per Gessle says that Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall liked “It Must Have Been Love” so much that he re-edited that scene around the song. But when Roxette got a chance to see Pretty Woman on the Disney lot, Gessle was disappointed: “Our song was [heard for] almost a minute, but still, it was really edited.” Gessle had never had a song in a movie before, and he figured that the song would exist at the center of everything. That “It Must Have Been Love” scene is a fairly minor beat in Pretty Woman, but the movie succeeded far beyond everyone’s expectations, and so did the song.

Pretty Woman had been development for a long time before it finally came out. For a while, it was supposed to be a hard-hitting drama about addiction and control, but Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg demanded that the movie be rewritten as a sort of Cinderella story. (In retrospect, that’s a truly strange artistic decision, but it worked out.) Plenty of the stars of the moment wanted nothing to do with Pretty Woman. Al Pacino and Burt Reynolds turned down the male lead before the role finally went to an ice-cold Richard Gere, who’d had a bunch of consecutive flops. Molly Ringwald, Meg Ryan, and Michelle Pfeiffer all passed on the female lead before it went to the relatively unknown 21-year-old Julia Roberts. It’s frankly baffling to imagine any of these alternate-reality versions of the Pretty Woman casting. (Maybe it could’ve worked with Meg Ryan?) But that Pretty Woman couple clicked. Richard Gere’s career rebounded in a huge way, and Julia Roberts became one of the world’s biggest movie stars almost overnight.

Pretty Woman opened in March of 1990, and it debuted atop the box-office chart, ending the three-week reign of The Hunt For Red October. For the next few months, Pretty Woman remained huge, trading the #1 spot back and forth with the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. In the end, Pretty Woman earned $178 million at the domestic box office.

In 1990, only three movies did better than that: Home Alone, Ghost, and Dances With Wolves. Pretty Woman was also a hit around the world, and it more than doubled its North American haul. For a while, Pretty Woman was the highest-grossing film in Disney history. It’s still Disney’s highest-grossing R-rated movie, and I have to imagine that it’ll keep that title for a long time, at least unless we get that promised Marvel Cinematic Universe Deadpool sequel.

The Pretty Woman soundtrack was a hit, too. It eventually went triple plantinum. The soundtrack’s first two singles were relatively minor. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Show Me Your Soul” missed the Hot 100 entirely, and Natalie Cole’s “Wild Women Do” peaked at #34. (That’s a weird soundtrack.) But “It Must Have Been Love” came out as a single in May, after the movie had already been out for two months, and it became Roxette’s third #1 hit in America. The song also charted around the world. In Germany, where EMI didn’t want to release the single in its original form, “It Must Have Been Love” peaked at #4. That must’ve felt good.

After “It Must Have Been Love,” the Pretty Woman soundtrack yielded another big hit. The UK dance-pop duo Go West made it to #8 with “King If Wishful Thinking.” (It’s a 7.) By that point, Roxette were back in Sweden, working on their next album. The duo’s pop instincts remained strong. Before too long, Roxette will be in this column again.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the big, showy version of “It Must Have Been Love” that Shirley Bassey released in 1995:

(Shirley Bassey’s highest-charting single, 1964’s “Goldfinger,” peaked at #8. It’s a 9.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the elegantly stripped-down “It Must Have Been Love” cover that Kathleen Edwards released in 2013:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the very enjoyable 2019 film Long Shot where Seth Rogen — successfully! — uses “It Must Have Been Love” to put the moves on Charlize Theron:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2019, a few days after Marie Fredriksson died, fellow Swedes First Aid Kit and Maja Francis sang a live cover of “It Must Have Been Love” for Swedish radio. Here’s the video of that cover:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kelly Clarkson singing the hell out of “It Must Have Been Love” on a 2020 quarantine edition of her talk show:

(Kelly Clarkson will eventually appear in this column.)

THE ASTERISK: In the 1990s, the Billboard Hot 100 became exceedingly strange. Billboard had always determined the Hot 100 by tabulating radio plays and sales of singles. If a song was not commercially available as a single, then that song could not chart on the Hot 100. For decades, this worked fine. But in the ’90s, the music industry went through a huge boom period because of the soaring popularity of the compact disc. As a result, the industry basically phased out the single in the ’90s. Billboard didn’t change its rules for years, so a weird stalemate developed. Billboard didn’t allow album cuts on the Hot 100 until December of 1998. As a result, the Hot 100 was distorted as hell all through the ’90s.

A few years ago, my friend Chris Molanphy did a great podcast episode on this whole subject, which he called the great war against the single. This was all a big play on the part of the music business, and for a while, it worked. Even the one-hit wonders of the ’90s often didn’t get to release singles — or if they did, and those singles did well, then the labels would pull the singles from shelves. Sometimes, those one-hit wonders sold millions of albums as a result. This all came back to bite the music business in the ass when consumers, pissed off about spending upwards of $17 for an album with one good song, took to file-sharing sites like Napster with wild-eyed hunger.

In any case, the Hot 100 got even wackier than usual in the ’90s. A lot of hugely successful songs won’t appear in this column because they never officially came out as singles, which means that the column simply won’t cover a lot of the biggest songs of the decade. (The whole early-’90s alt-rock explosion, for instance, will be a total non-factor here.) A lot of other songs will have very, very long reigns at #1, though we won’t get to that for a little while. The first week that “It Must Have Been Love” sat at #1, this whole strategy started to really affect the Hot 100.

If you were around and paying attention in the summer of 1990, then you already know that MC Hammer’s energetic, simplistic party-rap smash “U Can’t Touch This” was, far and away, the biggest song in the country for months. Capitol, Hammer’s label, did release “U Can’t Touch This” as a single, but it was only on 12″ vinyl, mostly for club DJs. Capitol never released “U Can’t Touch This” as a cassingle, the dominant format of the day. Instead, Capitol wanted people to buy Hammer’s album Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. The gamble paid off. Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em sold more than 10 million copies in the US alone. It’s still one of the best-selling rap albums in history.

Because of Capitol’s strategy, “U Can’t Touch This” did chart on the Hot 100. But without a cassingle release, Hammer’s song never got to #1. Instead, “U Can’t Touch This” peaked at #8 behind “It Must Have Been Love.” It’s an 8.

With this section, I’ll try to make a note of the songs that might’ve made it to #1 on the Hot 100 if the charts hadn’t gone bonkers in those years. This will be messy and inexact, but I’ll do my best.

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