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.
When anyone thinks of Wilson Phillips these days, the trio’s legacy seems to be limited to a single song. This makes sense. “Hold On,” Wilson Phillips’ first single, is an all-time banger, a song that seemed to evoke instant nostalgia even when it was new. “Hold On” was also an absolute smash — not just a #1 single but, according to Billboard, the biggest song of 1990. When you come out of the gate with a song like that, it’s virtually impossible to equal that impact, and Wilson Phillips never did. Today, “Hold On” has about 10 times as many Spotify streams as the group’s second-most-played song, which happens to be the single edit of “Hold On.”
At least for a little while, though, Wilson Phillips had legs, and nobody can ever accuse the group of being a one-hit wonder. Wilson Phillips returned to #1 with “Release Me,” their second single, and they got as far as #4 with “Impulsive,” their third. (“Impulsive” is a 7.) Almost a year after the release of their self-titled debut album, Wilson Phillips landed one last #1 hit. “You’re In Love,” the trio’s third chart-topper, isn’t especially great or memorable, but its success is a clear sign that Wilson Phillips, for that one year, were a serious pop-chart force.
“You’re In Love” is a mature song. In pop music, that’s not always a good thing. The three young women in Wilson Phillips sing the lead vocal in close harmony, but all of them come together to form the voice of one narrator. That narrator sings “You’re In Love” to an ex, and she does her very best to say how happy she is for that ex. That ex has moved on and fallen in love, and so those Wilson Phillips voices say that it’s a good thing: “Now I see that you’re so happy/ And ooh, it just sets me free.”
It’s not as simple as all that, of course. The narrator keeps referring to the ex as “my love,” and she admits that she’s sad about it: “Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that you’re never coming back for me/ I’ve had this dream that you’d always be by my side/ Oh, I could’ve died.” But she keeps shaking off any lingering regret and returning to the chorus: “You’re in love! That’s the way it should be! ‘Cause I want you to be happy!” Also, on the first line of the song, they sing, “Open the door and come in/ I’m so glad to see you, my friend.” If that ex really is in love, then why are they going to see Wilson Phillips in person? Phones exist. I don’t know whether it’s fully intentional, but the song at least leaves open the idea that these crazy kids could get back together.
When “You’re In Love” reached #1, all three members of Wilson Phillips were 21 or 22. Plenty of young people handle breakups just fine, but most of us tend to associate breakups, around that time of life, with fiery drama. When Brian Wilson, father of two of the three Wilson Phillips members, was that age, he wasn’t really writing about breakups at all; he was writing about a mythic surfing utopia where there’s two girls for every boy. (Now that I think about it, maybe the three members of Wilson Phillips weren’t singing “You’re In Love” from the point of view of a single character. Maybe all three of them are singing to the same guy, and the song takes place in a Surf Cityverse where it’s not that uncommon for one guy to be in a relationship with three women at once. Big Love did have a Beach Boys song as its theme. I’m losing the thread here. Anyway.)
Maturity doesn’t necessarily make for bad pop music. There are plenty of great songs about finding healthy ways to process the end of a relationship, and some of those songs have even been hits. But the version of maturity that I hear on “You’re In Love” is not especially compelling. The song has shades and layers, but it never creates much of a feeling beyond bittersweet warmth. The members of Wilson Phillips clearly loved the ’70s Californian soft rock that must have surrounded them when they were kids, but “You’re In Love” plays as a wispy echo of that stuff, which was mostly already plenty wispy in the first place. And the best of the ’70s Californian soft rock — Fleetwood Mac in particular — was never mature. That stuff was all fire and blood. “You’re In Love” could use a lot more of that.
Maybe my issue is that “You’re In Love” is sung from the perspective of someone who’s feeling big feelings but who’s trying her best to present a warm, happy face to her ex. With a song like that, the roiling emotions underneath the surface should be the focus. On “You’re In Love,” though, the focus is on the presentation — the happy face being shown to the ex. Pop music works best when it digs deeper and gets into the funky, sticky shit. “You’re In Love” never does that.
As a piece of music, “You’re In Love” is perfectly pleasant. The harmonies sound unsurprisingly great. The guitars twinkle and hum, and the keyboards coo and sigh. I like the soft little bongo drums in the back. The only musical touch that I actively dislike is the deeply unnecessary guitar solo, which adds vast amounts of nothing. I’m never upset when “You’re In Love” is on, but the song also has the weakest hook of any of those Wilson Phillips hits. It leaves no impression on me. When the song is over, I stop thinking about it completely, which I guess means it’s the opposite of the feeling that it’s supposed to evoke.
The three members of Wilson Phillips wrote “You’re In Love” with their producer Glen Ballard, and to hear him tell it, the song was a complete collaboration. The three singers came to him with the first few lines, he wrote the chorus, and then they wrote the next verse and the bridge. “You’re In Love” is a polished, professional piece of work, but it never really sounds like a hit to me. The single came out after Wilson Phillips had already gone quintuple platinum, deep enough into the album cycle that the video is mostly just footage of Wilson Phillips singing onstage.
About that video: The camera seems to avoid Carnie Wilson whenever possible, which is pretty fucked up. When Wilson Phillips were at their peak, Carnie Wilson was mercilessly mocked for her weight, and it seems like that’s complicated her life ever since. I do like how the beginning of the video is just Chynna Phillips’ outgoing answering machine message. She’s going to be on tour for a couple of months, and she’ll call you as soon as she gets back. This makes me wonder about touring musicians and answering machines in the pre-cell phone era. Would they just come home to vast numbers of messages? How many messages could those answering machines hold, anyway?
In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, SBK Records founder Charles Koppelman, father of Rounders co-writer and Billions showrunner Brian, says that he basically bet the label’s entire future on Wilson Phillips: “I always say, if they were racehorses, I would syndicate them. I believe they are SBK Records’ George Michael, our Madonna. They are the future.” (You have to be really rich to talk about syndicating racehorses. What a weird expression.) But Wilson Phillips were not the future. “You’re In Love” would be their last top-10 hit.
“The Dream Is Still Alive,” the fifth single from Wilson Phillips, peaked at #12. Later that year, Wilson Phillips also covered Elton John’s “Daniel” on a tribute album, and it got radio play but never came out as a single. In 1992, Wilson Phillips, working with Glen Ballard once again, released their second album Shadows And Light. On that record, they got deeper into their own lives, singing about their troubled relationships with their distant rock-star fathers. But the album did textbook sophomore-slump numbers. It sold a million copies, a fifth of what the debut album had done. Lead single “You Won’t See Me Cry” was grand and stormy enough that Michael Bay directed the video, but the song peaked at #20.
After Shadow And Light bricked, Chynna Phillips left Wilson Phillips to go solo. You couldn’t have Wilson Phillips without the Phillips, so the group broke up. The different members of Wilson Phillips never charted without one another. Carnie and Wendy Wilson released a Christmas album called Hey Santa! in 1993, and they teamed up with their father Brian to release The Wilsons in 1997. In 1995, Chynna Phillips dropped the solo album Naked And Sacred, and it was a big ol’ flop. None of its singles charted. That same year, Phillips married Billy Baldwin, which I guess makes her the step-aunt of Justin Bieber, an artist who will eventually appear in this column. Somewhere in there, she became a born-again Christian.
Glen Ballard, who never worked on a #1 hit after “You’re In Love,” was one of the songwriter and producers who worked on Naked And Sacred. That same year, though, Ballard had a whole lot more success with a different young singer. Ballard produced and co-wrote every song on Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, which sold a bazillion copies. These days, Glen Ballard is mostly famous as the Jagged Little Pill guy. When T. Cole Rachel interviewed Ballard for Stereogum in 2015, neither of them even mentioned Wilson Phillips. (Morissette’s highest-charting single is “Ironic,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 7.)
Of the three members of Wilson Phillips, Carnie Wilson has stayed in the public eye the most. She hosted a daytime talk show for a little while in the mid-’90s; I have long suspected that this show existed because some TV executive decided that she looked a little bit like Ricki Lake. In 1999, she livestreamed her gastric bypass surgery on the internet and posed for Playboy soon afterwards. She’s been on a bunch of reality shows over the years, including Celebrity Apprentice — the Schwarzenegger one, not the Trump one. All three members of Wilson Phillips have done the reality-show rounds; Chynna Phillips, for instance, was on Dancing With The Stars in 2011.
The three Wilson Phillips members have reunited a few times over the years. In 2001, a few days after Chynna’s father John Phillips died, the three of them sang “You’re So Good To Me” at a Brian Wilson tribute show at Radio City Music Hall. They made a covers album in 2004, a Christmas album in 2010, and another covers album in 2012. They sang “Hold On” at the end of Bridesmaids. For a little while, they had a reality show on the TV Guide Network. None of Wilson Phillips’ later albums had any actual hits, but Wilson Phillips did make one more stealthy return to the pop charts.
In 2015, all three members of Wilson Phillips sang backup vocals on Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney’s single “FourFiveSeconds.” Carnie Wilson later said that Kanye West had specifically asked for Wilson Phillips, telling them, “When I think of authenticity and I think of angelic, I think of you.” (“FourFiveSeconds” peaked at #6. It’s an 8. Rihanna and Kanye West will both appear in this column eventually.) As comebacks go, that’s pretty good. Wilson Phillips’ dominant pop-chart run didn’t last too long, but I love the idea that they’re still out there, just waiting to unleash those harmonies whenever someone is smart enough to ask them.
BONUS BEATS: “You’re In Love” has basically disappeared from the world, so here’s Ratt’s video for their 1985 single “You’re In Love,” which doesn’t have anything to do with Wilson Phillips’ “You’re In Love” but which is pretty good:
(Ratt’s “You’re In Love” peaked at #89. Ratt’s highest-charting single, 1984’s “Round and Round,” peaked at #12.)