The Number Ones

April 27, 1991

The Number Ones: Amy Grant’s “Baby Baby”

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.

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Christian rock is a subculture, an underground scene. That’s a weird thing to consider, but it’s true. Most of the early rock ‘n’ roll stars were observant Christians. Plenty of them recorded gospel songs. Some of them even left music behind to join the ministry. A lot of the greatest soul singers of all time were also gospel singers, and some of them freely traveled back and forth between those worlds. But Christian rock, as its own subset of rock ‘n’ roll, started out as a true fringe phenomenon.

Larry Norman, the man who pioneered Christian rock in the late ’60s, was a psychedelic Jesus freak, a misfit among misfits. Norman’s cultural descendants made music that was more streamlined and accessible, but they got their message out by creating their own kind of shadow economy. For decades, contemporary Christian musicians have had their own venues, record labels, radio stations, and festivals. By the early ’90s, CCM was big business, but it only rarely crossed over onto the mainstream pop charts. Instead, Christian pop became its own mainstream.

I have to confess that the whole CCM world is basically a mystery to me. Groups like DC Talk were a big deal when I was in middle school, and I knew kids who liked them, but I never even got especially curious about what was going on there. In my early years as a music critic, I tried to go to shows that existed outside my frame of reference. I’d go see Toby Keith or Machel Montano or the High School Musical tour. But I never took the extra step of going to see the Newsboys or whatever. It never even occurred to me.

Even if critics like me weren’t paying attention, plenty of Christian pop artists are huge. In the early ’90s, CCM acts played arenas and sold millions, but their success simply didn’t register on the pop charts. Michael W. Smith had a handful of Hot 100 singles, including one that made the top 10. (1991’s “Place In This World” peaked at #6. It’s a 3.) DC Talk only made the Hot 100 once, when 1996’s “Between You And Me” peaked at #29. Steven Curtis Chapman have never made the Hot 100 at all. So when Amy Grant bulldozed her way onto the pop charts and stunted on all of her secular peers, it was a big deal. Even I knew that.

Amy Grant was the Michael Jordan of Christian pop long before she notched her first #1. By the mid-’80s, Grant was already selling millions of albums and occasionally sneaking her own singles into the Hot 100. But Amy Grant’s first #1 hit was an anomaly. In 1986, Grant duetted with the former Chicago member Peter Cetera on the limp love ballad “The Next Time I Fall,” and that song — presumably powered, at least in part, by Grant’s massive evangelical audience — notched a week at #1. Grant’s true breakthrough wouldn’t come for another five years, but when it happened, it shattered all expectations.

After “The Next Time I Fall,” Amy Grant could’ve pulled a Sam Cooke and crossed over full-time into secular music. But that’s not what she did. Instead, Grant made 1988’s explicitly religious Lead Me On, which I’ve seen described as the greatest Christian pop album of all time. The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, one of my favorite writers of both songs and non-songs, has always been vocal about how much he loves Amy Grant, and he speaks about Lead Me On with reverential awe. (When I texted John just now, he confirmed that Lead Me On is, at least to him, The One. He also used the term “heel turn” to describe Grant’s secular pop moment, and I’m so mad that I didn’t think of that myself.) The Lead Me On title track just barely scraped the bottom of the Hot 100, peaking at #96. At that point, though, Amy Grant wasn’t trying to make pop music.

And then: the heel turn. Heart In Motion, the album that Amy Grant released in 1991, is a straight-up pop record. Musically, the album goes for the upbeat drum-machine synth-bloop dance-pop sound of its moment. Lyrically, only a couple of the songs are about God. Mostly, Heart In Motion is Amy Grant singing about earthly matters like romantic love. Grant had been a part of the Christian music industry for well over a decade by that point, so some fans certainly weren’t happy that she was making secular pop. But Heart In Motion is an uncommonly wholesome pop album, and all those years in the CCM trenches surely won Grant some goodwill. Even if Grant’s original fanbase was conflicted over the move, Heart In Motion exploded. On the album charts, Heart In Motion never got past #10, but it sold steadily, eventually moving five million copies. Grant had made platinum albums, but she definitely hadn’t made quintuple platinum albums. This was new.

The big knock on Christian pop is that it sounds like a cheaper, safer version of mainstream stuff — a sort of Kidz Bop crappy-Xerox version of the real thing. I’ve never delved deeply enough into Christian pop to really investigate whether that’s true, but that’s the criticism that I’ve come across again and again. Amy Grant, however, is not the crappier version of anyone else. She’s a true star. Grant’s got a great voice and a great sense of how to use it, and she also has personality. Her genius is her ability to convey dizzy happiness, the kind that makes you feel like you’ve got sunlight radiating out of your pores. When she sings about feeling good, you believe it. Through most of her career, Grant has used that gift to sing about feeling God’s love, and that’s made her the biggest fish in her own pond. But on her run of Heart In Motion hits, Grant used that gift to sing about other things, too.

“Baby Baby,” Amy Grant’s only #1 hit as a solo artist, is actually about a baby. Grant recorded the song with producer and co-writer Keith Thomas, another musician from the Christian pop world. Before starting up his own publishing and production company, Thomas had worked as an in-house songwriter and producer at Word Records, the same Christian label that gave Amy Grant her start. (Grant was still on Word subsidiary Myrrh when she made Heart In Motion, but A&M was distributing her records by then.) Thomas had written the music for “Baby Baby,” and he’d also come up with the title and the line about “you put my heart in motion,” which gave Grant’s album its title. (As a producer, Keith Thomas will appear in this column again.) Grant wrote most of the lyrics for “Baby Baby,” and that wasn’t easy for her.

Grant tells the story of trying to write the song in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits: “I worked on that lyric for months. Every time I tried to write a romantic lyric with the title ‘Baby Baby,’ it sounded like some overgrown football jock with no vocabulary trying desperately to be romantic.” I love this. Being able to convey romantic love through music is a sort of basic pop-music skill; it’s the kind of thing you need to have. But thanks to her background, Amy Grant wasn’t comfortable with this part of her job. (I’d have a hard time with it, too.) Things clicked into place when Grant stopped writing about romantic love and started writing about her daughter.

When Grant was working on “Baby Baby,” she’d only just become a mother. Her daughter Millie was six weeks old. In the Bronson book, Grant talks about driving around, trying to come up with lyrics, and then coming home and seeing Millie with her babysitter: “I sat down at the kitchen counter, and in less than 10 minutes wrote the song to her. Suddenly, all the little silly phrases fit with the music because it was all to her.” Backstories for #1 hits don’t come much cuter than that.

“Baby Baby” definitely reads as a romantic song, but it gets a slight charm boost from the fact that it’s actually about a baby. The lyrics make more sense when you realize that she’s singing them to a newborn: “The stars are shining for you/ And just like me, I’m sure that they adore you.” That doesn’t just read as baby-talk; it is baby-talk. In this context, the line about how no muscleman could sever her love is pretty funny. That means Grant isn’t reassuring a nervous lover; she’s reassuring a nervous infant. Maybe this baby is afraid of bodybuilders! I don’t know! Kids are weird!

The “Baby Baby” video definitely drove home the impression that the song was being in love. In the clip, Grant is constantly besieged by goofballs who attempt to win her affection via sitcom-style prop-comedy hijinks. (The first guy tries it right in front of his girlfriend, which is a bold move.) Grant smiles and rolls her eyes at all of them, and then she goes back to her boyfriend, who’s played by Jme Stein, a model who looks sort of like Schmidt from New Girl. (His first name is somehow not a typo.) For most of the video, Grant and Stein feed each other spaghetti and give each other piggyback rides and do chicken-dances together — adorable couple-type stuff that most of us would be far too embarrassed to attempt in front of a camera. The whole thing looks ridiculous, though not in an unpleasant way.

Musically, I think “Baby Baby” sounds pretty stiff and chintzy. I don’t think that has anything to do with being Christian pop. Instead, it’s stiff in chintzy in the way that a whole lot of early-‘90s pop was stiff and chintzy. The keyboard riff sounds a bit like a rewrite of the one from “Genius Of Love,” the Tom Tom Club’s immortal 1981 banger. (“Genius Of Love” peaked at #31. A song built on a “Genius Of Love” sample will eventually appear in this column.) But the “Baby Baby” groove doesn’t go especially hard. The bass burbles busily, and there’s a plasticy synth solo in there, but it mostly just sounds like expensive session musicians dicking around. If “Baby Baby” had a replacement-level singer, I don’t think it would work. But it doesn’t. It has Amy Grant.

Grant’s vocal performance on “Baby Baby” is pretty great. She’s got just a hint of rasp in her voice and a Southern accent that she never really bothers to hide. But she also takes off into her upper register with an effortless sort of fluidity. When she stretches out the “there’s no getting over you-uuuu” bit, she even sounds a bit like Mariah Carey. That’s probably intentional, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy thing to pull off.

“Baby Baby” made Amy Grant inescapable. My parents liked the song enough to bring home the cassingle, and my parents never gave half a damn about pop music. (They’re both super-religious, but they’re Catholic, which involves whole different methods of expressing devotion. The only Christian rock they ever cared about was Bob Dylan’s weird little fundamentalist period.) “Baby Baby” topped Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart, as well as the Hot 100. The song also made a respectable dent in the Dance Club Songs chart, and I am really enjoying the mental image of a club DJ trying to find just the right moment to throw on “Baby Baby.”

Amy Grant never got back to #1 after “Baby Baby,” but she came close. Grant’s follow-up single “Every Heartbeat” made it to #2 a few months later. (It’s a 6.) Two more Heart In Motion singles also made the top 10. “That’s What Love Is For” peaked at #7, and “Good For Me” reached #8. (They’re both 7s.) Grant had already won five Grammys before “Baby Baby,” but they’d all been in the gospel categories. But “Baby Baby” got nominations for Song and Record Of The Year, and Heart In Motion was in the Album Of The Year mix, too. Grant’s follow-up album, the 1992 holiday LP Home For Christmas, didn’t have any charting singles, but it sold three million copies.

Grant stayed in the mostly-secular lane with her next two albums. They sold well, but they didn’t do Heart In Motion numbers, and Grant didn’t get back into the top 10. “Lucky One,” the lead single from 1994’s House Of Love, is Grant’s biggest post-Heart In Motion hit, and it peaked at #18. Another single from House Of Love turned out to be more significant in Grant’s whole story. The album’s title track was a duet with the country star Vince Gill, and it peaked at #37. (Gill has a bunch of country chart-toppers, but “House Of Love” is the highest he’s ever gone on the pop charts. As lead artist, Gill’s biggest Hot 100 hit is 2000’s “Feels Like Love,” which peaked at #52.) In 1999, Amy Grant divorced her husband, the Christian pop artist Gary Chapman. A year later, she married Vince Gill.

Grant’s divorce caused a whole lot of consternation in the evangelical world, but she and Gill are still together, and they seem awfully happy. Back when I lived in New York, I went to a Vince Gill show, and he brought Grant out onstage just to wave to everyone. It was adorable. Divorce-related controversy didn’t stop Amy Grant from returning to the Christian pop world, and she’s mostly been recording religious music this century. In that world, she’s an institution. She just released a 30th-anniversary edition of Heart In Motion this past July. She still tours all the time. Also, a few months ago, Amy Grant announced that her daughter Millie was pregnant. That means the baby from “Baby Baby” will soon get to sing “Baby Baby” to her baby.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Amy Grant switching up the “Baby Baby” lyrics and turning it into an incongruous intro for a 1993 Monday Night Football Bears/Vikings game:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Beavis and Butt-Head accurately comparing the “Baby Baby” video to a Clearasil commercial on a 1994 episode of their show:

(As for the other two videos from that clip, Toni Basil’s “Mickey” has already been in this column, while the Scorpions’ 1984 single “Rock You Like A Hurricane” peaked at #25.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: “Baby Baby” makes a brief appearance in the near-perfect 2004 film Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, though it mostly serves as an opening act to the climactic “Hold On” singalong. Here’s that scene:

(The other song from that clip is Nicki French’s 1995 Euro-dance cover of “Total Eclipse Of The Heart,” which peaked at #2. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2016, Amy Grant re-recorded “Baby Baby” as a duet with Tori Kelly, another singer who straddles the CCM and pop worlds. Here’s their video for that version:

(Tori Kelly’s highest-charting single is 2015’s “Should’ve Been Us,” which peaked at #51.)

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