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 his new book The Nineties, Chuck Klosterman holds up Ben Stiller’s 1994 film Reality Bites as an avatar for a certain Gen-X mindset that flourished during a very specific moment in time. The way Chuck describes it, Reality Bites is a film where the entire story hinges on the generational fear and distrust of the idea of selling out. This makes the existence of Reality Bites somewhat paradoxical. The film is a likable mainstream romantic comedy, but its character and point of view are defined by their inherent suspicion of things like likable mainstream romantic comedies.
In Reality Bites, Winona Ryder plays a recent college graduate and aspiring documentarian who’s torn between two guys. One of them, played by Stiller himself, is kind and loving and financially secure, but he’s also motivated by commercialism. He works for a slick MTV-type network, and he wants to turn Ryder’s documentary work into digestible television fare. The other guy is Ethan Hawke, a sullen but poetic loser who often acts like a total dick to Ryder but who, attractively, has no ambitions or career prospects. Spoiler alert for a 28-year-old film: Winona Ryder chooses Ethan Hawke, and this is presented as a happy ending.
In his book, Chuck Klosterman argues that this particular plot logic ties Reality Bites inexorably to the moment in which it was made: “As it turns out, the mid-’90s were the only time when the validity of this romantic conclusion was the prevailing youth perspective. It’s an isolated, freestanding period where a person’s unwillingness to view his existence as a commodity was prioritized over another person’s actual personality. An authentic jerk was preferable to a likable sellout.” I’d argue that there are extra layers at work here, too. The authentic jerk looks and maybe acts like Ethan Hawke, after all. But there’s no denying that Reality Bites, a movie that I love, was very much a product of its cultural moment.
Reality Bites opened in theaters in February of 1994, and it did just-OK box-office business. But the end-credits song from Reality Bites took a different path. Months after the movie was out of theaters, “Stay (I Missed You),” a song written and recorded by Ethan Hawke’s across-the-street neighbor Lisa Loeb, became the first-ever #1 hit from an unsigned artist. Lisa Loeb actually wrote “Stay (I Missed You)” with a particular pop star in mind, but it’s nobody’s idea of a conventional pop hit. It’s a messy, personal romantic-argument song with no chorus and no clear structure. Loeb wasn’t a pop-industry professional; she was a recent college graduate trying to get a career off the ground in between shifts at her office-temp job. Lisa Loeb went on to a long career, but she never really became a pop star. Even more than most of the songs that appear in this column, Loeb’s one #1 hit is all tangled up with its cultural moment, and it always will be.
This column hasn’t really done much to address the early-’90s alt-rock boom, and there’s a simple reason for that: The alternative rock bands from this era did not make #1 hits. The biggest of those bands sold millions of albums, they filled arenas and festival grounds, and they did a whole lot to define the era in the popular imagination. When people talk about ’90s music now, they generally don’t mean Boyz II Men or Mariah Carey. They’re talking about the Lollapalooza bands, the Buzz Bin bands. But when you’re talking about Hot 100 chart-toppers, those bands generally don’t register.
The biggest alt-rock bands did make hits. Nirvana got to #6 with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” though they never climbed higher than that. (“Teen Spirit” is a 10.) Pearl Jam got as high as #2, but that wasn’t until they came out with “Last Kiss” in 1999. (That’s a 7.) The Red Hot Chili Peppers also got to #2 with “Under The Bridge,” an actual moment-defining song, but they never went all the way, either. (“Under The Bridge” is an 8.) The Smashing Pumpkins just missed the top 10 when 1996’s “1979” peaked at #12. Most of the other big bands from that wave — Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice In Chains, Nine Inch Nails — never got anywhere near the top 10. (Nine Inch Nails will eventually appear in this column, but only in sampled form.)
The alt-rock bands generally weren’t interested in playing the industry games necessary to score a #1 hit, and some of them reacted to their own success with outright horror. Commercial success certainly seemed to play a role in Kurt Cobain’s suicide in April of 1994. But there were other factors preventing those bands from scaling the Hot 100. For one thing, many of them made relatively abrasive music that would only fit a couple of radio formats. More importantly, though, most of them just didn’t release singles. Billboard wouldn’t let songs chart on the Hot 100 unless those songs existed as singles, and record labels wanted to push kids to buy full-length CDs, so the alt-rock bands didn’t get a chance to compete. (Ironically, a film called Singles rivals Reality Bites as the totemic early-’90s alt-rock movie. The Singles soundtrack was absolutely fucking huge, but the only single from the Singles soundtrack was Alice In Chains’ “Would?,” and it didn’t make the Hot 100.)
Lisa Loeb was not an alt-rocker like those aforementioned bands, even if her one big hit did get play on alt-rock stations alongside all those bands. Instead, hers was a more bookish and erudite East Coast sensibility. Loeb never had anything much to do with punk or underground rock, and her one big hit was specifically written for a pop star who would’ve been laughed off the Lollapalooza stage. In terms of both aesthetic and perspective, “Stay (I Missed You)” was a whole lot closer to James Taylor than Jane’s Addiction. The song made as much sense on adult-contemporary radio as it did on alt-rock stations, and it came in the early days of a new singer-songwriter boom.
Maybe it’s ridiculous to even talk about alt-rock in the context of a song as gentle as “Stay (I Missed You),” but the Reality Bites connection is too much to resist. In any case, in the stretch of time between circa-’90 Madchester-influenced dance-rock and circa-’98 cheeseball quasi-ironic rap-rock, “Stay (I Missed You)” is the alt-rockingest song that will appear in this column. Lisa Loeb was always much more Lilith Fair than Lollapalooza, but she’s going to have to stand in for a whole lot of other stuff that didn’t have much to do with her.
Lisa Loeb, the daughter of two doctors, was born in Bethesda, Maryland, and she grew up well-off in Dallas. (When Loeb was born, the #1 song in America was Paul Mauriat’s “Love Is Blue.“) As a kid, Loeb played piano and then guitar. Later on, she went to Brown and studied comparative literature. While she was at school, she formed a band called Liz & Lisa with her friend Elizabeth Mitchell, and they built up a bit of a local following. For a little while, their band included Duncan Sheik on guitar. (Sheik’s highest-charting single, 1996’s “Barely Breathing,” peaked at #12.)
Liz & Lisa broke up pretty soon after they both graduated college in 1990. Elizabeth Mitchell went on to start the band Ida and, later, to become a star in the world of genteel kids’ music. (She rules. I took my daughter to three different Elizabeth Mitchell shows before she was three.) Lisa Loeb moved to Boston, studied at Berklee College Of Music for a little while, and started a band called Nine Stories, named after a JD Salinger collection. Soon afterward, Loeb and her band ended up in New York. Loeb and her band recorded a 1992 demo called Purple Tape and played local shows while working day jobs.
Lisa Loeb started to write “Stay (I Missed You)” when she was still at Berklee. She’d just gotten into a bad fight with her producer and long-term boyfriend Juan Patiño. As she continued to work on the song, Loeb learned that Daryl Hall, a guy who’s been in this column a bunch of times, was looking for songs for a solo project. Loeb usually wrote strummy, folky songs, but she tried to tailor “Stay (I Missed You)” to Hall’s sensibilities. Years later, Loeb told Genius, “I was trying to come up with something that was a little bit R&B, but good for [Hall’s] voice. So I came up with that guitar… It’s not a riff. It was just chord changes, and it felt kind of R&B groovy-ish, for me, at the time.” Loeb never got the chance to play “Stay (I Missed You)” for Daryl Hall. (Loeb met Hall after “Stay” has already been a hit, and she got to tell him that she wrote it for him. He never had any idea.)
Lisa Loeb kept “Stay” for herself, and she noticed that people liked it when she played the song at her own shows. When she was living in New York, Loeb was friendly with Ethan Hawke, the young movie star who’d broken out in 1989’s Dead Poets Society. Loeb and Hawke had mutual friends, and they lived across the street from each other in Manhattan. Hawke’s character in Reality Bites has a go-nowhere band called Hey, That’s My Bike, and the script called for him to sing a song called “I’m Nuthin’.” Hawke asked Loeb to write “I’m Nuthin’,” and she did, but her version didn’t make it into Reality Bites. Instead, David Baerwald, formerly half of the duo David & David, wrote the “I’m Nuthin'” that Hawke sang in the movie. (David & David’s only charting single, 1986’s “Welcome To The Boomtown,” peaked at #37.)
But Ethan Hawke still wanted Lisa Loeb to be a part of Reality Bites. A few days after Loeb’s “I’m Nuthin'” got rejected, Hawke went to see Loeb play live, and he liked “Stay (I Missed You).” Hawke sent a cassette copy of the song to Ben Stiller and to music supervisor Karyn Rachtman, and they liked it enough to make it the film’s end-credits song.
Originally, the song was just called “Stay,” but the soundtrack people changed the title. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Loeb addresses the issue of awkward song-title parentheses head-on: “We decided to add ‘I Missed You’ as a parenthetical, which I vowed I would never do because I always see the parentheticals in the Beatles’ songbooks and I never understand how they picked that parenthetical as a parenthetical.” Shout out to dorked-out English majors making #1 hit songs. It doesn’t happen often, but today, we are represented.
The Reality Bites soundtrack is mostly a nice little collection of ’80s pop nuggets and mid-’90s alt-rock jams. When the soundtrack came out, RCA didn’t pick any particular single to push; they just sent the whole thing to radio stations. A few of the songs ended up getting some traction, though it varied from station to station. Ben Stiller himself directed the video for the Juliana Hatfield Three’s “Spin The Bottle,” which became a minor alt-rock radio hit.
Reality Bites also gave nice little bumps to the Knack’s “My Sharona” and Squeeze’s “Tempted.” Unfortunately, it also made a hit out of Big Mountain’s shitty reggae-pop cover of Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way.” (The Big Mountain cover peaked at #6. It’s a 3.) But “Stay (I Missed You)” became the song from Reality Bites. The video had a lot to do with that.
Ethan Hawke, who’d only ever directed a short called Straight To One, helmed the “Stay (I Miss You)” video himself. The cat in the video is Hawke’s cat, though the empty apartment is not Hawke’s empty apartment. The whole thing is one extended camera shot, with Lisa Loeb running through the apartment and singing directly to the camera. The idea was that the clip would re-create the argument from the song, putting you, the viewer, in the shoes of the boyfriend. That’s not really what happened, though. Loeb never seems angry in the “Stay” video. Instead, she comes off dewy and romantic. She’s also super fucking hot, and she’s a kind of super fucking hot that was pretty rare in the circa-’94 pop-culture mainstream. A whole lot of people bought cat’s-eye glasses after the “Stay” video came out, and Loeb eventually started her own line of spectacles. The light in the video is a kind of light that only exists in the films of the mid-’90s. That video a beautiful piece of work, and it stood out boldly on MTV and VH1.
The song itself stood out, too. Lyrically, “Stay” is a little bit scattered, which makes sense; most couples’ arguments are scattered. It’s not clear whether Loeb’s narrator is about to break up with this guy. (Loeb and Juan Patiño did stay together for a while. Patiño produced “Stay” and a bunch of Loeb’s later records.) The issue seems to be these two people’s respective images of each other not lining up. He says she only hears what she wants to. She doesn’t listen hard, and she doesn’t pay attention to the distance that he’s running or to anyone, anywhere. She thinks that she’s throwing, but she’s thrown. He says that she’s naïve, but she thought that she was strong. They can’t make sense of the dissonance.
On “Stay,” you can hear Lisa Loeb’s narrator working out her feelings in real time. She doesn’t want to break up, but she worries that they’re only staying together because it’s a comfortable default. Or maybe she has broken up, and maybe she regrets it right away. While all this stuff is spinning through her head, she hears a breakup song on the radio and finds that its emotions fit her own situation a little too closely: “I turned the radio on, I turned the radio up, and this woman was singin’ my song/ The lover’s in love, and the other’s run away/ The lover is crying ’cause the other won’t stay.” In a nice little meta touch, “Stay” eventually became the song on the radio for untold numbers of people going through the same thing.
I like “Stay (I Missed You).” The song is confusing, but that’s because it’s about a confusing situation. Lisa Loeb sings in a wounded, vulnerable, intimate quaver. She doesn’t sound like she’s falling apart, though. On some level, she’s enjoying the debate aspect of this argument — the counters and parries. Her voice isn’t big or overwrought, and there’s a conversational edge to her delivery. Elizabeth Mitchell, Loeb’s old bandmate, sings backup vocals, and the guitars twinkle and hum underneath her. The chord changes fit together in weird, jazzy, oblique ways, but they’re always reassuring, never jarring. It’s a pretty song that never seems like it’s trying too hard to be a pretty song, and that alone sets it apart from most of the ’90s ballads that have appeared in this column.
When “Stay” took off, Lisa Loeb’s status as an unsigned artist put her in an enviable place. She ended up signing to Geffen, and her debut album Tails didn’t come out until more than a year after “Stay” had reached #1. Most of the album is closer to straightforwardly fuzzy alt-rock than to “Stay.” (For some of the record, Loeb sounds a bit like Juliana Hatfield.) Tails wasn’t a huge hit, but it went gold, and the single “Do You Sleep?” made it to #18. Good song! Better than “Stay,” probably!
As it turned out, Lisa Loeb never returned to the top 10 after “Stay (I Missed You).” She followed Tails with the 1997 album Firecracker, which also went gold. Lead single “I Do” made it to #17. But Lisa Loeb hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 1998. Her producer/boyfriend Juan Patiño went on to produce some songs for Jewel, including the radio version of Jewel’s 1996 hit “You Were Meant For Me.” (That song peaked at #2. It’s a 4.)
After the ’90s, Lisa Loeb went on to what seems like a comfortable sort of semi-stardom. She never grew to resent her one big hit, but she never stopped recording new music, either. She also branched out into other things. She’s done a lot of voice-acting; she played Mary Jane, for instance, on the MTV Spider-Man cartoon. For a while, she dated Dweezil Zappa, and they had a Food Network show called Dweezil & Lisa, where they traveled around and ate. This seems like a good job! After they broke up, she had another reality show called Number One Single, which was not about the songs from this column but which was instead about getting back into the dating pool after being with one person for a while. This show probably gave a lot of hope to a lot of dorks, but Loeb got married in 2009, and she’s had a couple of kids since.
A while ago, Loeb started recording music for kids. She reunited with her old bandmate Elizabeth Mitchell to record the children’s album Catch The Moon in 2003. Loeb has recorded a lot more kids’ records since then, and she won a Grammy for one of them. She seems cool. I like her.
If only one ’90s alt-rocker was going to end up with a #1 hit, it’s pretty random that Lisa Loeb turned out to be the one, but it could’ve been a lot worse. And considering how many of those alt-rockers handled their success badly, she now stands as a great example of someone who got famous and didn’t let that fame destroy her.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s New Found Glory’s 2000 pop-punk cover of “Stay (I Missed You),” with Lisa Loeb sharing vocal duties with NFG frontman Jordan Pundik:
(New Found Glory’s highest-charting single, 2002’s “My Friends Over You,” peaked at #85.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lisa Loeb singing “Stay (I Missed You)” with a banjo-pickin’ Ed Helms at a 2016 show:
(I really wanted to use this spot for Loeb’s cameo from a 2005 episode of The Colbert Report, where she ends a segment on Fox News and bird flu by reminding Ed Helms’ fellow Daily Show veteran Stephen Colbert of the “Stay (I Missed You)” lyrics, but that video’s not embeddable. You’ll just have to watch it here.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kelly Clarkson singing an emotional cover of “Stay (I Missed You)” on a 2020 quarantine-era episode of her talk show:
(Kelly Clarkson will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Dave Grohl and Greg Kurstin’s 2021 metal cover of “Stay (I Missed You)”:
(We already mentioned Nirvana’s chart peak up above. The highest-charting single from Dave Grohl’s other band Foo Fighters is 2005’s “Best Of You,” which peaked at #18. As a songwriter and producer, Greg Kurstin will eventually appear in this column.)