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.
Now see, this is how you do a movie ballad. “Kiss From A Rose,” the only #1 hit from the British singer Seal, had a whole life before it showed up in the deeply shitty 1995 blockbuster Batman Forever. Seal didn’t write the song with Batman Forever in mind, and Batman Forever wasn’t even the first film to use the song. But the sweeping, cryptic romanticism of “Kiss From A Rose” is a perfect example of a form of song that relies on grand-gesture melodrama. Many, many movie ballads — most of them actually written for the movies in which they appear — have appeared in this column. Most of them are butt. “Kiss From A Rose,” on the other hand, feels like a radio wave sent out across the universe from a much, much prettier planet.
“Kiss From A Rose” is an unearthly song, and a big part of its strange, uncanny vibe is the particular gravitas of Seal himself, a man so beautiful that he makes intense facial scars look sexy. Seal’s trip to the top of the American charts was a long, complicated one. Over his career, Seal has only notched one week atop the Hot 100, but that’s been enough to give him his own dreamlike presence in our cultural imagination.
Seal Henry Olusegun Olumide Adeola Samuel was born in London, the son of a Nigerian mother and a Brazilian father. (When Seal was born, the #1 song in America was Paul & Paula’s “Hey Paula.”) Seal spent part of his childhood with a foster family before being returned to his parents. Seal’s father was abusive, and his scars come from a rare version of lupus that he contracted as a young man. When Seal was 17, his father died, and he moved into a squat, living there while studying architecture. Seal didn’t think of himself as a musician, but a music teacher and a girlfriend both encouraged him after hearing him sing.
Eventually, Seal started recording demos, but labels weren’t interested. During that stretch of time, he wrote and recorded the first version of “Kiss From A Rose” on a four-track recorder. This was 1987, nearly a decade before the song reached #1. Seal couldn’t play any instruments then, so he did the whole thing a cappella. For Seal, “Kiss From A Rose” was an experiment; he wanted to see what he could do by layering his own voice. He didn’t much like the result, and he later told Genius that he “threw the tape in a corner.” Soon afterward, Seal took a gig as the singer for a British funk band called Push, who’d already booked a few shows in Japan. Seal was only in Push for a few weeks. After the Japan shows, Push visited Bangkok, and Seal loved the city. He stayed in Thailand for another year, earning a meager income by singing with a blues band in an ex-pat bar.
Seal returned to London in 1988, when rave culture was sweeping through the UK. Soon after, he sang on “Superfly Guy,” a single from the acid house project S’Express. “Superfly Guy” was a #5 hit on the UK charts. It came out during the year-long stretch when I was living in London as a kid, and I loved that song. Seal’s not really on the song much, but it led to a bigger look. A year later, Seal met the rave DJ Adamski at a warehouse party, and the two collaborated on “Killer,” an absolute banger of a track. Seal sang the living hell out of “Killer,” which he co-wrote with Adamski. A few months after its release, “Killer” reached #1 in the UK. Seal and Adamski fell out over the way the song was marketed as an Adamski single, but they eventually made up, and Adamski later remixed “Kiss From A Rose.”
Once “Killer” hit, Seal started getting label offers, and he signed with ZTT Records, the conceptually ambitious label co-founded by the big-name producer Trevor Horn. Horn had first found fame as the frontman of the Buggles, the new wave act whose “Video Killed The Radio Star” was famously the first video ever played on MTV. Horn produced the chart-topping 1984 Yes single “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” In 1983, Horn co-founded ZTT with his wife Jill Sinclair and with the theory-heavy NME critic Paul Morley. Horn, an early synthpop adapter, made slick, synthy, ambitious hits with ZTT acts Frankie Goes To Hollywood and the Art Of Noise.
Seal and Trevor Horn worked together closely on Seal’s self-titled debut album, which came out in 1991. Seal and Horn re-recorded “Killer” without Adamski, and their version reached #100 on the Hot 100. But Seal’s real American breakout was his debut single “Crazy,” a magnetic dance-rock swirl that peaked at #7 in the US. (It’s a 7.) Thanks to “Crazy,” Seal’s album went platinum. Seal also got nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammys, but he lost that award to Marc Cohn.
In 1994, Seal released his Trevor Horn-produced sophomore album, which was also self-titled but which everyone called Seal II. Before recording that album, Seal had never let Horn hear “Kiss From A Rose,” since he didn’t really like the song. But once Horn heard “Kiss From A Rose,” he was into it, so he and Seal recorded the track. The recording is big and lush and grandiose, and it includes a fascinating array of session musicians. The George Clinton protege and J Dilla mentor Amp Fiddler plays keyboards, for instance, while future My Brightest Diamond member Chris Bruce plays guitar and future Fiona Apple sideman Charley Drayton plays bass.
After recording “Kiss From A Rose,” Seal still didn’t like the song, and he told Horn that it didn’t belong on the album. Years later, he told The Guardian that he thought the song “too flowery” to fit on the album. (It definitely is flowery, but in a good way.) But Seal and Horn were both friends with Lynne Franks, a fashion publicist. She liked the song, and she told them that they should keep it. They listened. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Seal says, “Trevor turned to me and said, ‘We’re silly if we don’t put this on it.'”
The first single from Seal II was “Prayer For The Dying,” a moderate hit that peaked at #21. The second single was “Kiss From A Rose.” In the song’s original video, Seal played a fashion photographer. The single came out in 1994. In the UK, it reached #20. In America, the song bricked. As far as I can tell, the song missed the Hot 100 entirely when it first came out. Seal’s next two singles didn’t make the chart, either. Later in 1994, “Kiss From A Rose” showed up on the soundtrack of The Neverending Story III, and that movie bricked, too. Things weren’t looking too good for Seal. But then Batman Forever happened.
Tim Burton’s first two Batman movies had been hugely successful, but 1992’s Batman Returns got a reputation for disturbing kids, and so Warner Bros. went a different direction for the third movie in the franchise. They brought in Joel Schumacher, a former costume designer who’d built up a reputation for directing incoherent but visually stylish popcorn films like The Lost Boys and Flatliners. (Schumacher has been a supporting character in this column a couple of times. He wrote 1977’s Car Wash, and that movie’s theme took Rose Royce to #1. He also directed 1985’s St. Elmo’s Fire, and that movie’s theme took John Parr to #1.)
Schumacher’s whole idea was to crank up all the campy, stylized aspects of Batman, and this impulse eventually led to 1997’s widely mocked, fantastically awful Batman & Robin, which temporarily killed the franchise before Christopher Nolan took it in a self-consciously different direction. But Batman Forever was big and glittery and full of stars at their peaks — white-hot Jim Carrey as the Riddler, recent Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face — and it did huge business despite being probably even worse than Batman & Robin. (I wrote a whole AV Club column on Batman Forever a few years ago, so I’m not going to go on too long about why I think it sucks, but I really do think it sucks.) But Schumacher and his people did put together a weird and mostly good soundtrack album for Batman Forever.
There’s a lot going on with the Batman Forever soundtrack album, which is probably the only compilation that’s ever put PJ Harvey right next to future Number Ones artist Brandy. The soundtrack has Nick Cave and Mazzy Star and the Flaming Lips and Sunny Day Real Estate. It’s got covers: the Offspring doing the Damned, Massive Attack and Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn doing the Marvelettes, INXS’ Michael Hutchence doing Iggy Pop. It’s got a Method Man song called “The Riddler.” That album is a wild ride. The big single from the soundtrack was supposed to be “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” a pretty great U2 song written specifically for the movie. When that single came out, it peaked at #16.
Joel Schumacher wanted a new Seal song for the Batman Forever soundtrack, but Seal was already working on his next album, and he have didn’t anything for Schumacher. Still, Schumacher really loved “Kiss From A Rose.” He tried to use the song to soundtrack a love scene between Val Kilmer’s Batman and Nicole Kidman’s ridiculously named Dr. Chase Meridian, but it didn’t fit. So Schumacher put “Kiss From A Rose” over the movie’s end credits, letting it play after the U2 song.
Schumacher also directed a new video for the track. The second “Kiss From A Rose” video is mostly Batman Forever scenes, and it’s also got Seal striking dramatic poses next to the Bat signal while wind blows his silky wide-open shirt around. It’s a deeply silly video, and I like it better than any actual Schumacher movie this side of The Lost Boys. After Schumacher died in 2020, Seal posted an Instagram video where he told the whole story of “Kiss From A Rose” showing up in Batman Forever, and he credited Schumacher with saving his career.
Eight years after he first wrote the song, and two years after its initial release, “Kiss From A Rose” became a phenomenon. The song might’ve only topped the Hot 100 for a week, but I remember it being absolutely inescapable. “Kiss From A Rose” didn’t have any clear genre. It was this strange, pretty enigma. With its layers of vocal frippery and its waltz time signature, it sounded weirdly medieval, while Seal’s cryptic lyrics had a sort of windswept romanticism working for them. Seal compares you to a kiss from a rose on the gray. Ooh, the more he gets of you, the stranger it feels, yeah. You remain his power, his pleasure, his pain.
Seal has never said what “Kiss From A Rose” is actually about. It seems to concern a slightly toxic relationship: “To me, you’re like a growing addiction that I can’t deny/ Won’t you tell me is that healthy, baby?” There’s also a whole lot of overwrought imagery: A graying tower, a rose in bloom, Seal’s eyes in the snow. All that mystery implies a certain depth, and it doesn’t really matter whether the depth is actually there or not. The song just sounds gorgeous. The big moments all stick with you. Any time Seal wails out the word “baby,” that shit works like crazy.
“Kiss From A Rose” couldn’t be nominated for an Oscar, since it was out long before Batman Forever. That’s the problem with the Oscars. Nothing dramatic ever happens. But “Kiss From A Rose” did win Grammys for Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year. Seal II eventually went quadruple platinum, and the Batman Forever soundtrack went double platinum — the same benchmark that Prince’s Batman album had reached six years earlier. But I don’t think those stats quite capture how “Kiss From A Rose” resonated for kids in my generation.
Earlier this year, the deeply absorbing Showtime show Yellowjackets had a scene where all the wilderness-stranded teenagers launch into a big “Kiss From A Rose” campfire singalong. (Once again, I really wish those Yellowjackets scenes were on YouTube.) That scene rang true. A few years ago, I was on a bus back to my hotel after a wedding reception, and the entire bus — all severely drunk people, all around the same age as me — spontaneously launched into “Kiss From A Rose.” Someone started singing it, and then the whole bus just immediately joined in. It was fun as hell. You can only get moments like that out of special songs, and “Kiss From A Rose” is a special song.
After “Kiss From A Rose,” Seal only landed one more top-10 hit. In 1996, Seal covered the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle” for the Space Jam soundtrack, and that cover peaked at #10. (It’s a 5. The original 1975 “Fly Like An Eagle” peaked at #2. That one is an 8.) Seal only made a few Hot 100 appearances after that, and he hasn’t been on the chart at all since his 2003 single “Waiting For You” peaked at #89.
But Seal has stuck around as a part of culture, his image too indelible to ever fade completely. In 2004, for instance, Seal proposed to the supermodel Heidi Klum in an igloo on the side of a Canadian mountain, a scenario that seems far too romantic to possibly be real. Seal and Klum married in 2005, had a bunch of kids, and then broke up in 2012. Seal has recorded albums of standards with David Foster, gotten into strange Instagram feuds, and pissed off a bunch of people by singing at a birthday party for the president of Chechnya. Future Number Ones artist Carly Rae Jepsen once watched Seal eat an entire loaf of plain gluten-free bread in one sitting. Also, Seal probably had the best scene in the Lonely Island’s 2016 movie Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.
A few months ago, I had a fun night watching The Harder They Fall, a hyper-violent Netflix western with an all-Black cast. I’d never heard of Jeymes Samuel, the movie’s director. As it turns out, he’s a musician who records as the Bullitts, and he’s Seal’s younger brother. This baffled me, but Seal’s whole life baffles me. Seal is now 59 years old, and we probably won’t see him in this column again, but I’m not going to make any predictions about Seal. That man seems to live in a separate world from the rest of us. If he somehow lands another #1 hit, that’ll make as much sense as anything else.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 2011 Community episode where a reluctant Joel McHale and an enthusiastic Jim Rash song a karaoke rendition of “Kiss From A Rose” together:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the very relatable 2012 viral video where a drunk guy sings “Kiss From A Rose” to his alarmed cat:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: “Kiss From A Rose” is a running motif in the extremely unnecessary 2015 reboot of National Lampoon’s Vacation. Ed Helms, in the Chevy Chase role, unsuccessfully tries to get a “Kiss From A Rose” singalong going in the car. Here’s that bit:
And here’s the scene where, later on, the entire family sings the song on a roller coaster:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Kiss From A Rose” soundtracking the scene from the 2016 miniseries The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story where Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark gets her fateful haircut:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the utterly perfect 2020 video where actual seals sing “Kiss From A Rose”: