Stereogum

The Number Ones: Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week”

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.

The audacity. The absolute fucking nerve. These fucking dorks had the balls to record this song of bouncy-bounce bubble-crunch and rapid-fire pop-cult non-sequiturs and to present it to the world as a viable pop product. And then American consumers, in their infinite wisdom, took this ostentatiously clever birthday-party routine and sent it all the way to the top of the Hot 100, briefly interrupting the reign of Monica’s “The First Night.” In the ’90s, the decade when “alternative rock” became a thing that people said out loud, the Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week” became the first #1 hit that was even vaguely alt-rock since Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You),” more than four years earlier. It’s a travesty of justice, and I’m still mad.

Maybe you just read that paragraph and thought I was being facetious. No. Not remotely. “One Week” was a plague on humanity in 1998, and it’s still a plague on humanity today. To me, “One Week” represents the shallowest and most bankrupt kind of fun. It’s a stupid song that knows it’s a stupid song, and I’m supposed to think its whole self-reflexive smarty-pants goofball nonsense schtick is silly and charming and sly. Well, I don’t. I fucking hate it with all the power of my soul. “One Week” is Justin Long. It’s Napoleon Dynamite. It’s Elon Musk in a Wario costume on Saturday Night Live. It can go fuck itself.

A whole lot of things had to fall into place culturally for the Barenaked Ladies, a longtime cult act who were stars in Canada but only just starting to make headway in the US, to turn their cat-piss quasi-rap smugness bomb into an actual no-shit #1 Billboard pop hit. By the late ’90s, white people self-consciously dorking around with rap music was already a tired trope. It had been happening since the early Beastie Boys, or maybe even since Blondie made “Rapture.” But Blondie and the Beastie Boys were cool. Somewhere along the line, cool stopped being necessary to this process. The dweebs took over.

Beck wasn’t a dweeb in the early ’90s, but he felt like a dweeb when he tried to rap. When he recorded the four-track single “Loser” with Karl Stephenson, an actual rap producer who’d made actual Geto Boys songs, Beck was trying to sound like Public Enemy’s Chuck D, and he was humiliated by his failure. That’s why he went so self-deprecating on the “Loser” chorus. “Loser,” released independently, became a word-of-mouth success that trickled its way up to radio and won Beck a major-label contract. In 1994, “Loser” crossed over to become an out-of-nowhere hit, peaking at #10 and turning Beck into a star. (“Loser” is still Beck’s biggest hit. It’s a 9.)

Presumably emboldened by Beck’s success, a whole wave of slackjawed alt-rocker types started messing around with dusty breakbeats and psychedelic lyrical randomness, and a lot of them landed their tracks in modern-rock radio rotation: the Eels, the Primitive Radio Gods, Folk Implosion, Geggy Tah, Cake, Soul Coughing, Bran Van 3000, Citizen King. Veteran Texan noise-rockers the Butthole Surfers somehow scored a late-career alternative-radio chart-topper with their Beck bite “Pepper.” These bands weren’t all good, but they were trying things, and their whole style fit with the pastiche-heavy aesthetic of the time — the same memory-drunk cultural wave that gave us Tarantino and Scream and a great many Simpsons jokes. Then the fucking bowling-shirt guys showed up and ruined the party for everyone.

These days, people talk about the late ’90s as the beginning of the end for commercial rock music. The usual scapegoat is nü metal, and it’s especially the rap-rock side of nü metal. Those bands jacked moves from the Beastie Boys and Faith No More and Rage Against The Machine, and they used clumsy raps and chunky guitar riffs to vent frustration and ugliness into the world. I’m not going to sit here and go to bat for that stuff, since most of it was absolute ass, but the nü metal guys were at least singing about things. Korn’s “Freak On A Leash,” Linkin Park’s “One Step Closer,” Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” — these were songs that attempted to reckon with intense, severe, real feelings. Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst couldn’t rap for shit, and he had his own smug-dickhead tendencies, but even a song like “Break Stuff” identifies and expresses a tangible emotion. I’ll take that over the bowling-shirt bands anytime.

The Barenaked Ladies didn’t start off as a bowling-shirt band. Instead, they spent their early career as sincere-goofball college-rock types, like a shittier They Might Be Giants, or like R.E.M. if R.E.M. had started in an improv-comedy class instead of a record store. Co-leaders Ed Robertson and Steven Page both came from the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, and they were in school together from a young age, but they didn’t become friends until they both went to see former Number Ones artist Peter Gabriel sometime in the ’80s. Soon afterwards, Robertson and Page both worked as counselors at a music camp, and they found out that they liked playing music together.

The Barenaked Ladies played their first show at a local battle of the bands in 1988. Robertson had entered his cover band into the battle, but that band broke up before the show happened, so he called up Page and asked Page to play with him. Robertson already had a band name. The two friends had come up with the Barenaked Ladies as a fake name for a joke band, but when the battle came, that’s the name that Robertson gave. After that first gig, the duo kept playing live, improvising crowd-banter bits and joke-raps in between their songs, and they made their first demo tape together before 1988 was over. Over the next few years, more friends joined the band, and they recorded more demo tapes and built up a local following. In 1992, a cover of Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers In A Dangerous Time,” recorded for a Cockburn tribute compilation, became a top-20 hit in Canada.

Just before that cover hit, Barenaked Ladies scored a random-ass break. They’d been booked to play a New Year’s Eve show outside of Toronto’s City Hall as 1991 turned into 1992. Someone in the mayor’s office decided that their absurdist band name was demeaning to women, and BNL were dropped from the New Year’s show. This became a news story in Canada, and it won a whole lot of attention for the band. Their self-released Yellow Tape became the first independent album to go platinum in Canada. (There, you only have to sell 100,000 copies to go platinum. It’s like dunking on a one-foot rim.)

In the wake of all of that, Seymour Stein signed the Barenaked Ladies to Reprise, and Gordon, their first proper studio album, became a #1 hit in their homeland. Their song “Enid” reached #2 on the Canadian charts, and the LP eventually went diamond in Canada. For a while, the Barenaked Ladies were on a Tragically Hip trajectory — huge in Canada, a slight cult success in the US. Here, Gordon went gold, and the band’s song “If I Had $1,000,000” was a minor hit on adult-alternative radio. Proud Canadian Jason Priestley must’ve been a fan, since he directed the band’s video for their 1996 single “The Old Apartment,” and he also got the band to play at the Peach Pit on a 1997 episode of Beverly Hills 90210. Shortly after that episode ran, “The Old Apartment” became the first Barenaked Ladies song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, where it peaked at #88.

For me, the Barenaked Ladies were just a name that vaguely registered, in an “I bet these guys think they’re funny” sort of way, when I was flipping through CDs in record stores. But once “The Old Apartment” landed, I got used to them as a slightly irritating alt-rock radio presence — Toad The Wet Sprocket with weirder accents. BNL released a live album called Rock Spectacle in 1996, and the live version of “Brian Wilson,” a song from the band’s Gordon album, got pushed to radio and did better than “The Old Apartment,” peaking at #68. The Barenaked Ladies were primed for a real breakthrough, but that breakthrough took a form that nobody expected.

When the Barenaked Ladies recorded their 1998 album Stunt, Reprise paired them up with David Leonard and Susan Rogers, two producers who had worked as sound engineers for Prince. Susan Rogers, in particular, was one of Prince’s favorite collaborators; she was the only other person in the room when he recorded all the instruments on “When Doves Cry.” For the most part, Stunt is a fairly normal Barenaked Ladies album, with the usual mix of sincerity and goofball shit. But on one song, they cranked the dial all the way over to the goofball-shit side.

Ed Robertson had started to write “One Week” as a song about a couple getting into an argument. On the chorus, he sings from the perspective of a guy who keeps fighting even though he’s definitely in the wrong. For the verses, Robertson wanted to write raps, but those raps weren’t working out. Roberton’s bandmate Steven Page had an idea. Robertson would always freestyle rap at Barenaked Ladies shows, so Page said that he should just try freestyling the verses. That’s what Robertson did. In a 2018 Stereogum interview with my boss Scott Lapatine, Robertson says that he set up a camcorder to film himself, and then he just freestyled four verses in a few minutes, later cutting them down to two: “Our biggest single ever, our #1 single, was written in three and a half minutes.”

People have interpreted “One Week” different ways. To some, the constant churning chatter of Robertson’s pop-culture references represents late-’90s idiot brain, mentally clicking through cable channels even in the middle of a relationship-related fight. There’s also a theory about how it’s a song about the guy killing the woman with a golf club. (Robertson calls that theory “hilarious but inaccurate.”) But no, those “One Week” lyrics are just smirky, self-satisfied near-gibberish. They’re like throwaway gags on Family Guy: They add nothing to the actual story, and you’re just supposed to chuckle because you get the reference.

Those rappy bits on “One Week” are catchy, but they’re the wrong type of catchy — the kind that a couple of guys I know call “sticky.” They get stuck in your head, and then they slowly drive you insane. For decades, I have been unable to order orange chicken without some terrible part of my brain repeating “chickety-China, the Chinese chicken,” and I resent that enormously. That’s a go-to order, and I have to handle that voice ricocheting around in my brain. The line is a reference to something that Busta Rhymes said on a Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” in 1992, but Busta said, “Chickity choco, the chocolate chicken.” (“Scenario,” a perfect song, peaked at #57.) Robertson’s line, paired with “you have a drumstick and your brain stops tickin’,” was supposedly a reference to avian flu, which was all over the news at the time. Was it racist? I don’t know! It definitely feels racist when that shit gets stuck in my head. It smells rank like some old stale urine.

The amazing thing about “One Week” is that all of its quasi-rapped lines are like that, and I hate all of them with my entire soul. “You’ll think you’re looking at Aquaman”: No. “Big like Leann Rimes because I’m all about value”: Get out. “Watching X-Files with no lights on/ We’re dans le maison/ I hope the Smoking Man’s in this one.” Shut up. “Like Kurosawa, I make mad films/ K, I don’t make films/ But if I did, they’d have a samurai.” Leave right now. “Gotta get in tune with Sailor Moon ’cause that cartoon’s got the boom anime babes that make me think the wrong thing.” I never want to see your face again. Don’t let the sun set on you in Tulsa.

I am a professional writer. I’ve been getting paid to fulminate about music for more than 20 years. This is what I do; it’s my vocation. And yet I lack the vocabulary to properly convey the revulsion that I feel for that kind of cutesy-wootsy look-at-me teacher’s-pet lyrical horseplay. At one point on the song, Ed Robertson points out that “Bert Kaempfert’s got the mad hits.” I thought that sounded stupid before I’d ever heard of Kaempfert, the German bandleader who’s appeared in this column. I hate it just as much now that I know who that is. There’s a little horn-squeak after that line, and in his Stereogum interview, Robertson says that the horn-squeak sampled from a Kaempfert record. In theory, that’s a fun little easter egg. In the context of this song, it resonates as one more piece of pointless trivial flexing. It’s like: Great. You know who all these people are. Go complete a Sunday crossword puzzle, and kindly stop bothering me. Maybe that’s not fair, but it’s also not fair that I had to hear “One Week” eleventy billion times.

If I try to remove my own innate disgust from the equation, I can concede that there are things about “One Week” that work. There’s an effective guitar crunch on the chorus, and Ed Robertson and Steven Page, who mostly sings the chorus, get in some nice harmonies. The song has energy, and I typically prefer songs with energy to those without. I guess it’s impressive, on some base level, that Robertson reels off so many words so quickly, though he does it with no sense of swing or syncopation in his delivery. I like the devil girls in the video. The song also has a catchy hook. I don’t want to overlook a catchy hook. But even undertaking the mental exercise of looking for good things in “One Week,” my soul is screaming at me. In the deepest part of my being, I hear this fucker talking about “vanilla, it’s the finest of the flavors,” and I want to spit.

When Ed Robertson wrote “One Week,” he didn’t think that he had a hit on his hands. In his Stereogum interview, Robertson talks about his own bemusement with the whole phenomenon:

It’s such a weird song, right? I thought it would be a bonus track or a B-side. It was one of the last songs I submitted to the record company and when Sue Drew, who was our A&R person at the time, said, “We wanna lead with ‘One Week’” I actually thought she was joking. I thought she was making a dig at me, like this is the stupidest fucking song I ever heard. Which I would’ve agreed with. I labored over so many songs on that record, and tried to make them, you know, super deep and meaningful and soulful and tried to nail them emotionally, and then this totally ridiculous song that I improvised, that makes no sense at all, goes to #1.

What a charming guy, right? What a healthy way to look at your band’s freak success! No. Stop. You’re falling into his trap. Remember: This guy wrote “One Week.”

In a Guardian piece last year, Sue Drew affirms that she loved “One Week” right away and that she pushed for it to be a single, even though the other people at Reprise didn’t see it. When “One Week” did well enough at alternative radio, though, it got pushed to pop stations. “One Week” came out as a commercial single in September of 1998, two months after Barenaked Ladies released the Stunt album. By that point, the LP was already platinum. “One Week” debuted at #3 on the Hot 100. Two weeks later, it was the biggest song in America. (In the band’s own Canada, it never got past #3.)

MTV is responsible for some of that success. The bright, cartoonish “One Week” video came from McG, the director who would go on to helm the Charlie’s Angels movies and Terminator Salvation. McG had been high-school buds with Mark McGrath, and he’d produced the first Sugar Ray album. He then went on to a lucrative career directing videos for all of what I’m calling the bowling-shirt bands. Those wacky, snarked-out joke-rap dickheads who took up way too much MTV airspace in the late ’90s? McG had a hand in all of them. McG directed Smash Mouth’s “All Star” video. (“All Star” peaked at #4, and it’s a 2.) He directed the Offspring’s video for “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy).” (That one peaked at #53, which means I don’t have to assign a numerical value for how much I hate it.) McG has a lot to answer for.

“One Week” was a one-off for the Barenaked Ladies. I don’t like that band’s regular music, but they at least deserve credit for not attempting to remake their hit a bunch of times. BNL haven’t been back in the top 10 since “One Week.” Stunt went quadruple platinum, but the band’s follow-up single “It’s All Been Done” peaked at #44. But Barenaked Ladies remained a presence on the charts for a long time. Two years after “One Week,” they made it to #15 with “Pinch Me,” the lead single from their follow-up album Maroon. The band still had enough juice to make the Hot 100 as late as 2010, when their song “You Run Away” peaked at #96. The band also wrote and recorded the theme song for The Big Bang Theory, which presumably means they’re rich forever.

The Barenaked Ladies have done a whole lot of things after “One Week” had its one week at #1. (Don’t you dare — don’t you even fucking dare — make a joke about “One Week” being #1 for one week. That’s what they want.) Multi-instrumentalist Kevin Hearn was diagnosed with leukemia around the same time that the song took off, and he eventually made a full recovery. The band had to tour without him, and they replaced him with Greg Kurstin, a producer whose work will eventually appear in this column, and Chris Brown — the Canadian singer-songwriter, not the guy who will also show up in the column. The Barenaked Ladies made TV-show cameos. They toured heavily. They left Reprise and went independent. Ed Robertson once crashed a single-engine plane and walked away unharmed. Steven Page got arrested for cocaine possession, maybe the least dorky thing in the whole Barenaked Ladies saga, and he left the band soon after. They kept going without him, and he’s rejoined them on special occasions, though he’s also gotten into legal battles with Robertson. Barenaked Ladies are still around, and they just put out an album last year. You’ll have to tell me if it’s any good. I’ll never find out.

With a freak hit like “One Week,” it’s a little over-dramatic to assign larger cultural meaning. But that’s a human thing to do, and I’m human, so fuck it. In my mind, “One Week” reaching #1 is one of those moments when things just went wrong, when the dorks took over. I have probably, at various points, referred to myself as a dork. But there’s a particular kind of dorkitude that I’m talking about here. I’m not talking about being bookish, or getting way too passionate about something that other people consider trivial. I’m talking about a sort of above-it-all self-satisfied thing. Guys like that are everywhere now. They’re running the world.

The three guys who are constantly competing to be the richest man on the planet? All fucking dorks. They expect us to love them for it, too. I didn’t like the shadowy ratfuckers who ran the planet before those guys, but they at least had the decency to be shadowy ratfuckers. They didn’t care if people admired them. If you went back in time 30 years and told 12-year-old me that one of the richest guys on the planet would be someone who figured out how to sell electric cars in America and who is trying to put people on Mars, I’d think that guy sounded pretty cool. But he’s not cool. He’s a fucking dork. A fucking dork who thinks he’s cool. The kind of fucking dork who’s begging for approval while telling you to buy crypto and talking about how unions want to ruin the American economy. The worst kind of fucking dork.

Look: I know it’s not the fault of the Barenaked Ladies or “One Week” that we now have to deal with all these fucking dorks. But the Barenaked Ladies are not blameless. “One Week” was a tiny cultural contributor to the great dork takeover, and that would be reason enough to hate it even if the song was good. But the song isn’t any good at all. In theory, it’s cool that a cult-favorite band scored this out-of-nowhere hit and then went right back to being a cult-favorite band. In theory, it’s cool that Ed Robertson still seems like a nice and normal person. In practice, fuck him, fuck his band, and fuck his song.

GRADE: 1/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 1999 “One Week” parody “Jerry Springer,” an ode to the man who inspired “The Boy Is Mine“:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic, I feel compelled to argue, is not a dork, at least in the way that I’m nebulously defining it. His highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jason Biggs and Eugene Levy dancing to “One Week” at the end of the 2000 cinematic landmark American Pie:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “One Week” soundtracking a montage in 2000’s Digimon: The Movie:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: This isn’t specifically “One Week”-related, but there’s an extremely funny scene on a 2011 Community episode where Joel McHale takes a stray shot at the Barenaked Ladies, and the rest of the show’s cast angrily jumps to the band’s defense, citing obscure Wikipedia accomplishments. I have a feeling that today’s comments section is going to look something like that. Here it is:

(Donald Glover will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the amazing bit from a 2021 episode of What We Do In The Shadows where Kayvan Novak’s Nandor The Relentless joins a cult of vampires that tries to act human, which they express by ripping out their fangs, doing aerobics, and singing along with “One Week”:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.