The Number Ones

January 29, 2000

The Number Ones: Savage Garden’s “I Knew I Loved You”

Stayed at #1:

4 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.

Were Savage Garden ever famous? Were they stars? These two nondescript Australians were definitely popular. Savage Garden’s self-titled 1997 debut went platinum seven times over, and it launched a couple of singles into the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, including the #1 hit “Truly Madly Deeply.” But either of the members of Savage Garden could’ve robbed me at knifepoint, and I still wouldn’t have been able to pick them out of a police lineup. Every era of pop music has artists like that — relatively faceless figures who still rack up serious hits. But Savage Garden never seemed to understand that they were anonymous hitmakers, or maybe they were unwilling to accept that reality. This lends them a strange sort of charm, even if their second and final #1 hit was transparently and cynically written to become a #1 hit.

While Savage Garden singer Darren Hayes wrote the songs from the band’s sophomore LP Affirmation, his life was falling apart. Hayes had gotten married before Savage Garden took off, and he sang about missing his wife on “Truly Madly Deeply.” But in the same year that “Truly Madly Deeply” reached #1, Hayes and his wife split up. A few years later, Hayes came out as gay. By that time, Savage Garden were broken up. Hayes’ bandmate Daniel Jones, uncomfortable with whatever level of fame that Savage Garden had earned, told Hayes that he wanted to leave the band while they were finishing up Affirmation. Jones agreed to stick around for long enough to tour behind the record, but a chapter was ending.

Apparently, Darren Hayes put all that personal turmoil into Affirmation. Apparently, Hayes used the album to tackle heavy subjects: Toxic relationships, child abuse, his own unfolding personal crises. I say “apparently” because the album still hits my ears as glassy, inoffensive, barely-there pop music. The lyrics fill the space just fine, but they don’t grab me at all. These songs might be important to Hayes, but Affirmation never announces its importance, the way so many heavy-subject pop records do. Maybe that’s to Savage Garden’s credit. Maybe they were ambitious enough to satisfy their own artistic impulses but not so ambitious that their music ever vacillated from what their fans wanted. (Savage Garden must’ve had fans, right?) Maybe that puts them in a sweet spot, though it doesn’t exactly stop them from being faceless.

Even if Darren Hayes used Affirmation to express everything that he had on his mind, his artiste impulses didn’t stop the group from working with a big-deal pop-music professional. In 1999, Savage Garden were asked to contribute a song to the soundtrack of the Garry Marshall film The Other Sister, an utterly forgotten rom-com where Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi play young people with developmental disabilities who fall in lovex. Looks wildly offensive! (I had to check Wikipedia to be sure that The Other Sister actually existed. Movies like that are the reason my Box Office Game score remains abysmal.) Columbia Records boss Don Ienner suggested that Savage Garden knock out a song with Walter Afanasieff, the guy who’d been Mariah Carey’s chief collaborator up until the moment when Mariah didn’t want to deal with her ex-husband Tommy Mottola’s buddies anymore.

In my mind, Savage Garden and Walter Afanasieff make a perfectly natural pairing. Afanasieff had made a whole lot of money for Columbia, and he already had his name on a whole lot of hits. Savage Garden, meanwhile, made adult-contempo radio-bait; they were not exactly cranking out raw fever-dream howls. But the pairing seemed odd to both Afanasieff and Savage Garden. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Afanasieff says that Savage Garden were looking for an “edgy guy” and that he wasn’t sure he fit the bill: “I’m not known to produce rock ‘n’ roll acts. I’m stereotyped as a pop and maybe even a ballad producer.” (That’s probably not the correct usage of the word “stereotyped.” If you produce enough big-hit ballads, it’s fair for people to make some assumptions. It doesn’t mean anyone is discriminating against you.)

Despite their perceived differences, Savage Garden and Walter Afanasieff agreed to meet up in Afanasieff’s Bay Area studio, and that led to them making the breezy, falsetto-happy dance-pop jam “The Animal Song.” That track kind of rules, and it did well. Even though The Other Sister was a critically derided flop, “The Animal Song” peaked at #19 on the Hot 100 and did even better in other countries. Savage Garden were so happy with the result that they asked Afanasieff to co-produce their Affirmation album.

When they turned Affirmation in to Columbia, Savage Garden were proud of the result, but their label boss didn’t think the album was quite done yet. Here’s how Darren Hayes describes Don Ienner’s reaction to the album in the Fred Bronson book: “It’s an artistic masterpiece. It’s incredible. You’ve grown. You’ve matured. It’s wonderful. But there’s no ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ in here.” If that’s really Don Ienner’s response to Affirmation, then you can’t accuse the guy of not supporting his artists. Affirmation is fine, but I have a hard time believing that anyone ever considered it a masterpiece. In any case, guys like Don Ienner exist almost entirely to tell artists that they don’t hear a single, and the man was just doing his job.

Ienner didn’t actually tell Savage Garden that they needed a single. Instead, he relayed that message to Walter Afanasieff. Here’s Afanasieff’s story about breaking the news to the duo: “Darren is a rebel. He likes to fight the establishment. So it was really difficult. I eased it into the conversation, and it was like a dare. He got a look in his eyes.” In Afanasieff’s version of the story, Hayes and Daniel Jones said that sure, fine, they’d write another “Truly Madly Deeply.” They went off into another room and came back 10 minutes later with “I Knew I Loved You” fully written. A few years ago, Hayes told Official Charts that it actually took Savage Garden 40 minutes to come up with “I Knew I Loved You” and that they wrote the song “out of spite towards the record company.”

“I Knew I Loved You” does not sound like a song written out of any sort of spite towards anyone. It does sound a bit like someone trying to recapture the magic of “Truly Madly Deeply,” but that’s not exactly a revolutionary thing. Musicians have been trying to recreate the formula of their past hits ever since hit songs first existed. (I’m currently reading Bob Stanley’s new book Let’s Do It: The Birth Of Pop, about the pre-rock ‘n’ roll years of popular music, and it’s pretty clear that songwriters were attempting to ape themselves even when songs were being consumed as printed sheets of lyrics and musical notations.) It’s not rebellious to write a cynical hit. It’s the opposite of rebellious. Hayes might’ve intended “I Knew I Loved You” as some kind of fuck-you statement, but that’s not how the song comes off.

Instead, “I Knew I Loved You” is pure high-grade sap, a song that screams “first wedding dance” from its opening line on down. Early in 2000, wedding ballads pretty much swallowed up the Hot 100 for a few months. Every song that’ll appear in the column this week could function as a wedding ballad. My working theory there is that Americans had been all wound up and stressed out about the looming Y2K apocalypse. When nothing happened, maybe some plurality of Americans breathed a long sigh of relief, and maybe their thoughts turned toward goopy romanticism. (Maybe I was part of that. I didn’t really fuck with any of those wedding ballads, but I definitely thought I was fully in love during that stretch. Once a month, I’d make six-hour Greyhound trips from Syracuse to New York to visit my girlfriend. We moved into an apartment in Sunset Park that summer, and then we broke up as soon as the school year started again, as one does.)

“I Knew I Loved You” doesn’t have the same silly majesty as “Truly Madly Deeply.” The song feels a little smaller and a little more canned, but it still sounds nice enough. Darren Hayes sings about feeling like his beloved stepped out of his subconscious: “I knew I loved you before I met you/ I think I dreamed you into life.” That’s a form of romantic writing that’s always seemed a bit off to me. You’re not talking about this other person, about what’s specifically great about them. Instead, you’re talking about yourself, about how happy you are that someone else reflects all the things that you wanted.

Hayes’ verses go in a different directions. They’re all about how important it is to stop questioning and follow your intuition when you meet someone who you know is going to play a role in your life. There’s nothing sketchy about that part. Its sense of abandon, at least for me, rings true. Also, this line is pretty funny: “A thousand angels dance around you/ I am complete now that I’ve found you.” What a weird way to paraphrase Renée Zellweger. Personally, I’m glad that I don’t have a thousand angels dancing around me. Imagine the claustrophobia! And all the feathers!

Musically, “I Knew I Loved You” is perfectly solid mid-grade millennial adult-contempo fluff. It doesn’t stick to my ribs the way some of the goopy ballads of that era do. (Pretty soon after “I Knew I Loved You” faded out, acts like Coldplay and Dido were all over American radio, and those motherfuckers were pretty consistently kicking me right in the soul.) But “I Knew I Loved You” still does the trick. Guitars twinkle. Synths sparkle. Darren Hayes hits some big, buttery falsetto notes. The key change arrives at the exact moment when you’d expect, and it’s no less effective for its obviousness. It’s the very picture of a song that I’d never seek out but that I’d happily ignore if it came on the radio.

The video for “I Knew I Loved You” came from director Kevin Bray, who would soon make All About The Benjamins and the Walking Tall remake with the Rock. (These days, Bray is a prolific TV guy.) The clip takes place on a New York subway car that’s really a backlot set. You can tell because everyone on the train is way more luminous and less harried any anyone on an actual New York subway has ever been. The video tells a love story between Darren Hayes and the very cute, very young Kirsten Dunst. Dunst had just been in The Virgin Suicides and Dick, and she was well on her way to becoming a movie star; 2000 was the year of Bring It On. It’s a little weird to see this version of Dunst in a New York romance with anyone other than Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, but we were still a year and a half out from Spider-Man.

Savage Garden might’ve written “I Knew I Loved You” as a resentment-based homework assignment, but Darren Hayes has said that he learned to love the song soon enough: “It really healed my broken heart. It’s such an innocent song, and my way of relating to love at that time was to think about idealism and maybe the future.” In 2001, Afanasieff married his first wife, and Darren Hayes sang “I Knew I Loved You” at the wedding. (“I Knew I Love You” was the last #1 hit that Walter Afanasieff has produced, but he’ll be in this column again, for a song that he worked on years earlier.) By the time of Afanasieff’s wedding, Savage Garden were done.

Savage Garden followed “I Knew I Loved You” with the similarly forgettable “Crash And Burn,” which peaked at #24. That was the duo’s last time on the Hot 100. Affirmation went triple platinum. In 2001, Darren Hayes confirmed the rumors that Savage Garden were no more. In the years since then, Savage Garden have released a few greatest-hits collections — always funny when the band in question only made two albums — and they haven’t ever reunited. A few years ago, Hayes told Official Charts that he and Daniel Jones weren’t close anymore and that maybe they never had been: “It took me a while to realize that we were never really proper friends at the time, and I think that was a conscious decision on Daniel’s part. Once he became famous, he didn’t like it and became a recluse. I still couldn’t really tell you who he is as a person.”

Daniel Jones went on to start a recording studio and to produce a few Australian acts who never went anywhere. He’s married with kids now, and he’s no longer in the music business. As of this 2015 interview, Jones was flipping houses in Las Vegas.

Darren Hayes came out of the closet, started up a solo career, and eventually got married again. 2002’s “Insatiable,” his first solo single, peaked at #77, and he hasn’t been back on the Hot 100 since. In Australia and the UK, Hayes has had a lot more lasting success, and he’s still putting out records now. Thus far in 2022, Hayes has released three singles. It seems like both Savage Garden guys are now living happy and relatively low-key lives. I’m happy for both of them, even though I still wouldn’t recognize them if they were standing right in front of me.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the country version of “I Knew I Loved You” that the late Daryle Singletary released in 2000:

(Daryle Singletary’s only Hot 100 hit, 1997’s “The Note,” peaked at #90.)

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.

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