The Number Ones

July 22, 2000

The Number Ones: Matchbox 20’s “Bent”

Stayed at #1:

1 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.

There’s no magic formula that’ll push a song to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Instead, it takes some strange, alchemical combination of craft, marketing, and especially timing to reach #1. History is full of landmark hits, songs that are deeply embedded in the memory banks of anyone who owns a radio, that never got anywhere near the #1 spot. To reach the top, a song has to have some kind of moment. Nobody is ever guaranteed a #1 hit.

In certain situations, though, an artist can catch a headwind, and the #1 spot can be theirs to lose. We see that pretty often in the streaming era. A massive star — a Drake, a Taylor Swift, an Adele — can release an album, and they can watch as one of their songs cruises to #1 thanks to the fan armies that will stream that new record ceaselessly. For a little while last year, the BTS Army practically made a mission out of keeping the K-pop boy band at the top of the Hot 100 for as long as possible. In the long-ago days when physical single sales and radio airplay determined the Hot 100, certain artists could still elbow their way to #1 on goodwill alone. If any of those artists ever had a clear path to the top of the Hot 100, it was Matchbox 20 circa 2000.

By the time the Orlando band Matchbox 20 got around to releasing their sophomore album Mad Season, their debut Yourself Or Someone Like You had been steadily racking up insane numbers for years. Yourself Or Someone Like You never got past #5 on the Billboard album chart, and none of its singles were big Hot 100 hits, though that had more to do with the way Billboard collated the Hot 100 than the actual popularity of those songs. But Yourself Or Someone Like You just never went away. That album went platinum in July 1997, after it had been out for nearly a year, and then it just kept selling another million copies every few months. When Matchbox 20’s second album came out, Yourself Or Someone Like You was already diamond. It’s now sold 12 million copies in the US alone. Albums just don’t get much bigger than that.

After Yourself Or Someone Like You, Matchbox 20 leader Rob Thomas, almost as a victory lap, co-wrote and sang one of the biggest hits of all time. When Thomas took on the assignment of reworking a track that the songwriter Itaal Shur had written for Santana, Thomas figured that someone else would actually sing that track. He thought George Michael or Jon Bon Jovi should record the song. But Clive Davis was determined that Rob Thomas should sing “Smooth,” and Davis got his way. “Smooth” topped the Hot 100 for three straight months, swept the Grammys, and went down in meme history. For about a year, that song was simply impossible to escape. If any radio programmers were still unsure about Matchbox 20 before “Smooth,” the Santana song swept that uncertainty away.

A few months after “Smooth” fell from #1, Matchbox 20 finally released that long-awaited sophomore LP. At that point, the band had a blank check. They could’ve done anything, and radio still would’ve played it. For plenty of other bands, that level of fame and guaranteed success might’ve been enough to break them up, or to send them spinning off into their experimental ether. But Matchbox 20 didn’t break up, and they didn’t make their Kid A, either. They were too workmanlike to go either of those routes. Instead, Matchbox 20 tinkered with their sound a tiny bit, settled into their newfound fame, and sailed to #1 with a song that I couldn’t hum if I had a gun to my head.

Matchbox 20 got lucky. Before suddenly attaining a near-faceless version of ’90s rock stardom, Matchbox 20 were essentially an Orlando bar band. They were essentially an Orlando bar band even after they’d come out with a major-label album. In my column on Vertical Horizon’s “Everything You Want,” I wrote about the hordes of relatively anonymous post-grunge soft-rockers who’d colonized alternative rock radio in the late ’90s, despite lacking any connection to the scenes whose bands had made up most of those stations’ playlists in earlier years. Matchbox 20 arrived at that party early. They were never an underground rock band, and they never had any aspirations to become one. But just like their fellow Southeastern institution Hootie And The Blowfish, Matchbox 20 sold a gazillion copies of their debut album while neatly sidestepping any questions about credibility.

It’s not that Matchbox 20 never experienced hardship. Before achieving rock stardom, Rob Thomas lived a wild life. Thomas had been born in Germany, where his father served in the Army. When his father disappeared, Thomas went to live with his grandmother, who ran a general store in South Carolina, where she sold moonshine and weed on the sly. Thomas eventually moved to Orlando with his mother, an abusive addict. When his mother got cancer, Thomas had to take care of her. She recovered. Thomas dropped out of high school, stole a Camaro, got caught, and spent a few months in jail. For a few years, he hitchhiked through the South, crashing on people’s couches.

When Rob Thomas wasn’t on the road, he sang covers in Orlando bar bands. In the early ’90s, he became the singer for Tabitha’s Secret, a group that racked up some regional buzz. Matt Serletic, a producer and Atlantic Records A&R rep, had already done a bunch of work with Collective Soul, the Georgia band who might’ve been the first radio-ready post-grungers to truly take off. (Collective Soul’s highest-charting single, 1994’s pretty-great “Shine,” peaked at #11.) Serletic was into Tabitha’s Secret, and he wanted to sign them to his production company Melisma. A couple of Tabitha’s Secret members weren’t interested, so Thomas left the band and signed with Serletic himself.

With Tabitha’s Secret broken up, Rob Thomas started a new band with a bunch of other former members of that band. The new group almost took the name Big Shoe Spiders, and if that had been the final decision, we probably wouldn’t be talking about them in this column. Instead, they went with Matchbox 20 after multi-instrumentalist Paul Doucette, working as a waiter, saw a guy in a softball jersey with a Matchbox Cars patch and the number 20 on the back. Doucette hadn’t been in Tabitha’s Secret. The band found him when Thomas placed a newspaper ad looking for a drummer who was influenced by R.E.M., Van Morrison, and the Jayhawks.

Matchbox 20 recorded their Yourself Or Someone Like You album with Matt Serletic, and the album came out on the Atlantic imprint Lava Records on the same day that Atlantic decided to fold Lava. Matchbox 20 were transferred over to Atlantic itself. Their album didn’t sell at first, and lead single “Long Day” went nowhere. Atlantic came close to dropping the band, but someone at the label noticed a spike in sales in Birmingham, Alabama. A local radio station had started playing “Push,” a gargle-moan ballad that Rob Thomas had written about an unhealthy relationship. (A lot of people thought it was about domestic abuse, but Thomas insisted that it wasn’t.) “Push” became a huge national radio smash, and it probably would’ve done well on the Hot 100 if Atlantic had ever released the song as a commercial single. Matchbox 20 were on their way.

The late ’90s were a good time to be a handsome rock singer with a chesty bellow of a voice. Matchbox 20 hadn’t come up through the cool-kid circuit, but they quickly shot to arena-headliner status anyway. The band spent the next few years touring hard. Rob Thomas gained some weight during those tours, which led to a brief feud with Stephan Jenkins, frontman of similarly uncool tourmates Third Eye Blind, after their frontman Stephan Jenkins called him fat. (Third Eye Blind’s highest-charting single, 1997’s “Semi-Charmed Life,” peaked at #4. It’s a 6.) Sadly, we never got any Matchbox 20/Third Eye Blind beef records out of the altercation.

Matchbox 20 didn’t make much of a dent in the Hot 100 at the time, but that’s really just an accident of history. Billboard refused to let album tracks chart as singles, and Atlantic didn’t want to release Matchbox singles since the band was moving so many damn albums. (At the time, the band’s highest-charting song was “Back 2 Good,” which happened to be the band’s current single when Billboard changed its rules and started listing airplay-only tracks. “Back 2 Good” peaked at #24.) But Matchbox 20 were really and truly all over the radio. Four different singles from Yourself Or Someone Like You reached the top 10 of Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart. If you were alive and living in the United States at the time, then you almost certainly heard “3AM” roughly one bazillion times.

Matchbox 20 didn’t need to rush a sophomore album because Yourself just wouldn’t stop selling. When they finally did get around to recording Mad Season, they once again went to work with Matt Serletic, who’d also produced “Smooth” and Aerosmith’s chart-topper “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.” (Mad Season was also the name of an Alice In Chains/Pearl Jam side project that released one pretty successful album in 1995. I have no idea why Matchbox 20 decided to use that same name. Weird choice.) On their second album, Matchbox 20 played around with their sound a little, adding some keyboard here or some horns there, but they didn’t really overhaul anything. The people at Atlantic knew that the band probably wouldn’t move records in Yourself numbers again, and they were fine with that. But after that album and “Smooth,” Matchbox 20 were in an ideal position.

Matchbox 20 did get a little indulgent when they were recording Mad Season. For one thing, they decided that there were too many bands with numerals in their names, and they changed their own name to matchbox twenty — all lower-case. I think that name change is fucking stupid. I don’t respect it, and I refuse to recognize it. Matchbox also spent some serious money. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number One Hits, Matt Serletic talks a bit about all the different equipment that went into making lead single “Bent”: “There are three drum kits — one for the verse, a separate kit for the chorus, and a third for the bridge, creating a sense of darkness.” I don’t hear that sense of darkness, and I can’t imagine any circa-now labels being willing to blow that much money on different drum sounds, even for a huge band.

Rob Thomas wrote “Bent” about Marisol Maldonado, his wife. They’d started dating after her friend dragged her to a Matchbox 20 show in Toronto, and Thomas had written his “Smooth” lyrics about her. They got married in 1999, and they’re still together now. Thomas has said that “Bent” was his first love song, and I’m not going to delve deep enough into Matchbox 20 lyrics to fact-check the guy. (I guess “Smooth” is really more of a lust song.)

“Bent” isn’t a straight-up love song; it’s a song about being damaged and hoping that someone else will fix you: “Can you help me?/ I’m bent/ I’m so scared that I’ll never get put back together.” It’s easy to see the impulses at work there. Rob Thomas had a fucked-up upbringing, and “Bent” is a song about relying too much on someone else to help him keep his shit together. If you’ve had a fucked-up upbringing, and if you’ve been lucky enough to start up a relationship with someone healthier, than you might relate. (Without getting too personal, that’s where I’m at.) That kind of dependence isn’t the healthiest thing in the world, but it’s real. As much as I might relate to those lyrics, though, I really don’t get much out of “Bent” as a song.

With “Bent,” Matchbox 20 did the things that a rock band is supposed to do after achieving unexpected monster success. Musically, “Bent” tinkers with the Matchbox 20 formula a little bit without going far enough afield to alienate the people who loved their first LP. “Bent” is not what I’d call funky, but it’s definitely funkier than anything on Yourself Or Someone Like You. There’s some squelch in the guitar, some push-pull in the drums. The track has a slight synthy sheen to it, and there’s more going on in the mix. These are all efforts that I appreciate in theory, but “Push” just never lands for me. And look: I never liked Matchbox 20. That was never my shit. But something like “3AM” at least has a big, fat, stinky chorus working for it. “Bent” doesn’t have anything like that. Even after playing the song again and again for the purposes of this piece, I simply could not sing you the hook. I’m not even convinced that there is a hook.

“Bent” had the great fortune to be the first single from the second Matchbox 20 album, the one that came out when “Smooth” had been in heavy rotation for a full year. The song simply could not fail. But even among Matchbox 20 fans, I don’t think “Bent” has much of a rep. The song might be the band’s only #1 hit, but it’s nowhere near their most-streamed song. It’s not even the most-streamed song on Mad Season. Second single “If You’re Gone” has more than three times as many Spotify plays. (“If You’re Gone” peaked at #5. It’s a 5.)

My friend and colleague Chris Molanphy has a thing that he calls the AC/DC rule. It’s based on the idea that Back In Black was the gigantic breakthrough AC/DC album, the one that sold an insane number of copies. But because Back In Black sold all those copies over a long stretch of time, the follow-up album For Those About To Rock We Salute You was the one that finally took AC/DC to #1 on the American album charts — mostly thanks to all the people who loved Back In Black. You don’t see too many examples of the AC/DC rule on the Hot 100, since singles are generally too ephemeral for a follow-up single to do better than its predecessor. But “Bent” is definitely a good example of that rule at work. On its own, “Bent” might’ve sunk. But thanks to everything that Rob Thomas had done, both with and without his band, the song managed that one week at #1.

The other members of Matchbox 20 definitely weren’t too pumped about Rob Thomas suddenly becoming way, way more famous than the rest of them. It didn’t help that the other guys in the band tried to write songs for Mad Season and got shot down. You can see that dynamic in the “Bent” video, which is just the other members of the band beating Rob Thomas up. One of them runs him over with a car, another steals his wallet, a third pushes him down, and then a fourth kicks him while he’s on the ground — all while Thomas is out here singing about “would you sympathize with my needs?”

In the Spin cover story timed to the Mad Season release, the other Matchbox 20 guys talk about all the things they want to do to Rob Thomas in the video: “I want to bludgeon Rob in an alley with a Grammy,” “I want to urinate on you when you’re down.” (I’m weirdly surprised to learn that at least one member of Matchbox 20 says “urinate” instead of “piss.”) The best idea belongs to Paul Doucette, who says that he wants the “whole video to be a close-up like ‘Nothing Compares 2 U,’ but then Rob gets hit in the head with a baseball bat.” Pretty funny!

Mad Season ultimately went quadruple platinum — nothing like Yourself Or Someone Like You, but enough that nobody was embarrassed. A couple of years later, Matchbox 20 released the double platinum More Than You Think You Are, and they sent one last single into the top 10. (“Unwell” peaked at #5. It’s a 6.) 2007’s “How Far We’ve Come,” a new song for a greatest-hits collection, finished just outside the top 10, peaking at #11, and Matchbox 20 haven’t come close since.

After More Than You Think You Are, Matchbox 20 went on extended hiatus, and Rob Thomas released his 2005 solo debut …Something To Be. The vaguely dance-inflected lead single “Lonely No More” peaked at #6, and that’s the only time that Rob Thomas has made the top 10 as a solo artist. (It’s a 6.) Thomas has since released a bunch of solo albums, and he seems to be doing just fine for himself. Even if those records haven’t set the world on fire, the guy probably made enough money from his late-’90s work that his grandkids will never have to hold jobs.

Matchbox 20 released one more LP, 2012’s North, which is weirdly their only record that ever topped the Billboard album charts. North went gold, and the single “She’s So Mean” peaked at #40. Matchbox 20 haven’t been on the Hot 100 since. But the band is still together, and they’re set to tour North America’s arenas and shed venues next year.

We still have bands like Matchbox 20 — groups that rise up to arena levels while bypassing all feeder systems and cool-kid gatekeepers. These days, though, groups like Imagine Dragons and Glass Animals have to mess around with dubsteb bass-drops and rap cadences to do anything on the charts. (Imagine Dragons’ highest-charting single, 2012’s “Radioactive,” peaked at #3. It’s a 4. Glass Animals will eventually appear in this column.) The days of bands like Matchbox 20 are over. I have no particular hate in my heart for Matchbox 20, but I can’t say I miss that time.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: I can’t find any notable references to “Bent” out in the world; the song has simply ceased to exist. Instead, then, here’s Rob Thomas and Sinbad making a pretty funny cameo on a 2008 episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia:

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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