The Number Ones

November 11, 2000

The Number Ones: Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open”

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.

If I had just one wish, only one demand, it would be to not write about Creed. This isn’t because I don’t like Creed — although, let’s be clear, I do not like Creed. Over the years, this column has covered plenty of wack shit, and I’ve enjoyed writing about a lot of it. It’s not because of the band’s tasteless grandeur, either; tasteless grandeur can be pretty fun. It’s not because they were a Christian rock band who objected to the term “Christian rock.” That was true of U2 and Mr. Mister, too, and I didn’t hate writing about them. It’s because the mere act of writing about Creed is going to turn me into a sneering elitist dick. It’s going to bring out all my snarkiest impulses. It’s going to turn me back into the old me. So it goes. Some things can’t be helped.

To take any kind of critical stance on Creed, you almost have to take a side in a culture war. I can’t find the quote online — it might’ve been in Creed’s episode of Behind The Music — but I remember a moment when lead growl-moaner Scott Stapp pointed out that Led Zeppelin, just like Creed, had once been a massively popular band and a critical punching bag. Stapp’s point was that the millions and millions of people who bought Creed’s records couldn’t be wrong and that the critics would catch up eventually. Never happened. You need to go pretty deep down the contrarian-takes wormhole to find anyone repping for Creed. When the subject comes up today, it’s mostly because people are trying to figure out what the fuck that was — why so many millions decided that Human Clay was worth their money. I’d love to answer that question, but I can’t. Creed was just some shit that happened.

My best guess has something to do with timing. After the wave of grunge excitement died down, the American public still evidently had a hunger for a version of stadium rock that scratched some of those same itches. If a band had churning riffs and a deep-voiced bellower out front, that band could get airplay. Seven Mary Three and Three Days Grace and Godsmack and Staind and Puddle Of Mudd all fit the bill, and a whole new wave of radio-friendly chug-rock was born. Vertical Horizon and Matchbox 20, two bands that have already appeared in this column, took advantage of that moment in one way or another. But nobody rode the butt-rock wave like Creed. They were the kings of that shit.

Creed had already sold millions upon millions of records, and they’d already packed arenas, before they finally ascended to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for a single week in 2000. That very same week, Mississippi grunt-wailers 3 Doors Down reached #3 with “Kryptonite” — a chart peak for both that song and that band. (“Kryptonite” is a 4.) The weeks just before the Bush/Gore election were high times for the turgid bawlers of the world, and I am trying with all my might not to draw false equivalences between music and politics. It makes sense that Creed notched a #1 hit, and I don’t have a philosophical problem with that. My problem is the song. The song is bad.

Much like Matchbox 20, Creed came from Florida. This is not a value judgment; it’s simply a fact. The band was a genuine independent rock sensation, a hit that nobody anticipated. Creed started off on the Tallahassee bar circuit in 1994, the time when the actual grunge giants were at their peak. Scott Stapp grew up in a strict Pentecostal family in Orlando, and rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t allowed in his house at all. (When Stapp was born, Maureen McGovern’s “The Morning After” was the #1 song in America.) Stapp struggled with all the restrictions that his family placed on him. When he snuck a copy of Def Leppard’s Pyromania into the house, his parents found it and took it away. When he played high-school football, he couldn’t go out and party after the games. He had a hard time with it.

At 17, Scott Stapp ran away from home and finished high school while living with another family. A girlfriend took him to his first concert — Lenny Kravitz, Blind Melon, and Porno For Pyros — and Stapp decided that this was what he wanted to do with his life. One of Stapp’s friends in high school was Mark Tremonti, a metal guitarist who’d been born in Detroit and who’d moved to Orlando at 15. (Weirdly, Tremonti and of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes were childhood friends in Detroit, long before they both became vastly different varieties of rock star.) Stapp and Tremonti met up again when both of them were going to Florida State University in Tallahassee in the mid-’90s, and they decided to start a band together. The band played a single show under the name Naked Toddler before they realized that this was a terrible, terrible name. They changed their name to Creed, and their new name stuck.

Creed found a gig at a local Tallahassee bar called Big Daddy’s. Owner Jeff Hanson was intrigued with the group, and he started booking them at Floyd’s Music Store, a larger venue that he owned. Pretty soon, Hanson also became Creed’s manager. Hanson knew John Kurzweg, a local record producer who’d played in a few regional bands and who’d released one unsuccessful major-label album in 1987, and he convinced Kurzweg to come see Creed. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Hanson says that Kurzweg “wasn’t overly impressed” with Creed. (Kurzweg: “They were playing really heavy stuff. It was real loud. It didn’t have the finesse that they were later able to conjure up.”) But Hanson still convinced Kurzweg that he should produce a Creed record.

When Creed started recording their 1997 debut album My Own Prison at John Kurzweg’s home studio, the members of the band had day jobs. In a Stereogum interview a few years ago, Mark Tremonti says that he and Scott Stapp were both cooks at chain restaurants — Tremonti at Chili’s, Stapp at Ruby Tuesday’s. Drummer Scott Phillips, meanwhile, was “managing the knife store at the mall,” a truly evocative phrase. It cost just $6,000 to record My Own Prison. Initially, Creed released the LP on their own label, which they called Blue Collar Records, and they sold a few thousand copies of the record around Florida. They also played a showcase for some major labels in New York, but all those labels passed on signing them. Wind-Up Records, a very small New York indie label, felt differently.

Wind-Up Records had been started by Alan Meltzer, a guy who owned a few record stores and a CD distributor in the New York area, and his then-wife Diana. They’d bought the indie Grass Records and changed its name, which is how the Wrens ended up labelmates with Creed. Diana Meltzer heard My Own Prison, and she was interested right away. The Meltzers flew down to Florida to see Creed, and they quickly offered the band a deal. Creed wanted a major deal, but Wind-Up had distribution through BMG, and the band thought that maybe this was their one shot. They took the deal.

Later on, the Meltzers also signed Evanescence and Seether and Finger Eleven. They made a whole lot of money in that radio-rock racket. The couple eventually divorced, and Alan Meltzer died in 2011 at the age of 67. In his will, he left a million dollars to his chauffeur and another $500,000 to the doorman of his apartment building. The New York Post asked Diana Meltzer what she thought of this, and she responded with this immortal line: “He can leave it to whoever he wants to. I’m doing fine. I could care less. If he wants to give it to the bums, he can give it to the bums. He could fuck a nun. I couldn’t give a shit. He can give his money to whoever he wants. We’re divorced. The man is dead.” I wasn’t expecting a piece on Creed to include the phrase “he could fuck a nun.” Sometimes, life gives you gifts when you least expect them.

Wind-Up released a remixed version of My Own Prison and started pushing the album to radio, and it became one of those slow-blooming success stories. The LP never charted higher than #22, but it eventually went platinum six times. Creed toured hard, and they built up an audience even though critics either disdained or ignored them. Mainstream rock radio loved the band; all four singles from My Own Prison dominated that chart. None of those singles were commercially released, so Creed didn’t chart on the Hot 100 until 1998, when the Billboard rules changed and “One,” the LP’s fourth single, made it to #70 on airplay alone.

In his Stereogum piece on My Own Prison, Phil Freeman compared Creed to Grand Funk Railroad, another band that reached stadium status without ever appealing to the critical establishment. It makes sense; Creed were an American band for a more sincere and monastic age. I can kind of understand the appeal. Creed had the penitent sincerity of the early-’90s alt-rock stars without any of the punk baggage. Scott Stapp sang like Layne Staley gargling hot asphalt, but he hit the same poses as Robert Plant. He had no qualms about embracing mass adulation. Behind him, Stapp’s bandmates busted out a thick, utilitarian sort of riff-rock that was spacious enough to echo around an arena.

The members of Creed seemed normal; you could picture these guys managing your local mall’s knife store. Their open Christianity also probably opened a few markets up to them. They made a kind of grunge that was fit for a megachurch. They didn’t cuss or smoke or make anti-Grammy speeches at the Grammys, and they kept their prodigious drinking quiet. They played golf. None of that stuff made Creed seem cool, but back then, you could sell a whole lot of records without worrying about coolness.

Creed went back to work with producer John Kurzweg when they made their 1999 sophomore album Human Clay. They didn’t go back to Kurzweg’s home studio, but that was only because Scott Stapp was allergic to Kurzweg’s cats. The second album sounded bigger and broader, and it sold more. It sold in astounding, mind-melting numbers. Human Clay was double platinum within two months. In five years, it sold 11 million copies in the US alone. First single “Higher” became Creed’s first top-10 hit, peaking at #7. (It’s a 4.)

Scott Stapp wrote the lyrics for “With Arms Wide Open,” the second single from Human Clay, shortly after finding out that he was going to become a father. Stapp had married his first wife in 1997, and they’d only stayed together for a year; they were already divorced by the time Human Clay came out. Stapp’s story on “With Arms Wide Open” is that he heard Mark Tremonti playing a guitar part that he liked at soundcheck and that he ran out and freestyled the whole song. I don’t see any real reason to doubt that story. Those lyrics read like one big, heartfelt rush of feelings.

On “With Arms Wide Open,” Scott Stapp sings about the excitement and fear of new fatherhood. Stapp sings that he hopes his son is “not like me” and that he finds a way to face the world with confidence. I know that feeling, and I wish I could find something to like in “With Arms Wide Open” beyond that very real sentiment. But whoof, I’m sorry, I cannot. Scott Stapp’s strangled-walrus singing style just has nothing for me. Millions of people have mockingly imitated Stapp’s vocals over the years, but nobody has ever approached the man’s own absurdist backwoods holler. He sounds like he can’t possibly be serious, and yet he’s so serious. It’s too much.

Some of the deep cuts on Human Clay have a not-bad generic riff-rumble thing working for them. “With Arms Wide Open” is not one of those songs. It’s a slow death-trudge to nowhere, a melodramatic geyser of syrup. To make things even worse, the version of the song that reached #1 isn’t the one that initially appeared on Human Clay. Instead, it’s a remix with strings artlessly piled everywhere, drowning out the guitar-crunch that might’ve been the only halfway-effective thing about the original track. The end result hits like a phlegm-soaked Hallmark card.

That remix got Creed the pop airplay that they’d been missing. When the song finally broke into the top 10, Creed released a commercial version of the single as a benefit for Stapp’s With Arms Wide Open Foundation, which aimed to “promote healthy, loving relationships between children and their families.” The extra sales were enough to push “With Arms Wide Open” to #1 for a week. In the frankly hilarious video, Stapp strikes dramatic poses while CGI meteors rain down around him and finally does his big arms-out thing on a mountaintop for the helicopter money shot. This guy was not worried about people making fun of him, and I’d find that pride admirable if I liked his music even one tiny bit.

Just before Creed reached #1, the band kicked out bassist Brian Marshall after he dissed Pearl Jam on Seattle radio, claiming that Eddie Vedder wished he could write songs like Scott Stapp. Marshall didn’t get fired for blasting Pearl Jam; he got fired because he was drinking a lot and fighting with his bandmates. But Marshall wasn’t the only Creed member who had an alcohol problem. Creed followed Human Clay with the 2001 album Weathered, which sold another six million copies and which sent another couple of songs into the top 10. (“My Sacrifice,” the bigger of the two, peaked at #4. It’s a 3.) While touring behind that album, Scott Stapp’s dependency on alcohol and painkillers got worse. At a 2002 show outside Chicago, Stapp was so drunk and incoherent that a group of fans filed a class-action lawsuit. A judge threw the suit out, but anytime a band gets sued by its own fans, that becomes a news story.

Things within the band got worse, and Creed officially broke up in 2004. Scott Stapp started a solo career, and the other ex-Creed guys, including deposed bassist Brian Marshall, started a new band called Alter Bridge with new frontman Myles Kennedy. (Between the two of them, Scott Stapp and Alter Bridge have never made the Hot 100.) Creed reunited for long enough to make the 2009 album Full Circle, and they got to #73 with the single “Overcome,” but then they went on hiatus again. Scott Stapp has publicly pleaded for another Creed reunion a few times, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Scott Stapp has had a rough go of things. He’s talked about considering suicide a few times. He’s said that he once jumped off of a balcony in Miami and that T.I., an artist who will eventually appear in this column, saved his life. Stapp also sued to block the release of a sex tape that starred him, Kid Rock, and two women. Stapp was charged with felony domestic violence in 2007, but the charge was dropped. In 2016, Stapp replaced the late Scott Weiland as the new singer for the hard rock supergroup Art Of Anarchy, and then his bandmates sued him two years later for refusing to tour or to promote the album that they’d made together.

See? This is the shit I’m talking about. I’m not even trying to make fun of Scott Stapp, who is clearly a troubled person. I’m just saying what he’s been up to since Creed were on top of the world. It looks like mockery, like I’m kicking dirt on someone who’s down. The success of Creed just puts me in a bad position. I don’t like the person that I have to become when I write about Creed.

There’s this neighborhood in Baltimore called Hampden. When I was a kid, my dad called it a “white ghetto,” which seems like a fucked-up phrase in all sorts of ways but which also gives you some idea of what I’m talking about here. Hampden is now fully gentrified, of course. At one point in the early ’00s, Hampden was at a midpoint between its grimy working-class roots and the upscale hipster spot that it would become, and everyone who hung out there shared the space a bit uneasily. There was this one karaoke night at a local dive bar that would bring in people from both ends of the spectrum, since the original inhabitants and the gentrifiers both loved to get shitfaced and sing.

I have a distinct memory of one guy, clearly not from the gentrifier end of things, getting up and singing a very drunk, very sincere rendition of “With Arms Wide Open” in front of everyone. This guy wasn’t trying to make fun of the song. He meant every word he sang. I’d sort of taken it for granted that nobody really liked Creed, and this guy’s passion seemed brave and instructive to me. He had truly connected with this song, and I’m glad he had it in his life. But it still sounded like dogshit because the guy couldn’t sing and because the song is bad. It’s a bad song. What do you want from me? It’s not my fault that Creed sucks. It’s Creed’s fault.

GRADE: 2/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s a video of British indie-poppers Kero Kero Bonito and vaporwave producer George Clanton playing a presumably-ironic “With Arms Wide Open” cover at a 2019 show in Creed’s Tallahassee hometown:

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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