The Number Ones

June 2, 2001

The Number Ones: Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mýa, & Lil Kim’s “Lady Marmalade”

Stayed at #1:

5 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.

I never walk out of movie theaters. Even if I’m having a terrible time, even if the movie is pure ass, I stay until the end. Because who knows, maybe it’ll get good! (It never does.) I can only think of two occasions that I’ve paid to see a movie and then walked out before it was over. One of those movie was Evolution, Ivan Reitman’s 2001 comedy about aliens, and I made it through most of that. The other movie was the same year, and it was Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. With that one, I’m not even sure I lasted half an hour.

There were extenuating circumstances. We used to get college screenings of movies a few months after they’d come out in theaters, and they were always cheap; I probably paid three bucks to see Moulin Rouge in a school lecture hall. I was in a bad mood that night. My seat was uncomfortable. Most gratingly, the people sitting behind me were reciting every line of dialogue along with the movie. I started thinking about all the parties where I could’ve been instead, and I just ducked the fuck out. So maybe the problem wasn’t the movie itself, but if I had liked Moulin Rouge even a little bit, I would’ve gutted it out. I did not.

Moulin Rouge is a Baz Luhrmann film, and like all Baz Lurhmann films, it’s an exercise in head-spinning, sensationalistic maximalism. That’s cool. I like maximalism. Luhrmann is a truly distinctive filmmaker; you know when you’re watching one of his movies within 30 seconds. That’s cool, too. Luhrmann always makes his stars look insanely attractive, and nobody’s mad at that. But something about Luhrmann’s whole hyper-camp style has never clicked with me. I’ve been trying to watch his Elvis movie, and I can’t deal with that thing for anything more than 20 minutes at a time. It’s been weeks since I started Elvis, and I still haven’t gotten past the ’68 comeback special. Luhrmann’s on-the-nose staging and his theater-kid excess just wear me out. Luhrmann, incidentally, is a charting artist; his fake-deep 1997 spoken-word track “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” peaked at #45. That didn’t exactly endear him to me, either.

Moulin Rouge is nominally a story of a romance between a writer and a showgirl set in 1900 Paris. But the movie isn’t really about the story; it’s about Luhrmann’s whole vision of that setting — billowing curtains, peekaboo lace, guys with waxy mustaches and stage makeup suddenly breaking into pop songs. The songs are all anachronistic for the period — numbers from Hollywood musicals, ’70s glam nuggets, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” One of those songs hit a nerve that summer. Thanks to the Moulin Rouge soundtrack, a newer version of “Lady Marmalade,” a #1 hit for Labelle back in 1975, became a risqué pop posse cut that dominated the Hot 100 for more than a month.

“Lady Marmalade” was a cover version even when it first hit #1. Bob Crewe, the longtime producer for Frankie Valli’s Four Seasons, co-wrote the track with his songwriting partner Kenny Nolan. Nolan sang lead on the awful first version of the song, which was credited to a studio group called the Eleventh Hour. That version wasn’t successful, but Bob Crewe brought the track to the legendary New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint. Toussaint was working with Labelle, a ’60s girl group who had rebranded as a kind of hybrid of soul and glam-rock, and their version became a smash in the early disco era.

It’s easy enough to see why Baz Luhrmann wanted to use “Lady Marmalade” in Moulin Rouge. The French chorus and the vague naughtiness line up just fine with his whole aesthetic for the movie. “Lady Marmalade” would’ve been extra-familiar to a lot of audiences in 2001, since the British girl group All Saints had a #1 UK hit with their cover of the song three years earlier. Luhrmann uses the track for its pure sensory-overload power, as part of a grand montage where it gets paired up with the aforementioned “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” In Moulin Rouge, “Lady Marmalade” is one pop song among dozens that are chopped up and thrown into the soundtrack. I haven’t been able to find who had the idea to adapt the song as a pop single for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack, but it became a kind of summit meeting for four ascendant R&B-adjacent superstars.

Christina Aguilera, the headlining act of the “Lady Marmalade” remake, has already been in this column a bunch of times. Christina was the youngest of the four artists on the “Lady Marmalade” cover, and she was also the most successful. Christina thought of herself as an R&B-pop diva in the Mariah Carey mold, but she’d become a big part of the TRL-era teen-pop wave, and her self-titled 1999 debut had launched three #1 hits. By 2001, that album cycle had finally died down. Christina had released a Spanish-language album and an LP of Christmas songs. Just before “Lady Marmalade,” she’d gotten to #13 with “Nobody Wants To Be Lonely,” a duet with former Number Ones artist Ricky Martin.

This column has not gotten to the other three artists on the track. The oldest of them was the one rapper, Lil Kim. Kimberly Jones came from Brooklyn, and she had a tumultuous childhood, spending some time living on the street after her father kicked her out of the house. (When Kim was born, the #1 song in America was the Hues Corporation’s “Rock The Boat.”) When Kim was a teenager, she met her mentor and sometime boyfriend Biggie Smalls, a man who’s been in this column a couple of times. Biggie made Kim a member of Junior M.A.F.I.A., the group that he was putting together, and she made an impact by talking raunchy — “Bitches, squeeze your tits/ N***as, grab your genitals” — on Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s 1995 debut single “Player’s Anthem,” a #13 hit.

In 1996, Kim became a solo artist. She became famous for talking nastier than any of her male peers, and she lent both glamour and toughness to Puff Daddy’s growing Bad Boy empire. Puffy appeared on “No Time,” the lead single from Kim’s 1996 debut album Hard Core, and that song peaked at #18. A year later, an all-star remix of Kim’s track “Not Tonight” showed up on the soundtrack of the Martin Lawrence/Tim Robbins buddy flick Nothing To Lose, and it featured many of that era’s most prominent female rappers: Missy Elliott, Da Brat, Left Eye, Angie Martinez. The “Not Tonight” remix was a big crossover hit, peaking at #6. (It’s an 8.) Hard Core eventually went platinum. Kim’s 2000 follow-up The Notorious K.I.M., released after the decline of the Bad Boy empire, was less successful, and its lead single “No Matter What They Say” peaked at #60, but the album still went platinum.

Pink and Mýa, the other two singers on the “Lady Marmalade” cover, didn’t grow up rough like Lil Kim. Instead, both of them started off as kid performers, much like Christina Aguilera. Alecia Moore came from Pennsylvania, and Mýa Harrison grew up in the Washington, DC suburbs. (For both of them, the #1 song in America on the date of their birth was the Knack’s “My Sharona.” That’s my birth #1 song, too. Pink is two days older than me, and Mýa is a month younger.) Mýa started off her career first, but she was a dancer in the beginning, not a singer. She’d started ballet lessons at two. A few years later, she was tapdancing with Savion Glover at the Kennedy Center. As a teenager in the ’90s, Mýa spent a few years as a dancer and on-air personality on the BET show Teen Summit.

When Mýa was on Teen Summit, she was also starting up her singing career. This was the heyday of teenage R&B stars like Brandy, Monica, and Aaliyah, and Mýa signed to Interscope. Mýa sang like a dancer. Her voice was slight but lithe, and she had an endearing openness in her vocal presence. Mýa released her self-titled debut in 1998. Her first single was “It’s All About Me,” a duet with her fellow teenage Maryland R&B phenom Sisqó, a former Number Ones artist. (“It’s All About Me” peaked at #6. It’s a 6.) Mýa’s album went platinum, and she also sang on a couple of big soundtrack collaborations. For The Rugrats Movie, there was “Take Me There,” with Blackstreet and Mase and Blinky Blink, and that one peaked at #14. And for Bulworth, there was “Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are),” with Pras and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and that one only got to #15, even though I remember it being huge.

Mýa released her sophomore album Fear Of Flying in 2000, and the rollout didn’t start well. The LP’s lead single was the Jadakiss collab “The Best Of Me.” It’s a good song, but it wasn’t a hit; the single peaked at #50. But the follow-up was a different story. “Case Of The Ex” is a minor pop masterpiece, a pissed off cheating-suspicion song with a monster Ruff Ryders-style beat, and that one blew up, peaking at #2. (It’s a 9.) Fear Of Flying went platinum, and Mýa recorded another version of “The Best Of Me” with Jay-Z. The second version didn’t chart, but it was all over BET. By 2001, I had the worst crush on Mýa.

It’s hard to remember now, but Pink — I’m not using the exclamation point, sorry — made her public debut as an R&B singer in the Destiny’s Child mold. When her first album was out, I didn’t even realize that Pink was white. At 14, Pink went to Philadelphia and auditioned for a spot in a girl group called Basic Instinct. She got in, but the group broke up before releasing anything. From there, Pink joined Choice, another R&B group, which signed to LaFace. Choice released one song, “Key To My Heart,” on the soundtrack of the 1996 Shaq vehicle Kazaam. But LA Reid decided that Pink was the star of the group, and he offered her the decision to go solo or to get dropped from LaFace. Pink went solo, and Choice broke up.

Pink released her debut album Can’t Take Me Home in 2000, and it’s a pretty great example of the slick, streamlined R&B of the Y2K era. Pink co-wrote her debut single “There You Go” with Kandi Burruss and Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, the team behind TLC’s “No Scrubs” and Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills.” She’kspere produced the track, and it peaked at #7. (It’s an 8.) Pink’s Babyface-produced follow-up “Most Girls” was even bigger, peaking at #4. (It’s another 8.) Pink’s voice was always raw and muscular, and it worked nicely with these kinds of bleepy, uptempo club tracks. In the videos, Pink looked like a TRL version of Trinity from The Matrix. She dropped that whole image as soon as she could, but I thought it was cool.

When it came time to record “Lady Marmalade,” Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mýa, and Lil Kim got together in the studio to record the backup vocals. Christina and Pink didn’t really get along, but the rumors of a feud were always overblown; this wasn’t a Brandy/Monica situation where anyone was throwing punches at everyone else. From what I can tell, the beef was limited to a bit of snapping and mean-mugging. In any case, they recorded the leads in separate studios. The Moulin Rouge version of “Lady Marmalade” is definitely a competitive enterprise, and nobody wanted to get shown up by anyone else. The track had three producers. One of them was Ron Fair, the A&R guy who signed Christina and who incurred Pink’s wrath by demanding that Christina get all the showiest parts of the song. The other two producers came from rap. One of them was Rockwilder.

Dana “Rockwilder” Stinson, a Queens native, got his start producing tracks for New York underground rap acts like Artifacts, Flatlinerz, and the great Organized Konfusion. Rockwilder had a couple of tracks on Redman’s 1994 album Dare Iz A Darkside, and he kept working with Redman for years. Rockwilder also made some excellently hard late-’90s tracks for Big Pun and Jay-Z. Redman and Method Man liked working with Rockwilder so much that they named one of the singles from their 1999 album Blackout! in his honor.

In 2001, Rockwilder worked on a bunch of tracks from Janet Jackson’s All For You album, becoming one of the first producers outside the team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to join Janet’s inner circle. That same year, Rockwilder also hooked up with Missy Elliott. Do you need me to explain Missy Elliott? I’ve written so many damn mini-bios in this column already, and Missy deserves a whole book. If you don’t already know, just please be aware that Missy is an all-time great. She combined rap with R&B like nobody else, she wrote incredible hooks, she gave flair and personality to Timbaland’s bugged-out beats, and she made the world a much better place to live in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Her videos are better than anyone’s. By summer 2001, Missy had released three albums — all classics to one degree or another — and she’d helped out on tons of other artists’ hits. At that point, only one of Missy’s own singles — the version of 1999’s “Hot Boyz” with Nas, Eve, Q-Tip, and Lil Mo — had made the top 10. (“Hot Boyz” peaked at #5. It’s a 9.)

Missy landed a whole lot of hits during her molten-hot run, but she never made it to #1. (Missy’s highest-charting single, 2002’s “Work It,” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.) Weirdly, “Lady Marmalade” might be the only #1 hit ever to feature Missy Elliott’s voice. We hear her murmuring ad-libs throughout and introducing the four main artists at the end. That’s it. I wonder if anyone floated the idea of having Missy as one of the main artists on “Lady Marmalade,” but the song is really just an excuse for the video, and Missy never came off like the type to wear elaborate strappy negligees.

That’s the thing about the Moulin Rouge version of “Lady Marmalade.” It had to sell the movie, so it couldn’t just be a funky club song about sex workers in New Orleans. It had to be a whole overpowering experience. The rewritten lyrics dropped the name of the movie a bunch of times, moving the action from New Orleans to turn-of-the-century Paris, which isn’t as awkward as it could’ve been. The mix updated the song by supercharging it. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Rockwilder says that he never really liked the original “Lady Marmalade”: “When I was a little kid, they played it so much.” Rockwilder put together a tougher beat for the remake so that Lil Kim could rap to it. The new beat has a whole lot of digital cowbell and a synth-riff that’s made to sound like a guitar. It’s thinner and less organic than the original, but it still moves.

The original “Lady Marmalade” is a good song, and the new singers don’t really ruin it. The hook is too strong, and nobody really steps on it. There’s energy in the way those voices pile all over each other. I like Kim’s rap verse, with the money in the garter belts and the wine with diamonds in the glass. But it’s pretty clear that nobody involved in the “Lady Marmalade” cover had any interest in telling a story. “Lady Marmalade” was simply a familiar song that could be used as a springboard for a whole lot of vocal riffs.

The singers on the “Lady Marmalade” remake all know how to sing. But those singers are all wildly different, and they all do different things with the song. (Lil Kim is there to rap, not to sing, but she still brings some real confidence to the moment when she quotes the chorus in her verse.) Mýa opens the track, and she underplays things, sounding almost conversational compared to what would come later. Pink has my favorite voice on the track, and she brings a whole lot of muscle to her parts, but I don’t think she thought too hard about the lyrics. I always misheard the part that Pink sings about the john who goes back to his job. The way she sings it, she sounds like she’s saying this guy is going 95, speeding a Ferrari down a highway, not going back to his humdrum nine to five job. There’s no room in this version for anything humdrum.

The “Lady Marmalade” remix is structured like a circus, with everything building up to the explosive moment of Christina Aguilera’s arrival. Talking to Vogue last year for the single’s 20th anniversary, Christina said, “It was the first time I was able to sing the way I love to sing. I got to really let loose creatively, sing vocals that I truly loved and believed in. I could belt and do my ad-libs and my runs and be as soulful as I wanted to be. I got to have fun.” It’s not like Christina never got to oversing before “Lady Marmalade,” but she really oversings on “Lady Marmalade.” Her firepower on the song is impressive, but it’s also oppressive. It overwhelms without really adding much. To make things worse, she drops ad-libs all over the song. Lil Kim’s punchline about playing cats out like Atari doesn’t gain anything from Christina singing over that line, but that’s what Christina does. It’s like she wants to constantly remind everyone that this is her party.

That’s the problem with this version of “Lady Marmalade.” It’s big and loud and showy, but it mostly feels like a brand extension for Moulin Rouge and for the artists involved. The song updates an older hit, but it doesn’t exactly add anything beyond a few clouds of glitter. The remake has no compelling reason to exist beyond the obvious commercial concerns. Sometimes, I can get past that. With this song, the flash just isn’t enough.

Baz Luhrmann didn’t direct the “Lady Marmalade” video. Instead, the auteur responsible was Paul Hunter, the ’90s rap-video specialist whose work has already appeared in this column a lot of times. The shoot was reportedly tense, but the end result definitely dazzles. Everyone wears lingerie and feathers and ridiculous amounts of jewelry. It’s not exactly sexy — Christina kind of looks like Dee Snider — but it puts on a show. It seemed like that video was on whenever I switched to MTV that summer. I usually didn’t flip away.

The “Lady Marmalade” cover probably helped sell Moulin Rouge to America. The movie was a decent-sized hit, pulling in a little less than $60 million at the domestic box office. It got a bunch of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and it won awards for art direction and costume design. The soundtrack went double platinum. Christina Aguilera loved the whole experience, and she often seemed like she was trying to recreate it later on. When Christina released her Stripped album later that year, the lead single was “Dirrty,” which reused the beat from one of Rockwilder’s productions for Redman. Redman himself appeared in “Dirrty,” and the song flopped, peaking at #48.

Christina Aguilera also reunited with Lil Kim on “Can’t Hold Us Down,” another of the singles from Stripped, and that one peaked at #12. The big hit from Stripped turned out to be “Beautiful,” the majestic self-esteem ballad written and produced by the former 4 Non Blondes leader Linda Perry. (Perry had reemerged as one of Pink’s main collaborators. “Beautiful” peaked at #2, and it’s a 10. That shit always hits me.) But the success of “Beautiful” didn’t keep Christina from going back to the “Lady Marmalade” well. In 2004, Christina got back together with Missy Elliott to remake Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” for the Shark Tale soundtrack, and that cover version only made it to #63. (I didn’t walk out of Shark Tale, but I was at a drive-in, so it was easy to not pay any attention.)

I’ve always thought that Christina Aguilera made her 2010 cinematic vehicle Burlesque so that she’d have another excuse to get all dressed up like in the “Lady Marmalade” video. Whether or not that’s the case, Burlesque wasn’t any more successful than those previous attempts; the movie flopped pretty badly. “Lady Marmalade” was the culmination of a huge hitmaking run for Christina Aguilera, and she remained a star for years afterward. At this point, though, “Lady Marmalade” is Christina’s last #1 hit as lead artist. Christina will appear in this column again, but that won’t happen for a long time. When it does, she’ll be a featured guest.

As for Mýa, “Lady Marmalade” was her last top-10 hit on the Hot 100. She came close in 2003 when her Missy Elliott-produced single “My Love Is Like… Wo” got as high as #13. (Pretty good song.) Mýa hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 2003. She’s still recording, but she’s doing it for indie labels. She’s also been in a bunch of movies that I’ve never heard of. I hope she’s doing well. Always liked her.

Lil Kim has had a wild ride since “Lady Marmalade.” In 2003, Kim teamed up with 50 Cent, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, and their collaboration “Magic Stick” made it to #2. (It’s a 6.) But Kim hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since her dancehall-flavored 2005 track “Lighters Up” made it to #31. In 2005, Kim’s crew got into a shootout with Queens rapper Capone and his crew outside Hot 97’s Manhattan studios. Kim was beefing with fellow New York rapper Foxy Brown, an ally of Capone. When Kim and Capone ran into each other outside that studio, things got heated. After the shootout, Kim lied to a grand jury to protect her crew, and she served a year in prison. In the days before her prison term, Kim made a reality show.

At this point, Lil Kim has spent more than a decade feuding with Nicki Minaj, an artist who will eventually appear in this column. Kim will also occasionally pop up on Bad Boy nostalgia tours. Every once in a while, she’ll threaten a big comeback, but it never seems to work out. But Kim has been on a handful of New York rap classics, and she’ll always have a certain level of goodwill for that.

As for Pink, she managed to fully reinvent herself pretty soon after Moulin Rouge. Later in 2001, Pink released her sophomore album Missundaztood. Her lead single “Get This Party Started,” written and produced by Linda Perry, acted as a kind of bridge. (“Get This Party Started” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.) The song wasn’t the same as the clubby R&B of her first album, but it wasn’t that different. Much of the album, though, was raw, confessional singer-songwriter stuff — songs about not feeling like a pop star. That album sold way better than Pink’s debut, and it had a couple more top-10 hits. Pink then spent another decade-plus cranking out more hits. Her career peaked long after “Lady Marmalade,” and she kept that peak going for a long time. It’ll take a while, but we’ll see Pink in this column again.

GRADE: 5/10

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BONUS BEATS: On the all-star remix to Swizz Beatz’ 2007 single “It’s Me, Bitches,” Lil Wayne opens things up by quoting the “voulez-vous coucher avec moi” line from “Lady Marmalade.” I saw Wayne do that during Swizz’s set at Hot 97 Summer Jam that year, and he damn near caused a riot with that bit. Here’s the “It’s Me, Bitches” remix, which also features Jadakiss and some other guy who we won’t mention:

(“It’s Me, Bitches” peaked at #83, and it’s Swizz Beatz’ highest-charting single as lead artist. As a guest, Swizz got as high as #20 by appearing on Chris Brown’s “I Can Transform Ya,” which also features Lil Wayne. As a producer, Swizz will eventually appear in this column. Wayne will be in this column, too.)

THE 10S: “Get Ur Freak On,” the nattering futuristic brain-warper from “Lady Marmalade” co-producer Missy Elliott, peaked at #7 behind “Lady Marmalade.” I told y’all mother-ooh: It’s a 10.

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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