The Number Ones

July 2, 2005

The Number Ones: Carrie Underwood’s “Inside Your Heaven”

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.

“I will make a prediction. Not only will you win this show, you will sell more records than any other previous Idol winner.” That’s what Simon Cowell told Carrie Underwood a couple of weeks into the fourth season of American Idol. Underwood, the cornfed Oklahoma-born country singer, had already established herself as that season’s juggernaut, and American Idol had already established itself as the most popular show on TV by a pretty considerable margin, but this was still early going. Lots of things can happen in a reality-show season, and lots more can happen when the winner of that season goes out into the world. But Carrie Underwood had just howled the living hell out of Heart’s “Alone,” and she was looking like a sure bet. In no time at all, Carrie Underwood proved Simon Cowell right.

When you’re talking about the most successful American Idol alumni, you’ve got to define your terms. Jennifer Hudson is the youngest woman ever to win the full EGOT. Kelly Clarkson is a generational figure who’s recorded straight-up pop classics and who remains culturally present; she’s also the only Idol contestant who will appear in this column more than once. But Carrie Underwood has sold more records than any other American Idol contestant, before or since. Simon Cowell is an unrepentant asshole who seems to hold the art of pop music in some kind of contempt, but he does understand certain things. He understood Carrie Underwood. He looked at her, and he saw money.

A few years after Carrie Underwood won the fourth season of American Idol, Nigel Lythgoe, the show’s producer, admitted that the season had never really been a competition. Every single week, Carrie Underwood crushed all the other contestants in the show’s voting system. If the Idol producers had revealed those vote totals, the show would’ve lost all its suspense. Carrie Underwood was never going to lose. A few months after Simon Cowell made his prediction, Underwood released her debut album Some Hearts, which has since gone platinum nine times over. That means it’s sold 3 million more copies than Kelly Clarkson’s biggest LP, 2004’s Breakaway. Simon nailed that prediction.

In between her Idol win and the release of Some Hearts, Carrie Underwood took part in an American Idol tradition. She dropped her Idol coronation song, and that song, like every other Idol coronation song, was a bland and forgettable slice of nothingness about being grateful to the people of America for allowing her to entertain them. As with previous Idol coronation songs, Underwood’s “Inside Your Heaven” was written by pop professionals working under strict deadline. As with previous Idol coronation songs, “Inside Your Heaven” debuted at #1 before plummeting down the Hot 100. By the time Underwood released Some Hearts, “Inside Your Heaven” was already an afterthought. She barely ever even sings it live anymore.

In a lot of ways, Carrie Underwood was the perfect American Idol contestant. She’s a hugely talented singer who can inject theatrical emotion to even the most generic ballads. She’s beautiful in the most conventional ways imaginable. She’s got the kind of presentable down-home charm that enabled her to co-host the CMA Awards for 12 straight years. Thanks to her dedication to country music, she’s always got a home in a genre that, at least compared to mainstream pop, tends to support its stars forever — at least as long as they don’t say anything critical of a sitting Republican president. Carrie Underwood is warm and pretty and likable and approachable, and she can sing. If she didn’t already exist, American Idol would’ve had to invent her.

But Carrie Underwood does exist. She was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma — she’s an actual Okie from Muskogee — and she grew up on her parents’ farm in nearby Checotah, a single-stoplight town that she immortalized on the Some Hearts closer “I Ain’t In Checotah Anymore.” (When Carrie Underwood was born, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was the #1 song in America.) Underwood grew up working class, the daughter of a paper mill worker and an elementary school teacher. As a kid, she sang in church and on the local talent-show circuit. When she was 14, she went to Nashville to audition for Capitol Records, but she didn’t get a contract. Instead, she went to college and put her hopes for a singing career on hold.

Carrie Underwood went to Oklahoma’s Northeastern State University, and she graduated a year after she won American Idol and scored her first #1 hit. I can’t imagine the level of senioritis she must’ve been feeling by the time she got her diploma. Underwood auditioned for American Idol in St. Louis in January of 2005, and she sang a really nice rendition of Bonnie Raitt’s eternal heart-stomper “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” (Raitt’s 1991 original peaked at #18.) In the Idol video package that introduced her to the world, Underwood played up her farm-girl backstory, and they might as well have cancelled the rest of the season and handed her the victory right there. Who was going to root against Carrie Underwood?

The Carrie Underwood season of American Idol was the first one that I watched with great interest. I was making vague plans to go pro as a music critic, and since the biggest show on TV was a singing competition, I felt like I should know what was happening. But maybe I kept watching just because I liked watching Carrie Underwood sing. It’s not like the other contestants that year weren’t talented. David Brown, one of the singers eliminated in that season’s early rounds, has only just started to break out under the name Lucky Daye. (This past year, Lucky Daye landed his first Hot 100 hit, getting to #77 with his single “Over.”) But Carrie Underwood steamrolled everyone. She could sing any kind of pop song, but she really came alive whenever she got to sing country.

Throughout the season, the closest thing that Carrie Underwood had to competition was Bo Bice, an Alabama-born Southern-rock yarler with an enviable mane of hair and a name that was fun to say. At the time, the receptionist at my job was a really, really nice older lady. I had nothing in common with this lady except that we both watched American Idol. I must’ve said something about liking “underground rock” at some point — I had no idea how else to describe my taste in music to normal people — so she always assumed that I was in the tank for Bo Bice. She’d be like, “Your boy Bo did good last night! He’s really bringing the rock element out!” I never had the heart to tell her that I was rooting for Carrie the whole time. Bo Bice was OK, though.

When the season finale rolled around, Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice were the last singers left standing. Naturally, when your two finalists are an Oklahoma-born country singer and an Alabama rocker, your coronation song should be a puffy ballad from three Sweden-based songwriters. That’s just logic. At the time, Andreas Carlsson was the most prominent of the three songwriters behind “Inside Your Heaven.” Carlsson had come up alongside Max Martin in Stockholm’s Cheiron Studios, and he’s already been in this column for co-writing *NSYNC’s “It’s Gonna Be Me.”

The other two writers were both Andreas Carlsson’s proteges. Pelle Nylén had formerly been in a Swedish band called Modesty, and he’d worked with Westlife and Steps. Savan Kotecha had actually grown up in Virginia and Texas, but he’d gotten his start in Sweden, working on songs from people like Dannii Minogue and Lindsay Lohan. “Inside Your Heaven” turned out to be Kotecha’s big breakthrough, and he went on to a hugely successful pop songwriting career. (Kotecha’s work will appear in this column again.)

“Inside Your Heaven” also had a big-deal producer: Desmond Child, the guy who’d started out as a disco artist and who’d later co-written most of Bon Jovi’s biggest hits, as well as Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” By the mid-’00s, Child was part of the Idol machine, working on records from alums like Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken. The people involved in “Inside Your Heaven” were all professionals. Maybe that was the problem.

I have a hard time discussing the relative value of these American Idol coronation songs, since they’re all basically the same song. They’re big, surging ballads about achieving dreams and about the uncomplicated happiness that comes along with that. In a way, these songs were part of the mechanism for the show’s extremely unsubtle Cinderella-style storytelling. At this point, we know that a pop star’s life isn’t exactly easy, that it’s not some state of constant euphoria. But a song like “Inside Your Heaven” is all bliss, no complication: “You’re all I got/ You lift me up/ The sun and the moonlight/ All my dreams are in your eyes.”

Maybe the secret to the American Idol coronation song is this: The song isn’t really about the performer. It isn’t about uplifting the singer, about giving voice to real feelings. Instead, these are songs about uplifting the audience, about letting the voters feel some sense of gratitude. “Inside Your Heaven” takes that conceit even further, expressing it in vaguely religious terms. The narrator pledges to exist in a perpetual state of service: “When minutes turn to days and years/ If mountains fall, I’ll still be here/ Holding you until the day I die.” That doesn’t sound like romantic love. It sounds like a vow of priesthood.

Musically, “Inside Your Heaven” does everything that you expect. It’s all buildup to the big, crashing chorus. In Carrie Underwood’s version, Desmond Child and his studio musicians do their best to countrify the song, but it has none of the storytelling of an actual great country song. The lyrics are pure indistinct mush, and I was honestly surprised to learn that Savan Kotecha, one of the three writers, is a native English speaker. The words feel like mere syllables to be sung, not like they’re intended to convey any kind of meaning. I like the organ, but Child can’t resist piling on strings and screaming guitars. (Child and Andreas Carlsson also sang some of the backup vocals.)

When Carrie Underwood sang “Inside Your Heaven” on the big American Idol finale, her performance was a mess. Her voice was all worn out, and she strained to hit a lot of the notes. She put feeling into the song, but she came off more as an actor throwing herself into a role than as an artist expressing some real feeling. Randy Jackson’s response: “God, the song. I don’t know what’s going on with these songs. I didn’t love that song.” I’m right there with him. But it didn’t matter. Carrie Underwood was always going to win, and that song was always going to go to #1.

Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice both sang their own versions of “Inside Your Heaven” on the Idol finale, and they both released their respective takes as their debut singles. Carrie Underwood’s “Inside Your Heaven” single came first, and it had Carrie’s version of Martina McBride’s classic 1994 murder ballad “Independence Day” as its B-side. (McBride’s original “Independence Day” didn’t cross over to the Hot 100. McBride’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit, 1999’s “I Love You,” peaked at #24.) Underwood’s “Inside Your Heaven” sold 130,000 copies in its first week, which made it the year’s biggest-selling retail single.

Bo Bice released his version of the same song a week later, and his take debuted at #2 and never got any higher. (It’s a 4.) Bice made one major-label album before getting dropped, and his only other Hot 100 hit, 2006’s “The Real Thing,” peaked at #56. Later on, Bice started his own label and released some albums of his own. For a few years, he also toured as the singer for Blood, Sweat & Tears. (Blood, Sweat & Tears don’t have any #1 hits, but they got to #2 three times, all in 1969. “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” is a 5, “Spinning Wheel” is a 6, and “And When I Die” is another 5.) Bice also had a social-media freakout a few years ago, complaining that he’d been a victim of racial discrimination because someone at an airport-terminal Popeye’s had apparently called him “white boy.” Relax, Bo Bice.

Carrie Underwood’s career took a very different path. “Inside Your Heaven” isn’t really a country song, and it did better on the adult contemporary chart than the country one, but it made Underwood the first country artist with a #1 hit on the Hot 100 since Lonestar got there with “Amazed” five years earlier. In November of 2005, Underwood released Some Hearts. Underwood and Arista apparently agreed that Some Hearts should be a straight-up Nashville country album, not a middle-of-the-road mainstream pop affair. (“Inside Your Heaven” is on Some Hearts, but only as a bonus track.)

The first proper single from Some Hearts was “Jesus Take The Wheel,” a story-song about using faith to get through a near-death experience. People made a lot of jokes about “Jesus Take The Wheel,” and they definitely shouldn’t play that song in any driver’s ed classes, but Carrie Underwood sings the hell out of it, and I find it to be seriously moving. That song peaked at #20 on the Hot 100, but it went #1 country. Right away, the Nashville establishment embraced Underwood.

Some Hearts debuted at #2 behind Madonna’s Confessions On A Dance Floor, and the album kept selling and selling. Billboard eventually named Some Hearts the biggest-selling album of 2006. That year, Carrie Underwood won the Grammy for Best New Artist, beating out a random-ass slate of nominees: Chris Brown, James Blunt, Imogen Heap, and Corinne Bailey Rae. (Chris Brown and James Blunt will both appear in this column soon. Imogen Heap will eventually be in here in sampled form.)

The biggest hit from Some Hearts turned out to be the album’s fourth single. “Before He Cheats” is a crunchy, bluesy wronged-woman truck-destruction fantasy that topped the country chart before crossing over and going pop. After a long, slow rise up the Hot 100, “Before He Cheats” peaked at #8. (It’s an 8.) That song is by far Carrie Underwood’s biggest streaming hit, and it established that Underwood could be a pop star without leaving her country comfort zone.

In the time since “Before He Cheats,” Carrie Underwood has become a country institution. For more than a decade, she and Brad Paisley co-hosted the CMA Awards, working together as a kind of glamorous aw-shucks comedy duo. (Brad Paisley’s biggest Hot 100 hit is the 2011 Carrie Underwood duet “Remind Me,” which peaked at #17.) Underwood has also maintained a presence on the pop charts, and she’s been back in the top 10 a couple of times. In 2007, Underwood returned to American Idol for the Idol Gives Back charity special, and she sang a lovely cover of the Pretenders’ 1994 classic “I’ll Stand By You.” Underwood released her version of that song as a charity single, and it peaked at #6. (It’s an 8. The Pretenders’ original peaked at #16. That band’s highest-charting single, 1982’s “Back On The Chain Gang,” peaked at #5; it’s another 8.)

On the country charts, Carrie Underwood has #1 hits for days. On the Hot 100, though, Underwood last made the top 10 in 2009. That was another random one. The fifth single from Underwood’s sophomore album, 2007’s Carnival Ride, was a cover of “I Told You So,” a song that granite-faced country icon Randy Travis originally released in 1987. Underwood and Randy Travis sang “I Told You So” together on an episode of American Idol, and a duet version of the song peaked at #9 shortly afterward. (It’s a 6.) It’s Randy Travis’ biggest pop hit; before that, Travis’ peak came when “Three Wooden Crosses” got to #31 six years earlier.

Carrie Underwood hasn’t had a top-10 hit in 14 years, but she remains one of the brightest stars in the Nashville universe. There’s been zero scandal in Underwood’s private life, and she maintains the kind of wholesome stardust that’s honestly pretty rare, even in Nashville. (She married pro hockey player Mike Fisher in 2010, and they’ve got a couple of kids.) Underwood is a prominent evangelical Christian and a vegan, and she’s somehow managed to avoid politically alienating anyone. She’s endorsed a lot of products, performed on a lot of big-time televised shows, and generally stayed away from the Taylor Swift move of crossing over to straight-up pop music. Underwood did team up with former Number Ones artist Ludacris on an anodyne strivers’ anthem called “The Champion” in 2018, but that song flopped, only getting to #47. She hasn’t tried anything like that since.

In the past few years, Carrie Underwood has released a Christmas album and a gospel album, two moves that weren’t exactly designed with the pop charts in mind. “Ghost Story,” the lead single from Underwood’s 2022 album Denim & Rhinestones, only got to #61 on the Hot 100. In 2021, though, Underwood made it to #15 with the Jason Aldean duet “If I Didn’t Love You” — a genuine top-20 hit more than a decade and a half after her American Idol victory. (Jason Aldean’s biggest Hot 100 hit, 2011’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” peaked at #7. It’s a 6.) On the Hot 100, Carrie Underwood is still a factor.

I don’t expect to see Carrie Underwood in this column again unless she stumbles into some kind of “Old Town Road”-style freak zeitgeist situation, but I do expect Carrie Underwood to keep filling arenas for at least the next decade. She’s one of the glittering crown jewels in American Idol history, and her victory was not the end of the show’s peak era. We’ll see more of American Idol in this column in the days ahead.

GRADE: 4/10

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

BONUS BEATS: As with so many past American Idol coronation songs, I can’t find any evidence of “Inside Your Heaven” leaving any kind of cultural footprint beyond its one week at #1. Instead, then, here’s Carrie Underwood making a random-ass appearance on a 2021 episode of Cobra Kai:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. If you wanna be inside its heaven, you can buy it here.

more from The Number Ones

Please disable your adblocker or subscribe to ad-free membership to view this article.

Already a VIP? Sign in.