The Number Ones

March 11, 2006

The Number Ones: James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful”

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.

Mewling soft rock balladry never really dies. It might go dormant for a while, especially during periods where louder, rowdier, more boisterous music takes over the pop charts. But soft rock balladry is always lurking just under the surface, waiting for another moment where it can push through and return to dominance again. It’s always a threat. It never goes away.

Acoustic comfort-food whining might evolve to meet its times, or it might dress itself up in different clothes, but it’s always the same thing. Consider the case of future Number Ones artist Ed Sheeran. For all the dance-pop quasi-anthems our boy Ed cranks out, all the songwriting credits he racks up for boy bands or teen-pop heartthrobs, he’s always going to be a mewler at heart. We know it, and he knows it.

In the first half of the ’00s, rap and R&B utterly dominated the Billboard Hot 100, and those genres were full of big, bold, ridiculous statements. For the most part, mewling soft rock balladry went quiet, buoyed only by the annual chart surge of some American Idol song or other. But the soft rockers still watched, hawklike, from their perches at VH1 and “hits of the ’80s, ’90s, and today” radio stations. They lay in wait, itching for the moment when they could invade once again.

In that quiet stretch, America was not, on the whole, fucking with the music that was coming from the United Kingdom. Millions upon millions of Americans had mourned the death of Princess Diana, and they had expressed that mourning by running out to buy copies of Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind 1997,” which held the #1 spot for an excessive 14 weeks. But once that run ended, we went nearly a decade without sending any UK songs to #1. It was a British anti-Invasion, a British Repulsion.

The stuff that was happening in the UK at that moment found precious little purchase on the American pop charts. We did not collectively care for Britain’s many scrubbed-up Pop Idol contestants or its Libertines/Franz Ferdinand wave of archly glamorous rockers. We didn’t bite on the creative explosions of UK garage and grime, either. But we did still have a soft spot for England’s soft-batch songbirds. People like Coldplay and Dido had pretty sizable hits over here, and I must admit that they were good at their jobs. Coldplay will eventually appear in this column, while Dido got to #3 with “Thank You” — way higher than the Eminem song that famously sampled it. (“Thank You” is an 8.)

You can probably tell by my choice of adjectives that wimpy, mewly soft rock is not my favorite genre of music. But wimpy, mewly soft rock is not an inherent evil. Coldplay have bangers. Dido has bangers. In the spring of 2006, another British banger found its way into the upper reaches of our Hot 100, but it’s not the song that we’re discussing today. Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” — a sunshine superblast that, at the very least, is adjacent to this whole soft rock thing — made it to #5 on our charts. In a better world, “Unwritten” would’ve gone all the way, and this whole column would be about a very fun song. (“Unwritten” is a 9.)

But Natasha Bedingfield didn’t end the British Repulsion. Neither did Coldplay, nor Dido. Instead, that distinction goes to a former captain in the British army, a man whose entire sales pitch was basically “what if Jeff Buckley was still alive and also boring as fuck?” This man only topped the American charts for a single week, and then he never approached that apex again. But this man accomplished his chart feat with a song so aggressively obnoxious that his name will live in infamy.

“Yaw byoo-ti-fowl.” If you were actively engaging with popular music in 2006, you remember it — this vague and dull irritant that simply refused to go away for way too long. The music sounded like it wanted to blend into the background, as so many soft rock songs do, but the singer’s sincere and anguished air-raid yelp would simply not allow it to happen. Even the man himself seemed to realize that he had unleashed a slightly toxic fog upon the world. Accepting an Ivor Novello award in 2006, the artist said, “I should probably be rude about it before anyone else is, so thank you very much for the Most Overplayed Song award.” He’s not wrong. That year, “You’re Beautiful” had too many radio stations in nightmare Blunt rotation.

James Hillier Blount was born into a distinguished military family in the English town of Tidworth; his father was a colonel in the Army Air Corps. (When James Blount was born, the #1 song in America was Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “Love’s Theme.” In the UK, it was Mud’s “Tiger Feet.”) Blount grew up a British army brat. He went to boarding schools and then to the University Of Bristol, where he wrote a dissertation about the marketing of pop idols. Then he joined the army.

James Blount served in the British army for six years, rising to the rank of captain and commanding a troop of NATO Peacekeepers in Kosovo. There was one notable incident where Wesley Clark, the future American presidential candidate who led the NATO troops in Kosovo, ordered Blount’s unit, among others, to attack an airfield that was being held by Russian troops. The British general Mike Jackson told Clark to fuck off, and we avoided a major international incident. After he got famous, James Blount said that he wouldn’t have followed the order even if Jackson hand’t interceded, which led to some funny headlines like this one. I don’t think this guy actually personally averted World War III, but if he did, good job.

Blount loved music. In Kosovo, he kept an acoustic guitar strapped to his tank — an image that causes me deep and instinctive annoyance. (Blount was also really into rich-guy activities like flying planes, riding motorcycles, and skiing.) Blount later served as a member of the Queen’s Guard and was part of Queen Elizabeth’s mother’s funeral. When he wasn’t doing military stuff, he was writing songs. A backup-singer friend passed Blount’s demo tape along to Elton John’s manager, who was impressed. Blount changed his name to James Blunt because he figured that it was easier to pronounce. (Maybe I should’ve done that. Maybe my book would be a bestseller if it had “Tom Bryan” on the cover.) Blunt won himself a publishing contract, but the British labels wouldn’t sign him.

The newly renamed James Blunt scored his big break when he played at an Austin hotel during SXSW in 2003. Big-deal songwriter and producer Linda Perry saw him play and offered him a deal with her Atlantic imprint Custard. (At that point, Perry was best-known for making hits with Pink and Christina Aguilera, but her old band 4 Non Blondes got to #14 with their 1993 single “What’s Up?”) Soon afterward, James Blunt jetted off to Los Angeles to record his debut album.

A bunch of weirdly big names were involved in James Blunt’s ascent. Elton John and his manager helped. Linda Perry helped. While he was in Los Angeles, James Blunt stayed at the house owned by the late Carrie Fisher, who also apparently helped name his debut album Back To Bedlam. (With all respect to Princess Leia, only Ludacris should be allowed to use the word Back in the title of a debut LP.)

Blunt’s producer was Tom Rothrock, the guy who’d founded the Los Angeles indie Bong Load and who’d played a big role in discovering Beck. (Rothrock also co-produced Beck’s breakout hit, 1994’s “Loser,” which peaked at #10. That’s Beck’s highest-charting single, and it’s a 9.) Rothrock had gone on to work on some great alt-rock records for the Foo Fighters, the Toadies, Jimmy Eat World, and especially Elliott Smith. Rothrock later told The Guardian that he’d watched Blunt’s SXSW set “on the internet”: “He sounded pretty interesting, but then I promptly forgot all about him.” Linda Perry’s involvement was enough to get Rothrock on board.

When James Blunt went to work with Tom Rothrock, he already had a few songs fully written, and one of those songs was “You’re Beautiful.” The song’s story goes like this: James Blunt ran into an ex on the London Underground one day. The ex was with a new boyfriend, and Blunt walked past them without saying anything. In that Guardian piece, Blunt says that he then “went home and wrote the words to ‘You’re Beautiful’ in two minutes.” In the song, Blunt has a lyric about being “fucking high” when he saw her, and apparently he really was baked. You can see where I’m going with this. James was taking blunts to the face. James Blunt was up in the bodega like “let me get a pack of Philly Mes.”

When James Blunt worked on “You’re Beautiful,” he had a couple of co-writer friends who helped him convert his stoned post-breakup meditation into song form. One was Sacha Skarbek, a classically trained musician who’d played keyboards for people like Neneh Cherry and Jon Bon Jovi. Skarbek had already done some writing and producing for artists like Beverly Knight and Samantha Mumba, and he’d also collaborated heavily with an unsuccessful would-be pop star named Amanda Ghost. Both Skarbek and Ghost are credited with co-writing “You’re Beautiful,” and both would go on to tons of success. We’ll see Skarbek’s work in this column again, while Ghost co-wrote a bunch of Beyoncé songs and served, for about a year, as president of Epic Records.

James Blunt recorded “You’re Beautiful” with a team of session musicians and with some string players. Blunt plays his own acoustic guitar on the track, which would melt away into inoffensive nothingness if not for the man’s own strangulated-yip singing style. Lyrically, “You’re Beautiful” is a little lost and non-linear. Blunt says that his ex was “with another man” but that he “won’t lose no sleep on that ’cause I’ve got a plan.” But Blunt never details any Zack Morris schemes to get his ex back. Instead, he rhapsodizes about her and then admits that he’ll never be with her. Some plan.

In that Guardian story, James Blunt says that “You’re Beautiful” isn’t really a romantic song and that it’s “actually a bit creepy.” To hear Blunt tell it, this narrator didn’t just happen across his ex; he’d been actively stalking her. There’s also some speculation that the “plan” is really suicide. So yes: James Blunt is one of these self-important goons who’s like, “Can you believe these idiots are dancing to my dark, dark song at their weddings?” (That’s not a direct quote.) But this isn’t a case like “Every Breath You Take,” where people are missing obvious creepy subtext. This is James Blunt claiming that his sad, dewy broken-heart caterwaul is deeper and darker than it actually is. If Blunt wanted to write a song about stalking someone, then he should’ve written a song about stalking someone.

As it is, “You’re Beautiful” is a punishing burst of self-pity. Maybe there’s some pathos in Blunt admitting to himself that he’s got to move on from this ex, but I can’t get past his flailing falsetto — a deeply unpleasant and self-satisfied sound that never even properly conveys the desperation that Blunt seems to grasp for. The backing track is as beige as any of that era’s hacky MOR alt-rock — the most canned version of implied-profundidty singer-songwriter music. And then there’s James Blunt’s voice jumping up and down, waving its arms, demanding attention. It sucks. I hate it.

“You’re Beautiful” wasn’t the first single from James Blunt’s Back To Bedlam album. Instead, Blunt released “High,” the album’s opener. At first, “High” made no impact in the US or the UK. (After the success of “You’re Beautiful,” “High” peaked at #100 on the Hot 100.) Blunt opened for Elton John and Lloyd Cole, and he could’ve easily faded away. But then came the “You’re Beautiful” video.

On the one hand, the “You’re Beautiful” video is clearly a success at what it sets out to do. The clip is simple and arresting and memorable, and it helped James Blunt break through. On the other, I did not enjoy watching this earnest joker stripping down to his trousers and then jumping off an iceberg or whatever. I don’t even have a reason for this. It just bugged me. In a few long takes, we watch as James Blunt, standing in a snowy landscape, takes off his jacket, shirt, and shoes. He fussily arranges all the stuff from his pockets on the bare white ground, and then he takes a flying leap off a cliff and into the ocean. A lot of people thought the video’s ending was supposed to represent suicide, even though it’s pretty clear that the fall wouldn’t kill anyone. (Blunt shot the video in Majorca, and he really did jump off the cliff twice. He says he busted his lip doing it.)

“You’re Beautiful” first took off in the UK, where it reached #1 in summer 2005. Back To Bedlam became a gigantic smash in Blunt’s homeland; up until Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black finally overtook it, Back To Bedlam was the biggest-selling album of the decade over there. In the US, “You’re Beautiful” took longer to break through, but heavy radio and VH1 exposure were finally enough to get the ballad up to #1. (YouTube launched in 2005, but this was still a time when people would occasionally watch music videos on cable television.) Back To Bedlam sold three million copies in the US, and the “You’re Beautiful” single eventually went quadruple platinum. Blunt followed that one with the similarly melodramatic “Goodbye My Lover,” which had Mischa Barton from The OC in its video. That song peaked at #66.

In the US, that was basically it for James Blunt. His 2007 sophomore album All The Lost Souls went gold, and first single “1973” made it, appropriately enough, to #73. Blunt hasn’t been on the Hot 100 at all since “Stay The Night,” the lead single from 2010’s Some Kind Of Trouble, peaked at #94. In the UK, Blunt was able to score a top-10 hit as recently as 2013. Even over there, though, his hitmaking days seem to be over.

James Blunt married some kind of noblewoman in 2014. She’s a duke’s granddaughter? I don’t know how any of that stuff works. They live in Ibiza, and they also own a Swiss chalet. Must be nice. When the UK legalized gay marriage, Blunt sang “You’re Beautiful” at Elton John’s wedding, so he shouldn’t be allowed to do that fake-bemused thing about the song getting played at weddings anymore. Blunt has tried making dance music. He gives lightly self-deprecating quotes in interviews. He seems like a decent person, in the way that ultra-rich people often seem pretty nice. But he still made “You’re Beautiful,” so he’s still on my shitlist.

GRADE: 2/10

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BONUS BEATS: “Weird Al” Yankovic recorded his “You’re Beautiful” parody “You’re Pitiful” in 2006. James Blunt gave his personal approval, but Atlantic, Blunt’s label, blocked Yankovic from giving “You’re Pitiful” any kind of proper release, so Yankovic put the song up on his website as a free download. Here’s a fan-made animated video for “You’re Pitiful”:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s James Blunt singing his own “You’re Beautiful” parody “My Triangle” with Telly on a 2006 episode of Sesame Street:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from 2007’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry, a movie that no longer exists, where Adam Sandler and Kevin James sing “You’re Beautiful” to each other:

(“The Chanukah Song,” Adam Sandler’s only Hot 100 hit, peaked at #80 in 1999.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a bunch of people dancing to “You’re Beautiful” on a 2009 episode of the British comedy Misfits:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s YL Stunna sing-rapping over a “You’re Beautiful” sample on his 2020 mixtape track “7even Thirty”:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. It’s beautiful. Buy it here.

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