The Number Ones

April 8, 2006

The Number Ones: Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day”

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.

Your whole life, you’ve wanted to sing. It’s the thing that you love the most in the world, the thing that you want to do for the rest of your life. Your family and friends tell you that you could be a star, but you don’t know how to take your passion and make it happen. One day, though, you put yourself out there. You audition for American Idol, the most popular television show in the country. Thousands of other people audition, too, but you make it through. You sail through the Hollywood week, through the early voting. Every week, you’re on TV, singing to millions of people. Stardom is so close that you can taste it.

But then, one day, Americans just don’t vote for you. You’re in the bottom three, and then you’re up onstage, making a derp face, while Ryan Seacrest tells you that your journey ends here. You try to put a happy face on it, to talk about how the whole experience has been a dream come true, but you can just feel your future slipping away. A few singers have been voted off of American Idol and still had big careers, but you know that the odds are against you.

Before you can figure out what to do next, how to move on with your life, you have to stand there and watch a this-is-your-life montage about the past few weeks while listening to an obnoxious adult-contempo earworm that was written by an aggressively anonymous Canadian dude in a knit hat. To make matters worse, you have to contend with the reality that this obnoxious adult-contempo earworm is more popular than anything you’ve ever done, anything you will ever do.

You are Lisa Tucker. You’re Mandisa. You’re Bucky Covington. You’re Ace Young. You’re Kellie Pickler. You’re Paris Bennett. You’re Chris Daughtry. You’re Elliott Yamin. And the camera don’t lie. You had a bad day.

As an institution, American Idol produced a few big stars: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson. But the biggest hit that ever came out of the whole American Idol industrial system didn’t belong to any of the bright-faced young people who competed on the show over the years. Instead, the biggest hit came from a bland nobody who wasn’t American, who didn’t even watch the show, and who would never make another hit in his entire life.

At the peak of his brief window of success, the singer-songwriter Daniel Powter told MTV, “I don’t watch [American Idol]. I think it would kind of break my heart to watch these kids. I’m one of these wimpy, sensitive guys.” But these kids still had to hear this wimpy, sensitive guy’s song whenever one of them got voted off the show. Seventeen years later, because of this insane task that I’ve set for myself, I have to spend my afternoon writing about Powter’s one hit. I’m having a bad day.

Daniel Powter is a rare beast: A true one-hit wonder in the old-school sense of the term, a shooting star that burned out instantly upon entry. We used to get one-hit wonders more often. In the early days of the pop charts, a hit song was supposed to be ephemeral, and so was the artist who recorded it. In this century, though, an artist can develop a fanbase, a ferociously loyal internet army, almost immediately. Labels and streaming services will give an artist more chances after their one hit, and the momentum from that one hit will usually be enough to land an artist on the charts at least one more time. Not Daniel Powter, though. He just got the one.

Per Billboard, Powter’s “Bad Day” was the single biggest hit of 2006. Since then, Powter has not appeared on the Hot 100 at all. In that MTV interview, Powter answered a question about whether he worried about one-hit wonder status: “I’m gonna get past that. I got past this song in other countries already.” He did not get past that. Daniel Powter had five good weeks, and that was it. If “Bad Day” was a good song, that would make Powter some kind of tragic hero. But “Bad Day” is not a good song. “Bad Day” is a bad song.

Daniel Powter was 35 years old when he had his five good weeks. He was too old to audition for American Idol, and he was also too Canadian. Powter grew up in Vernon, a small city in the part of British Columbia that’s nowhere near the Pacific Ocean. (When Powter was born, the #1 song in America was the Osmonds’ “One Bad Apple.” In Canada, it was Tony Orlando & Dawn’s “Knock Three Times.”) Powter played violin as a kid before moving over to piano. For a few years, Powter studied music at Edmonton’s Grant MacEwan College, but then he dropped out and moved to Vancouver to try to make it as a musician. It took time.

When he was in his late twenties, Daniel Powter met Jeff Dawson, a Vancouver-based producer with a small recording studio in his apartment but no notable credits. In 2000, Powter released his Dawson-produced debut album I’m Your Betty on the Canadian indie Outside Music. A couple of I’m Your Betty songs made it into an episode of Higher Ground, a short-lived Fox Family Channel drama about a school for troubled kids in the Pacific Northwest. (Powter’s fellow Vancouver resident Hayden Christensen was on that show right before he became Anakin Skywalker.) For a while, that placement represented the absolute apex of Daniel Powter’s professional achievement.

One day in 2002, Daniel Powter got a melody stuck in his head. He was on a ferry between Victoria and Vancouver, and he started whistling this big, happy hook. Powter told MTV, “It was driving me nuts, so I laid it down. I was looking for a lyric, and I thought it probably would’ve been the cheesiest song of all time if I’d written it really up and poppy, so I decided to make it have more of a negative connotation to it.” Powter didn’t necessarily set out to write a song about a bad day, but the lyrics fit the melody: “Mostly, it’s about phonics. It’s about words that sing great, and ‘bad day’ was one of those. I was mumbling something, and those words came out right in that part.”

Daniel Powter and his producer Jeff Dawson recorded a demo of “Bad Day,” and they shopped it around. A few label executives liked the song, but when Powter auditioned, he didn’t have enough stage presence. Powter found himself a manager in Los Angeles, and that manager convinced Warner Bros. to sign Powter on the strength of the “Bad Day” demo. Powter recorded his self-titled sophomore album in LA, and Jeff Dawson co-produced it with Mitchell Froom, a veteran who’d produced people like Crowded House, Richard Thompson, Los Lobos, and Suzanne Vega.

Mitchell Froom played keyboard on Daniel Powter’s record, and the other musicians included a few noteworthy names from big alt-rock bands. Drummer Matt Chamberlain, for instance, had spent a few weeks in Pearl Jam in the early ’90s, and bassist Davey Faragher was a founding Cracker member who’d become one of Elvis Costello’s Imposters. (Cracker’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “Low,” peaked at #64. That’s a good song.) All of these guys had extensive session-musician experience, and I have to imagine that the Daniel Powter record was just a job for all of them.

Don’t strain your ears for any echoes of Crowded House or Elvis Costello or Pearl Jam or Cracker in “Bad Day.” The song’s arrangement is pure lite-rock filler, and all these guys are simply there to support Daniel Powter’s voice and his piano. On “Bad Day,” Powter comes off as a dollar-store Ben Folds, a nasally sincere pop-rocker with just enough pop instincts to sink his teeth into his own big hook.

On “Bad Day,” the hook is the thing. Structurally, the song is solidly generic, and it sits comfortably in the realm of that era’s VH1 fodder. Powter sings the whole song in the second person, cataloging the various normal indignities that “you” have to suffer: “You stand in the line just to hit a new low/ You’re faking a smile with the coffee to go.” Powter’s voice achieves a nice Elton John sort of bray on the bridge, but he remains mostly personality-free throughout.

In his “Bad Day” lyrics, Daniel Powter seems to be offering some kind of encouragement: “You sing a sad song just to turn it around.” Maybe the point of “Bad Day” is that bad days are temporary. But there’s something about that sloppy earworm of a hook that almost comes off as playground-bully mockery. Powter sounds like he’s delighting in your bad day, and the melody in his head, the one that was driving him nuts, is just sticky enough to drive the rest of the world nuts, too.

“Bad Day” got its start in Europe. The song turned up in a French Coca-Cola commercial, soundtracking some poor schmuck’s bad day. This guy suffers a banged-up shin, an orange juice spill, and a dead car battery. But then a pretty girl notices his plight and shares her Coke with him, and things suddenly turn sunnier. That ad turned “Bad Day” into a massive radio hit throughout Europe. It went #2 in the UK, #3 in France and Italy, #1 in Ireland. (In Powter’s native Canada, “Bad Day” never got past #7.)

In the US, “Bad Day” didn’t go anywhere until someone picked it as the goodbye-montage song for season five of American Idol. In those montages, “Bad Day” needled while it consoled, and it almost worked as a punchline. Once “Bad Day” became part of the American Idol experience, the song took off quickly. It reached the top of the Hot 100 in the same week that the twangy longhair country dreamboat Bucky Covington was voted off of the show. (Bucky Covington’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “A Different World,” peaked at #58.)

Those American Idol montages were way more important for the success of “Bad Day” than the song’s actual music video, but “Bad Day” did have a video. Marc Webb, who would later make 500 Days Of Summer and the shitty Andrew Garfield Amazing Spider-Man movies, directed a too-cute story about a couple of young people finding each other through the magic of twee, flirty subway graffiti. The video is annoying, but it does allow me to remember the existence of the girl: Samaire Armstrong, who was crazy adorable as Anna Stern on the first season of The OC. In the “Bad Day” clip, Armstrong gives a face-acting performance that’s way more charming than anything else about the song or the video. It got me wondering what happened to Armstrong, and Wikipedia tells me that she had a baby with the bassist from Prong, unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Sedona, and became a huge Trump person. So it goes.

Daniel Powter performed “Bad Day” on the American Idol season finale, accompanying a montage of all the people who didn’t win. By that point, Powter was burned out on the song and developing problems with drugs and alcohol. Talking to the Toronto Sun in 2012, Powter said, “I just hated ‘Bad Day,’ and I hated being associated with it. I felt like I was always kind of under the shadow of this song. I would go into a new territory, like for example Switzerland, and I’m like, ‘Here I am,’ and the song had already been there and destroyed everything. And I was like, ‘I just got here and this thing’s already #1.’ I never had to do anything. It was too easy.” For a while, Powter even refused to play “Bad Day” live, which was not a popular decision.

When “Weird Al” Yankovic wanted to record a “Bad Day” parody, Daniel Powter turned him down. Later on, Yankovic said, “Literally the day before we went into the studio to record ‘White & Nerdy,’ we got a call saying [Powter] changed his mind and he wanted to do it after all. And I had to inform him that the train had left the station.” (“White & Nerdy” went on to become Yankovic’s biggest chart hit, peaking at #9. It’s a 7.)

“Bad Day” eventually went triple platinum, largely on the strength of iTunes downloads, and Daniel Powter’s self-titled album went gold. But “Bad Day” was not the kind of song that launches a big career. Powter’s follow-up single “Free Loop (One Night Stand)” missed the Hot 100 entirely, and then so did every other single that Daniel Powter ever released. Powter has kept making music, and he’s kept traveling around the world to sing “Bad Day” at different events. In Canada, his 2006 single “Love You Lately” made it to #5; it actually outperformed “Bad Day” there. Powter had a couple of top-20 hits in Japan in the years after “Bad Day,” too. But this is a clear example of the song being bigger than the singer. At the end of the ’10s, Billboard named Daniel Powter the decade’s biggest one-hit wonder. I’m sure he was honored at the distinction.

In a way, “Bad Day,” along with James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful,” represented a sudden pop resurgence of old-school adult-contempo songcraft. Those two hits might’ve pulled inspiration from previous generations of singer-songwriters, but in the context of the 2006 pop charts, they were basically novelty songs. After they faded from the charts, Blunt and Powter never did anything much of note. We won’t see Daniel Powter in this column again, but we’re not quite done with American Idol yet. Pretty soon, we’ll discuss the season-five contestant who never had to stand there while “Bad Day” played.

GRADE: 3/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kristen Bell singing “Bad Day” to a bad guy on a 2007 episode of Veronica Mars:

(Kristen Bell’s highest-charting single is “Love Is An Open Door,” the Frozen-soundtrack duet with Santino Fontana, which peaked at #49 in 2014.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the opening credits of the 2007 Alvin And The Chipmunks movie, the CGI Chipmunks — who are former Number Ones artists in a much earlier, non-CGI iteration — sang an a cappella, beatbox-heavy version of “Bad Day” while stacking acorns. Here’s that scene:

And here’s the studio version of the Chipmunks’ “Bad Day” cover, psychedelically slowed down so that the Chipmunks sound like human beings:

(The Chipmunks’ “Bad Day” cover peaked at #67. I probably like their cover better than the Daniel Powter version. I definitely like the Slowed-Down Chipmunks “Bad Day” better than the Daniel Powter version.)

THE 10S: T.I.’s regally growling synth-worm monster “What You Know” peaked at #3 behind “Bad Day.” I’m a scary dude believed by very few, but please believe me when I tell you that it’s a 10. I know all about that.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Sometimes, the system goes on the blink, and the whole thing turns out wrong, but you can still buy the book here.

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