The Number Ones

July 26, 2014

The Number Ones: Magic!’s “Rude”

Stayed at #1:

6 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. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

These fucking guys, with their fucking exclamation point. They couldn’t just be Magic. They had to be Magic! As in: Did you see who just walked into the room? It’s Magic! It could be even worse. If I typed the band’s name the way that they wanted, they’d be MAGIC! I’m not doing that. Motherfucker, you’re not MF DOOM. It’s not all caps when I spell the band’s name.

The worst thing about the exclamation point is that it forces a certain mood into any writeup of the group. When I type the name Magic!, that exclamation point implies a level of enthusiasm that I profoundly do not feel. It’s like they couldn’t figure out how to build that excitement with their music, so they just built it into the band name. It’s so rude.

I did this to myself. I decided to take on the burden of writing about every chart-topping single in Hot 100 history. For the most part, it’s been a great experience, but now the rent has come due. If I were a normal person, I could’ve filed Magic! and “Rude” away in some unpleasant corner of my memory. Magic! are true one-hit wonders. It’s not like the success of “Rude” led to a years-long occupation of the pop charts. Ultimately, the song was just a forgettable little trifle. But now, because of this assignment that I’ve given myself, I don’t have the luxury of forgetting about these fucks. I have to actively engage with them all over again. This is not something that I want to do, but here I am, and here you are. So. “Rude.” Let’s get into it.

For the most part, I think I’ve been pretty kind to the #1 hits of 2014. This was not a good year for pop music, especially in the upper reaches of the Hot 100. It was an in-between time. The mega-pop EDM crunch of the Dr. Luke wave had died away, but nothing had quite risen up to replace it. People weren’t really buying songs on iTunes anymore, but the streaming economy hadn’t fully taken over, either. In the slipstream, a few lame and embarrassing songs slipped through and became dominant hits. Nobody knew what was going on, and suddenly these laid-back Canadian pop-reggae doofs had a legit song-of-the-summer contender.

In retrospect, everything was set up just right for Taylor Swift to make the final leap to global dominance. The field was weak, and her big mainstream-pop record cut down its competitors like bowling pins. But we’re not talking about Taylor Swift yet. Like the most annoying kid in your elementary-school homeroom, we’re talking about Magic! Now, it’s the capital letter that throws everything off. Am I joking about the art of illusion, or is it the fantasy role-playing card game? Guess what, nerds! Either one works!

You will probably not be surprised to learn that Magic! was the creation of two unremarkable but successful behind-the-scenes types who fooled themselves into believing that they had the charisma to step out to the front of the scenes. The main unremarkable but successful behind-the-scenes guy here is Magic! lead singer Nasri Atweh, who goes by his first name alone. “I just think it sounds cooler,” he once told Rolling Stone, and I won’t be so rude as to argue.

Nasri, the son of Christian Palestinian immigrants, grew up in Toronto and sang in his school choir as a kid. (When Nasri was born, John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” was the #1 song in both America and Canada. Free Palestine.) As a young man, Nasri signed a deal with Universal and released “Go,” a retro-soul single that didn’t go anywhere. Like so many unsuccessful singers before him, Nasri started writing songs for other people.

In 2007, Nasri released an independent single called “Click Click Click.” He co-wrote that one with a few other people, including Akon, someone who’s been in this column a few times. One of that song’s other co-writers is Mark Pellizzer, a fellow Toronto native who’d studied classical piano and jazz guitar. When they got back together in 2008, New Kids On The Block, the aging boy band that’s been in this column a couple of times, opened their comeback album The Block with a cover of “Click Click Click.”

Nasri and Pellizzer worked on a bunch of tracks from The Block, including lead single “Summertime.” Nasri co-wrote that one with Donnie Wahlberg, and Pellizzer co-produced it with a few other people. I like that song because of the blockbuster-movie opening of the video, where Donnie texts the other New Kids that it’s time to get back together and they all jump into helicopters and speedboats and sports cars. I don’t much remember the song itself, which peaked at #36, but it’s OK.

When the New Kids thing was happening, Nasri and Mark Pellizzer moved to Los Angeles and formed a songwriting and production team called the Messengers. They did well for themselves. They wrote for Chris Brown and Justin Bieber and Chris Brown featuring Justin Bieber. (Brown has been in this column a few times, and we’ll eventually cover Bieber.) No record-label heads were screaming that they needed that Messengers sound, but the music industry always has a use for anonymous songsmiths. The Messengers landed their first top-10 hit on the Hot 100 when they co-wrote and produced Bieber’s Jaden Smith collab “Never Say Never,” which reached #8 in 2010. (It’s a 4.)

Over the next few years, the Messengers helped make a few more big hits. Nasri co-wrote another Justin Bieber song with a guest rapper, the Big Sean collab “As Long As You Love Me,” which made it to #6 in 2012. (It’s a 3.) That same year, the Messengers worked on Pitbull’s godawful Christina Aguilera collab “Feel This Moment,” which peaked at #8. (It’s a 2.) They worked on tracks from UK boy band the Wanted, from forgotten American Idol winner Kris Allen, and from German girl group No Angels. Eventually, Nasri married No Angels member Sandy Mölling. Nasri and Pellizzer even wrote for Iggy Azalea, the artist they eventually knocked out of the #1 spot.

But writing songs for other people wasn’t enough. The formation of Magic! wasn’t some big plan, at least as Nasri tells it. Here’s how Nasri once described the group’s genesis to USA Today: “Mark was playing guitar and started playing this kind of reggae groove. I said, ‘Bro, I have this whole concept for a band, to do a like a modern-day Police. We should start a band.'” I’m just glad I wasn’t in the room for that conversation. I would’ve been uncomfortable. (The Police have already been in this column.)

Nasri and Mark Pellizzer lined up a couple of bandmates from the Toronto music universe. Bassist Ben Spivak used to play in the backing band for the Canadian rapper K-Os. (I might’ve seen him open for Nelly Furtado once, but it might’ve been some other generically eclectic Canadian rapper.) Along with Pellizzer, drummer Alex Tanas had played with the Toronto singer-songwriter Justin Nozuka. Magic! did not spend a whole lot of time in the nightclub-circuit trenches. These guys were all industry-connected, and they quickly signed with RCA. “Rude” was their first single.

I can hear plenty of influence, but “Rude” doesn’t sound much like the Police to me. It also doesn’t sound like Bob Marley, another obvious influence who Magic! were sometimes accused of melodically ripping off. Instead, the Magic! sound, at least from where I’m sitting, comes through mellow ’90s reggae-rock types like Sublime, 311, and Sugar Ray. Those groups can be easy to clown, but they all had personality — weird and vaguely sketchy members, adventurously spiky streaks, DJ scratches on their songs. Magic! sounds like that influence winding its way through sleepy ’00s hacky-sack singer-songwriters like Jack Johnson and Jason Mraz until it has absolutely zero personality left. This is a good place to point out that “Rude,” title notwithstanding, isn’t ska. I wish it was ska. Ska can be fun. “Rude” is not fun. It’s too slow and boring to be ska.

Originally, “Rude” was going to be a song about a fight with a girlfriend. Nasri told Rolling Stone all about it: “It was a rough night, and she was mean. The next day, I was just writing: ‘Why you gotta be so rude?/ Don’t you know I’m human, too?'” Nasri didn’t think much of the hook, but Mark Pellizzer did, and he kept pressing Nasri to finish the song. Nasri eventually did, and he reworked the track so that “Rude” wasn’t really about a couple’s fight. Instead, it was Nasri telling some guy that he wants to marry her daughter, then getting mad when the dad says no.

That explains a lot, doesn’t it? For one thing, there is absolutely zero personal experience at work on “Rude.” In real life, Nasri hadn’t told some guy that he wanted to marry her daughter, and he hadn’t gotten mad when the guy said no. (Nasri didn’t marry Sandy Mölling from No Angels until 2020; I wonder if he looked up how to say, “Can I have your daughter for the rest of my life?” in German.) It also clarifies the weird-ass storytelling choices of the song. If a prospective father-in-law tells you that you can’t marry his daughter, then whining about the guy’s rudeness does not feel like the appropriate response.

There’s a lot to discuss with these stupid-ass lyrics. I’ve seen The Bachelor, so I know there are parts of our society where it’s not considered weird or antiquated to ask a lady’s father’s permission before proposing. I don’t get it, but that’s a thing that people do. On the song, however, the father politely but firmly denies his blessing: “Tough luck, my friend, but the answer is no.” Nasri then mewls, “Why you gotta be so ruuuuude? Don’t you know I’m human, tooooo?” He insists that he’s going to marry her anyway, and it’s like: Sure, buddy. But then why did you bother asking in the first place? If I was the girl’s father, I would’ve taken Nasri’s response as proof that I was right. This guy’s a fucking drip.

“Rude,” at least to my ears, sounds like hot boiled ass. It’s a lite-reggae groove with a thoroughly anonymous session-musician sheen and a wildly annoying dentist’s-waiting-room guitar solo. (Mark Pellizzer produced it, so that’s all him.) Nasri sings in a blasé simper, and he never sounds like he has anything at stake. I know that a song like this is to function as chilled-out background music, but I find its wan, aggressively bland studio-pop version of reggae to be offensively unpleasant. I wish “Rude” would fade into the background. Instead, it keeps sticking its nose in, intruding on my peace. Theoretically, Magic! exist in the same crossover-reggae lineage as stuff like UB40, but at least those guys seemed like they wanted to punch you in the face with a bassline every once in a while. I don’t know what Magic! are trying to do, but it’s not working for me.

Actually, I have some idea of what Magic! were going for. “Rude” sounds like it was written as the soundtrack for a music video, and that’s what it became. It can’t be a coincidence that Nasri’s biggest hit as a songwriter was Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me.” That song doesn’t have a storyline, but the video does. It’s supposed to be a gritty crime-epic type of thing, with Michael Madsen playing the mobster who doesn’t want Bieber dating his daughter. The “Rude” video tells a low-budget sitcom version of that same story. This time, it’s not a skeezy and charismatic underworld figure who doesn’t want Nasri to marry his daughter; it’s just some suburban Mitt Romney lookalike.

I’ve seen some critics, like my respected colleague Steven Hyden, bring up the idea that “Rude” might really be about the uncomfortable cultural moments that can come with interracial dating. In the “Rude” video, the girl who Nasri wants to marry is a blonde video-model type, so maybe we’re supposed to infer that the dad doesn’t want this guy to marry her because he’s Palestinian. That’s interesting, but I think it’s a reach. In my interpretation, the dad doesn’t want Nasri as his son-in-law because Nasri is a fucking dork. He’s also a liar. The guy sings that he drove over to the house in his best suit, but the otherwise-literal video clearly shows that he’s wearing one of those way-too-expensive cool-guy leather jackets. He’s got a floppy haircut and a dumb look on his face. Fuck this guy.

If Nasri showed up on my doorstep, whether it was to ask for my daughter’s hand in marriage or to tell me about the coming rapture, I would feel tempted to give him a tombstone piledriver on the hood of my car. That’s unfortunately not what the dad in the video does. Instead, he tries to set his daughter up with some yuppie in a suit, and then Nasri and his Magic! bandmates show up on their doorstep again, this time for a proposal. The dad makes harrumphing faces, but the girl is with it. Pretty soon, they’re getting married on what appears to be the dad’s front lawn, and he reluctantly accepts the idea that she’s marrying this guy who wore a fucking beanie to his own wedding. The Magic! bass player shows up in a tuxedo T-shirt. The couple’s first dance is an awkward Watusi. It’s like an SNL skit with no jokes. I don’t know how many afternoons I have left on this planet, and now I’m using one of them to describe the “Rude” video to you. We both deserve better.

Look: The girlfriend’s grumpy father is a time-honored pop-music trope, and many great songs have been written about situations much like this one. “She’s In Love With The Boy,” Trisha Yearwood’s 1991 debut single? Absolute fucking banger. Solid gold. ’90s pop-country songs simply do not get better than that. (“She’s In Love With The Boy” was a #1 country hit that sadly did not cross over to the Hot 100. On the big chart, Yearwood’s highest-charting single is the less-successful Con Air version of the Diane Warren ballad “How Do I Live,” which peaked at #23.) But “Rude” is no “She’s In Love With The Boy.”

I’m sorry, I just fucking hate “Rude.” Cannot stand it. Bugs the shit out of me. The chorus is just catchy enough to get stuck in my head in a truly maddening way — one of those rare situations where a sharp, memorable melody makes me like a song less. The production sucks. The instrumentation is aggressively bland. The sexual politics are all-the-way fucked up. The daughter never even exists as a character in the song; she exists simply to marry this dumb fucking guy. The lyrics slurp dog diarrhea, especially the part where Nasri says that they’ll run away to another galaxy. (If this song went full sci-fi, I might be down, but it needs to commit.) The video is dumb. All of it just sucks. “Rude” ain’t worth a lick. When it came to brains, this song got the short end of the stick.

I cannot explain why “Rude!” got as popular as it did. Maybe there were memes. Maybe people got emotionally invested in the video’s storyline. Maybe we just need one fluffy, boring lite-reggae song to come along at least once a decade, as a kind of cultural cleanse. Or maybe the competition was just that weak. It’s not like there were any incredible songs bubbling on the Hot 100 in the six weeks that “Rude” was on top. Instead, the pop charts were just sitting there, waiting for the earthquake of an album that was about to come out.

RCA pulled all sorts of tricks to juice the chart numbers of “Rude.” The song got a rap remix with the confusing trio of guests Kid Ink, Ty Dolla $ign, and Travis Barker, and it got at least a bit of R&B airplay. (Kid Ink, a name that I haven’t considered in a long time, was a guest on the very fun Fifth Harmony single “Worth It,” which peaked at #12 in 2015. As lead artist, Kid Ink’s highest-charting single is the 2013 Chris Brown collab “Show Me,” which peaked at #13. The highest-charting single from Travis Barker’s band Blink-182 is “All The Small Things,” which peaked at #6 early in 2000. It’s a 10. Ty Dolla $ign will eventually appear in this column.)

The German dance DJ Zedd also came out with a “Rude” remix, and I have at least one friend who insisted that it was good. I’d agree that it’s better than the original version of “Rude,” but that’s really not saying much. (Zedd’s highest-charting single, the Maren Morris/Grey collab “The Middle,” peaked at #5 in 2018. It’s a 7. Zedd is also a featured guest on Ariana Grande’s “Break Free,” a #4 hit in 2014. That one is an 8.) The remixes probably helped, but I am forced to confront the conclusion that “Rude” stuck around as long as it did largely because people liked “Rude.”

Magic! released their own debut album Don’t Kill The Magic in June 2014, before “Rude” ascended to #1. The title reads like someone trying to talk me down after reading this column. I have now listened to that album once, and I won’t do it again. The other songs all sound like “Rude,” except less catchy and therefore less annoying. The album had more singles, and a bunch of them charted in Canada, where “Rude” only reached #6. Mercifully, though, none of those other songs got anywhere near the Hot 100. Once “Rude” was gone from the #1 spot, the record simply ceased to exist. I’m not going to force you to learn anything about those other songs.

After “Rude” fell out of the #1 spot, Magic! made an album track with former Number Ones artist Shakira, toured a bit, played a couple of awards shows, and largely disappeared. The success of “Rude” did not lead to a new wave of flavorless pop-reggae. The song was a blip and nothing more. It’s an octuple platinum blip with two and a half billion YouTube views, but a successful blip is still a blip.

Two years after Don’t Kill The Magic, Magic! returned with their sophomore LP Primary Colours. Lead single “Lay You Down Easy” featured Sean Paul, someone who’s been in this column a couple of times, and it did well enough to chart in in Canada, Australia, and Japan. Not here, though. America completely ignored the whole album. (Must’ve been the way they spelled Colours.) While promoting the record, Nasri told Rolling Stone that he’d gotten sick of singing “Rude”: “It was like, ‘Oh, I’m a fucking dancing monkey right now.'” Hey! Nobody forced you to make “Rude”! Don’t expect any sympathy from me, pal!

Magic! are still a band, though I’m happy to report that searches of “Magic! band” mostly bring back Disney World-related results. Magic!’s universally ignored third album Expectations came out in 2018, and they apparently toured South America earlier this spring. The Messengers have continued to write and produce tracks for big stars, but as far as I can tell, none of those tracks has reached the Hot 100 since 2017, when “Not Afraid Anymore,” a Halsey ballad from the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack, peaked at #77. (Halsey will eventually appear in this column.)

I don’t like to use the 1 rating too often. It’s something that I generally reserve for songs that offend me on a bone-deep level, songs that I simply cannot tolerate. I love pop music, and I can usually find some redeeming factor in even the wackest of hits. I didn’t expect to go to the bottom of the ratings scale for “Rude.” Figured it might be a 2 or a 3. Theoretically, the song is too goofy and forgettable to inspire much hatred. But this shit just fucking sucks. I’m sorry. I hate everything about it. The more I think about “Rude,” the more pissed off I get. I can’t even explain it. If someone were to ask me why I gotta be so ruuuuude, I couldn’t answer. All I can say is I gotta.

GRADE: 1/10

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BONUS BEATS: For whatever reason, Mark Anthony performed “Rude” with Magic! at the Latin Grammy Awards in 2014. Here it is:

(Mark Anthony’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit, 2000’s “You Sang To Me,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Will you buy it? Say yes, say yes, ’cause I need to know. (I don’t actually need to know. Do whatever you want.)

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