Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #40. “Oh, It’s What You Do To Me…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 15, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

It seems that me that when you get a really good song which, for whatever reason, doesn’t sound like anything else on the radio, it tends to either not make it at all as a hit, or become monstrously successful. If a song is too good (or just too notable) for the public to ignore it, all it needs is that little commercial push for it to completely take off in flight. This is how songs like Kid Cudi’s “Day n Nite” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” become top five hits–all the powers that be (radio, MTV, music supervisors on medical dramas) need to do is to let people know that this weird-sounding song is worth consideration in the sphere of popular music, and the song does the rest of the work from there. That’s how I see it, anyway. And that’s why after I listened to Plain White T’s’ “Hey There Delilah” for the first time after it snuck into the top half of the charts, I basically had no doubt that it was going to be enormous.

Not that “Hey There Delilah” is an explicitly anti-commercial, innovative or new-sounding song–it’s just a small, heartfelt little ballad about a long-distance relationship where the guy urges the girl to keep the faith in their love, a song that anyone from Jim Croce to John Mayer probably could have had success with in their respective eras. But you can’t deny that there was something jarring, something simply unexpected about “Delilah” when it first hit. It was so simple and stripped-down, just a guy and a guitar (and some strings, depending on the version), singing a love song. There was no big swell, no elaborate breakdown section, and certainly no moment when the entire band kicked in for maximum lighter-waving potential. In a time when even the most sensitive balladeers seemed to need big-budget production numbers to get their point across, “Hey There Delilah” felt almost a little bit sneaky in the plain way it presented itself.

Moreso than how it sounded, though, it was the way the song felt that made it damn near revolutionary in the scope of 00s pop. It’s appropriate that “Delilah” should be back-to-back with “Hanging By a Moment” on this list (not intentional, at least I don’t think), since the two songs are almost certainly the most unapologetically straightforward and sincere songs to find massive crossover pop success this decade. For better or worse, from the sappy-sounding titular opening line to the occasionally awkward rhymes in the verses (“I’d write it all” with “Even more in love with me, you’d fall” is a particular offender) to the repeated chorus exclamation of “Oh, it’s what you do to me!“…there’s absolutely no pretense to be found, no attempt to sound funny or modern or cool, no guard put up whatsoever. For this reason, the song has met with derision from many–a staggering list of parodies can be found on the song’s Wikipedia page, each less clever-sounding than the last, adorned with the all-too-apt lead-in, “The song’s sincere lyrics and simple structure have made it the target of numerous parodies.”

And it’s kind of hard to argue with the haters when it comes to “Hey There Delilah.” If you have at least one sarcastic bone in your body–and few of us are missing that–chances are at least decent that you’ll hear this song once and be reflexively filled with such bilious disdain for the Plain White T’s and lead singer Tom Higgenson that you never make it through a second listen. Hell, if I had heard for the first time on a Friday instead of a Thursday, or whatever, the odds aren’t terrible that I’d hate it too. But I love this song. I do. I wouldn’t necessarily view myself as a hopeless romantic, and I’ve certainly had my share of moments where I’ve given legitimate thought to the possibility that I might be completely dead inside, but there’s at least a part of me, however dormant, that’s still sentimental enough to see the good that there is to be seen in this song. If I had an accoustic guitar, I’d probably learn how to play it eventually. Yeah, it’s like that.

The main question when forming one’s opinion of “Hey There Delilah” basically comes down to this: Can a song be too sincere? That was what my friend said about it the first time he heard it–that maybe there was a reason why you don’t normally hear songs this straightforward on the radio, that no one can be that wide-eyed and smitten without coming off as completely insufferable. He had a point, certainly. I mean, it’s fair to assume that most of us wouldn’t tolerate a “Hey There Delilah”-esque situation in real life–like if we were hanging out with a friend who was talking with his girlfriend on the phone, gushing on and on about how much he loves and misses her, without maintaining any sort of perspective or giving any consideration to how he sounded to the people around him. The eye-rolls would come so fast and furious that that you’d need to get a prescription for some sort of medical goggles if you ever planned on hanging out with that friend again.

But maybe the most brilliant thing about “Hey There Delilah” is that Higgenson even addresses these very haters in the lyrics to the song’s bridge. “Our friends will all make fun of us / And we’ll just laugh along becuse / We know that none of them have felt this way.” The first time I listened to “Delilah,” this was the line that really struck me, and continues to do so. Basically, Higgenson openly acknowledges that yeah, he probably sounds a little like a tool for being so optimistic and sentimental, and yeah, if his friends were listening right now, they’d probably give him a whole lot of shit for it. But he takes the power away from the doubters, essentially saying “laugh if you want, but you’d trade places with me in a second if you knew what I was feeling right now.” And yeah, most of us probably would. He’s not really patronizing the caustic listener, he’s just telling them that hey, it might be more fun to love instead of hate. And if you thought the song was dumb before, you’re probably rolling in the aisles at this point, and fair enough. But it worked on me.

Besides, the song is really far more emotionally complex than either you or I tend to give it credit for. I don’t usually take songwriting inspiration stories much into account when analyzing a song, but it’s kind of hard to ignore when it comes to the well-circulated story behind the creation of “Hey There Delilah,” since it really can change your perception of the song. The muse behind the song was cross-country runner Delilah DiCrescenzo, whom Higgenson had met once and had fallen hard for (“I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen”). But she already had a boyfriend, and the two were never actually romantically involved, the song coming as something of a shock to DiCrescenzo once it became popular. (She eventually went on a platonic date with him to the Grammys, where the song had been nominated for Song of the Year). It’s noteworthy, just because “Delilah” seems so genuine, so written from personal experience, that it feels instinctively wrong that it wasn’t even slightly based on a true story.

But that’s why I don’t think this song can be too sincere. Because really, even as he chastises them, Higgenson is just like his friends, having never actually “felt this way.” He’s not writing the song as an extension of his love, he’s writing it out of the hope to one day achieve it, as a kind of wish fulfilment. “Hey There Delilah” is a story about an emotional ideal that few, if any of us (let alone Higgenson himself) are likely to ever completely achieve in our lifetime, but which maybe we’ve gotten a glimpse of, a few seconds here and there, despite all of our doubts and reservations. The main point of the song is to remind us that that feeling does exist and is still out there in that idealized form, whether or not we ever get to feel it again. And even in my bitterest, dourest, most dead-inside moments, I won’t really hate on the song for that. What can I say? It’s what it does to me.

(Notably, the Plain White T’s’ first hit was the across-the-board deplorable “Hate (I Really Don’t Like You),” a song every bit as sneering and off-putting as “Delilah” was well-intentioned and winning. Only in the Naughty Oughties, really).

(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far (Now With Links!):

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
90. Cassie – “Me & U
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It
81. 311 – “Amber
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite
79. Nas – “Made You Look
78. Royksopp – “Eple
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!
67. Incubus – “Stellar
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday
55. Darude – “Sandstorm
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside
52. Luomo – “Tessio
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic
43. Kings of Leon – “Sex on Fire
42. Jennifer Lopez f/ Ja Rule – “I’m Real (Remix)
41. Lifehouse – “Hanging By a Moment
40. Plain White T’s – “Hey There Delilah”

3 Responses to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #40. “Oh, It’s What You Do To Me…””

  1. MBI said

    The simplicity and occasional awkwardness of the rhymes, I think, are justified by the way he frames it as a song written by a boyfriend to a girlfriend over a long distance call. That’s why it sounds like he wrote it in fifteen minutes, and that backstory makes it all sound legitimately sweet — without that, I don’t think I would be able to stand it, but in honesty I think it’s kind of brilliant.

  2. ZD said

    I hate hate hate hate hated this song the first, I dunno, 50 listens. But for whatever reason, upon learning of it, the story behind the song bowled me over, and my thoughts about the song have never been the same. And the real-life Delilah (who really is adorable, even if she choked something fierce at the Olympic trials) is to blaaaaaaaame. When I see doe eyes I’m…well, like a deer in headlights.

    Seeing this song on your list also ups the happy factor that came from getting this tossup against youse guys in the final round of the 2008 TRASHionals too, ya know…

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