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10 Years, 100 Songs: #29. “I’m Hearing What You Say, But I Just Can’t Make a Sound…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 14, 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.

When super-producers reach a certain commercial and/or artistic level of Do No Wrongness, they earn the rare luxury of being able to serve more as curator than artistic collaborator, waving their magic wand at certain artists and making them commercially viable with barely a modicum of extended effort. Such was certainly the case with Timabaland in late 2006, having unapologetically stormed the pop world with his work on two mega-hit albums (Nelly Furtado’s Loose and Justin Timberlake’s Future Sex/Love Sounds, both of which not only featured Timbo’s production, but also showcased him as a general vocal contributor and music video presence) and made himself the biggest star of the Naughty Oughties to never have his name on the front of the “f/” symbol on a hit. That too was about to change, however, as Mr. Mosley’s resurgent clout afforded him the opportunity to release an album on his lonesome (relatively speaking). Hence, Timbaland Presents: Shock Value, and “Apologize.”

Shock Value was mostly what should have been expected of a Timabaland solo (once again, relatively speaking) effort. He got Nelly and Justin to return the favor by appearing on the underrated muscle-flexer “Give it To Me” (maybe the second-best victory lap single of the decade behind our #37 single), he invited other super-famous people of the time to join the party (Nicole Scherzinger, Dr. Dre, Fall Out Boy), and he had a couple very awkward “Hey, look at how diverse my music tastes are!” collaborations with The Hives and Elton John. Even with all the star power on display, the album’s two biggest hits came from Timbo’s work with unknowns–“The Way I Are,” with then-nobody R&B singer Keri Hilson, and “Apologize,” with Colorado-nativer rock band OneRepublic. The former was a Mosley production through and through, identifiable within seconds, but the second was something stranger, something a little more unexpected. It sounded like Timbaland remixing a group of White Guys With Pianos, because that’s exactly what it was. That was weird enough to begin with, but far stranger was the fact that it was actually kind of…it was pretty great, really.

Even “remixing” is kind of a strong word for what Timbaland did with “Apologize.” You could probably listen to the original, Timbaland-less version of the song and get a couple minutes in before you realize that it’s different from the one you’ve heard a million times. I think Timbaland’s contributions to the song are still notable, and I’ll get into that more later, but it would probably be mildly delusional to claim that Timbo’s main contribution to the success of “Apologize” was musical. Rather, this was Tim saying to the world, “Hey, this song’s OK, check it out”–at a point in his career where a mere stamp of approval via showing up in the video was more than enough to make the song unignorable to the general public. And thus, the people saw that the song was, in fact, OK, sending the song to #2 on the charts (damn you, Alicia Keys’ “No One” and Flo Rida’s “Low”) and keeping it in the top ten for 25 weeks.

It took a little while, though. “Apologize” was a little jarring at first–not that there was anything particularly revolutionary about a piano ballad with a shuffling hip-hop beat under it, but it just wasn’t a combination you could ever really remember hearing before in that way. Especially because OneRepublic seemed, well, rather conventionally white–they had no apparent funk edge, no blue-eyed soul claims, and lead singer Ryan Tedder looked like an American Idol contestant. To infuse them with hip-hop in any way probably should have been disastrous, a cheap gimmick at best. But the integration was almost shockingly natural–it’s even there in the song’s original version, in a slightly less pronounced way. What the beat did was to ground the song, to keep it moving along at a reasonable clip, and keep it from getting too caught up in its self-pitying melodrama. As a result, not only was the ballad not emotionally overbearing, it was even sorta unnerving.

The verses did push tolerance a little bit. “I’m holding on your rope, got me ten feet off the ground” is a strong opening line, but “You tell me that you need me / Then you go and cut me down” later in the verse is already starting to get a little heavy-handed. Luckily, though, the song can afford to be a little much in the verses, because “Apologize” does something that virtually no other pop song in the Naughty Oughties had the balls to do–it pulls back in the chorus. By the end of the verses, Tedder seems ready to burst in full self-righteous bombast, but instead, he just moans in his soft falsetto “It’s too late to apologize / It’s too late.” If it was sung any harder or more dramatically than it was, it could have been laughable in its poutiness, but as is, it’s disquieting in its unembellished matter-of-factness, like there’s no point in getting angry about it anymore. It’s also shockingly sparse and non-verbose for a chorus of its kind–just a simple five-word point, no need for elaboration. It all does a dynamite job of driving the point home that, for whatever reason, it just may be too late to apologize.

And all the way, that beat just keeps chugging along, providing only the necessary amount of musical and emotional support. Timbaland’s contributions to it may not have been enormous, but they were important, fleshing it out a little bit and really just making it sound better–compare the second in-between the second verse and the second chorus, arguably the most important moment in the whole song, and you can tell just how much stronger the sense of dynamics and song structure is in Timbo’s version than the OneRepublic original. And those faint “yeah“s that you hear in the background in Tim’s remix, though they sound negligible and maybe even a little self-indulgent at first, become key to the texture of the song after several listens, adding to the sighing, resigned vibe of it. Perhaps most importantly, Tim’s version cuts off after barely three minutes again, a rare example of an 00s song that got out while the getting was good, not leaving audiences wanting more as much as it just left them not wishing for less.

“Apologize” was a very special song, more even in retrospect than was obvious at the time. And besides putting OneRepublic on the map (which so far has resulted in one further hit, last year’s “Stop and Stare,” which is already one more than I thought they’d have on their own), it had a much bigger effect by paving the way for another Tedder co-writing/production effort–Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love,” another pop ballad which subtly rode a propulsive-but-not-overpowering R&B beat to gigantic commercial success. Ultimately, though, the most enduring legacy of “Apologize” might just be to remind of a time where Timbaland had such the golden touch that he was able to bring this odd, inexplicale gem of a song to national prominence. Even if he got started phoning it in shortly thereafter (“4 Minutes,” “Elevator”–think we sorta knew it would end this way) and got weirdly buff in the process (do PEDs mar one’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame credentials?), it was awesome to see Timothy–who’d been pumping out classics of various stripes since 1996–reach that rareified pop strata, and use his powers for good once he got there.

(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 twitter.com/intensities. 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
39. MGMT – “Kids
38. Gym Class Heroes f/ Patrick Stump – “Cupid’s Chokehold
37. Franz Ferdinand – “Do You Want To
36. Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head
35. Vertical Horizon – “Everything You Want
34. The White Stripes – “Fell in Love With a Girl
33. Jay-Z – “Takeover
32. Maroon 5 – “This Love
31. Silversun Pickups – “Lazy Eye
30. M.I.A. – “Paper Planes
29. Timbaland f/ OneRepublic – “Apologize”

It actually sounds like hey, it probably is too late to apologize.

One Response to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #29. “I’m Hearing What You Say, But I Just Can’t Make a Sound…””

  1. Sam Skeen said

    Dude, “Apologize” is so inferior to “The Way I Are.”

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