Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #16. “If I Could Fall Into the Sky…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 30, 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.

I know you remember the scene. Even if you missed actually seeing the Naughty Oughties cinematic standard-bearer that was White Chicks–and if so you’re misisng out, on something, probably–you no doubt were inundated with the endless previews for it on network TV, so you probably saw the scene at least a dozen times. A car full of the titular group (two of which are actually Wayans Brothers in whiteface/drag, undercover as a couple of WASP heiresses for reasons long since lost to time) are listening to the radio when Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” comes on. The girls (who are actually Kim Kelly from Freaks and Geeks, Deb from Dexter and one of the first chicks to get killed in Valentine) declare it Their Jam, and start to sing along to it in perfect unison–minus, of course, the two Wayanses, who stammer awkwardly through the chorus. Then Valentine girl changes the channel to a BIG and 50 Cent duet (which I swear was actually “Get Low” in the previews, a much more logical choice) and the undercover black dudes start rapping along, much to the (initial) consternation of said White Chicks.

The movie may or may not have gotten a couple of things wrong in their creative decisions, but this one was right on the money: “A Thousand Miles” was the ultimate White Chick anthem of the Naughty Oughties. Not all of us necessarily know what it felt like to be Caucasian and female in the first decade of the new millennium, but after listening to “A Thousand Miles,” a think we all at least had a pretty good idea. Or we thought we did. Hoped we did. Because that was the main thing White Chicks was missing–a scene about 40 minutes later in the movie, where, after being fully indoctrinated into the White Chick cult, Shawn and Marlon once again hear the song in the radio, and now sing along at the top of their longs with rapturous glee and complete un-self-consciousness, knowing all the words down pat. Not just because it would surely be comedic gold to see two black dudes going wild to a Vanessa Carlton song, but because nobody, regardless of gender, color or creed, really needs much of an excuse to let themselves get swept up in a song as good as this.

“A Thousand Miles” was one of those songs that felt so natural and logical a creation that it was hard to believe pop music took such a long time to get around to it. In fact, I barely even remember a time when it was particularly popular (It actually peaked at #5 on the charts in May of 2001), just that one day it wasn’t there and the next day it was an inextricable part of the decade’s DNA, to be forever present on the radio, in movies and in commercials. In a way it felt like the humongous pop crossover that artsier 90s ivory-ticklers like Tori Amos and Fiona Apple could never quite manage themselves, but in another way, it felt from a much more timeless lineage than that. Indeed, the best musical comparison for the song (and one that didn’t occur to me until years after I first heard it) was probably an early Billy Joel number–not only did it have that same kind of irrepressible bombast, it felt like an impossibly sincere attempt to tap into the wisdom of pop music to get at the core of the nature of love and life, just like all of Billy’s best songs from that period did.

And oh lordy, that piano riff. Even in a decade where the piano was about to become a focal point in pop music like it hadn’t been in about a generation, “A Thousand Miles” stood, well, miles above the rest. You’d have to go back years to even find a guitar riff as instantly classic and iconic as the sparkling cascade that begins the song here, and as far as piano riffs go, you’d really have to go back to the days of Billy, Bruce and Elton to find one its equal. It was heartfelt and vulnerable and naive and (probably) turned hardened criminals into sixteen-year-old girls writing diary confessionals and dotting the “i”s with hearts within just a couple of bars. Vanessa was just 18 when she composed the riff  in her parents’ house in Philadelphia (she would need some time to properly fill in the lyrics), and that’s probably a good thing–a couple more years of life as an adult and she might have been too world-weary to come up with such an unapologetically wide-eyed and unsuspecting riff. Seriously.

The verses are actually surprisingly sparse for a singer-songwriter number. The first has Vanessa walking home amidst a crowd of people, feeling anonymous and isolated (“Walking fast / Faces pass,” “Just staring blankly ahead / Making my way”), and the second has her contemplated a potentially unrequited crush (“It’s always times like this / I think of you / And I wonder if you ever think of me”). The verses lead to a disarmingly simple pre-chorus (“And I need you / And I miss you”) before launching into its no-holds-barred chorus, culminating of course in the main hook: ‘Coz you know I’d walk a thousand miles, if I could just see you tonight.” No words are really wasted, and while the lyrics are pretty good (they set the scene, if nothing else), they’re certainly not too good–part of the song’s charm is that it feels so directly lifted from the scribblings of the quiet girl in your High School freshman English class, and if it was just a little more clever, it would’ve probably come off feeling like a con of some sort. And really, you just couldn’t go wrong with a chorus conceit like that–from Edwin Starr to The Proclaimers, what pop lyrical tic ever feels more time-honored than testifying a willingness to walk an absurdly long distance to get to a loved one?

Marc Klasfeld gave the song the video it deserved–Vanessa playing on her piano while somehow being shuttled around various backdrops, a nice play not only on the travel themes of the lyrics but on the song’s general transportive power–and it was well on its way to omnipresence. Most fitting of the song’s many pop culture cameos was as the soundtrack to a number of particularly schmaltzy Zales’s Jewelers ads, a ploy so obvious and yet so undeniable that it kind of feels like cheating in some respect. More surprising was the song’s eventual adoption by the hip-hop community–Carlton claimed Fabolous and Ja Rule to be big fans, T.I. sampled the song for his “At It All Night” and Kanye West issued the following statement about it on his blog: “This must be the white song that all black people like, you know every year there’s a song that black people like and this is that.” (Kanye went on to say that he loved the string arrangements–indeed, an underrated aspect of the song, unfortunately lost under the grandeur of the piano riff–although he said that he only liked until he saw the movie White Girls [sic]).

Hard to argue with. Perhaps Carlton’s acceptance in the hip-hop community was due to the old maxim of Real recognizing Real–I suppose it’s possible that in her real life, Carlton was a sloppy drunk that slept with half her high school football team, but listening to “A Thousand Miles,” it’s virtually impossible to imagine her being anything but that sweet, lovestruck kid just wishing for one tender moment with her unknowing paramour, feeling so borne from raw experience. It should be no surprise that Carlton was never really able to match the song’s success again in her career–you can really only be that innocent once, and hearing her as anything else than that person who’d walk a thousand miles to just see you, to just hold you tonight would just be kind of disturbing. The Wayans Brothers might have taken to it more, though, I guess.

(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
28. Beyonce f/ Jay-Z – “Crazy in Love
27. Coldplay – “Yellow
26. Lil’ Wayne – “A Milli
25. Shaggy f/ Ricardo “RikRok” Ducent – “It Wasn’t Me
24. The Strokes  – “Last Night
23. Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone
22. Radiohead – “Idioteque
21. Fall Out Boy – “Sugar, We’re Going Down
20. The All-American Rejects – “Move Along
19. OutKast – “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)
18. Interpol – “PDA
17. Justin Timberlake – “Rock Your Body
16. Vanessa Carlton – “A Thousand Miles”

5 Responses to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #16. “If I Could Fall Into the Sky…””

  1. MBI said

    What a nice thing to wake up to on a crappy Monday morning.

  2. Victor said

    There already goes one of my projected top 10…so close.

  3. Al-2 said

    Ouch. This selection is the equivalent of putting The Blind Side in your top 10 movies of the decade.

  4. Jonathan said

    It should be no surprise that Carlton was never really able to match the song’s success again in her career–you can really only be that innocent once, and hearing her as anything else than that person who’d walk a thousand miles to just see you, to just hold you tonight would just be kind of disturbing.

    Even though it wasn’t as successful, I really gotta ride for “nolita Fairytale” as being better than “1000 Miles.”

  5. Johna Seary said

    Good, Great colored, specially from the major news corperations with the big slants to the left or right. Did you see last nights Red Eye? haha, that was rediculous! Sorry, I’m rambling on once more. Have a Good 1!

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