The Number Ones

April 8, 1989

The Number Ones: Roxette’s “The Look”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

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They printed the lyrics on the cover of the single. What a flex. What an unbelievable act of hubris. It would be weird for anyone to put the full text of any song’s lyrics on a single cover. For Roxette’s “The Look,” a song that’s positively ecstatic in its own meaninglessness, it’s a downright surreal decision.

On record, the lyrics for “The Look” are confoundingly silly. On paper, they’re positively absurd. Consider: “Walking like a man/ Hitting like a hammer/ She’s a juvenile scam/ Never was a quitter/ Tasty like a raindrop/ She’s got the look.”

Or: “Heavenly bound, ’cause heaven’s got a number/ When she’s spinning me around, kissing is a color/ Her loving is a wild dog/ She’s got the look.”

Or even: “Fire in the ice, naked to the T-bone is a lover’s disguise/ Banging on the head drum/ Shaking like a wild bull/ She’s got the look.”

Or, listen, I can’t stop myself: “She’s a miracle man/ Loving is the ocean/ Kissing is the wet sand/ She’s got the look.”

I want you to take a second here and really appreciate what those words are doing. Savor the images that pop into your mind. Tasty like a raindrop. Her loving is a wild dog. Shaking like a wild bull. Kissing is the wet sand. That is some high-grade meaninglessness right there. That is art. Those words don’t just resist interpretation; they actively repel it. Anyone trying to decode this stuff is just going to feel stupid. The lyrics for “The Look” would be utterly flummoxing in any context, even if you just encountered them as refrigerator poetry. As songs lyrics? Song lyrics that are printed on the cover art? They almost work as a protest against the very idea of language itself.

Per Gessle, one half of the Swedish duo Roxette, wrote the music for “The Look,” and then he added a bunch of nonsense lyrics as placeholders. Since Gessle didn’t think “The Look” would be anything but filler material on the second Roxette album — an album that would presumably never be released in the English-speaking world — Gessle never came up with new lyrics.

In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of No. 1 Hits, Gessle makes some attempt at explaining those lyrics: “It’s a sort of Marc Bolan-ish type of lyric, which I like. I really enjoy word games.” In this case, the game must be utterly stripping words of anything resembling meaning, turning them into pure sound. I love that. Trust a Swede to refine and perfect the fine art of pop-song lyrical gibberish.

“The Look” was, to put things mildly, an unlikely hit. Roxette were big stars in Sweden, and they were total unknowns everywhere else on the planet. Gessle had tried to break through in America once before, years earlier, and his attempt had failed miserably. But fate takes many forms. In this case, fate took the form of an American exchange student who brought a CD home, gave it to his local pop radio station, and helped launch what would become a massive global pop act. But we’ll get to that.

By the time Roxette made their American breakthrough, both Gessle and his bandmate Marie Fredriksson were 30, and they were both veterans of Sweden’s music scene. (When Gessle was born, the #1 single in America was the Platters’ “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Fredriksson was six months older than Gessle, and the Hot 100 didn’t yet exist when she was born.) In a lot of ways, Roxette played a crucial bridge role in the history of Sweden’s still-thriving pop industry, connecting the global dominance of former Number Ones artists ABBA to the mathematically precise computer-pop that this column will eventually discuss in detail. The glorious Scandinavian strain of English-as-a-second-language pop-music silliness runs right through Roxette.

Roxette’s ABBA connections aren’t theoretical. In 1982, when Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the former ABBA singer better known as Frida, released her Phil Collins-produced album Something’s Going On, Gessle’s name was in the liner notes. Gessle co-wrote Frida’s song “Threnody.” (Gessle’s job was to set the words of an old Dorothy Parker poem to music, so Gessle and Dorothy Parker actually share songwriting credit. I wonder what Parker would’ve thought of the lyrics for “The Look.”) At the time, Gessle was the frontman of Gyllene Tider, a rock band that was hugely popular in Sweden. In the early ’80s, Gyllene Tider’s first three albums all went to #1 on the Swedish charts. Since their lyrics were in Swedish, they didn’t exactly have a whole lot of prospects elsewhere.

In 1985, Gyllene Tider gave the rest of the world a shot. The band switched to English and recorded an album called The Heartland Café. Gyllene Tider were signed to the Swedish branch of EMI, and Capitol, EMI’s American affiliate, decided to give this group a shot. They took six tracks from The Heartland Café and released them as an EP in America. Someone figured out that nobody in America would have the faintest idea how to pronounce the name “Gyllene Tider,” so the band changed its name for the American release. Gessle named this iteration of Gyllene Tider after a 1975 song from the British pub-rock band Dr. Feelgood. He called them Roxette.

That change didn’t make any difference. The EP version of The Heartland Café disappeared without a trace in America. Soon afterward, Gyllene Tider broke up. But something good came out of it. Marie Fredriksson, who’d known Gessle for a long time, sang backup on The Heartland Café. Fredriksson had started out as the leader of a punk band called Strul, and then she’d led a group called MaMas Barn. When they broke up, EMI Sweden signed Fredriksson as a solo artist, but she wasn’t very comfortable in that role. After The Heartland Café, Fredriksson sang backup on a Per Gessle solo album. An exec at EMI suggested that Gessle and Fredriksson form a group together, and that made sense to both of them. Gessle brought back the Roxette name, and the newly formed duo released their debut single “Neverending Love” in 1986.

“Neverending Love,” a neat little piece of frothy and generic mid-’80s pop, was a #3 hit in Sweden. More hits followed. Roxette’s 1986 debut album Pearls Of Passion went to #2 on the Swedish charts. In their first few years, Roxette landed five singles in their homeland’s top 10. The sixth was “The Look.” Gessle intended to write “The Look,” the opening track from Roxette’s 1988 sophomore album Look Sharp!, as “a ZZ Top type of thing.” Judged on those merits, “The Look” is a failure. For a few months, Gessle didn’t even play the song for Fredriksson.

Gessle’s whole idea for Roxette was that Fredriksson would sing all the lead vocals, but Fredriksson’s voice was too big for “The Look.” Gessle sang it himself, with Fredriksson chipping in on the chorus. Gessle didn’t think “The Look” should be a single, but it came out in Sweden and peaked at #6 on the charts over there.

Around the same time, Dean Cushman, an American exchange student who was spending a year studying in Stockholm, flew back home for Christmas break. Cushman had been to see Roxette in Sweden, and he’d bought Look Sharp! While he was back in Minneapolis, Cushman took his copy of Look Sharp! to the local pop station KDWB. Brian Phillips, the same program director who helped turn Sheriff’s “When I’m With You” into a #1 hit six years after its release, listened to the album almost as a joke. (Cushman had asked for his CD back by then.) “The Look” is the first song on the album, and it grabbed Phillips right away.

Phillips started playing “The Look” on the air. People liked it. The other pop station in town tried to find a copy of the song and couldn’t. Phillips sent cassettes of “The Look” to affiliate stations in other cities, and some of them started playing the track. Capitol had already turned down the chance to give Roxette an American release. When “The Look” took off at radio, the label reconsidered.

Back in Sweden, Gessle was surprised to learn that American radio stations had started playing one of his songs, and he was even more surprised to learn that the song they were playing was “The Look,” which he thought was a throwaway. But Gessle had been reading Billboard every week for years, so when “The Look” finally came out in the US and debuted at #50, a pretty great first-week number in the pre-SoundScan era, Gessle knew that the record was going places.

Later on, talking to Fred Bronson, Gessle mused on how appropriate it was that “The Look” took such a random route to the top: “Minneapolis really embraced the band. We got a fair amount of local press, so there was this local pride angle, and keep in mind that there are a tremendous number of Scandinavians in Minneapolis.” Gessle thought maybe “The Look” would only connect with the Minnesota viking types, but instead, the song went global. The song reached #1 in Australia and Canada and Germany, and it went top-10 pretty much everywhere else. I was a nine-year-old kid living in London at the time, and I can remember seeing Roxette on Top Of The Pops and thinking they were extremely cool. At that point, I didn’t really know what any pop singers were talking about, so I didn’t even properly appreciate the absurd delirium of those lyrics. I was right, though. Roxette were cool as hell.

When Roxette released their first greatest-hits album in 1995, they called it Don’t Bore Us, Get To The Chorus! That’s a nice bit of wordplay, and it’s also an organizing principle. I have to imagine that “The Look” took inspiration from Prince’s 1987 monster “U Got The Look.” (“U Got The Look” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.) When Gessle sings that she’s got the look, I don’t totally know what he means, and I’m not sure he does, either. I get it, though.

Gessle may say that he was playing word games when he wrote “The Look,” but you and I both know that he was really participating in the grand Swedish pop tradition of picking the word that’ll sound the best, regardless of meaning. That’s “The Look.” The lyrics, ridiculous as they are, are merely part of the whole musical equation. Everything about “The Look” is mathematically calibrated to hit just right.

Artistically speaking, “The Look” is a bit of a trifle. The song has a big, stanky baritone guitar riff, but it’s not really a rock song. It’s got an endless synth-pulse, but it’s not really a dance track. It’s got a strutting sense of syncopation, but it’s definitely not funk. The song sidelines Marie Fredriksson’s massive yowl, and it turns its focus instead on Per Gessle, whose voice is a bit of a frog-wheeze. In the end, though, none of this matters. “The Look” just mashes my brain’s pleasure centers again and again. It works.

I think it’s a matter of timing. That opening guitar riff rings out, and then the staring-into-infinity synth-beat kicks in. Gessle delivers his inscrutable nothings in an icy monotone, with Fredriksson wailing behind him. Their voices lock in with that beat, and they become part of it. The production is relatively hard and spare, but it’s packed with tiny hooks, all of which arrive at just the right moment: The short yip before the guitar solo, the staccato synth-strings, the thundering drum fills, the “na na na” part. (They printed the “na na na” part on the single cover, too.)

The chorus is just four words tossed back and forth between Gessle and Fredriksson, but it sounds colossal. After the fake ending, when everything goes silent for a couple of seconds and then comes rushing back, it sounds even more colossal. You can waste all your effort on trying to write lyrics that make sense, or you can focus your energy on making something like that happen. Roxette chose wisely.

If “The Look” had been Roxette’s only American hit, then the duo’s story would’ve still made for an extremely fun and random moment in pop-chart history. But there was more transcendent silliness where that came from. Roxette, I am delighted to report, will appear in this column again.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: On a 1991 episode of Baywatch, “The Look” soundtracks a montage of a guy trying to impress Erika Eleniak and failing badly. Here’s that:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the rocked-up cover of “The Look” that Electric Six released in 2015:

(Electric Six have never had a Hot 100 hit, but 2003’s “Danger! High Voltage,” which made it to #2 in the UK, remains an almighty banger.)

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