Few bands have what it takes to come up with that one massive hit that most people in the world will instantly associate with their name. It may not be their greatest or their most unannoying song, but it's the one they'll be thankful for when someone inevitably uses it for a cellphone ad. Of course, many times "what it takes" has less to do with their own talent and more to do with their capacity to take songs someone else rejected or flat-out steal them from another artist.
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Ah, the halcyon days of 2005. It was an innocent time when we were still optimistic about Episode III, getting our hopes way up about Lost, and not entirely sure that Kanye West was an asshole. In all three cases, of course, our naive optimism was dashed against the hard, cruel rocks of reality. For Kanye, those rocks came in the form and were even the central theme of "Gold Digger," a misogynistic but endlessly danceable ode to bitches obsessed with money and jewelry.
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"Irony? Nah, I get my shit steam cleaned."
If you've somehow made it to 2014 without hearing it, the chorus to this delightful little number goes "Now I ain't sayin' you're a gold digger, but you ain't messin' with no broke [word that rhymes with 'digger']." To Kanye's credit, he never intended to record it himself. To take that credit right the hell back, Kanye's head was so far up his ass even back then that he earnestly believed any woman on Earth would want anything to do with this song. According to A&R rep Patrick "Plain Pat" Reynolds, Kanye crafted the entire song specifically for rapper Shawnna.
Cracked Fact: Not male.
Now, you may think that having a woman recite those lyrics actually makes the song less offensive, since it would turn into a denunciation of shallow hoes from an independent woman, but you're forgetting that Kanye West operates on a different logic from the rest of us mortals. We say that because the song was actually meant to be recited from a first-person perspective, i.e., "I'm not sayin' I'm a gold digger, but I ain't messin' with no broke n-----." Reynolds says he's "not sure why" Shawnna passed on the song, because he's apparently never spoken to a woman ever.
Utterly surprised that a woman wasn't interested in publicly declaring herself a hooker, Kanye flipped the perspective and recruited Jamie Foxx to sing some verses in his best Ray Charles voice (because, again, Kanye logic). The song, of course, became a huge hit for Kanye, catapulting him to a career filled with more opportunities to be a clueless jackass about things. Thanks, Shawnna.
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After more than two decades of drinking, drugging, and rocking our collective faces off, Aerosmith scored their first #1 hit in 1998 with "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," that inescapable sappy love ballad from the Armageddon soundtrack. If you hated Aerosmith, we're guessing that song (or that "animal cracker" scene in Armageddon that went along with it) was the apex of your hatred:
It seemed like the ultimate sellout moment for a band that had been heading down that road for a while. But when you find out where the song started ... well, it looks even worse.
Basically, the band just ran out of ideas. The power ballad wasn't exactly uncharted territory for Aerosmith, so it made sense to ask them to bust their feelings back out for Steven Tyler's daughter Liv's upcoming blockbuster. Unfortunately, they dug deep into the hole where their feelings used to be and came up empty.
To be fair, you'd draw blanks too if you needed to come up with a radio-friendly song about Ben Afflecking your daughter.
That's when the record label presented them with a little number by Diane Warren, the she-devil behind every lite FM hit of the '90s. The executive noted that it had already been claimed for someone else, but, quickly running out of time and fucks to give, the band stole it right up from under the nose of fucking Celine Dion.
That's right: The biggest hit of arguably the most successful American rock band of the late 20th century was almost sung by a pop star so cheesy and dramatic that her overwrought performances are indistinguishable from their own SNL parodies. There's an alternate universe out there where this song is "My Heart Will Go On, Part 2," and that world makes so much more sense than ours.
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We also assume that universe's Michael Bay somehow learned a way to steal all the talent from ours to augment his own.
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Even if you could not give less of a shit about Beyonce and had no idea why Twitter was blowing up about her a few months ago, you know "Irreplaceable." You know this song because its hook -- "to the left, to the left" -- became the go-to catchphrase of every fake-tanned, acrylic-nailed, selfie-taking woman when she wanted to express displeasure with her mate, because coming up with your own "fuck yous" is hard. It also won a Grammy and stuff.
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And may have subliminally gotten Obama elected.
In its early incarnation, however, it's likely those lovely ladies would never have even heard the song, unless it was in the two seconds between accidentally tuning to a country music station and realizing you accidentally tuned to a country music station. Yep, "Irreplaceable" was originally meant for the likes of Shania Twain or Faith Hill.
The song and its famous refrain had a long, weird journey into the zeitgeist. When it was first conceived by R&B star and ridiculous name haver Ne-Yo, it was from a man's perspective, as he intended to sing the song himself. Eventually, Yo decided that it was better suited not only for a feminine voice, but a much whiter one. Exactly how white? Think cowboy boots, big hair, and unreasonable romantic double standards. With Twain or Hill in mind (Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton were unavailable), Ne-Yo had tweaked "Irreplaceable" into a foot-stomping, twangy country style. It sounds insane, but if you focus hard on your peripheral vision and believe in magic, you can totally hear it. Or you can just check out this cover by Sugarland at the American Music Awards in the style of the original arrangement.
Fate stepped in when Beyonce did, barging in and demanding the song in that way you just know she has, but Ne-Yo producer Tor Hermansen claims that if they had been putting together a song knowing it was for her, "Irreplaceable" is light-years away from what they would have come up with. Hermansen is adamant in his belief that the song would have been a country classic and honestly seems kind of annoyed about it being such an R&B smash hit, but all those royalty checks are probably good consolation.
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Without "Margaritaville," Jimmy Buffett is pretty much just the creepy old man at the tiki bar, but that enormous hit made him a professional creepy old man at the tiki bar. He's built an empire on the song, with all kinds of tacky theme restaurants, resorts, and pieces of outdoor furniture sporting the "Margaritaville" name. And it all happened because of one incredibly lucky stroke. Namely, this:
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"Peanut butter, sequin industries file for bankruptcy."
Perhaps we should elaborate. When the King of Rock and Roll keeled over on his throne (perhaps literally), it changed music history in a lot of ways, but this is one of the weirder ones. We'll never know if he would have cleaned up his act or descended ever further into gaudy-jumpsuited madness, but we actually do have an idea where he was immediately headed, and it points pretty decisively to the latter, considering what his next hit was supposed to be. Yep, Buffett wrote "Margaritaville" not for himself, but for Elvis.
If you're thinking that Elvis would have never gone near a Caribbean country ballad, you're clearly not on the same drugs he was, because amazingly, he agreed to record it -- and promptly died on us. Buffett was sad (and just a little bit offended by the implication), but then promptly recorded the song himself.
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Jimmy Buffett, looking as sad as he humanly can.
Of course, country ballads were actually not unfamiliar to the King, and we have every reason to believe he would have rocked that shit, but it is undeniably weird to think of Elvis as the "Margaritaville" guy instead of Buffett. For starters, it would have been impossible for late-era Elvis to sing "Watching the sun bake / All of those tourists covered in oil" without sounding just a tiny bit cannibalistic.
Buffett seems to realize that the King's fatal lust for fried peanut butter is the only reason he has a career. Before playing the song in an episode of CMT Crossroads, he comments, "This song was written the same year that Elvis died, and Elvis was supposed to do this song, [but] Elvis went on to the Graceland in the sky and I got to do it, so ... thanks, King." Wait, did he really just thank a legend for dying because it made him a lot of money?
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"Physical" is the official sexiest song of all time, a success that can be chiefly attributed to the unexpected contrast of the raunchy lyrics with Olivia Newton-John's innocent voice and wholesome persona. We guess the video featuring Sandy from Grease gallivanting around in a leotard didn't exactly hurt, either, even though it's so '80s that the lens appears to have been dusted with cocaine. But if songwriter Steve Kipner had gotten his way, we would have gotten something much different -- and yuckier.
How much yuckier? This much:
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"Olivia steals my song? I steal her clothes."
According to Kipner, he never considered handing the song over to a woman. He was adamant that the singer be a "macho male rock figure" -- specifically, he'd set his sights on Rod Stewart. Remember, this was back in Stewart's heyday, when he was demanding to know if we want his body and think he's sexy in all his sleazy glory. He looks like he feels and smells exactly like fried chicken. Even so, he was considered a sex symbol in his time -- his song "Tonight's the Night" is right behind "Physical" on that list of sexiest songs, no doubt pressing itself against the other numbers in an inappropriate manner.
However, consider lyrics like "I took you to an intimate restaurant, then to a suggestive movie / There's nothing left to talk about unless it's horizontally" coming from that goddamn creepshow. It would have retconned Stewart's entire catalog irretrievably into Sex Offenderland.
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Instead of synthesizers, the background music in his version would have been rape whistles.
Fortunately, Newton-John's manager heard the demo first. Apparently he just happened to be in the neighborhood -- or maybe he sensed something incredibly icky was about to go down and knew he was the only one who could stop it. The details aren't clear, but within an hour, Newton-John swooped in, went nuts for the song, and insisted that she take it. Is Olivia Newton-John actually an angel sent to Earth to save us from a fate of Rod Stewart pleading us greasily to "let me hear your body talk"? We don't know, we're just asking questions. In return, the universe rewarded her with the most successful song of the '80s and a completely revitalized career.
Universal Music Enterprises
Uh, for a while.
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Let It Be was so good that the Beatles decided never to release another album again. (Apparently they weren't getting along so well -- that might have had something to do with it, too.) The title track is particularly noteworthy, a soulful gospel ballad that seems out of place among the mellow rock and roll of late-era Beatles, but that's just another example of the relentless, genre-defying experimentation that characterized the greatest band of the 20th century.
Wait, no. It's actually because Paul McCartney wrote the song thinking an actual soul artist would sing it. The queen of all soul artists, in fact.
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Before that, he'd already given her all of the Beatles' wigs, which she wore at the same time.
According to Aretha Franklin's producer, the only reason "Let It Be" became a Beatles song is because Franklin took way too long to release it. When McCartney wrote it in 1968, he knew he wasn't exactly the heart of soul, so he offered the track to someone who was. He sent the demo to Franklin, who recorded it immediately, but then started having second thoughts. She actually postponed the song's release indefinitely because -- get this -- she couldn't figure out what the words meant.
Far be it for us to question the judgment of the reigning queen of soul, but as far as post-acid Beatles songs go, "Let It Be" is about as straightforward as they come -- half the lyrics are just the title repeated over and over -- but apparently Franklin didn't trust those dirty longhairs.
While the unlikely duo of pious minister and hard-edged detective that Franklin had presumably hired to pore over the song's lyrics searched for hidden satanic messages, the Beatles were getting tired of their masterpiece going to waste. They called legal backsies and recorded their own version in 1969, which eventually became one of their best known songs. While Franklin actually did get around to releasing the song first, it was so overshadowed by the massive success of the Beatles' last album that people still think of her version as the cover.
Now, it's likely that McCartney would have recorded the song in the future anyway ... with Wings. Yeah, that was a close one.
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