That career in pop music didn’t quite happen for Natalie Imbruglia. You can tell because, really, when was the last time you thought about Natalie Imbruglia? Exactly. The answer is almost certainly “the last time “Torn” came on the radio / was played in the mall”. We are firmly in one-hit wonder land and, you know, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not quite the whole story but let’s be honest, if anyone can name another song she recorded without having to Bing it then that would be pretty remarkable.
Natalie Imbruglia isn’t a one-hit wonder in the truest sense – she’s had five top ten singles in the UK and a further two in the Top Twenty – but she also pretty much personifies what most one-hit wonders are. Which is to say someone who’s had one massive hit, a bunch of others which didn’t do quite as well and which will never be remembered, and a career that petered out a few years later through what is essentially natural wastage. Not everyone, after all, can be Kylie. None of this is intrinsically meant as a criticism, though. The song has a slightly storied history – we’ll get to that – but Imbruglia has a great voice for it, it’s a terrific performance and if it is to be your one song that leaves its mark on the charts, well, you could do worse.
The album it comes from – Left Of The Middle – isn’t half bad either. Pretty far from essential listening, sure, but it’s a perfectly solid debut which is similar in tone to its lead single. And, although “Torn” is a cover, almost all the songs on the album are co-written by Imbruglia so this isn’t some ex-soap star just going down the “find a hit-maker to get a career going” path, she’s making a genuine attempt to try and do something which has actual artistic value. That’s worth something. It helps that Imbruglia herself is an incredibly easy person to like – she’s charming, devastatingly good-looking, and possessed of just enough self-deprecation to understand her place in the world and realize it’s not at the top of the charts. Self-awareness counts for a lot too. But still – if you had to nudge up against the definition of one-hit wonder* then “Torn” is as good a fit as any.
And as far as one-hit wonders go, this is pretty good. There’s way worse one-hit wonders than “Torn”. And it’s worth reflecting for a moment on just how successful this song was. It never topped the charts in the UK yet it’s the eighty-fifth biggest selling single of all time. The story in the US is a little different and slightly more complicated – it topped the Hot 100 Airplay chart for eleven straight weeks, though because of rules which stopped songs which hadn’t been physically released from charting (1997 really is a long time ago, isn’t it?) it didn’t get on the Hot 100 until after its popularity had peaked, eventually reaching a lowly 42 even though that number doesn’t reflect the song’s actual popularity. It still got to Number 1 on the Billboard Adult Top 40 and Mainstream Top 40 though. Elsewhere it climbed to Number 1 in Sweden, Spain, Iceland, Denmark, Belgium and Canada and sold over four million copies worldwide (over one million of which were in the UK alone). That’s a pretty solid performance by any standard. Of course, the previous year “Macarena” had been the biggest global single so as always there’s no intrinsic link between popularity and quality, but it’s nevertheless pleasing to see a decent song do well. So the question, really, is if this song was such a mammoth hit, and if it’s actually a good song, then why didn’t it really lead anywhere?
And the truth is there’s no simple answer to that question. There’s a number of possibilities which present themselves – the slightly keening acoustic rock thing that “Torn” does was already starting to sound a bit old-fashioned by 1997 and “female singer-songwriter” isn’t exactly going to be the dominant form for the rest of the decade. Fashions change, and maybe if this had this been released a little earlier and ridden the same wave as Alanis Morrissette, PJ Harvey and kd lang then perhaps her career might have caught light in a slightly more permanent way. And there’s simply no getting away from the baggage of “soap opera star goes for pop career”, however good the actual song is. That career path practically has redundancy built into it. Again, Kylie is the exception here, and “Torn” is substantially better than any song that Kylie released during her Stock, Aitken and Waterman period (not exactly the highest of bars to clear – it’s pretty much at the centre of the Earth in fact). But Kylie was definitely in the right place at the right time, and she was also pretty much at the start of the soap-opera-goes-pop-singer curve. A decade later and there’s been hundreds of other examples and few if any had her ability (sorry, Dannii). If Kylie was at exactly the right place then Natalie Imbruglia is pretty much at exactly the wrong one.
And it is in the nature of the charts to be capricious. The song itself had been released three times prior to Imbruglia getting her hands on it, and it’s another example of how a little change can make a lot of difference. The song was originally written in 1993 and released in Denmark, then released again in 1995 in the U.S. by an American alternative rock band called Ednaswap, which the original songwriters were members of but who weren’t involved in recording the original Danish release (there’s a 1996 Norwegian release as well, but let’s not over-complicate things any more than we have to). The Ednaswap version of the song is pretty close to the Imbruglia version but… well, it’s missing something. The production is certainly more alt-rock than the acoustic rock of Imbruglia but the instrumentation is pretty much the same, just emphasised differently.
But that difference makes, erm, all the difference. The guitar solo at the end of the song is just that on the Ednaswap version – a simple guitar solo. There’s nothing wrong with it – it’s perfectly fine – but it’s straightforward. But on the Imbruglia version it’s played on slide guitar and it’s immeasurably more affecting. It’s rather haunting, in fact, as is the pained “oh” that she gives just before the slide kicks in (some really excellent timing there). Imbruglia’s version is much more vulnerable-sounding too, and that helps the lyric carry far more weight – she has an ideal voice for this kind of song and the vulnerability in her voice means that the whole thing sounds far more convincing. In short, her version is simply better – listening to them side by side it’s abundantly clear why one version became a mammoth hit single and one version was a perfectly cromulent but extremely ordinary take on the same song.
Not that Ednaswap’s career went any further than Imbruglia’s, because it didn’t. Just one year after the Imbruglia version was a hit they broke up, having lasted five years and made noticeably less impact on the music scene than this one song managed. Imbruglia’s career actually outlasted them, if not always – or indeed ever – at the giddy heights of “Torn”, and she clocked up an entirely respectable decade making music that would never trouble the top of the charts again (though it bears repeating, she did have some success after this. Just nothing anyone’s ever heard of or remembers). The song itself continues to have legs – it’s been covered by everyone from Tori Amos to One Direction and it remains a radio mainstay. In fact it is the most-played 90’s song on the radio in the UK bar none. In the decade that followed it was the 19th most-played song. People, it seems, really love “Torn”. And it’s incredibly easy to understand why. There have been bigger songs, there have been longer careers. But, just briefly, Natalie Imbruglia lined up with whatever it was that the public wanted and became an unexpected one-hit wonder. But if she is to remain a one-hit wonder, then she can at least take solace in the fact that it’s a great hit with great staying power, and it’s a song that never wears out its welcome. That’s way more than most one-hit wonders can say.
* Original choice for this article was “Tubthumping” by Noted JG Favourite Chumbawamba, surprisingly absolutely nobody, until I was – how shall we put it? – gently persuaded this may not be the perfect choice. But this was always going to be the one-hit wonder column.
What Else Happened In 1997?
Let’s start with the most popular singles of the year to get them out of the way, because they’re all complete dreck. Biggest is Elton John’s unbearable re-visit to “Candle In The Wind” which was, of course, released after the death of Diana, Princess Of Wales, and takes a sweet song about Marilyn Monroe and makes it an intolerably schmaltzy mess that somehow manages to wreck the modest charms of the original along the way. But Elton John’s not the only one massacring music in the name of dead people – Puff Daddy, Faith Evans and 112 release the equally terrible “I’ll Be Missing You”, though it seems the only thing they missed was the point of “Every Breath You Take”. The other three are Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” (that’s what kept “Torn” off Number 1 in the UK), No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” (the best of a bad lot) and Hanson’s “MmmBop”. Marvellous. Notorious B.I.G. is shot dead in March, and in the same month Paul McCartney receives his knighthood. The Spice Girls become the first British act to have their debut album reach Number 1 in America, while in the UK they become the first act ever to have four consecutive Number 1 singles. They also release a movie, but we can draw a veil over that. Radiohead release their landmark OK Computer, a frequent contender for best album of the 90’s / of all time, and Nick Cave makes a solid break from the past with The Boatman’s Call. Bill Berry officially departs R.E.M. and Gary Glitter is arrested for having child pornography on his laptop. Both Paul McCartney and David Bowie finally release something worth listening to, with Flaming Pie and Earthling respectively, and Shania Twain’s debut, Come On Over, becomes the biggest-selling album in country music history. Cornershop release the infuriatingly catchy “Brimful Of Asha” (with an assist from Norman Cook) and The Cardigans do pretty much the same with “Lovefool”. Jeff Buckley drowns at the age of 30 and Elvis’s infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker, dies at the ripe old age of 87.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Well the game has rather been given away there, hasn’t it? “Tubthumping” is a great song for discussing the vagaries of one-hit wonderdom and my own love of Chumbawamba naturally colours my attitude towards that song. The song itself is usually misinterpreted and it comes from one of the band’s least interesting albums, Tubthumper, which is deeply unfortunate. It’s all dated-on-arrival drum’n’bass (or jungle, if you will), sledgehammer politics (yes, even by Chumbawamba’s standards) and the band’s usual streak of humour is almost entirely absent. It’s not a great album and it’s a poor representation of them overall – the single, with its catchy chorus, bouncy instrumentation and musical quotes from other pieces is actually far more representative of the band than the album it comes from, even as it’s not exactly their finest moment. Ahem. Anyway, there’s plenty of other candidates – The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” is in there (and a terrific song), as is Supergrass’s “Richard III”, Blur’s “Song 2” and the aforementioned “Lovefool” by the Cardigans. But it was always going to be the ‘wamba.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Kylie Minogue – “Confide In Me”
7. Ultravox – “Vienna”
8. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
9. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
10. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
11. Pulp – “Common People”
12. Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield – “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
13. The Beautiful South – “Song For Whoever”
14. The B-52’s – “Love Shack”
15. Luciano Pavarotti – “Nessun Dorma”
16. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
17. The KLF with Tammy Wynette – “Justified And Ancient (Stand By The JAMs)”
18. James – “Sit Down”
19. Natalie Imbruglia – “Torn”
20. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
21. Suzanne Vega-DNA – “Tom’s Diner”
22. Manic Street Preachers – “A Design For Life”
23. The Bangles – “Manic Monday”
24. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
25. 4 Non Blondes – “What’s Up?”
26. Queen, “Killer Queen”
27. Blondie, “Denis”
28. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
29. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
30. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
31. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
32. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
33. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
34. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out For A Hero”
35. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
36. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
37. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
38. Terence Trent D’Arby – “Sign Your Name”
39. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
40. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”