In We’re No. 1, Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Santana’s Supernatural, which went to No. 1 on October 30, 1999, where it stayed for three weeks, on January 22, 2000, where it stayed for three weeks, and February 26, 2000, where it stayed for six weeks.
It’s a given that transience is a major component of popularity in pop music. This is not only perfectly okay, but it’s pretty much how it’s supposed to work. Part of the fun of a hit song is that it’s designed to be enjoyed right now, instantly, so that it might come to define the moment. Whether “Gangnam Style” is a great song is beside the point; years from now, when we look back on 2012, that will be the song that people use in movies and commercials to signify this specific point in time. Nothing changes faster than pop music and hairstyles, which is why they both work equally well as shorthand for eras. “Gangnam Style” exists in a realm outside of good and bad; it’s historical.
Albums are supposed to be different, in that they generally are a little most lasting. Then there’s Santana’s Supernatural, perhaps the most popular LP of the ’90s that absolutely nobody cares about today. When Supernatural was released in the summer of 1999, the record industry was in midst of its “raging bacchanal before the fall of Rome” period. It was impossible to fall out of bed and not sell at least 500,000 records. Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Limp Bizkit, Dixie Chicks, and Creed set the pace for huge multi-platinum sales. Ricky Martin had a No. 1 album in 1999. So did Silkk The Shocker. The specter of Napster was looming, but in the waning days of “paying for music” still being a workable, non-debatable concept, the getting was incredibly good in the record business right up until the bitter end.
The year’s most surprising success story was undeniably Supernatural. Carlos Santana hadn’t been a viable commercial entity since the early ’70s. The guitarist hadn’t even recorded a new album in seven years, and there didn’t appear to be much demand for one. When Santana approached Clive Davis, the legendary record mogul who had signed him to Columbia Records in 1968, about helping him piece together a collection of songs that would appeal to contemporary pop audiences, Supernatural seemed destined to become one of those mediocre prestige projects that wins an obligatory Grammy and is ignored by the rest of the world.
But Davis—a marketing genius who’s helped to shape the careers of Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Aerosmith, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, and Kelly Clarkson, among many others—had a simple but clever idea to make Supernatural a hit. Half the record would more or less resemble a typical late-period, lightly jazzy, and predictably polyrhythmic Santana album. The other half would relegate Carlos Santana to guest status on his own record, with a bevy of superstars taking the spotlight and essentially forcing radio to pay attention to Supernatural. So when Dave Matthews appeared on “Love Of My Life,” it could be sold as a Dave Matthews song with Santana occasionally laying down his distinctive guitar licks. Same with “Do You Like The Way,” which featured Lauryn Hill and Cee-Lo Green (who at the time was known only as a member of the cultish rap group Goodie Mob), or the songs with Everlast and Eagle-Eye Cherry, since those were once people that other people were familiar with.
Davis’ idea worked even better than he or Santana could’ve reasonably hoped for: Supernatural went platinum a staggering 15 times in the U.S. and sold 30 million records worldwide. This was due almost entirely to two songs that truly made Supernatural a phenomenon: The Wyclef Jean-assisted “Maria Maria,” which held the No. 1 spot on the singles chart for 10 weeks, and one of the most popular pop songs ever, “Smooth,” with Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas.
Supernatural did two things for Santana’s career, the first of which had an obviously lucrative short-term effect; the other had an equally obvious detrimental long-term effect on how Santana would be subsequently perceived. One, Supernatural made Santana a boatload of money, at a time when he obviously needed it. As he told Rolling Stone in 2000, Santana faced dire financial straits in the early ’90s, and relied on the business assistance of his wife Deborah to get his house in working order. (“I’d probably be a hobo if not for her,” he said.) Supernatural not only remade his career, it made him even more successful than he had been in his early-’70s heyday. Even now, it must be considered the greatest comeback in pop-music history.
But Supernatural did something else as well: It cut Santana off from the rest of his career. If you cared about Santana before Supernatural, you were precisely the audience that Supernatural was intended not to reach. In fact, if you cared about Santana before Supernatural, you probably hated Supernatural. It was Santana’s “Kokomo.” (Which makes Rob Thomas his John Stamos.)
Davis’ intention was to turn Santana into a late-’90s pop-rock artist with a record that epitomized every mainstream pop trend of the moment. And Supernatural achieved that smashingly well. But it also tied Santana—who made legitimately great records in the late ’60s and ’70s—to one of least auspicious periods in pop music ever. Supernatural is truly an unusual beast: A comeback record made by a defining artist of the Woodstock generation that functions as the ultimate mixtape of Clinton-era pop-rock awfulness.
And, truly, it doesn’t get any more awful than “Maria Maria” and “Smooth.” Actually, I’d listen to “Maria Maria” 1,000 times in a row while having my teeth drilled by The Product G&B if it meant never having to hear “Smooth” ever again. My distaste for “Maria Maria” comes from hearing it every 15 minutes in the spring of 2000, when it became one of the biggest songs of the year and then the ’00s, eventually appearing at No. 14 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Songs Of The Decade list. But the popularity of “Maria Maria” was dwarfed by “Smooth,” a song you can still hear every 15 minutes, mostly on whatever radio station in your town is affixed with the incongruous adjective “cool.” All those millions of copies of Supernatural sold in 1999 and 2000 have long since taken up residence in our nation’s dwindling used-CD stores, but the fun-time, bossanova-cum-heartland rock Muzak of “Smooth” has a carbon half-life of approximately 20,000 years.
“Smooth” was pivotal in the selling of Supernatural and the establishment of Rob Thomas as an inescapable pop-radio chucklehead. At the time Matchbox Twenty was known by the far less distinguished moniker Matchbox 20, and had just one record, 1996’s Yourself Or Someone Like You, to its credit. Singles like “Push” and “3 A.M.” were sizable hits, but nothing on the order of “Smooth,” which Thomas co-wrote (with producer Itaal Shur), stayed at No. 1 for 12 weeks, and later garnered Grammys for Song and Record Of The Year. “Smooth” took Matchbox Twenty’s nice-guy post-grunge and tweaked it just enough with Latin flavor to make it crossover to multiple radio formats. And, sweet Jesus, did this song crossover. When Billboard compiled its list of the most popular songs from its 50-year history earlier this year, “Smooth” was ranked as the No. 1 rock song, just ahead of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” On the overall songs list, it was No. 2, right behind Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” which is the Citizen Kane of lists like this.
Does this mean that “Smooth” is a deathless classic that towers over the most overplayed oldies? Or does this placement underline that “Smooth,” like Supernatural, is a product of the steroids era of pop, when inflated sales statistics skewed the actual reach of the music being made at the time? While Supernatural sold far more copies than any other Santana record, it’s probably the last album that anybody will reach for if they decide to investigate his back catalog. Supernatural was made for a 1999 audience, and that audience can keep it.
Coming up: Jimmy Buffett’s License To Chill