The Cardigans- “Lovefool”
PEAK: #2 on March 1, 1997 (Radio Songs Chart)
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” (Hot 100)
In the late winter of 1997, Americans were going crazy for sugary and insanely catchy pop songs from European acts. On the big Hot 100 chart, the top spot was dominated for four weeks by the Spice Girls’ unkillable debut single “Wannabe.” Over on the airplay charts which were by this point becoming further detached from what was big on the Hot 100, one of the top songs at radio was the Cardigans’ “Lovefool” stuck at #2 behind the 16 week run of No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” both songs that would have been big Hot 100 hits had they’d been released as commercial singles, therefore, allowing them to chart there.
In terms of genre and career trajectories, the Spice Girls and the Cardigans are nothing alike. The Spice Girls were a group put together by managers who had quickly become the biggest act in the world through heavy marketing and insanely catchy pop songs. The Cardigans on the other hand were a rock band from Sweden who had existed for years with a small but dedicated following. Their big hit was basically a fluke, a song that got its success after being used in a popular movie. The Cardigans would ultimately prove to be a one-hit-wonder to many but their one great hit wound up hitting at a moment when their country was in the process of shaping pop music into the 21st Century.
The Cardigans came together in the early-‘90s when guitarist Peter Svensson and bassist Magnus Sveningsson, who had known each other as heavy metal musicians around their native Sweden, decided to form a new band together getting a few of their friends to join including their friend from art school and only woman in the group Nina Persson who would become their lead singer. (On the day of Persson’s birth, Paul Anka and Odia Coates’ “(You’re) Having My Baby” was the #1 song in America.) The group recorded a demo that eventually found its way to a local A&R guy who signed them to the local imprint Trampolene. Their first album Emmerdale came out in 1994 in Sweden and weirdly Japan with their second album, 1995’s Life, getting a bigger release and did well enough that the Cardigans moved to the major label signing with Mercury Records as they were in the process of making their third album.
“Lovefool” doesn’t have a major backstory to its creation. The lyrics came about one day when Persson was at an airport waiting for her flight. The initial idea was for “Lovefool” to be done in a mellow bossa nova style but when Svensson wrote the music he deviated the song far from bossa nova into a more upbeat pop song with a heavy disco influence in the drumming. The bossa nova idea makes sense in the context of their 1996 album The First Band on the Moon which is very much in that style while also being a cool-sounding rock album. “Lovefool” stands out greatly on the album as its most unabashedly catchy and sugariest song.
Lyrically, “Lovefool” presents itself as a pathetically needy song about a woman desperately trying to hold onto love. Persson’s narrator is in a relationship that is clearly not working anymore with her partner not loving her anymore but despite that, she still clearly wants to love this person even as her mom tells her to stick to another man. On the chorus, Persson is begging hard for her partner to stay where even pretending to love her will be OK enough to still be together. It’s all unhealthy ways of coping but Persson sings “Lovefool” with such a sweet and even sexy seductiveness that it’s enough to overlook what the lyrics are about. Like a lot of the best Swedish pop music, it’s more about how the lyrics sound than the lyrics themselves.
The lyrics may not sound happy but the music, on the other hand, sounds like pure bubblegum sweetness. The band, with some great musicianship, anchors the song with a serious groove straight from disco with those hard drums emulating the standard four-four disco beat while being very locked in with the bass. The guitar playing veers from light chords to funky chicken scratching to gurgling fuzz tones that gives the song along with Persson’s singing and the cheesy organ a very dreamy quality. Altogether when the song is on, it’s hard not to be in a good mood.
There are a bunch of videos for “Lovefool” but I’m going to talk about the main one that people know where director Geoff Moore depicts a man stranded on an island sending a message in a bottle to his girlfriend sitting on a dock reading newspapers desperate to hear anything from him. As the bottle is sent across the water, we see the Cardigans performing in the bottle while also steering it like a submarine as reporters come down to interview the band though it’s just Persson speaking who’s impossible to look away from here. At the end, the bottle makes its way to the dock where the girl reads it and is happy upon reading the message. Even with the dire situation depicted, the video is just fun to watch and goes well with the sweet vibe of the song.
At first, “Lovefool” was not a big hit after its release in the summer of 1996 becoming a moderate hit in various European countries. It soon spread to America after the Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann put “Lovefool” on the soundtrack to his adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. (Baz Luhrmann’s highest-charting single, 1997’s “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” peaked at #45.) I haven’t seen Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet but from what I’ve seen, “Lovefool” doesn’t have a huge presence in the movie but the song took off regardless. Released in November, Romeo + Juliet was a decent box office hit and after being re-released with the movie, “Lovefool” became an even bigger hit getting to #2 for instance on the UK Charts. It’s tough to say how “Lovefool” would’ve done on the Hot 100 but considering its #2 airplay peak, it’s easy to see it competing with “Wannabe” had it been given the chance.
Without a single release, the success of “Lovefool” helped the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack peak at #2 and go quadruple platinum but the Cardigans’ First Band on the Moon album proved less successful peaking at #35 and only going platinum. “Lovefool” wouldn’t lead to much more success at least stateside though some of their later singles did well around the world while their 1998 song “My Favourite Game” was a moderate hit in the US on alt-rock radio. The band released three more albums after The First Band on the Moon before going on hiatus in 2006 to pursue solo projects before reuniting in 2012 with Svensson staying out. Since then, the Cardigans have performed from time to time and it seems to be going pretty well for them though Persson said there won’t be any more new music.
When “Lovefool” was getting popular, fellow Swede and former metal singer Max Martin was about to land some of his first big hits in America with his style of professionally made and irresistible pop music that still seems to dominate today. The fact that both the Cardigans and Max Martin found success around the same time in the ‘90s feels like more than a coincidence looking at it now. For Peter Svensson, Max Martin-style pop would be his future calling as he’s become a songwriter and producer for various major pop stars including some songs that have had Martin’s involvement on them and become big hits. In that capacity, we’ll hear from Svensson as a songwriter in the Ones of the ‘10s.
BONUS BEATS: Here are the Cardigans performing “Lovefool” during a party on a 1997 episode of Beverly Hills, 90210:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 1999’s Cruel Intentions where Ryan Phillippe plays “Lovefool” as he tries to have sex with Reese Witherspoon:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s John Krasinski singing a bit of “Lovefool” on a 2006 episode of The Office mainly to annoy Rashida Jones:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from Edgar Wright’s 2007 movie Hot Fuzz where a couple of guys see a play based on Luhrmann’s version of Romeo + Juliet and the cast performs “Lovefool” after the play ends:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Back in 2009 when he was the newest teen idol, Justin Bieber interpolated the “Lovefool” chorus on the chorus of his track “Love Me.” Here’s the video for “Love Me” which acts now as a fascinating time capsule into the early Bieber fame and circa-2009 pop culture:
(“Love Me” peaked at #34. Justin Bieber will eventually appear in The Ones of the ‘10s.)