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Play on Pleasure: Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles’

Who can resist jumping in with a “MAKIN’ MY WAY DOWNTOWN?”

Each week, CMN’s Brogan McCuen raves on about a musical guilty pleasure. (And uses a lot of parentheses.) And probably a bunch of other stuff, too. We call it Play on Pleasure.

I used to sell vinyl records in downtown Seattle, and let me tell you, the opportunities to reference Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” were exorbitant, and with a team of music enthusiasts, you know we took advantage of it often. I spent a lot of those two years with this song stuck in my head, whether I liked it or not.

Really though, why does this song hold up after eighteen years? (18?!)

I’m glad you asked! (Me too – Ed.)

First, my friend Zawadi brought to my attention that this song is in the key of B major, which is pretty obtuse for a pop song. To give you an idea of how common that is, here is a convenient graph that breaks down the most popular keys of songs on Spotify in 2015. There are twenty-four keys total, and the two most popular keys take up over 20% of the graph, while B major rings in at #16, used in only 2.6% of songs.

This is likely because B major isn’t a very fun key for anyone but the drummer (#musicjokes). The departure from the classic G major and C major makes “A Thousand Miles” subconsciously more interesting to our ears.

The spirited orchestral strings also pick the melody up and propels it forward, along with the very pronounced adult contemporary drum beat that had to be cheesy even when this song was released.

Plus, this is one of the most iconic piano riffs in pop music.

You can’t get halfway through this first riff in a karaoke bar without everyone getting white girl hyphy. And Vanessa Carlton’s red nail polish and matching wrist sweat bands in the music video are so delightfully 2001. And don’t even get me started on her lip sync face.

This is likely why this song is what it is to some of us: prime fodder for the nostalgia generation.

On the subject of karaoke, there is a lot to be said about this song’s singability. It’s in a pretty moderate key, so most people can sing it without too much effort — I can still sing it even when I have sick voice. And if you can’t sing the melody, you’re probably singing along to the strings part.

Vanessa hardly belts when the song peaks at the end, so you don’t even have to gear up for much. This makes it so accessible, who can resist jumping in with a “MAKIN’ MY WAY DOWNTOWN” in the car or with a hairbrush microphone or with arms around the shoulders of random strangers in a bar?    

And lastly, I think we can all agree that Terry Crews doing that head boppity bop to this song in White Chicks was the only solace in that terrible movie, because that is pretty much what all of us do when we listen to it, too.

In case you’re wondering—Vanessa is aging very well, though her latest work, a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Lonely Girls,” is decidedly less upbeat and memorable than her 2001 hit 😉

If you obsess over singers and bands, and are one of those people who make a playlist for every occasion, join CMN’s Music Journalism Course and get real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to music industry insiders, and a great place to display build your portfolio. Get all the details on the Music Journalism Course here.

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