Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Marie Fredriksson of Roxette by diving into the second of the Swedish duo’s four Hot 100 toppers, the enduring power ballad “Listen to Your Heart.”
The term “power ballad” contains, if not a contradiction — a good cry does tend to be loud — then a tension. Too much ballad, and your crossover potential may shrink. Too much power could leave the listener buffeted, like receiving a hug from a hurricane. But in summoning the winds of key change, Swedish duo Roxette weren’t thinking much of crossover at all. “Listen to Your Heart” was never intended for American ears: It was, like the record it sprang from (1988’s Look Sharp!), aimed at Europe; thus, everything was sung in bet-hedging English.
Both sides of the Atlantic were enjoying the golden age of power ballads, as a series of hard-rock and glam-metal acts dialed down the volume, upped the melody, and queued at the ATM. Roxette, though, were pop-rockers, with a typically Swedish approach to the craft. They titled their greatest-hits package Don’t Bore Us, Get to the Chorus!, after all, and that set’s liner notes find principals Marie Fredriksson (who died Tuesday at 61) and Per Gessle dissecting their creations with catty candor.
“This is us trying to recreate that overblown American FM-rock sound,” Gessle wrote, “to the point where it almost becomes absurd. We really wanted to see how far we could take it.”
Quite a ways, it turned out: the song includes four mini-solos, nipping at each other’s heels like it was the end of Abbey Road. Fredriksson herself split into a multitude, tracking earnest backing vocals to match the liturgic synthesized organ. Clearly, they had listened to their Heart.
Though the song topped the Hot 100 in November 1989, balladry wasn’t Roxette’s stock in trade, and it wasn’t what introduced them to America. That would be the spangled, lightly psychedelic “The Look,” which became a local smash in Minneapolis, forcing other stations to add it to their rotations in short order — so short, in fact, that Roxette had to sign an American record contract to officially promote the single. It made them the first Swedish act to top the Hot 100 since ABBA.
A consistent presence on American radio throughout their career, ABBA only notched a single No. 1, the immortal “Dancing Queen” in April 1977. With “Listen to Your Heart,” Roxette had two in less than a year. Having broken America without trying, the duo might have been stuck for a follow-up.
But Gessle and Fredriksson, each a success in their home country, were made for the moment: He once fronted the chart-topping, heartland power pop act Gyllene Tider; she was a sort of business-minded punk, the only constant member of a band that released just one single but founded a multi-year music festival. Her voice folded together grit and exuberance, and in her care the climax of “Listen to Your Heart” takes on the urgent hopefulness of praise music.
Gessle called it “The Big Bad Ballad” in the Don’t Bore Us liners, with Fredriksson noting that “it sounds a bit dusty today.” “Today” was 1995, after grunge had made it practically mandatory for chart rock to disclose some sour vein. By then, even their tunes with backbeats had fallen out of America’s favor: 1994’s “Sleeping in My Car,” which peaked at No. 50, was their final Hot 100 entry. Don’t Bore Us, then, was a sort of testament to pop/rock formalism, and “Heart” was one of its cornerstones.
The song was loaded with layered detail: the bongo taps in the intro; the grim synthesized horns at the end; the color combination of Per and Marie’s timbres, deployed judiciously; the way that Marie’s topline and countermelodies perform a sort of overlapping dance at the song’s emotional apex. Compared to all this, contemporary power ballads like “Alone” or “Is This Love” sound downright austere. (EMI also issued a mix with a fake saxophone, about which no more should be said.)
For all its flourish, “Listen to Your Heart” lives in the classic power-ballad zone of anguished indecision. Gessle (with his old Gyllene Tider bandmate Mats Persson) penned the song after a long conversation with a friend, on the brink of divorce, but pondering a new relationship. In the European manner, the text is evocative and opaque — “The scent of magic/ The beauty that’s been” — and Gessle’s decision to write in second person sidesteps solipsism.
When it came time to make the requisite video, they were similarly sure-footed: Rather than, say, trot Fredriksson gloomily through castle rooms, they filmed a mini-concert using the castle as backdrop and a helicopter for visual flavor. Director Doug Freel presented them as the stars they were, with frequent cuts to Gessle whirling his guitar about and Fredriksson pumping her fist atop a riser, standing nearly as high as her hair.
“Listen to Your Heart” entered the Hot 100 the week of August 26, 1989, and within two months it had scaled the chart. (It did so without being sold as a 45, a Billboard first.) It was #1 for just one week, but became a soft-rock staple: by 2013 the song had approached 5,000,000 spins on US radio. It wasn’t emblematic of their sound in the way “Dressed for Success” or “Joyride” were, but it typified their devotion to craft. Live, the two took to presenting the song in an au courant unplugged arrangement. The song was sturdy enough to scale down – so sturdy, a Belgian dance-music duo called D.H.T. brought “Listen to Your Heart” back to the international charts in the mid-2000s, in large part due to a similarly toned-down mix.
DHT’s version reached No. 8 in America in August 2005. Two months later, Per Gessle and Mats Persson received a BMI award for Best Dance Song. Fredriksson was in attendance as well, in her first public appearance since a diagnosis of brain cancer. Over the next decade, Roxette would take to the road and studio intermittently, as Fredriksson’s health permitted. The approach which had garnered them four #1 singles hadn’t really been blown away by grunge. There was always an audience in some far-flung arena, in thrall to pure Swedish craft. And Marie Fredriksson was always ready to blow the dust off an all-time power ballad.