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For The Record: How Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" Has Transcended Genre And Culture
Vanessa Carlton

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For The Record: How Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" Has Transcended Genre And Culture

In honor of the piano-driven single’s 20th anniversary, GRAMMY.com revisits how “A Thousand Miles” became an instant classic upon its 2002 release — and why it remains timeless two decades later

GRAMMYs/Feb 10, 2022 - 08:35 pm

As with many years, 2002 saw the release of some iconic anthems, from Nickelback's "How You Remind Me" to Nelly's "Hot In Herre." But few of the year's hits have had a legacy quite like Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles."

Released on Feb. 12, 2002, 21-year-old Carlton’s power ballad caught worldwide attention for  its tinkling piano riff and an undulating chorus. Backed by a stirring string arrangement, it's the ultimate declaration of love, stamped by the song's titular line: "you know I'd walk a thousand miles, if I could just see you tonight." 

While that formula alone was enough to make it an instant classic, there's no denying "A Thousand Miles" arrived at a time primed for an impassioned romance tale told through a female lens. The early 2000s saw the debut of an abundance of edgier female stars (Avril Lavigne, Pink and Michelle Branch, to name a few), while pop princesses Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera took on more scandalous, grown-up personas. The door was wide open for a fresh-faced, piano-playing pop star.

Even so, there's something to be said for the timelessness of the song's sing-along chorus — and, of course, the unforgettable piano hook. Its impact was immediately recognized by record executive Ron Fair, then president of A&M Records (Carlton, then newly signed, left the label in 2005). Carlton’s demo for “A Thousand Miles” was in a pile of initial reject demos for Fair to give the final verdict.

 "I hit replay, and I hit replay, and I hit replay, and I hit replay, and I hit replay," he recalled in VICE's "A Story Of" episode on the song. "I called Jimmy [Iovine, Interscope Geffen A&M co-chairman] and I say, 'There's a f<em></em>*ing smash on this. We cannot drop this artist … I played [the song] for an hour and a half.'"

 Along with saving the track from potential obscurity, Fair was integral in developing its title. Carlton originally called it "Interlude," and was adamant it remained that way. As Fair explained to MTV in 2003, "Finally I had to say, 'Look, I'm the president of the label, we're not calling it "Interlude.”’ When you're trying to launch a career, people need a handle to pick things up from, and the word 'Interlude' is never in the song."

 He felt similarly about the single's production, which wasn't as anthemic in its early stages. Fair — who clearly had an ear for what made a hit, as he co-produced the star-studded remake of "Lady Marmalade" and the Black Eyed Peas' "Where Is the Love?," among many others — thought to add the orchestral elements, the swelling transitions and the belt-worthy power of the song's final chorus. His enhancements solidified that Carlton had created something truly special with “Interlude,” but once the song turned into "A Thousand Miles," it became transcendent.

Carlton admitted in "A Story Of" that "a lot of things felt like a battle" with Fair, who was as much of a perfectionist as the singer was clear in her own vision. A student of New York's prestigious Juilliard school (where the song's lovelorn tale was born; Carlton vows to never disclose the identity of the subject, a fellow student who is now "a famous actor"), she's been rightfully precious about her creative output since the start, even in the face of label demands.

The song's earnest origins likely played into her concerns — after all, she wrote the song when she was just 17 years old, by herself, in her parents' sunroom. Ironically, that's also what made her despise the track for a solid decade: "I hated this song," she admitted in "A Story Of." "It's like your first big paper that you wrote in high school — and you're a writer, now you've written books — this little essay that you wrote in high school, that's what just gets republished."

Carlton partially attributes her eventual reconciliation to her mentor Stevie Nicks, who advised her that while smash hits can feel like a nuisance to the artist, they can hold major significance to fans. And 20 years later, that couldn't be more true for "A Thousand Miles."

The single's far-reaching impact is immortalized in the 2004 Wayans brothers comedy White Chicks, which first portrays the song as a "white girl anthem." It returns in what became the movie's signature scene, where Terry Crews' macho basketball-star character unexpectedly belts out the song — and ultimately displays how universal it really is.

"The whole point of the joke with Terry is that it's a song that literally everybody loves," Carlton told Entertainment Weekly in 2020. (Crews has expressed his actual love for the tune, telling VICE, "There is not any culture anywhere that hasn't heard that song and has not had an emotional experience.") "Despite that song having such a classical piano part, it's somehow totally genre-crossing," Carlton continued.

She's not wrong. The iconic piano riff has been interpolated several times over the past two decades, a majority of the samples appearing in (perhaps surprisingly) rap songs. T.I., Cam'ron and Rico Nasty are just a few of the acts who have used the piano part; it returned in viral fashion in 2021 with "Who I Smoke" by Spinabenz, Whoppa Wit Da Choppa, Yungeen Ace & FastMoney Goon. (The track received criticism that was quickly shut down by Carlton, who pointed out that "Popular songs accompanied by white violence or tales of white violence aren't questioned.")

The widespread appeal of “A Thousand Miles” is multifaceted. Lyrically, the wistful yearnings are relatable (even if the 1,000 miles promised may be a little ambitious) that heightens the rush of the rolling melody.  While the piano arrangement may not be easy to emulate, its glittering waterfall effect is immediately captivating — particularly because it remains the song’s centerpiece through the whirlwind production.

Whether it's being reimagined or causing a real-life basketball star sing-along, "A Thousand Miles" has proven to be a timeless sensation that crosses genres and cultures, unifying listeners from the moment that piano begins and the opening "Makin' my way downtown" verse hits. (Carlton seemingly recognizes its staying power, unveiling a sweatshirt donning the famed line in November.)

To this day, fans are still leaving adoring comments on the "A Thousand Miles" video, which, to date, has more than 311 million views on YouTube alone. One recent commenter's sentiment may say it all: "Message to the future generations: Don't let this song die."

It seems that won't be happening anytime soon — especially if Terry Crews has anything to say about it.

For The Record: Why Lana Del Rey's 'Born To Die' Is One Of Pop's Most Influential Albums In The Past Decade

N.W.A Are 'Straight Outta Compton': For The Record

N.W.A's DJ Yella, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and MC Ren

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N.W.A Are 'Straight Outta Compton': For The Record

What started as an attitude that helped put Compton on the map grew into a worldwide music revolution celebrating the streets

GRAMMYs/Jul 26, 2018 - 11:05 pm

A debut album that landed like a sledgehammer, 1988's Straight Outta Compton has become a legend in its own right. The featured N.W.A lineup was Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren. The album was produced by Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, and released on Ruthless Records, the label co-founded by Eazy-E and N.W.A manager Jerry Heller two years before.

Although it sold well initially, its landmark status rested on the controversies surrounding its gangsta lifestyle themes and attitudes. Its provocative tracks described the world N.W.A knew through their own eyes, including the title track, which elevated the group's hometown of Compton, Calif., "Express Yourself" and "Gangsta Gangsta." The album also included "F* Tha Police," which resulted in the FBI and U.S. Secret Service sending threatening letters to Ruthless Records and the group's banishment from many venues.

Credited as one of the most influential hip-hop records of all time, in 2015, Straight Outta Compton the film appeared, dramatizing the 1988 impact of the album, with Ice Cube portrayed by his son O'Shea Jackson Jr. Confrontations with law enforcement and antagonism based on "F* Tha Police" form a core element of both the 2015 drama as well as the drama on the streets that has never stopped.

Among the album's many aftermaths, Eazy-E died in 1995, Ice Cube went on to produce and star in his extensive filmography and the adventures of Dr. Dre touch on many other histories, including those of Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. Meanwhile, in recognition of its critical importance to music history, Straight Outta Compton was inducted into the Recording Academy's GRAMMY Hall Of Fame as well as the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.

Catching Up On Music News Powered By The Recording Academy Just Got Easier. Have A Google Home Device? "Talk To GRAMMYs"

Alanis Morissette's 'Jagged Little Pill': For The Record

Alanis Morissette

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Alanis Morissette's 'Jagged Little Pill': For The Record

Learn about the singer/songwriter's big GRAMMY night at the 38th GRAMMY Awards with her third studio album

GRAMMYs/Mar 23, 2018 - 03:10 am

For a generation of music lovers, the '90s hosted a boon of hits that have now attained classic status. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill is arguably at the top of the list.

Released June 13, 1995, as her third studio album, Morissette worked on the project exclusively with producer/writer Glen Ballard. She plumped the depth of raw emotion to craft the LP's 12 alt-rock tracks, marking a departure from her previous pop-centered releases.

The Canadian native's honest approach to Jagged Little Pill flipped the industry upside down. The album went on to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and produce three No. 1 Billboard singles: "You Oughta Know," "Hand In My Pocket" and "Ironic."

As of 2015, sales of the album surpassed 15 million copies in the United States, making it one of only three albums to reach that milestone behind Metallica's self-titled album (16.1 million) and Shania Twain's Come On Over (15.6 million).

Further solidifying its legacy, a musical stage production based on the LP will premiere in spring 2018.

Jagged Little Pill also brought Morissette her first four career GRAMMY wins at the 38th GRAMMY Awards. She took home the coveted award for Album Of The Year and Best Rock Album, while "You Oughta Know" earned Best Female Rock Vocal Performance and Best Rock Song.

"I actually accept this on behalf of anyone who's ever written a song from a very pure place, a very spiritual place," Morissette said during her Album Of The Year acceptance speech after thanking Ballard. "And there's plenty of room for a lot of artists so there's no such thing as the best."

Kendrick Lamar, 'DAMN.': For The Record | 2018 GRAMMYs Edition

Kendrick Lamar

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Kendrick Lamar, 'DAMN.': For The Record | 2018 GRAMMYs Edition

Celebrate the Compton rapper's successful fourth album, which brought home a total of five GRAMMY wins on Music's Biggest Night

GRAMMYs/Feb 9, 2018 - 03:16 am

Kendrick Lamar's phenomenally successful fourth LP, DAMN., landed with a bang in mid-2017 that saw fans digging voraciously into the full media experience of the album's release in an intense manner.

There were rumors based on tweets, there were secret second album release theories, there were even guesses at the tracklist's double-meanings that actually turned out to be true.  Altogether, it made for a moment in pop culture that coalesced into an explicit public statement: Lamar was no longer content to merely capture the attention of hip-hop purists and music scenesters with their ears to the street; he was here to convert new listeners over from the mainstream without sacrificing the authenticity of his core sound. And along the way maybe raise a few middle fingers in the direction of his oftentimes befuddled political detractors.

"The initial goal was to make a hybrid of my first two commercial albums," Lamar explained to Zane Lowe on Beats 1 Radio. "That was our total focus, how to do that sonically, lyrically, through melody – and it came out exactly how I heard it in my head. … It's all pieces of me."

Lamar's soul-bearing reaped obvious rewards at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, with DAMN. generating a total of five GRAMMY wins, including Best Rap Album, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration ("LOYALTY."), Best Rap Song ("HUMBLE."), Best Rap Performance ("HUMBLE."), and Best Music Video ("HUMBLE.").

Along with its successes on Music's Biggest Night, DAMN. also proved to be a commercial windfall for Lamar, with lead single "HUMBLE." clocking in as his first-ever No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, with supporting singles "LOYALTY." And "LOVE." both charting in the Top 15. For its own part, DAMN. debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, has been certified double-platinum by the RIAA, and ended the year as the No. 1 album of any genre for 2017, by chart performance.

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Alabama Shakes' 'Sound & Color': For The Record

Alabama Shakes

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Alabama Shakes' 'Sound & Color': For The Record

Wilder than before, the band's fusion of country and soul with immersive rock on their 2015 album defined a sound all their own

GRAMMYs/Jun 21, 2018 - 09:43 pm

Alabama Shakes' 2012 debut Boys & Girls was such a wild success, no one expected the band would get even wilder on 2015's Sound & Color. But the band took their music way out, exploring a spacious, country-soul rock sound that would be more completely their own if it didn't seem so timeless.

"We're just a normal group of people who believe in writing and making something, and honestly, it was truly from a point of having fun," lead singer/guitarist Brittany Howard told our oral history of the album. "It wasn't to get famous or anything like that. We wanted to play gigs, that was our goal, but we didn't have anywhere to gig."

Bassist Zac Cockrell, guitarist Heath Fogg and drummer Steve Johnson write together with Howard, and the band shared in their Best Rock Song win, at the 58th GRAMMY Awards for "Don't Wanna Fight," as songwriters, in addition to winning Best Rock Performance. Sound & Color also won Best Alternative Music Album that year.

Alabama Shakes' 2012 debut brought them 55th GRAMMY Awards nominations for Best New Artist and Best Rock Performance for the song "Hold On." As a single, it remains their biggest hit so far, having reached No. 93 on Billboard's Hot 100. The following year the band was nominated for Best Rock Performance again, for "Always Alright" from the soundtrack to Silver Linings Playbook. A truly admired band, their album sales suggest Alabama Shakes falls better into the category of classics-makers than hit-makers. Their debut reached No. 6 on the Billboard 200 in 2013 and Sound & Color reached No. 1 in 2015.

Although Alabama Shakes hasn't released an album since Sound & Color, their performance of "Joe (Live From Austin City Limits)" drew another Best Rock Performance nomination at the 59th GRAMMY Awards. Earlier this year at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, Alabama Shakes' performance of "Killer Diller Blues" won Best American Roots Performance, the band's fourth win. The song was originally recorded by Minnie Lawlers, and as for other artists participating in the Jack White and Bernard MacMahon 2017 project American Epic: The Sessions, all final recordings were made on an antique 1925 Western Electric direct-to-disc system. How's that for a historic recording?

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