The following is the third in a four-part series examining the lasting impact of Carlos Santana’s electrifying album Supernatural, released in 1999.
Man, it’s a hot one. It’s hard to say exactly why the song “Smooth” by Carlos Santana, featuring Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20, has entrenched itself so stubbornly in a zeitgeist that self-immolates and recreates itself more rapidly every day. There it is, though. Splashed all over Twitter, scoring Olympic dressage events, a Comstock Lode of irony— utilized even, for some reason, by people who weren’t yet alive when Carlos Santana first spread his schmaltz on Rob Thomas’ cracker.
I don’t so much believe in irony, though. Not, at least, as a method of enjoying things. I think if you profess to enjoy something ironically, that means you enjoy something earnestly, and you’re ashamed of yourself.
I don’t think we ironically love “Smooth” by Carlos Santana, featuring Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20. I think we genuinely love “Smooth” by Carlos Santana, featuring Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20. It’s one of the most popular songs of all time. It spent 12 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. It won three Grammys. It appears in the movie Keeping the Faith. This song doesn’t owe any one of us even one goddamn thing, let alone an apology or explanation. This song IS success. Okay. But this song is also bad.
It’s impossible to go back and listen to “Smooth” for the first time, but coming back and listening to it for the first time in a long time, it sounds like self-parody. As soon as the track kicks in, it sounds fake. It sounds like a drunk girl is about to sing it at karaoke and all of her friends think it’s the funniest thing in the world when it’s only just pretty funny. The horns, piano, and drum all sound fake. They sound inorganic.
Remember when you were a kid, and you had one of those little electric piano keyboards, and there was one button you could hit and it would play a little pre-programmed beat? That’s what “Smooth” sounds like. Also Rob Thomas calls a woman his “Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa” which is supposed to be romantic, but sounds like something Donald Trump would call Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
As though the words weren’t bad enough, the way Rob Thomas sings in this song is fucked right up, too. He alternates between ALTERNATIVE ROCK crooning and sounding like he’s vocal fry-ing through a drive-thru speaker intercom.
I honestly hoped that, in my examination of this song, I would come up with some kind of answer as to why it was popular—but I don’t think there’s one answer. I think nostalgia is certainly part of it. I think the song was everywhere during one of the last years when being every-where meant being EVERYWHERE. I think it’s a bad song, and I think we like bad things. I think we fixate on idiosyncrasies that appeal to us on a level that we can’t explain or understand. This song is like sequins on the back of jeans. Maybe it’s because the song owns how awful it is, you know? Make it real, or else forget about it.