The mystery of why some songs endure forever while others are quickly forgotten is commonly believed to have two explanations. The first explanation is that in order to stand the test of time a song must reach the cultural zeitgeist, a magical level of popularity that transcends mere chart success to attain near-universal adoration. (Think almost everything by The Beatles or Thriller.) The second explanation is that a song is so artistically brilliant that even if isn’t popular in its time future generations will come to affirm its excellence. (Think the Velvet Underground or almost every once-obscure shoegaze and slowcore band from the ’90s.)
But what if there is also a third way? And what if that third way somehow violates the first two explanations for musical immortality? I refer to a song that didn’t transcend mere chart success to reach a commonly recognized pop-culture zenith, nor was even remotely artistically notable or critically acclaimed in its time or in retrospect. A song that is ordinary in every way, and yet has achieved extraordinary streaming numbers. A tune we all thought we forgot about but can, when prompted, instantly remember, word for freaking word, whether we like it or not? (At least the chorus, anyway.)
I refer to “Rude,” the (lone) hit by the Canadian pop-reggae band Magic!, originally released 10 years ago this fall.
Just by typing that sentence, I have instantly inserted “Rude” into your head and my head and all the other heads that made the mistake of reading this column. I can preemptively sense the hostility that is bound to come my way from the masses. To which I can only reply: Why you gotta be so rude? Don’t you know I’m human, too?
There are many things I could say about “Rude.” It is a gently rocking ditty about asking your girlfriend’s father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. In the context of the music video, it is also a song about interracial romance and an endorsement of doing the Watusi as your first wedding dance. Musically, it is a handy tool for explaining the difference between “catchy” and “good.” It boasts possibly the most incompetent guitar solo in an ostensibly “professional” musical context ever. It makes Canada’s other famous reggae-tinged export, 1992’s “Informer” by the pop-rapper Snow, sound like Desmond Dekker.
To understand “Rude” you must hold two thoughts in your head simultaneously: It stinks, but it’s also weirdly difficult to hate. I can’t be mad at it, no matter how much it annoys me. You can love “Rude” because it makes you happy, and you can also love “Rude” because it’s very enjoyable to make fun of. Either way, you’re completely chillaxed when this song is on.
Which is why, for me, “Rude” is the best worst song of the 21st century so far. It’s the kind of harmlessly silly one-off that we once took for granted, and now seems like a rarity in pop.
Here’s another thing about “Rude”: It has crazy legs. Way crazier than you probably imagine. If I may speak in the parlance of “Rude”: The streaming numbers truly put the song in “another galax-saay!” On Spotify, “Rude” has been streamed 1.2 billion times. The figures on YouTube are even more astronomical — people have watched the music video for “Rude” 2.4 billion times, and left more than 251,000 comments.
It makes sense that fans of “Rude” most often enjoy it with the (unintentionally hilarious and unexpectedly charming) video, which really takes the song to the next level. Taking it in as “just” an audio experience makes those streaming numbers much harder to comprehend.
The debut single by a group fronted by the journeyman songwriter and producer Nasri Atweh (Justin Bieber, Chris Brown), “Rude” was meant to introduce the world to what Atweh described as his “modern-day Police” sound. That was the nice way to put it; the not-nice classification for Magic! would be “cod reggae,” a derogatory term coined in England back in the ’70s to describe a slick and pop-friendly form of reggae typified by Eric Clapton’s mild cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff.” The Police is one of the more credible bands to garner the “cod reggae” tag; it’s also been applied to The Clash’s “Guns Of Brixton,” Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me,” and the many “reggae-ified” covers of ’60s pop classics by UB40.
By the mid-2010s. the “soft-rock steady” of “Rude” was also associated with more recent precedents like the patois-heavy pop-punk of Sublime, the well-groomed jam band O.A.R., and the sandy-sandaled singer-songwriter Jack Johnson. It’s not a sound that was trendy at the time, nor was it trendy at any time in music history. But it is, paradoxically, always at least a little bit popular. Like I said, this kind of music makes people feel good, even if they’re embarrassed to exclaim “say yes say yes” when it comes on in a crowded room.
But it’s in the video that “Rude” becomes something else entirely. We see Atweh doing some awkward quasi-skanking as the rest of Magic! jams out to “Rude” in a garage. This is intercut with a straightforward depiction of the song’s narrative: Atweh sets out to visit his girlfriend’s parents in order to make his proposal. He claims to have put on “my best suit,” but we can plainly see that he’s wearing a leather jacket and T-shirt, which immediately establishes him as an unreliable narrator. (I’m tempted to call Atweh the “Randy Newman of cod reggae,” but that would be too idiotic even in the context of this column.)
What’s more crucial is that we can also see that Atweh is Palestinian, and his girlfriend is a Caucasian blonde, and that the dad looks like Mitt Romney. While the lyrics to “Rude” never spell out the reason why the dad rejects Atweh as a suitor for his daughter, the video subtly implies that race might play a factor. This is reiterated later in the video when the dad encourages his daughter to date a straight-laced white guy, which she rejects. Ultimately, after the dad shoots down one more request from Atweh for his blessing, he follows through on his threat to “marry her anyway.”
(It’s also possible that I’m reading too much into this and the dad simply has a prejudice against pop-reggae singers, which might be the only acceptable form of prejudice.)
When I wrote about “Rude” in the summer of 2014 — when it finally became a slow-burn smash after being re-released that winter, eventually peaking at No. 1 for six weeks — I never thought that people would still care about this song well into the next decade. What could possibly explain the enduring popularity of this dopey little tune? I headed to the YouTube comments section of the “Rude” video to search for clues that might explain the phenomenon. I expected to find viewers paying tribute in half-serious, half-snarky fashion. (Kind of like what I’m doing right now.) What I actually found were shockingly earnest expressions of longing.
Can we bring this back? This feeling? This music? This vibe. The world needs more of this.
After 9 years, still one of the best songs out there, wish we could go back to the 2010’s.
I miss the days when this song could be played on the radio more than 100 times every 5 minutes. Could we please bring this back?
No matter how many times i listen to it never get old forever a masterpiece.
The sentiment I saw the most — aside from the inevitable “Can we bring this back?” nostalgia — was “This song does not get old.” There are two ways to interpret this statement. The first is: This song does not sound dated. And I think that’s right. “Rude” does not sound like a typical hit from the summer of 2014, and it doesn’t sound like a typical hit now. And that plays to its advantage, especially when you compare to other hits from that time like Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” which scan as “extremely mid-2010s” in a way that “Rude” doesn’t. All cod reggae hits pretty much sound the same no matter what decade they come from, which gives them a surprising timelessness.
The second way to interpret “This song does not get old” is: I never get sick of this song. This one is harder for me to fathom, but I think I get it. “Rude” came out of arguably the last great era of one-hit wonders, when acts like Gotye, Foster The People, Passenger, Walk The Moon, and scores of others came out of nowhere, dropped a massively impactful earworm, and then disappeared off the face of the planet. These artists were different in every way save one: They were unpretentious fodder for ubiquitous spins on mainstream pop radio stations. They demanded nothing of the audience other than their superficial enjoyment. If you are inclined to view this era via a nostalgic lens, it seems like the last moment of innocence before the arrival of Donald Trump and a new era of extreme seriousness in pop, when even Katy Perry felt compelled to comment on the state of the world. Magic! is the purest manifestation of this frivolous time. The exclamation point says it all — this was exuberance for the sake of exuberance, evincing a shameless naïveté that once was standard in pop and now seems refreshing.
These days, one-hit wonders are increasingly rare as the charts are dominated by the most entrenched pop-star nation-states. The obvious exception in 2023 is Oliver Anthony, the lightning-rod Americana singer who came out of nowhere, dropped a massively impactful earworm, and may or may not disappear off the face of the planet in the near future. Only Anthony is a hit for the same reason that seemingly everything breaks through now — he’s a tool of the culture war whose song “Rich Men North Of Richmond” can either be enjoyed or hated as a means of inflaming the emotions of whomever you’re opposed politically.
If “Rude” came out today it would be immediately interpreted by one side as an important statement about identity and by the other side as a “woke” anthem. The dad’s resemblance to Mitt Romney in the music video would be celebrated as cutting satire by some and cruelly divisive by others. “Rude” wouldn’t be allowed to just be a dumb pop hit that everybody has heard way too many times. It would have to mean something. And that is the kind of song you get sick of very quickly.
Thankfully, this was not the fate of “Rude.” It remains frozen in ember, a stupidly beautiful butterfly caught in mid-flight from a distant time too pure for the bitter modern world.