clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

"Smooth": 7 questions about the song you were too embarrassed to ask

Look at this man's shirt.
Look at this man's shirt.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Seventeen years ago, a song was conjured from the erotic feeling of leather pants against Rob Thomas’s goose-bumped skin and the dark enchantment of Carlos Santana’s guitar strings. That strange combination produced something far stronger and more enduring than other artifacts from that year, like frosted tips or Napster. That something is the sepia-toned triumph that is "Smooth."

Since the song’s 1999 inception, "Smooth" appreciation/mockery has washed up in bits and pieces in various corners of the internet, but the wave suddenly crested in summer 2016. After hibernating in our pop cultural subconscious for a decade and a half, "Smooth" has, seemingly randomly, turned into a mainstream gag both on and off the internet — most notably with two appearances at the just-concluded Olympics.

This popular resurgence of "Smooth" may also be its death knell — it’s probably only a matter of time before the "funny" Real Housewife of New York starts co-opting it, or before Rob Thomas pops up on "Carpool Karaoke" for a self-aware duet with James Cordon. After all, everything on the internet that you cherish is minutes away from becoming over-loved and worn out by millions.

But that may be underestimating the strange power of "Smooth," which is so much more than a song created by dark magic and Rob Thomas’s Floridian moan. "Smooth" is a feeling. "Smooth" is what happens when the internet rubs up against peak nostalgia. "Smooth" is bigger than all of us.

1) What is "Smooth?"

"Smooth" is a song. It is also an embodiment of a particular era in pop culture, and now it is a byproduct of the internet nostalgia machine.

Released in 1999, "Smooth" was the collaboration between Matchbox 20 frontman Rob Thomas and legendary guitarist Carlos Santana. But Ricky Martin was a tiny bit responsible for it too:

In 2013, Thomas gave an interview to Billboard and mentioned Martin’s "Livin’ La Vida Loca":

Before I could even do ["Smooth"], I went to Matchbox and asked them if it was cool if I did it. And at the time, when you're doing a record with Carlos Santana, nobody had any idea that it was going to be this big. It was one of those things where I was like, "I'm gonna work with Carlos because I love Carlos, and I'm gonna have to tell all my friends." I came to Paul [Doucette of Matchbox Twenty] and asked him if it was okay to do it, and he said, "Is it like 'Livin' La Vida Loca'?" And I went, "No dude, it's nothing like that, it's a real Carlos Santana song." And he said, "Oh, okay. Have a good time!"

It’s entertaining that Thomas believes he was going to produce something much better (or perhaps just less cheesy) than Martin’s "Livin' La Vida Loca." Looking back on both songs, neither is particularly less fluffy or gimmicky than the other.

But Thomas’s Ricky Martin reference does point to the Latin-American pop craze that hit toward the end of the 1990s. Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, and Enrique Iglesias all had hit songs in the window from 1998 to 2001, making record companies eager to tap into the market.

The Latin pop explosion also made artists like Thomas think about the music they were producing. This explains Thomas's desire to collaborate with Santana on a song that he thought was going to blow "Livin'" out of the water, something he believed would showcase Santana’s roots.

I suppose that idea — making a "real" Carlos Santana song — is why Thomas, a gringo, sings about "my muñequita, my Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa" in the first verse and casually drops in "barrio" in the back end of the song. That may also be why the beginning of the song — Santana’s guitar riff — sounds like a jarring, precarious taunt.

"I am going to be a song that’s totally peligroso," that riff says. "I want to make you forget that Ricky Martin stuff, because I am going to hit you with some real Santana. Get ready bro."

2) What’s a "Smooth" joke?

New coffee mug here just in time for the dog days of August. #manitsahotone

A photo posted by Mike Rutherford (@cardchronicle) on

The "Smooth" jokes start with the first lyric: "Man, it’s a hot one." You can go to any social media platform, type that in, and find hashtags, pictures, videos, vines, and GIFs — whatever the human brain can think of — that correspond to that lyric. The jokes began as an earnest way to convey the weather at the time (hot) and a wink and nod to anyone that gets where the phrase came from:

Then they became more self-referential, a winking joke about the joke:

"Smooth" is now a mainstream meme. As Mark Hinog on the Verge pointed out:

The 17-year-old pop song crescendoed into a full-on revival at the beginning of this summer. In 2016 "Smooth" is a BuzzFeed quiz, the subject of a failed Kickstarter, a T-shirt slogan, an Onion article, a Neil Cicierega remix, and a 15MB Twitter GIF experiment

Long live memes.

3) Why are we talking about "Smooth," a song from 1999, in 2016?

The "Smooth" resurgence we’re seeing now has actually been building over the past couple of years. Hinog’s article does a good job of tracking the song, explaining that it started to pop up on the internet in 2012 thanks to a Rob Thomas parody account:

From there, the meme slowly gained momentum, thanks in part to factors like the Cleveland Indians’ Carlos Santana.

Fast-forward to this year, and we have surreal meta-moments like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio walking out to the song at the Democratic National Convention, and a dressage (the sport of horse dancing) routine set to "Smooth" at the Olympics.

What’s important to remember about this resurgence is that "Smooth" never went away — its generation of listeners never disappeared. They might not have kept on listening to "Smooth," but they didn’t forget it either. (Considering how popular "Smooth" was, that would have been impossible.) For a large portion of the population, the song is hardwired into their consciousness, so its invocation in 2016 sparks immediate recognition and reaction.

4) Why does everyone I know keep making "Smooth" jokes?

Put simply: The combination of nostalgia and the internet is one of the most potent forces on the planet.

The ascension of "Smooth" more than a decade after its release is reminiscent of another song that internet culture belatedly claimed for itself: Rick Astley’s "Never Gonna Give You Up," which was transmorphed into the practice known as "Rickrolling."

Both songs show their age and capture the trends of the time, embodying a mixture of irony and earnestness that tends to speak to internet jokers. Put another way, "Smooth" is smack dab in the nostalgia wheelhouse for millennials, and even younger Gen X-ers, making it prime fodder for memeification.

When nostalgia hits for millennials, they have much better and easier ways of finding old songs, music videos, and other cultural artifacts than generations before them did. Thanks to the internet, streaming music services, and YouTube, there are myriad ways (Dailymotion if you’re really desperate) to find the obscure Samantha Mumba deep cut that was impossible to procure just a decade ago.

There are also more ways than ever to express appreciation for this totally accessible nostalgia. (See also: the phenomenon that is Pokémon Go). Millennials dominate social media platforms, many of them with nostalgic prompts ("Throwback Thursday" and "Flashback Friday").

"Smooth" isn’t the only song from the era that’s had a second wind breathed into its lungs by internet culture. Earlier this year, Ghost Town DJ’s "My Boo" got a second life as the "Running Man Challenge," an internet video dance craze performed by people too young to know what the actual running man looks like:

Vanessa’s Carlton’s "A Thousand Miles" gets the same kind of treatment and affection. It’s been a feature of Terry Crews’s career…

…and a tremendously entertaining Grand Theft Auto mashup…

…and right before the Olympics, Team USA’s men’s basketball team had a sing-along to the hugely popular song:

@jimmybutler back at it.... Looking like Willie Beamen

A video posted by DeMarcus Cousins (@boogiecousins) on

5) So do we like "Smooth" because it reminds us of a time before 9/11?

That’s a grim way to look at it, but it isn’t wrong. People who are paid to study this sort of thing — academics and marketers, basically — believe that millennials are experiencing what’s known as "early onset nostalgia." Or, in plain English: It isn’t just that quenching nostalgia is easier than ever; there are also forces at play that cause millennials specifically to seek it out.

"Millennials are coming of age in an age of economic turmoil — a difficult job market," Cassandra Mcintosh, a senior insights analyst at Exponential, a digital research firm for advertisers, told Digiday. "Therefore, they end up romanticizing simpler times much more — even those times they weren’t around for."

My colleague Todd VanDerWerff recently posited that superhero movies, perhaps the most significant and consistent pop culture phenomenon of the past decade, are endless creative attempts to work through the trauma of, and even rewrite, the events of 9/11. With that in mind, it’s not hard to believe there’s a desire from consumers to just bypass it altogether by instead focusing on a simpler time.

And 1999, the year "Smooth" came out, was one of those simpler times. It was before 9/11, and even before Y2K. In terms of pop culture, it was a time when Britney Spears could still dance, Janet Jackson wasn’t yet (unfairly) stained by that Super Bowl performance, Whitney Houston was still alive, and M. Night Shyamalan was still great. It was a time when we’d wait hours to download a song from Napster (and procure some great computer viruses in the process) while wearing our Old Navy carpenter jeans.

Each generation has its version of the good old days. For many millennials who have had to deal with the recession and an ultra-competitive job market, their good old days happen to be ones that include "Smooth."

6) What makes "Smooth" so great?

If we’re going to make the argument that millennial nostalgia and social media habits have made "Smooth" into a modern cultural force, then we must also question why so many other songs from the same period haven’t received the same treatment. Why is "Smooth" so meme-ready, instead of "Smooth" contemporaries like, say, N’Sync’s "Bye Bye Bye" or Christina Aguilera’s "Genie in a Bottle"?

Part of it might stem from a rejection of the pop music trends of today. Reports like this 2014 study from researchers at the Medical University of Vienna, or this 2012 study from the Spanish National Research Council, have found that pop music has increasingly become less complex, and employs the same patterns over and over. And less complexity is what people want, the Vienna study explains:

[A]lbum sales of a given style typically increase with decreasing instrumentational complexity. This can be interpreted as music becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation once commercial or mainstream success sets in.

Essentially, people like music that sounds like other popular songs. It’s the explanation for why so many pop songs tend to use the same chords, sound the same, and have the same producers attached to them.

The dominating trend over the past couple of years has been pop’s push toward EDM (electronic dance music). The walls between EDM, pop, and R&B have crumbled, leading to songs like "This Is What You Came For," a dance song written by Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris and sung by Rihanna.

This shift has made "Smooth," with its peeling guitar riffs and confident gringo crooning, sound like something so clearly not of this time. There’s no mistaking it for pop music of today, and that makes it stand out.

But there’s also the hate factor.

While some will gladly soak in all the greatness "Smooth" has to offer, that often comes with a blush of irony — the acknowledgement that there’s something shameful about liking such an aggressively silly song. And then there are people who earnestly hate the song, and their passion is just as fascinating.

"I mean, at first you hear Santana’s guitar playing and that was never bad," Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds told the A.V. Club. (He also manages to neg Adam Levine and Maroon 5 in the same interview.) "He’s a great guitar player, but when you hear that opening riff too many times, it gets on your nerves."

Hinds gets at a crucial component of why it’s so much easier to like "Smooth" now, versus liking it 15 years ago: its ubiquity. "Smooth" was played at weddings, at ballgames, in restaurants, in waiting rooms, all over the radio, and probably by that one dude in your college dorm who would show up to parties with an acoustic guitar. Hinds seems to suggest that "Smooth" in moderation — the way we reference it today — might be more tolerable than actually living through the song’s golden years.

If this formula stands, one day, when my bones are feeble and you will need to read me tweets to bring me back from my dementia, I hope to be reading a think piece about the resurgence of "Moves Like Jagger."

7) Shouldn’t we be talking about Frank Ocean instead of "Smooth"?

Probably, but there’s room for both. Frank Ocean released two albums this week — Endless and Blonde. Many of those songs are much better than "Smooth." "Nikes" on Blonde is particularly good.

But I don’t think any will capture the same kind of ironic love that "Smooth" has tapped into. For starters, Ocean’s songs are not nearly bad enough, or overplayed to the point of inescapability.

Also, "Smooth" isn’t really about anything that its creators, Rob Thomas, Santana, and writer Itaal Shur, did. They simply created a song about a gringo branching out of his native tongue to fully iterate his lust. What the internet eventually did with that song says less about "Smooth" and more about the potent mixture of irony and nostalgia that powers the internet in 2016.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.