July 4, 2011


The Country Roots of “Space Bound”

It's easy to think of big stars' records as originating with them—either they're covers, in which case they're borrowed from another artist, or they're new songs, in which case they're the property of their vocalist. That goes double for hip-hop records, which are supposed to be a pure (and basically un-coverable) expression of their MCs' personae. The pop world, though, is a much weirder place than that. It's full of songwriters and producers who are constantly struggling to get a leg up, to place the perfect hook with the perfect artist, to make their own names without overshadowing a star.

See, for instance, Eminem's new video, "Space Bound." Ask almost anybody, and they'll tell you it's 100% an Eminem song: that's his voice mixed way up high, and that's him looking moody (and hanging out with Sasha Grey, and splitting in two, and ultimately shooting himself in the head) in the video. It's a song in a mode that Em basically invented with "Stan," back in 2000: super-hard verses, super-dreamy pop chorus between them, an arrangement that has more to do with MOR rock than with hip-hop. On "Stan," the hook was lifted from Dido's "Thank You"; on "Beautiful," it was Rock Therapy's "Reaching Out."

The chorus of "Space Bound," though, isn't a song anyone's heard before (although it's easy enough to imagine the refrain here replaced by the chorus of "Rocket Man"--the "Stan" aesthetic owes so much to Elton John's ballads that John himself famously sang the chorus at the Grammys). In fact, it's sung by the guy who co-wrote it, Steve McEwan, a British songwriter who's been making the rounds for a couple of decades, has had a couple of close calls with fame, and has written a handful of gigantic hits.

In the '80s, as a teenager living in South Africa, McEwan had a handful of songs recorded by well-known musicians there. In the '90s, he played guitar on tour in World Party. Then, around 2000, he got what must have seemed like a big break. With a bunch of other British dudes who preferred the aesthetic of American rock 'n' roll, he formed a band called UnAmerican. In one of those turns of events that seem to happen to the staggeringly well-connected more often than they do to the merely talented, they were almost instantly signed up to make a major-label album, and sent out on tour opening for the Who, who had made their own reputation 35 years earlier as British Yankophiles, covering American R&B singles like Eddie Holland's "Leaving Here."

UnAmerican were more interested in contemporary American rock than in R&B, though. Their single was called "She's a Bomb"; it bombed, as did their album.

("That's my least favorite song on the record," McEwan said at the time. "If I had my way it wouldn't have been on the record." Apparently, there's a price to pay for being well-connected.)

"There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald said. UnAmerican's songwriter, naturally, went on to his second act immediately. Faith Hill recorded covers of a couple of the unsuccessful album's songs; by the end of 2001, McEwan had found his new calling feeding the Nashville machine. He co-wrote "Young" for Kenny Chesney, and then a few years later gave Chesney another hit with "Summertime"—both visions of specifically American joy.