Rewinding the Charts: In 1989, Roxette Roared Onto the Hot 100 With 'The Look'
The Swedish pop duo began its rise to its first Hot 100 No. 1, thanks to an exchange student who brought its CD back to the States.
LONG BEFORE THE INTERNET WIRED the planet, the easiest way for Americans to hear Swedish pop music was to visit the country.
That's what exchange student Dean Cushman of Minneapolis was doing when he saw one of Sweden's top acts, Roxette – duo Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson, then 29 and 30, respectively – in concert. Impressed, he brought a copy of the pair's second album, Look Sharp!, back to the United States and made his local top 40 station, KDWB, aware of it.
KDWB's program director, Brian Phillips (now president of CMT), began spinning album track "The Look," powered by its crunchy guitar riffs and a "na-na, na-na-na" hook. He also sent tapes of it to other stations, and its airplay spurred EMI, Roxette's label in Sweden, to sign the duo to an American deal.
By the time official promotion began, the song had already soared onto the Feb. 11, 1989 Billboard Hot 100 at No. 50. Eight weeks later, it was No. 1. "I consider it to be one of my best songs," Gessle says of "The Look" 26 years later. "It still sounds special and different. It's got great production. It makes you smile. It sounds like a hit record, doesn't it?
"Looking back on 35 years of professional songwriting, I know how hard it is to write uptempo catchy hits without following a formula, so I'm really proud of it."
As for the song's serendipitous start, "You have to have the goods to get going, but life would be quite different without 'The Look' happening," Gessle says. "Fate came our way."
Roxette ruled the Hot 100 three more times through 1991, with "Listen to Your Heart," the Pretty Woman soundtrack single "It Must Have Been Love" and "Joyride," the title cut from the follow-up to Look Sharp! Nearly 30 years after they teamed, Gessle and Fredriksson continue to tour and record.
And, of course, the pair still plays its breakout hit live. "At every show," in fact. "Since 2009, we've left the idea of reproducing the recorded versions of our songs and now play them 100 percent live instead, without computers and tracks," Gessle says proudly. "'The Look' has become even more guitar-oriented and raw. It's really fun to play. Always a showstopper!"
"New 'Rox' music is coming, as well," Gessle teases. (Roxette charted as recently as 2011 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart with "She's Got Nothing On [But the Radio]," which boasts the duo's trademark pop/rock licks and an irresistible hook.)
"I'm all over the place, writing and working with different people from different corners of the world. We're still young!"
Oh, and as for Cushman, the exchange student who helped kickstart Roxette's U.S. launch? He has since befriended the pair, who autographed the very CD that propelled Roxette to international stardom.
A version of this article first appeared in the Feb. 14 , 2015 issue of Billboard magazine.