The Cardigans' Nina Persson Reflects on Mega-Success of 'Lovefool,' 20 Years Later

Andy Willsher/Redferns/Getty Images
The Cardigans photographed circa 1997.

"It took over our whole existence," she tells Billboard of ubiquitous song.

Twenty years ago today, a Swedish alt-pop band called The Cardigans released a single very much unlike anything else they'd recorded, but which would change the course of the band's career.

"Lovefool" -- the uber-earworm from the band's third studio album, First Band on the Moon -- swiftly became a hit in Europe but didn't debut internationally until Oct. 5, 1996. "We put out that song and record and embarked on a long tour, so in one way, nothing changed for us," frontwoman Nina Persson told Billboard recently over the phone from Los Angeles, where she was preparing to play a show with Local Natives. "Then the movie came out" -- that would be Baz Luhrmann's '90s-defining Romeo + Juliet -- "and the U.S. caught on tremendously."

After Romeo + Juliet was released on Nov. 1, 1996, "Lovefool" debuted on the Adult Pop Songs chart dated Nov. 30 at No. 39. It then hit the Radio Songs chart the following week, peaking at No. 2 and staying there for eight nonconsecutive weeks. It spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the Pop Songs airplay chart, beginning with the Feb. 22, 1997-dated tally. (The song did not chart on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, because at the time, non-commercially available songs -- like "Lovefool" -- were not eligible to chart on the list.)

As Persson recalls today, "Lovefool" felt like an odd fit for The Cardigans. "We definitely were aware that it was a single and a catchy song when we wrote it, but the direction it took is not something we could have predicted," Persson says. "It wasn't necessarily our character; it felt like a bit of a freak on the record -- which, objectively, it still is." The song's upbeat feel wasn't the band's initial intention. "Before we recorded it, it was slower and more of a bossa nova," Persson says. "It's quite a sad love song; the meaning of it is quite pathetic, really. But then when we were recording, by chance, our drummer started to play that kind of disco beat, and there was no way to get away from it after that."

The band had already shot a different music video for the U.K. and Europe -- "much more bleak, much more our original style," Persson says. "We had an actor playing a sort of handsome-man-love-interest of mine, and he was supposed to be a kind of gangster and the band played his gang members." But thanks to the success of Romeo + Juliet, another video debuted and became ubiquitous on MTV, cementing Persson's public image as a flaxen-haired pixie floating at sea, a message in a bottle in human form. Watch the MTV staple below, as well as a side-by-side comparison of the two videos:

Persson acknowledges she and her bandmates weren't initially thrilled by the success of "Lovefool." "It took over our whole existence, and it wasn't something we totally identified with," she says today. The Cardigans played it on Beverly Hills, 90210 and on the morning talk show circuit; Persson remembers being "freaked out" when she'd see the video on screens in American clothing stores. "We were kind of snobs," she acknowledges. "We felt like these things were glitzy, and we felt like, 'No, no, we're a rock band!'"

But today, with the distance of two decades, she's able to look on the song a bit more kindly. "Now, we see it from the other end, and we're proud and thankful," she says. The band happily plays "Lovefool" in concert. And as Persson herself wrote on her Instagram on the anniversary of the song's U.K. release: "We love you, sweet nuisance!"