Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” is essentially a perfect pop song: an infectious bassline, triumphant horn section and frontman John Gourley’s unwavering falsetto uniting to create a radio jam for the ages. For the Alaska-by-way-of-Portland rockers, it soared up the charts and opened a ton of doors for them in the mainstream.
It’s also one of the most unlikely hits of the 2010s, having come from an act who rolled along for over a decade in the cult indie rock space — until they made a song so undeniable that it resulted in a major career high. “Feel It Still,” a bona fide alt rock-to-pop crossover hit, led to later festival slots, high-profile radio shows, countless ad syncs, and eventually, the Grammys.
Looking back, Gourley says he thinks the key to “Feel It Still” was how truly organic the songwriting process was: “I’ve always wanted to write a song like that, [and this] was the one song that we didn’t try to write. It just came out of nowhere.”
While Gourley had some of the lyrics in mind for about four years before they ended up on “Feel It Still,” the song came together almost instantly once Electric Guest’s Asa Taccone came on board as a co-writer and co-producer. Taccone says they “banged it out” within two hours once he heard how Gourley planned to incorporate The Marvelettes’ early ‘60s girl group classic “Please Mr. Postman” on the verses.
“John was like, ‘Oh, I’ve always had a lyric replacement for “Mr. Postman,” he recalls. “And he had, ‘Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks now.’” Gourley hesitated, unsure they’d be able to use it. “I was like, ‘F–k yeah, you should use that!,’” Taccone remembers. “Like it just worked. It was so immediate.”
Upon the song’s release on March 3, 2017, it shot off like a firecracker. After six weeks, it topped the Adult Alternative Songs chart, then crept onto the Hot 100 that July, making for the band’s first-ever entry. By November, it had climbed to a No. 4 peak, at which point just about every person in America had heard that bassline.
But while it was an unlikely crossover hit, its success didn’t happen by accident. An Apple iPad Pro commercial sync, radio shows and festival gigs, late night television performances and their own headlining tours ensured that Portugal. The Man and “Feel It Still” were everywhere. In those ways, the song received the sort of push it takes to spring an alt crossover hit of this size in the late ‘10s, and its rise culminated in one of the most coveted honors in music: In January 2018, it won for best pop duo/group performance at the Grammy Awards.
Gourley largely thinks of awards as “meaningless,” though he admits the win felt pretty good. “I never would have dreamed of having a Grammy, even being nominated for a Grammy. I thought it would be maybe artwork or something obscure,” he jokes, adding that he loves to see an outlier claim a bit of the spotlight: “I was happy when I saw Gotye do it, how cool to see Arcade Fire win a Grammy — those are such great moments in music.”
Taccone agrees that a win on a world stage like the Grammys can help highlight the importance of a more diverse landscape. “Each time you have a song that gets a little shine that’s not, like, whatever’s the trend of the day, it sets this standard in the industry. It can really change things,” he says. “All of a sudden, executives and label people are like, ‘Maybe we could push this [different] song,’ you know? And so in that way, I think it was cool.”