Yes, he’s still paying the bills with that guitar.
Tomorrow (July 28) marks the ten-year anniversary of “Hey There Delilah” briefly becoming the most popular song in America. The story seems simple — mopey, sensitive rock band writes emo coffee shop ballad and rakes in the cash — but there’s levels to its liner notes. One of 21st century alt-rock’s least objectively cool hits was actually co-produced by a man who’d become one of today’s foremost ambassadors of Coachella-approved alt-pop cred. And for an acoustic ditty that sounds like it was composed over lunch on the campus quad, the ascent of “Delilah” to No. 1 took about as long as finishing grad school.
Plain White T’s formed in 1997, teenagers from the Chicago suburbs that produced no shortage of pop-punk underdogs in the years surrounding the millennium. They debuted in 2000 with the self-released Come On Over, and got their scrappy, hook-filled rock some national distribution two years later when Fearless Records re-released their 2001 follow-up Stop — around the same time the indie was releasing the likes of the Aquabats, Glasseater, and first of those Punk Goes… compilations they’re been putting out ever since.
All That We Needed, released in 2005, was the first album Plain White T’s recorded for the L.A. label, and they made it count. “Hey There Delilah” closed out a 12-song track list of airtight power-pop that reflected This Year’s Model and Bleed American alike. If you want hear what PWT’s did best, check out “Breakdown” or “All That We Needed” — helmed by producers Loren Israel and Ariel Rechtshaid.
Yes, that’s that Ariel Rechtshaid, the one who’s a favorite collaborator of the Haim sisters, or whom you might also know from Solange’s True EP, or Sky Ferreira’s “Everything Is Embarrassing,” or Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, where he became the first outside co-producer enlisted by the scrupulously image-attentive band. He’s genuinely tied to 2017’s left-of-center cool kid pop zeitgeist, but back in the early 2000s, the L.A. native was very much a part of Plain White T’s’ world, the frontman of a ska band called the Hippos, who actually somehow found himself in the studio for the Bleed American sessions, where he’s credited with backing vocals.
All That We Needed was released in 2005, its first focal track the harmony-laced rocker “Take Me Away.” Over time though, “Hey There Delilah” became a fan favorite — organically, at least from what I remember. This was around the time MySpace introduced a feature that let you add one artist’s track to your profile, and those empathizing with the long-distance lovers (which, among 2005 MySpace users, was roughly 100%) could brand themselves with the PWT’s then-deep cut. I should also mention that MySpace was set to have these songs play automatically when you visited someone’s profile, so even if you went for the stop button immediately, you still heard frontman Tom Higgenson utter the all-important opening line, and pretty much knew how to play the whole thing on acoustic guitar.
By the next year, Plain White T’s and their label had definitely caught on. That May they released a whole new EP around their burgeoning cult hit, the imaginatively titled Hey There Delilah EP featuring four new songs, a live rendition of the title song, and a new version featuring some saccharine strings in the second half. By September, Plain White T’s were on Hollywood Records and releasing their major label debut Every Second Counts, featuring glossed-up production on its 12 new songs but the familiar sight of “Delilah” capping off the track listing as a bonus song. With the added promotional push, “Delilah” caught on with radio. It debuted on Alternative Songs — its first Billboard chart — in March 2007 and before the start of summer, it was making waves in top 40, triple-A, and adult pop.
By the Hot 100’s final listing of July 2007, it led a top five that also included Rihanna and JAY-Z‘s “Umbrella” (the No. 1 it unseated), Fergie‘s “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” Shop Boyz‘ “Party Like a Rock Star,” and Timbaland and Keri Hilson’s “The Way I Are.” It stayed atop the Hot 100 for exactly one more week, before succumbing to Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls.” It’s worth noting “Delilah” wasn’t even the first single released off Every Second; the preposterously goofy “Hate (I Really Don’t Like You)” peaked at No. 68 on the Hot 100 in Nov. 2006, but not even this could disrupt its ascent.
“Hey There Delilah” is essentially a Tom Higgenson solo song, so I always wondered what it was like for the other four members when it was blowing up. When the band did live filmed performances of it, they’d bring all five members along, gear and all, though there was little to have them do besides sit and stand there. They added some vocal harmonies, gave bassist Mike Retondo a few notes to pluck, and let drummer De’Mar Hamilton do a little cymbal shimmy to close things out. Their follow-up singles weren’t quite the one-man show, but “Delilah” did change PWT’s calling card, from punk-ish power pop to lovey-dovey Starbucks fare. They logged five post-“Delilah” singles on Billboard’s Adult Pop Songs chart and two of them (“1,2,3,4” and “Rhythm of Love”) broke the top 40 of the Hot 100, their only other hits to do so.
Ten years later, “Hey There Delilah” is most certainly remembered, though not exactly with the reverence of “Umbrella.” “Hey There Delilah” was never a cool song, in fact, it was especially reviled by critics, probably because it was ham-fisted and earnest in an extremely suburban way, Higgenson singing about New York like it’s the Land of Oz. And the lyrical love interest wasn’t even his love interest! Higgenson met Delilah DiCrescenzo (a very successful distance runner with her own Wikipedia page) at a party in Chicago while she was home from college (and her boyfriend) in Columbia University. He was smitten, but they never hooked up, and throughout their mildly strange, multi-year platonic correspondence she even went as his date to the 2008 Grammys, where “Delilah” was nominated for (and ultimately lost) Song of the Year.
Ten years later, “Delilah” has done a little bit of everything for all parties involved, a lot of it genuinely life-changing. The T’s themselves have never matched its success, but their runaway hit catapulted them out of the Warped Tour struggle and gave them more grown-up friendly (and likely, more profitable) footing in the industry as adult pop radio balladeers. Last year, I chatted with Rechtshaid for a song premiere that had absolutely nothing to do with Plain White T’s or his punk rock past (quite the opposite, it was a Sia song to promote the Olympics). Talking to him, it was clear his pivot into tastemaker pop wasn’t some calculated re-brand, but a sincere progression of what he was into and how the industry around him was evolving. He recalled the Bleed American credit (“What did I do on that… clapped and sang some background vocals?”) in the same tone with which he talked about kicking it with Sia and Pusha T: “At a certain point the music we were making on the outskirts of the mainstream started to seep into the mainstream and that’s when people started to see me as successful.”
Like the song’s yearning protagonist, the artsy misfits you knew in school are still out in the world somewhere, perhaps creating things completely different from who you thought they were. And perhaps you’re more aware of it than you realize.