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Forever No. 1: Roxette’s ‘It Must Have Been Love’

Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer -- a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single -- by taking…

Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Marie Fredriksson of Roxette by diving into the third of the Swedish duo’s four Hot 100 toppers, the soaring soundtrack single “It Must Have Been Love.” 

Although released in spring 1990, Roxette‘s “It Must Have Been Love” is a heart-cracking power ballad that’s a throwback to the over-the-top movie soundtrack songs most popular in the 1980s — tunes like Berlin’s Top Gun smash “Take My Breath Away,” or “Almost Paradise,” the romantic Mike Reno and Ann Wilson duet from Footloose. That’s no accident: The Swedish pop band’s melancholy third Hot 100 No. 1 comes from the triple-Platinum-certified soundtrack to the Julia Roberts film Pretty Woman, is heard in a pivotal emotional moment near the end of the movie. 

Forever No. 1: “The Look” (1989) | “Listen to Your Heart” (1989) | “Joyride” (1991)

As the title implies, “It Must Have Been Love” is about coming to terms with a relationship ending. Despite this common premise, however, the song achieves greatness by confronting its emotional pain with grace and bravery. Written by guitarist Per Gessle, who penned music and lyrics for Roxette’s biggest hits, “It Must Have Been Love” pairs evocative imagery (“But in and outside, I turn to water/ Like a teardrop in your palm”) with straightforward observations (“It must have been good/ But I lost it somehow”). Vocalist Marie Fredriksson, who died Tuesday (Dec. 10) at 61, then elevates these sentiments with a transcendent vocal performance that strikes the perfect balance of melodrama and restraint.

At the beginning of the song, she and Gessle sing the core repeating lyrics (“It must have been love, but it’s over now”) together, using low, resigned voices. Fredriksson sounds melancholy again in the first chorus, as she sings these lines alone. But starting with the second chorus, the song’s intricate arrangements come into play, as additional countermelodies add depth to her singing. And after the bridge, Fredriksson belts out these same lyrics in a bolder tone and a higher range—her voice spiking with grief and catharsis as she exclaims, “It was all that I wanted/Now I’m living without.” Accordingly, these underlying harmony voices also grow louder, contributing their observations (“It’s over now,” “It must have been love”) as if they were an inner monologue. 

“It Must Have Been Love” ascended to No. 1 on June 16, 1990, in its eleventh week on the Hot 100, and ended up as the only Roxette chart-topper to spend more than one week at the peak. (The song had a two-week run.) Still, the success was no surprise, as the duo were at the height of their U.S. popularity at the time thanks to the long-tail success of 1988’s Look Sharp! In 1989, Roxette had two chart-topping hits culled from the album (“The Look” and “Listen to Your Heart”), while “Dangerous” had peaked at No. 2 just a few months earlier, in March 1990 — prevented from hitting No. 1 only by Janet Jackson’s “Escapade.” In fact, “Dangerous” was still in the top 40 (at No. 36) the week of April 7, 1990, when “It Must Have Been Love” debuted on the Hot 100 at No. 67.

Roxette's 'It Must Have Been Love':

But in addition to chart momentum, Roxette had two other big advantages on their side with “It Must Have Been Love”: timing and trends. A deep dive into the Hot 100 the week that “It Must Have Been Love” debuted revealed how thoroughly power ballads reigned supreme on the pop charts in 1990. Canadian Alannah Myles was at No. 5, fresh off a two-week run at No .1 with the sinewy “Black Velvet,” while Sinead O’Connor’s stunning “Nothing Compares 2 U” had reached No. 9 and would top the Hot 100 a few weeks later. Not to be outdone, “Forever” by KISS — the band’s last top 40 hit to date — was No. 10 with a bullet, while that week’s power picks for sales (Aerosmith’s country-rock sprawl “What It Takes”) and airplay (Heart’s roaring epic “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You”) skewed maximalist. 

The popularity of power ballads goes a long way towards explaining Roxette’s period of dominance in the late ’80s and early ’90s, of course. But “It Must Have Been Love” was also an outlier for the band: The song tones down Gessle’s scorching electric guitars, which were prominent on previous No. 1s such as “The Look,” and takes a smoother approach rooted in slick ’80s Top 40 songs, which favored shiny synths and echoing drums. songs. A steady snare drum functions like a calming heartbeat throughout the song, and keyboards twinkle after Fredriksson sings certain phrases (“Touch me now,” “Dream away”). In the bridge, a sparkling-ice piano underscores the song’s delicacy and amplifies the mournfulness.

“It Must Have Been Love” resembles an ’80s flashback for a very good reason. Incredibly enough, Roxette had a 1987 hit in Sweden with a slightly different take on the song: a holiday-themed version called “It Must Have Been Love (Christmas for the Broken-Hearted)” that hit No. 4 on the singles chart about a year after the group released their 1986 debut full-length, Pearls of Passion.

“We were doing promotion in Germany and went through hell because radio wouldn’t play our records,” Per Gessle said in Fred Bronson’s The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. “They didn’t know if [we] were top 40 or rock, and they couldn’t decide. We fell between formats.” A rep at EMI in Germany suggested a Christmas song might help the band get some airplay, since the holiday choices were slim that year. “We recorded it, and Germany didn’t want it,” Gessle said. “It turned out to be our biggest hit in Sweden at the time.”

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Luckily, the song came in proved handy when Roxette were too busy to write new music when label and movie executives enlisted the group for the Pretty Woman soundtrack. Disney and Touchstone senior vice president of music Chris Montan told Bronson he “flipped” for the seasonal version of “It Must Have Been Love,” and requested only that Roxette slightly update it. The band kept Fredriksson’s vocals intact from the original 1987 take, and made some small modifications: changing the lyric a “hard Christmas day” to “a hard winter’s day,” and excising the festive metallic sleigh bells from the song’s intro.

Roxette’s next album, 1991’s Joyride, was led by its ebullient title track, the group’s final Hot 100 No. 1. Although the full-length had a harder rock edge, it also unsurprisingly leaned into towering power ballads: a formula that helped Roxette continue their chart hot streak at first, as the underrated “Fading Like a Flower (Every Time You Leave)” hit No. 2 on the Hot 100 in late August 1991. However, despite ending up as Roxette’s highest-charting album in the U.S. (it peaked at No. 12), Joyride couldn’t sustain this success into 1992: The smoldering, Heart-like “Spending My Time” peaked at No. 32 on the Hot 100, while the power-pop-leaning “Church of Your Heart” only reached No. 36. The group’s next offering, 1992’s Tourism: Songs from Studios, Stages, Hotelrooms & Other Strange Places, only peaked at No. 117 on the Top 200, and Roxette’s U.S. success waned.

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However, Roxette kept tinkering with “It Must Have Been Love.” During the Joyride promo cycle, the band re-recorded a slower, country version of the tune with prominent twangy acoustic guitar, as well as keening pedal steel from long-time k.d. lang collaborator Greg Leisz — a take that appeared on 1992’s Tourism set. In 1996, Roxette released another re-do: a Spanish language version of “It Must Have Been Love” (called “No Sé Si Es Amor”) appeared on the Spanish-language album, Baladas en Español. (Incidentally, the song’s lyrics were translated by Luis Gómez Escolar, who would go on to co-write multiple Ricky Martin smashes, including “La Copa de la Vida” and “María.”). For good measure, in 2015, a 25th anniversary version of the single came paired with “It Must Have Been Love (Christmas for the Broken-Hearted),” finally paying the original version its due.

That Roxette kept updating “It Must Have Been Love” — and that the song worked in all these different incarnations — is a testament to its timeless sentiments, but also Fredriksson’s range as a vocalist. While known for her work in the pop realm, she slipped between genres and styles with ease, and was fearless about these switches. In a similar fashion, Fredriksson captured the impossibly sad reality of going it alone with great compassion and unflinching bravery.