An echo in so much space: Why Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” is the Song of the Decade

Picking a favorite song—of the year, or just this minute—is by nature a subjective and personal matter. But I’d argue that picking a Song of the Decade, if you’re doing it right, has to be objectively defensible. It’s got to be larger than you.

That’s why I feel confident that the Song of the Noughts is Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 smash “Crazy.” (At least one major publication, to my pleasant surprise, agrees with me.) You’re of course welcome to dispute this and suggest your own tune. But I’d like to see you mount a better defense than the one marshaled for “Crazy.”

Unlike years or centuries, which have some mathematical and chronological necessity, the named decade—“the ’20s,” “the ’60s”—is a media construct, created only in the last 100 years or so to try to mark movements in the culture. (This is why the 21st Century, inarguably, began in 2001, but it’s pedantic to say this decade isn’t “mathematically over” until the end of 2010; the ’00s started in 2000 and end now, debate over.) When you pick a song to commemorate a decade, you’re summarizing the sensibilities and folkways of a generation, in its best light. At the very least, you’re summing up what contemporary music sounded like when it was firing on all cylinders.

Produced by Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and co-written with near–stream of consciousness by Thomas “Cee-Lo” Callaway, “Crazy” is not only a superb song. With its elegant lyrics and profound soul, “Crazy” channels something much larger than itself, while remaining fundamentally pop.

Please tell me if you can think of a song over the last 10 years that has all of the following going for it:

A huge, global hit. I don’t think a Song of the Decade needs to be a chart-topper, but it should have moved the culture considerably. On any country’s chart where it made an appearance, “Crazy” made the Top Three (only missing in Sweden, where it peaked at No. 4). The British got it most right, breaking “Crazy” before any other country and making it No. 1 for months. In America, it peaked at No. 2 in the summer of 2006, which is slightly tragic but puts it in the company of such runner-up chart classics as “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Regarded as a new standard. As a pop geek, I tend to value great recordings as much or more than great songs. (I for one think “Superstition” would have been diminished as a composition had Stevie Wonder let Jeff Beck record it first.) But a Song of the Decade should ideally be both: flawless as is, but open to interpretation. Covered by countless acts, “Crazy” proved remarkably malleable. For a while, it seemed like every singer had a take. The best and most acclaimed cover, by gravel-voiced folk-rocker Ray LaMontagne, arguably redefined his career and was so stripped bare, you couldn’t miss the greatness of “Crazy” as a composition. As intricate as Burton’s and Callaway’s original recording was, there was an unmistakably sturdy song there, something you can’t say about many of the recordings we’ve all loved since the turn of the century.

Multi-genre by nature. I’m not sure that all Songs of the Decade span multiple genres—“Billie Jean” definitely does, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” doesn’t quite. But for the Noughts, the decade of splintered allegiances, it would be insane to pick a song that doesn’t have the range of contemporary music in its DNA. I mean, what is “Crazy”? It’s recorded by people of color and has soul, but it’s much, much more than an R&B song (interestingly, Billboard’s R&B chart was the one list where it underperformed, missing the Top 40). “Crazy” is a pop song, a rock song, a spiritual song—maybe even “indie,” given the way Burton and Callaway recorded it before signing to a label. Though it features no rapping, “Crazy” is clearly the product of hip-hop and based around a well-chosen sample. Speaking of which…

State of the art. “Crazy” was, if not bleeding-edge, fully reflective of its cultural moment. In this decade of the viral phenomenon, its prerelease exposure in fall 2005 via Internet leak was apropos, as was its status in spring 2006 as the first British No. 1 single fueled entirely by digital downloads. Then there’s the recording itself: Based on a sample of the 1968 spaghetti-Western soundtrack tune “Nel Cimitero di Tucson,” “Crazy” was borne of mashup culture—as was Burton’s entire career. The self-dubbed Danger Mouse came to prominence with his unsanctioned 2004 release The Grey Album, which combined Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album and was the first great full-length mashup project. In its use of the Italian sample as underpinning, “Crazy” is more like traditional hip-hop than The Grey Album; but its approach to sampling is clearly post-mashup, weaving in original elements seamlessly and reinventing the original composition from the ground up. It’s a very subtle paradigm-shifter.

Widely acclaimed. With the possible exception of OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” in 2003, no other song this decade enjoyed the uncontested critical praise of “Crazy.” It dominated the 2006 Idolator Pop and Pazz & Jop critics’ polls—in the case of the latter, Village Voice–administered survey, by a margin that was among the largest in the poll’s three-decade history.

Lyrically acute. Generation-defining songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Like a Rolling Stone” are usually enshrined for lyrics that seem to channel a larger mood, often elliptically. Cee-Lo’s claim that he practically made up the oblique lyrics to “Crazy” on the spot only enhances the sense that the song is fully plugged into the Zeitgeist—in ways that are both personal (Callaway was singing about his own demons) and global. With 20/20 hindsight, lines like “I remember when I lost my mind,” or “You really think you’re in control?” capture a culture built on quicksand. The fact that it was recorded when the mid-decade economic and tabloid-culture froth were at their apex is even more perfect. The whole song is basically a more-eloquent meditation on the movie cliché, I’ve got a baaaad feeling about this.

Still catchy, brilliant, moving years later. From the moment that first beat drops to the closing droplet of Cee-Lo’s gospel falsetto, “Crazy” demands attention; if I can find any flaw with it, it’s that I have a hard time letting it waft in the background. When I hear it, everything else stops. (Ask my wife: she can barely have a conversation with me when it’s on.) The best pop songs have moments—instants where music and lyrics fuse and connect with you in a deeply empathetic way. For me, it’s the moment when Cee-Lo sings with bombast, “I think you’re crazy!” as the synths and backing vocals mass, then follows with a quieter, “…just like me.” It’s a moment of confession, where one’s self-doubts are laid bare amid an acceptance that we’re all helpless, all at each other’s mercy. As great as “Hey Ya!” or “My Love” or “Crazy in Love” or “Maps” were this decade, no culture-moving song seemed to plumb universal truths quite so incisively.

Those of you who have read my “100 & Single” column and my other writings know that I follow music through the prism of both love and data. Given my particular charts-plus-art perspective among music critics, I come at an exercise like this from my own oddball direction. I realize that the Noughts are a tough decade to summarize with one song, and I do understand that picking a favorite isn’t, after all, a math problem.

Still, to me, the title was never in doubt. I have been convinced since I first heard it that “Crazy” is a new classic, specific to its point in time but timeless in its appeal. So please think of the elaborate defense above as my way of justifying something I feel in my heart, with the kind of “hard” evidence a chart geek demands.

Does that make me eccentric? Possibly.

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