Santana’s 1999 song “Smooth” has been a monster pop hit, a sturdy radio staple, a joke, a meme, and, most recently, a measuring stick for U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky’s astounding Olympic victory. The video matching her freestyle win to the opening moments of the track has been wiped from Twitter courtesy of NBC, so if you missed it this weekend: Start playing “Smooth” as soon as Ledecky hits the wall, and the next-best swimmer won’t complete her race until Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas has finished singing the line “Man, it’s a hot one” 17 seconds later.
How has one song lived so many lives? “Smooth” came out in the final summer of the 1990s, the very last one of the second millennium. Santana had been a band for more than 30 years at that point but hadn’t seen the upper reaches of the Hot 100 singles chart in nearly 20. They needed a secret weapon to pin down a new era’s airwaves, a path into the slick Latin pop crossover boom led by Enrique Iglesias and Ricky Martin. Santana needed Rob Thomas.
After a period of unrelenting radio ubiquity, including three months at No. 1 on the Hot 100, “Smooth” went on to win three Grammy awards and the same number of platinum certifications. Billboard considers it to be the second-biggest hit of all time, in any genre. It remains Santana’s first chart-topping single.
Like most big hits, “Smooth” eventually faded into the background — a song everyone knew but few talked about regularly. But a little more than a decade after its initial domination, “Smooth” started slipping back into popular culture in surprising ways. You’d see its lyrics tweeted as punch lines, or remixes crop up on humorous mashup albums like Neil Cicierega’s hour-long ’90s joke-fest Mouth Sounds. You can buy novelty t-shirts of the thing. Years after its musical potential ran dry, “Smooth” was reincarnated as comedy.
Not every ’90s hit got so lucky. Despite their popularity, those hits by Iglesias and Martin — “Bailamos,” “Livin’ La Vida Loca” — lie entombed in nostalgia. “Smooth” transcended its own musicality, joining tunes-turned-memes like Smash Mouth’s “All Star” and Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week” in the ’90s goof-off hall of fame.
These songs don’t live on because they’re good, necessarily — indeed, they arguably last because of their enduring and astonishing badness. “All Star” is a vague motivational anthem sung by a raspy Guy Fieri lookalike. “One Week” strings together gibberish at a machine-gun pace and partakes in that awful ’90s trend of adding the letter “Y” to every word that begins with a vowel (“yyit’s been!”). “Smooth” also survives on the merits of its vocal absurdity: There’s something ridiculous about how eagerly Rob Thomas lays his earnest alt-rock croon over Santana’s guitar, sweating out lines about how his “Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa” is “just like the ocean under the moon” without a hint of self-consciousness or irony.
“Smooth” plays in the same league as “All Star” and “One Week,” but it blows both of them out of the water in comedic potential. Thomas just means what he sings so damn much. He wrote these lyrics for his wife, Marisol Maldonado, and he sang them as if he imagined her swooning every time “Smooth” blared out from the dashboard: “You hear my rhythm on the radio.” He prostrates himself before her, a sweltering puddle of man-goo beneath his all-encompassing solar queen, his “reason for reason.” The lovin’ is so smooth he’s happy to turn his life upside down to accommodate her whims. She says “jump,” he asks, “How high, and into which ravine?”
All that, and Santana’s just doing his thing on the frets, filling the space between Thomas’s moans with hot licks, oblivious to the intensely silly man singing next to him. If “Smooth” was ever intended to be a bedroom jam, Thomas’s throaty gravel nipped its sexual potential in the bud. “Smooth” is about turning yourself inside out for sex, but few if any people have ever had sex to “Smooth” without cracking up at that first “... or else forget about it!”
Here’s how to make a song live forever: Take an established and excellent Latin rock band, top it with a big scoop of corny dude, twist in a millennium-ending earworm, and set it free. “Smooth” by Santana featuring Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty — which is how the radio announcers said it back in the day, and how it’s immortalized in many of today’s memes — will never leave us. It is so deeply ingrained in our pop-cultural psyches that it has become a unit of measurement for how completely Katie Ledecky owns her competitors. It is shorthand; it is language; it is us.