Vanessa Carlton, from the music video for A Thousand Miles

20 Years Later, Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” is a Personal Anthem of… Defiance? ✊🏻

“Is she the flavor of the week?”

The question caught me off guard. I was 17 and I’d just shared Vanessa Carlton’s song A Thousand Miles with a musician dude who was a few years older than me and who was visiting the sort-of halfway home for ex-cult young adults I lived in at the time. There was no meanness directed at me specifically. He was just dismissing the idea that the song had any merit or novelty whatsoever, or that it could be popular if its singer wasn’t young and attractive. This was one of my earliest exposures to music snobbery, and it didn’t sit right with me.

“I’ll still like this song in 10 years,” I replied, after waiting a moment.

Apparently, they didn’t use a green screen or any visual effects for the video. Just a custom-built dolly for the piano and a strap under Carlton’s dress to hold her in place.

It’s not like this was my favorite song. But then, I’d shared it not only because I liked it but because I thought it stood out, and it had a fun music video, too. Other pop songs at the time mostly weren’t piano-driven, and they typically didn’t have orchestra sections, either. And while I’m defending it, I thought the song’s lyrics were reasonably good, and I liked Carlton’s vulnerable vocal style. Who gave a fuck if this dude thought pop was beneath the rock music he preferred? Hell, I loved rock, too. I liked angry music including death metal and gangsta rap. And I particularly liked psychedelic trance coming out of Israel and Goa, India. The cult of my very recent youth didn’t allow listening to music they hadn’t produced themselves, so I was busy taking in all kinds of musical styles. This was right at the time when peer-to-peer music sharing apps like KaZaA were all the rage, which made it easy to explore esoteric and underground shit.

But I also liked this new pop song.

I guess I already thought of myself as an individualist, although I could not have described it that way at the time. I’d just left a cult because I didn’t believe what I was taught all my life, and I was questioning everything. Who was this guy to tell me I was in fact just following crowds and that the music I liked was so indistinguishable that I’d forget about it in a week?

But now I’m overdramatizing. There was no outrage or offense taken. Just a calm and resolute desire to wait 10 years to prove him wrong in my own mind. And like some kind of rebellious elephant, I didn’t forget. For whatever reason, this simple exchange from 20 years ago has always stuck with me, despite nearly all memories of my childhood and teenage years fading completely. I don’t remember my interlocutor’s name, what he looked like, or any other conversation we had. Just this.

Yesterday, all of this came to mind again, and I thought it was funny how long I’d held onto it. And then today, whaddaya know, CNN informed me it was the 20-year anniversary of A Thousand Miles. Apparently, the song stood the test of time for a lot of people. Rolling Stone India, in their own article about the 20-year anniversary, called the song’s intro “the most easily identifiable first three seconds to a song of the last two decades, and quite possibly the most instantaneously recognizable piano riff ever.” They ended the article with the following line: “While Carlton is aware she’s likely never to achieve the same level of fame or success she did with her debut hit, we are very certain that even 20 years from now, the minute the piano riff for A Thousand Miles starts, we’ll be ready to sing along.”

I know wanting to cheer for that makes me pretty ridiculous. Yet somehow, this catchy little 20-year old pop song by a one-hit-wonder became a personal anthem of individualism, patient resoluteness, and anti-snobbery.

P.S. If you want to learn more about the song, check out this short documentary on Vice:

P.P.S. If you want to learn more about the music of the cult I grew up in, see Persecution Music: The Songs of the Gaslighters & the Counter-Resistance.

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