Since the establishment of both the Billboard Hot 100 and the UK Singles Chart, achieving a number two hit has been a special kind of bittersweet. On the one hand, a number two is a massively successful single, and one that can either propel an artist to superstardom or solidify their place atop the pop music mountain. On the other, it’s a silver medal, a “close but no cigar.” A second-place finish. A cause for celebration, but not a triumph.
It might seem in bad taste to grouse about scoring a number two hit, but there’s no getting around the fact that when it’s all said and done, number twos don’t get remembered in the same ways that number ones do. Whether the song is good or bad, acclaimed or infamous, of its time or timeless, number ones have etched their place in history above all other songs. At one very specific moment in time, this was what the most popular song in the country was. I will defend James Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful’ and even Aqua’s ‘Barbie Girl’, but someone desperately needs to explain to me the ‘Mr. Blobby’ phenomenon.
Number twos don’t get this kind of public discourse. It doesn’t matter if they are classic songs or not: if they didn’t make it to number one, there’s always a perception that the song, and the artist, came up just short. The Cure reached number two in America in 1989 with ‘Lovesong’, a fantastic track no matter what Robert Smith says, but it reads either like a missed opportunity or a palpable disconnect within popular culture that the kings of dark and gloomy rock just missed their moment in the sun — America evidently liked Janet Jackson’s ‘Miss You Much’ more. Me? I’m a ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ kinda guy. It’s a shame ‘Nasty’ only peaked at number three.
But what song was robbed of their spot at number one? Not robbed in the Sex Pistols ‘God Save the Queen’ way, but songs that were popular enough and sold enough over a long period of time to warrant that position on top of the chart. Sometimes fate just works against you: the timing is slightly off, and the public might really like your song, but they really like someone else’s. The story is different in the UK and US, and ironically both chart tales feature prominent individuals from the opposite side of the pond. Today, we answer the question: what song was stuck at number two the longest?
Part 1: America
Sorry Britannia, but we’re focusing on the good ol’ gun toating, God-fearing, ‘rona spreading U, S, and A first. And it’s not because of my allegiance to my home country, but rather because the languishing that befell the song with the most prolonged stay at number two in America had a longer stay — and it happened twice.
First, travel with me back to a magical faraway time known as 1981. MTV had just launched, and with it, the last strains of bloated AOR rock would begin to fade away from the charts. America liked pasty British art school students again, only this time they were armed with synthesizers. Pop stars as we know them today also began to take hold: Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and a litany of gated-reverb swilling hacks.
But if a band had the goods, which is to say if they had an entire setlist of weepy ballads, they could still ride their way to the top of the charts, even without the visual power required for MTV supremacy. That’s why Foreigner didn’t go the same way that, say, Foghat did. Foreigner knew how to rock on songs like ‘Juke Box Hero’ and ‘Hot Blooded’, but they were also scrupulous to see that number one songs were often the slow jams and power ballads. And when the Anglo-American band went in for the slow dance, they went in headfirst.
The first single from 4 was ‘Urgent’, and that peaked at the hilariously appropriate number four spot on the Hot 100. Still, that was the band’s highest-charting single since ‘Double Vision’ reached the number two spot three years prior. They were just priming America for the ace up their sleeve: the soft rock ballad ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’, which was sure to send Foreigner straight to the top of the Hot 100.
Only there was a problem: Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Physical’ was making a chart run at the same time. ‘Physical’ was the perfect counterprogramming to Foreigner: it had a much better music video that was playful and sexy, two things that Foreigner simply couldn’t do. Plus, it was an absolute monster earworm that even got some controversy from social conservatives, which is a surefire way to stay relevant. History often pointed to ballads being the biggest sellers, but ‘Physical’ was its own record-shattering behemoth. ‘Physical’ ascended to the top of the Hot 100 a week before ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ hit number two and stayed there for ten weeks, a record for any single during the ’80s. For nine of those weeks, ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ sat at number two.
But there was hope yet: on its eleventh week, ‘Physical’ began to drop in sales while ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ continued to sell. This is what Foreigner had waited for. Their patience was finally going to pay off as they were all but guaranteed the number one spot.
That was until Hall & Oates’ ‘I Can’t Go For That’ vaulted its way from number four to number one. An unexpected dark horse came from behind and forced Foreigner to sit back down for yet another week at number two. That made ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ the longest-tenured number two in the US at ten weeks.
The following week, ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ dropped to number three as J. Geils Band’s ‘Centerfold’ ascended to number one. After that, the song continued to fall until it eventually fell off the chart entirely. But don’t feel too bad for Foreigner: they ultimately got their number one song on both sides of the Atlantic with ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’, a ballad that is even worse than ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’.
Today, ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ shares its record for the longest stay at number two with Missy Elliott’s ‘Work It’, a much better song that was prevented from achieving chart supremacy thanks to Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’. However, unlike Foreigner, Elliott has never had a song reach the top of the Hot 100, and her only UK number one was as a featured artist on Mel B’s ‘I Want You Back’. Shame on us as a society for not properly acknowledging the god-tier talent that is Missy Elliott.
Part Two: England
OK, that history of ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ was very long-winded. I’ll be sure to keep the English portion more succinct, thanks in part because the band with the longest UK Singles stay at number two is a fair deal more boring.
It’s almost exactly ten years ago, 2011, and new hit songs are coming in with such a high level of frequency that poor old Maroon 5 can’t keep up. They thought they had it made with the admittedly catchy and weirdly gross ‘Moves Like Jagger’, a killer “song of the summer” funk jam that dominated the Billboard Hot 100.
There are numerous questionable aspects to ‘Moves Like Jagger’: Mick Jagger himself was almost 70 by this point, and while he was still getting busy in real life, I doubt that comparing your sexual prowess to a geriatric old man is going to get you laid. Also, immediately after the line about getting naked, the narrator’s hookup calls him a kid, which I always found an exceedingly poor lyrical choice putting these two observations back to back.
But its catchiness couldn’t be denied, and starting with the week of September 10, ‘Moves Like Jagger’ reached what would turn out to be its peak at number two. Hilariously, for the next five weeks, a new single would debut at number one just to rain on Maroon 5’s parade: Pixie Lott’s ‘All About Tonight’, One Direction’s ‘That’s What Makes You Beautiful’, Dappy’s ‘No Regrets’, Sak Noel’s ‘Loca People’, and finally Rhianna’s ‘We Found Love’.
After spending another week behind ‘We Found Love’, ‘Moves Like Jagger’ began its descent down the charts, but not before it tied the record of most weeks at number two in the UK with seven. By the way, for any chart nerds out there, All-4-One also spent seven weeks at number two with their version of the country-pop puke-fest ‘I Swear’. All-4-One are still the poor man’s Boyz II Men, but the most memorable part of that chart run was that it was kept off the top spot by the ludicrous fifteen-week run of Wet Wet Wet’s cover of The Trogg’s ‘Love Is All Around’, which is also a puke-fest.
So what have we learned from these chart stays? Well, nothing, really. The two songs, or rather the four songs on this list, don’t have much in common. Two are overwrought ballads, one is a supremely catchy but also offputting funk-pop jam, and one is a genuine banger that I will defend to the hilt. But there doesn’t seem to be any reason why these songs were kept from the top. Sure, ‘Physical’ was better than ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’, but ‘No Regrets’ wasn’t better than ‘Moves Like Jagger’. It’s a strange phenomenon being stuck at number two: you’re massively popular, but you’re also a perennial bridesmaid. There was no love wasted, but also no love lost, for these number one number twos.