Updated: Aug 2
February 17, 2001
You never know where you're going to find your favorite songs. Of course, it wasn't as easy in 2001 to discover unknown artists as it is today. For teenagers in the early 2000s, if file sharing services weren't an option, that generally left the radio or music video channels, at least the ones that were still showing music videos.
In my case, I had an ace in the hole. In addition to MTV2 and VH1, another channel on my parents' DIRECTV subscription was a Canadian import called MuchMusic. It brought a lot of songs to my attention that I either never would've heard otherwise, or would have to wait until the artist's label decided to try an American breakthrough. Quite a few of those songs would register on my top 40, and some, including today's song, would go all the way to the top.
Nelly Kim Furtado was born in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1978 to Portuguese immigrants. She would perform Portuguese songs starting at the age of four, and learned many instruments as she grew up. Eventually, she moved to Toronto where she worked with Tallis Newkirk of the hip hop group Plains of Fascination, singing on the song "Waitin' 4 the Streets". She ultimately wanted to record pop music that showcased her vocal abilities, and became acquainted with Gerald Eaton and Brian West of the group The Philosopher Kings. This led to some demos recorded in 1999 that got her a record deal with DreamWorks Records, which released her debut album Whoa, Nelly! in the fall of 2000.
It's easy to see why "I'm Like a Bird" was chosen as the lead single from the album. The song is breezy and melodic, but it's Furtado's voice that's the star of the song. She projects a positive energy that's absolutely contagious. I remember seeing the video for the song on MuchMusic in December 2000 and being hypnotized by the song. That was usually the case with a lot of the early songs that reached #1 on my top 40.
Furtado seems to be unsure how to feel about someone's love for her. It seems she doesn't want to be held back by someone being in love with her. "I'm like a bird, I'll only fly away/I don't know where my soul is/I don't know where my home is." It also seems like she's describing a crush from the perspective of the person receiving the infatuation. "And it pains me so much to tell/that you don't know me that well."
As someone who was well versed in having crushes, but never being able to follow through on them, I guess I've never really considered it from the other side. I was a freshman in high school when this song came out, and it was the beginning of an incredibly strange social period in my life. I can't remember how many girls I had crushes on during this time, but rarely did I reveal it to them. What would they have said if they found out? Would they be repulsed, intrigued, or embarrassed? I imagine this song connected to people on both sides of these parasocial relationships. No one wants to feel like they're viewed by someone as perfect, because nobody is. And as flattering it is to be on the receiving end of a crush, it's equally as devastating to the other person if the feeling aren't reciprocated.
The video features Furtado in a CGI forest in what seems to be a symbiosis with nature. There's a neat visual of Furtado in front of a tree with the camera doing what appears to be a dolly zoom that distorts the edges of the frame around the tree. Eventually she leaps from the tree onto a crowd below where she crowdsurfs. The whole video creates a positive vibe that could only have helped the song's performance.
By the beginning of 2001, an American crossover was already underway, and she performed the song on Saturday Night Live on January 13. There's a lot of SNL clips floating around on YouTube, but unfortunately the performance doesn't seem to have made its way there yet. By the spring of 2001, the song peaked at #9 on the Hot 100. I can't report on its peak on the Canadian charts because the country's analogue to Billboard magazine, RPM, folded in 2000, just as "I'm Like a Bird" was ascending the chart. Canada wouldn't have a national chart again until 2007 when Billboard introduced the Canadian Hot 100.
Of course, by this point Furtado didn't need to rely on her native country to sustain her career. Whoa, Nelly! was on its way to being one of the best-selling albums of 2001, and on its way to my CD shelf. It wasn't done spinning out hit singles, either. We will see Nelly Furtado again in this column soon.
Here's Nelly Furtado and her fellow countryman Drake performing "I'm Like a Bird" at a concert in 2022:
(Drake's biggest hit on my top 40, 2012's "Take Care" peaked at #5. Rihanna, who duets on the track, will eventually appear in this column.)