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Michael's Number Ones: "Turn Off the Light" by Nelly Furtado



November 3, 2001


It's easy to look down on people who listen to pop music because the impression, sometimes fair, sometimes not, is that the music is a mile wide and an inch deep. To be fair, listening to music is often a background activity. Something to put on in the office or in a waiting room because nobody likes silence. When you actually start to pay attention to the music, you're forcing yourself to confront your own feelings and thoughts through the eyes of another person's experiences.

All this is to say that nobody knows what the fuck to think when it comes to sex. Especially socially awkward 15-year-old boys. If a song came at the subject too directly, there was a good chance I'd look down my nose at it and change the channel. So when Nelly Furtado, who already had one of my favorite songs of 2001 with "I'm Like a Bird", released "Turn Off the Light" as her second single, it would go on to be a smash for me because at the time I was too naive to really know what she was talking about.

While "I'm Like a Bird" was rising up the charts in the United States, "Turn Off the Light" was released as the follow-up in her native Canada. A bare bones video aired in constant rotation on MuchMusic in the spring of 2001, but it took some time for me to warm up to the song. Eventually, the song's success in Canada made it a logical choice for release as her second single in the U.S., and once "I'm Like a Bird" faded from the airwaves, "Turn Off the Light" was there to take its place.

Furtado sounds like she's lamenting a relationship that's ended. "It's getting so lonely inside this bed/don't know if I should lick my wounds or say 'woe is me' instead." The vocal repetition she uses throughout the song makes it a great earworm, but a reading of the lyrics seems to indicate that whoever she's talking about doesn't really understand who she is. "They say that girl ya know she act too tough tough tough/well it's till I turn off the light, turn off the light."

The beginning of the song feels ominous, a tone that is matched in the video, which begins in a muddy swamp. However, the song gets much brighter, with record scratching and acoustic guitars filling the air. In the video, the action moves from the dank swamp to a brightly colored neighborhood, where Furtado dances and eats noodles with friends.

To me, the song feels quite introspective, as if Furtado is wondering what it is about her that people can't see that makes her a good person. The video augments this, whether she's dancing in the mud at the beginning or partying with friends later on. All the imagery is striking and commanded your attention if you saw it on TV. I probably wasn't intelligent or mature enough at the time to pick up on the themes she was singing about, at least not with any depth. I just knew the song fucking slapped hard, and still does to this day.

The song proved to be another hit for Furtado in the U.S., where it got to #5 on the Hot 100. I remember really liking her third single from Whoa, Nelly!, "Shit on the Radio (Remember the Days)", a song that basically is about betraying who you are to get some popularity. That got to #16 on my top 40, but the need to censor the word "shit" from the title ironically stalled it from getting much airplay, and it failed to make the Hot 100.

Furtado released her second album Folklore in 2003 while she was pregnant, which she claimed made the album more mellow than its predecessor. Audiences apparently weren't going for that, and the album flopped badly. The first single "Powerless (Say What You Want)" at least managed to reach #27 on my top 40, but disappeared without much trace afterward.

Going back to the drawing board for her next album, she worked with Timbaland to produce what would become Loose. Timbaland had primarily been known for creating amazing work with Missy Elliott and Aaliyah to this point, and was really entering a dominant phase in his career in the mid-2000s. He'll eventually appear in this column as an artist. Even though I loved a lot of Timbaland's work, the collaboration still felt like a sharp left turn for Furtado. Perhaps naming the first single from the album "Promiscuous" didn't help for fans of her earlier work, as it seemed like she just wanted to chase down a hit. I would argue that a deeper listen of "Turn Off the Light" and some of her other songs would tell you that the subject matter really wasn't so out of place. Like I said before, nobody knows what the fuck to think when it comes to sex.

In any event, the collaboration worked as Furtado reached #1 on the album chart with Loose, and she scored her first US #1 song with "Promiscuous". I really couldn't deny the song either, and it made it to #6 on my top 40. The standout track from Loose for me, however, was the third single, "Say It Right". It's an airy, spaced out jam that's positively mesmerizing. It wound up being another #1 song for her, and though it only got to #5 on my top 40, it was on constant rotation when I finally bought an iPod around that time.

Furtado got one more #1 hit on the Hot 100 when she featured alongside Justin Timberlake on Timbaland's song "Give It to Me" in 2007. After that, she never approached the heights of her success with Loose. The last song on hers that registered on my top 40, the ironically titled "All Good Things (Come to an End)", peaked at #27 in 2007. She would release a Spanish language album called Mi Plan in 2009, followed by a couple more albums that didn't make much noise in the United States. She's charted on the Hot 100 as a featured artist on a few different tracks over the years, but never as a lead artist. It's safe to say we won't be seeing her again in this column.

It feels like Nelly Furtado's name should be a reliable shorthand for pop music in the 2000s. She made jams that could make you feel good, but also had quite an amount of depth to them when you looked under the surface. It feels like we're only now starting to make sense of what the culture of the 2000s really was, and it would be a shame if Nelly Furtado didn't figure prominently into that discussion.


Michelle Branch's debut single, the rollicking, thoughtful "Everywhere", peaked at #2 behind "Turn Off the Light".

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