Why is A Thousand Miles the most referenced song in cinema?

From White Chicks to Isn’t It Romantic, how the song came to represent cosy unoriginality

It is the tinkling piano riff that gets you. Vanessa Carlton, the Pennsylvania-born daughter of a pilot and a piano teacher was 17-going-on-18 when she wrote the opening bars that would become A Thousand Miles, the 2002 global smash hit, perennial film-soundtrack favourite and unrivalled anthem of basic bitches everywhere.

Carlton now lives in Nashville with her family, where she continues to make music – her latest album has shades of Jenny Lewis – but she never again troubled the pop charts. Meanwhile, her most famous song is out in the world living its best life. And she’s cool with that: “I love the expression ‘one hit wonder’,” Carlton told Elle magazine in 2017. “Because I still wonder how I ever had a hit. I wonder it all the time.”

From the off, the romcom affiliation was obvious, hence the song’s inclusion, pre-release, on the soundtrack to Reese Witherspoon’s perfectly pink 2001 film Legally Blonde. After officially coming out as Carlton’s debut single the following year, A Thousand Miles went platinum in the UK, earned a permanent place on MOR radio playlists worldwide and continued to feature on soundtracks for romcoms and teen television. So when, around 2014, the concept of the “basic bitch” emerged via a viral CollegeHumor video, A Thousand Miles was a staple signifier. It seemed exactly the sort of tune that Basic B (a woman of unoriginal cultural interests) would hum while sipping on a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte and making brunch plans. It took prime position on every basic’s yoga playlist (see also: Natasha Bedingfield’s Unwritten, Donna Lewis’s I Love You Always Forever and Sixpence None the Richer’s Kiss Me).

How did this happen? Partly it is to do with 2002’s special place in the history of female-skewed culture. In cinema, we were going through a mini romcom golden age, with Never Been Kissed, The Wedding Singer, 10 Things I Hate About You and Love Actually all coming out within five years of each other. But Carlton also came along just in time to ride the backlash against pop princesses Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, by sounding more like the sweet little sister of Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple. Compared to these feminist post-grunge acts, Carlton was reassuringly melodic; anguished, but accessibly so.

The “girliness” of A Thousand Miles also lent itself to parody, or was this actually earnest enjoyment cloaked in macho posturing? According to the Chicago Sun-Times, by April 2003 and the beginning of the Iraq war, A Thousand Miles had become the most requested song on British Forces Broadcasting Service radio in the Middle East. Back in the US, Fabolous and Ja Rule were both rumoured to be fans, while Cam’ron sampled the song on 10,000 Miles in 2017. The parodying goes right back to the 2004 film White Chicks, in which two black FBI agents (Shawn and Marlon Wayans) pose as Paris Hilton-esque white women in order to crack a case. It’s not the dodgy whiteface makeup that threatens to blow their cover, however. That happens when A Thousand Miles comes on the radio and they are unable to sing along to all the words. Later in the film, Terry Crews plays a tough, pro-basketball player, who surprises everyone with his perfect rendition (“How did you know?! I love this song!”).

The song provided a similar punchline this year for Simon Amstell’s feature Benjamin, when the title character betrays his own basicness by requesting his French musician lover play “Vanessa Carlton” at the piano. Most significant, though, is the role that the song plays in Isn’t It Romantic. Rebel Wilson stars as Natalie, a cynical architect who hits her head and wakes up in an alternative romcom-based universe, and while the song pops up early on to signal Natalie’s shift to rosy, romantic NYC, it also recurs at the film’s climax. Natalie realises she needs to open her heart and in come those tell-tale piano tinkles.

It seems that, like Natalie, more and more proud basics are realising that liking what you like is nothing to be ashamed of, and A Thousand Miles works as a perky soundtrack for that revelation, too. We wouldn’t still be humming it 17 years later if it wasn’t actually a pretty decent pop song, would we? Altogether now: “Making my way downtown / Walking fast / Faces pass / And I’m home bound …”


Ellen E Jones

The GuardianTramp

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