The Number Ones: Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love”

Features News Popular

The Number Ones: Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love”


In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Remember Jesse McCartney? It’s fine if you don’t. Nobody’s judging. McCartney — no relation to any other famous McCartney — was one of the also-ran teen-idol types who came along during the waning years of Total Request Live. He’d been a child actor on All My Children and a member of the mostly forgotten boy band Dream Street, and he released his debut album Beautiful Soul in 2004, when he was 17. That record went platinum, and its title track peaked at #16.

Jesse McCartney still makes music these days, and he also does a lot of voice acting. (He’s Theodore in the Alvin And The Chipmunks movies. It’s a living.) Nobody thinks of McCartney as a major star. Instead, he served as a sort of connective ligament in teen-idol history, filling up the space between the late-’90s boy-band boom and the rise of Justin Bieber. McCartney never had a gigantic hit, but he could’ve had one. While working on his third album, 2008’s Departure, Jesse McCartney worked with the young songwriter Ryan Tedder on a song about romantic longing. McCartney’s A&R rep didn’t think the song was a hit, so he let Ryan Tedder walk away with it. Pretty soon afterwards, “Bleeding Love” was the biggest song in the world. Sometimes, that’s just how it goes.

If Jesse McCartney had released “Bleeding Love,” it might not have become a monumental globe-crushing smash. We’ll never know. Instead, the song went to a singer who’d just won a UK singing-competition show but who was a total unknown in the rest of the world. “Bleeding Love” launched Leona Lewis toward stardom, and even if her pop-chart moment in America was brief, the song still became a juggernaut. Jesse McCartney co-wrote the song, so he still gets royalties, but I’d have to imagine that its success was a bit bittersweet for him.

In 2004, Simon Cowell created a British TV show called The X Factor. Cowell was already hugely famous and successful thanks to his time on Pop Idol and its offshoot American Idol, but he wanted to control one of these shows himself. The X Factor was a pretty direct bite of the Pop Idol format; Pop Idol creator Simon Fuller tried to sue. Like Pop Idol before it, The X Factor was still hugely successful in the UK. In the show’s first two years, the nondescript balladeers Steve Brookstein and Shayne Ward won The X Factor. Both of them scored #1 hits in the UK, where singing shows really controlled the charts. Cowell didn’t even try to launch either of them in the US. But when Leona Lewis won the third season of The X Factor, it was a different story.

Leona Lewis grew up in London’s Islington district, and she started singing as a kid. (When Lewis was born, Phil Collins’ “One More Night” was the #1 song in America. In the UK, it was Philip Bailey and Phil Collins’ “Easy Lover.” Phil Collins was doing OK for himself right then.) Lewis’ parents sent her to a bunch of different performing arts schools. As a teenager, she did some modeling and acted in a couple of West End musicals. At 17, she dropped out of school, hoping to make it in music.

After leaving school, Leona Lewis worked as a receptionist and a Pizza Hut waitress in between auditions. At 18, she got a role in a Lion King show at Disneyland Paris, but she lost that job after she got hurt while ice skating. Lewis signed deals with two different production companies and recorded two different albums’ worth of demos, but those demos couldn’t land her a record deal. Finally, she tried out for The X Factor. She’d already won a national karaoke contest, so she figured that she could pull off something similar on TV. She was right.

Leona Lewis sang “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” at her audition, and she sailed through the tryout and the rest of the season. Lewis specialized in big, showy, pop-friendly R&B of the Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey variety. That kind of melisma-heavy singing was out of favor on the pop charts by the late ’00s, but in the context of a British singing show, it stood out. Lewis could sing actual Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey songs without embarrassing herself. When the season ended, she covered “A Moment Like This,” which had been Kelly Clarkson’s American Idol coronation song. Lewis’ version of “A Moment Like This” was the UK’s Christmas #1 in 2006, and it held the top spot for four weeks. Simon Cowell knew that he had an actual star on his hands.

On the early seasons of American Idol, Simon Cowell worked with the music-business legend Clive Davis, who helped shape the winners into viable recording artists. When Leona Lewis won her season of The X Factor, Cowell called Clive Davis, who agreed that Lewis was something special. Lewis idolized Whitney Houston, a onetime Clive Davis protege, and she signed a joint deal with Cowell’s Syco label and Davis’ J Records. Cowell and Davis brought Lewis to Los Angeles, where she gave a showcase performance for some of the city’s working songwriters. One of the people in the room that day was Ryan Tedder.

Ryan Tedder was born in Tulsa, and he grew up as the son of two pastors in Colorado Springs. Tedder sang and played keyboard in church as a kid, and he moved to Los Angeles and interned at DreamWorks after graduating Oral Roberts University with a degree in advertising and PR. In LA, Tedder sang on demos and won a singer-songwriter competition on MTV. For a couple of years, Tedder worked behind the scenes with former Number Ones artist Timbaland. Tedder got his first big credit in 2003, when he co-wrote and sang the hook on “She Tried,” a country-rap experiment from Timbaland’s protege Bubba Sparxxx.

Eventually, Timbaland signed OneRepublic, a band that Tedder formed with his old Colorado Springs friends, to his Mosely Music Group label. Timbaland teamed up with OneRepublic on “Apologize,” a ballad that he included on his 2007 album Shock Value. That song became a huge hit, peaking at #2. (It’s a 6.) The success of “Apologize” led to many, many more OneRepublic hits. In 2013, for instance, OneRepublic got back to #2 with their song “Counting Stars.” (It’s a 4.) OneRepublic are still making hits. Last year, the big song from Top Gun: Maverick was not the Oscar-nominated end-credits ballad from Lady Gaga, an artist who will appear in this column many times. Instead, the stealth hit was “I Ain’t Worried,” the OneRepublic track that played during the beach-football montage. (“I Ain’t Worried” peaked at #6. It’s a 5.)

Before OneRepublic took off, though, Ryan Tedder was trying to make it as a songwriter for hire. In 2007, Tedder co-wrote “Do It Well,” a Jennifer Lopez single that peaked at #31. He wrote for Baby Bash, for Hilary Duff, for High School Musical star Ashley Tisdale, for beatboxing American Idol runner-up Blake Lewis. Tedder was in that zone when he and Jesse McCartney wrote “Bleeding Love” together. Tedder later told The Guardian that he’d been asking himself what Prince would do when he started writing “Bleeding Love”: “I’d been thinking about ‘When Doves Cry‘ or ‘Nothing Compares 2 U.’ I wanted to write a song that was about love but devastating, so thought about breakups that had crushed me in college.”

For his part, Jesse McCartney was missing his girlfriend, the actress Katie Cassidy. (Cassidy’s father David has been in this column as a member of the Partridge Family.) McCartney hated being away from Cassidy on tour, and that teenage-melodrama thing shines through in the “Bleeding Love” lyrics: “I don’t care what they say! I’m in love with you! They try to pull me away, but they don’t know the truth!” The central metaphor of “Bleeding Love” is love as an open wound — a wound that you want to keep open.

Jesse McCartney eventually released his own version of “Bleeding Love,” and it’s not that good. McCartney’s A&R told Ryan Tedder that “Bleeding Love” wasn’t a hit and that it wouldn’t even make McCartney’s album. Instead, McCartney released the single “Leavin’,” which he recorded with The-Dream and Tricky Stewart and which became his biggest hit, peaking at #10. (It’s a 6.) Tedder was in the audience at Leona Lewis’ LA showcase, and he brought “Bleeding Love” to her.

Leona Lewis, Simon Cowell, and Clive Davis all loved “Bleeding Love.” Jesse McCartney had sung on the “Bleeding Love” demo, and Lewis kept listening to that demo again and again. In that Guardian article, Lewis says, “I could relate to the song because Ryan can write like a teenage girl.” Tedder produced Lewis’ version of it, and he played every instrument on the track — the churchy organ, the synthetic strings, the softly thrumming keyboard, the morse-code guitar bleeps, the drum-machine programming. I think Tedder did an awesome job with those drums. I always loved the little woodblock-hit dings. “Bleeding Love” is a grand, hammy showstopper ballad, but it’s also got enough of a beat that it never gets too maudlin.

“Bleeding Love” is a gorgeously produced track, full of little ear-candy touches. It’s also got a truly great central performance from Leona Lewis. She just sings the hell out of it. Leona Lewis has always been a powerful singer, but I don’t always get a ton of personality from her music. On “Bleeding Love,” though, Lewis does all her Mariah Carey-style runs while sounding like she’s about to fall apart. More than once, her voice breaks. Lewis had been through a breakup just before she recorded the song, and she used that emotion to her advantage. On “Bleeding Love,” she sounds fully invested. She’s completely throwing herself into this thing.

It’s easy to be cynical about a song like “Bleeding Love.” The track is a pure product of the hit-factory system, written by professionals and sung by a reality-show winner. But when “Bleeding Love” reaches its stormy finale and Lewis is howling about wearing these scars for every-wahhwn to see, I have no choice but to submit. It’s a good song. These people all knew what they were doing.

“Bleeding Love” got two different music videos. The first, from future Queen & Slim director Melina Matsoukas, has Leona Lewis and a bunch of other people going through their romantic apocalypses in different rooms of the same building. That one was filmed in LA, but it was for British and European audiences. The other one, from Jessy Terrero, has Lewis and a model guy breaking up in the middle of Times Square; that was the American video. In both videos, Leona Lewis looks insanely beautiful. Her eyes could be a special effect.

Clive Davis gave Leona Lewis the promotional full-court press. She sang Bleeding Love on virtually every American TV show that could accommodate a musical performance, from American Idol to The Hills. She got a full episode of Oprah. “Bleeding Love” took off in a huge way, topping singles charts in dozens of countries. In the UK, Lewis’ debut album Spirit went platinum nine times over. In the US, the album and the “Bleeding Love” single both went platinum, and Lewis became the subject of one of Kanye West’s dumbest punchlines. (“Sex is on fire, I’m the king of Leona Lewis.”)

In the UK, Leona Lewis remained a huge star. She got her second #1 hit with a cover of the pretty-great Snow Patrol song “Run,” and she kept racking up regular top-10 hits for another five years or so. Over here, Lewis got to #11 with her “Bleeding Love” follow-up, the JR Rotem production “Better In Time.” She hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 2009, when “Happy,” the lead single from her sophomore LP Echo, peaked at #31. (Lewis co-wrote that one with Ryan Tedder.)

In the time since “Bleeding Love,” Leona Lewis has messed around with dance music. She’s made Christmas albums. She’s acted in a Broadway production of Cats. She eventually parted ways with Simon Cowell’s record label, and then she talked about going through depression after getting dropped. Just last year, she became a mother. At least in the US, Leona Lewis never became a transcendent star. But “Bleeding Love” had a ripple effect.

Later in 2008, Ryan Tedder co-wrote and co-produced Beyoncé’s single “Halo,” which has a whole lot of “Bleeding Love” in its DNA. “Halo” peaked at #5, but it’s become Beyoncé’s most-streamed song by far. (It’s an 8.) Ryan Tedder has gone on to write hits more huge stars: Adele, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Lil Nas X. His work will appear in this column again. We’ll also get to talk about a few other artists who came up through The X Factor.

GRADE: 8/10

Back To Top