Released: 17th June 2002
Writers: Christian “Bloodshy” Karlsson / Christina Milian / Fredrik “Fredro” Odesjo / Henrik Jonback / Nina Woodford
Peak position: #3
Chart run: 3-6-7-9-11-19-28-34-44-60
In the ’90s and early ‘00s, pop music had a reputation for superficiality. And with escalating levels of fame, our pop stars were occasionally accused of being out of touch with reality. Thankfully, in 2002 Christina Milian released When You Look At Me; a killer track that assured that the value of being socially aware and non-judgemental hadn’t been lost on her.
We’re a complicated crowd as pop fans. For while we want our favourite acts to dazzle us with the extraordinary, we also love them taking the time to have a humble moment and remind us that underneath the façade, they’re just like us. Whether Christina Milian needed to do that two singles into her career is debatable. But presumably When You Look At Me was an opportunity to debunk any presumptions over delusions of grandeur that might have formed following the extremely lavish video for AM To PM, even if the visual treatment for this song is similarly expensively styled.
Regardless of the message it was trying to portray, When You Look At Me is a brilliant pop song expertly produced by Bloodshy & Avant. Unlike the R&B leanings of her earlier material, this single is much more of a “fun for Europe” number with a bouncy beat and doo-wop electric guitars (funnily enough, it didn’t chart in America). There’s even a hint of a squelchy electro beat that occasionally leaks through the production – an early sign of the direction that Bloodshy & Avant would later pursue. Nonetheless, even as one of the production team’s earlier high-profile gigs, it shows a lot of promise, with a series of punctuated elements that complement the track without ever threatening to overshadow the whole song. For at the heart of When You Look At Me is a masterfully crafted chorus that goes off. The: “Tell me who do you think you see, you’re standing in your corner looking out, on me…” hook flows with a nursery rhyme-esque rhythm that feels curiously familiar and still utterly satisfying. The track is often overlooked – perhaps because it lacks the profile of the bigger pop moments of the early ’00s – but from a technical perspective, it’s just as well constructed.
Of course, one simply cannot discuss When You Look At Me without acknowledging the lyrics. It’s here that the track rapidly escalates from the relatively formulaic into the utterly surreal. The first verse focuses on Christina Milian addressing people’s perception of her: “You’re probably thinking that I want those things, cash, cars, diamond rings”. Realistically people weren’t thinking of her in that way, and you almost feel it’s a sentiment that would have been better served to someone like Jennifer Lopez, whose 2001 hit Play had been co-written (and co-sung) by Christina Milian. Within the context of a song about not taking people at face value, it’s perfectly sound logic. But by the time we reach the second verse When You Look At Me suddenly moves in a most unexpected direction:
You look at your neighbour thinking: “what a guy”
‘Cause he’s got a 9 to 5
And I bet that you don’t realise
He stalks you while you sleep at night
But you’re scared of the homeless guy
Think he’s gonna wanna start a fight
Never judge a book by its cover
Let that just percolate for a second. Really soak it all in…
By 2002, at the tail-end of the bubblegum pop phenomenon, we considered ourselves reasonably well-versed in the absurdity of pop lyrics from the sublime to the ludicrous. But When You Look At Me is right up there as a genuine “WTF” moment. If it’s an autobiographical account of something that happened to Christina Milian, then it’s dealt with flippantly. If it’s fictionalised, then we have to digest the fact that a total of five people sat around a table and conceptualised such a scenario. It’s a brilliantly bonkers pop moment that never fails to make us grin. And that’s before you even consider the fact that it was then fully choreographed for the music video, just in case you’ve ever wondered what dance steps would accompany the topics of stalking and homelessness. If we could, we’d award When You Look At Me an Ivor Novello for the second verse alone.
The sudden divergence in theme may be why the video concept is relatively abstract from the lyrics (we certainly wouldn’t have fancied trying to storyboard anything more literal). Instead, the visuals see rapid cuts jumping between Christina Milian in four different outfits performing the song. It’s a slightly weird choice because in some respects it’s at complete odds with the message being conveyed in the song. If Christina Milian wanted people to think she’s down to earth and not at all superficial, it might not have been the best decision to dress her in stylish outfits, accessorised with hefty items of jewellery and expensive-looking sunglasses. In itself it’s not a bad video; arguably some of the transitions are a bit too rapid, and although Christina Milian looks fierce, every time she strikes a sassy pose, the shot cuts too prematurely for it to land properly. Nonetheless, it seems like a lot of effort has gone into giving the video a slick, clean aesthetic. But we think it fair to say there wasn’t a lot of joined-up thinking in terms of how it was showcasing the song.
Although it didn’t fare well in America, When You Look At Me was a solid hit across Europe and in the UK peaked at #3, matching the success of AM To PM. It was a success for sure, but behind the scenes, trouble was brewing. There were disagreements about Christina Milian’s image (the proposed third single was quite a different prospect from the first two) and her debut album was eventually shelved indefinitely in America. Ultimately that meant the campaign was rapidly curtailed, and while When You Look At Me was a hit, it’s longevity seemed to be hampered by Christina Milian’s momentum grinding to a sudden halt. It essentially rendered this single a forgotten gem from the tail-end of the bubblegum pop era. But it’s well worth revisiting because even without the sheer spectacle of the second verse, this is an absolute bop.