The biggest pop hit of the year -- Sara Bareilles' "Love Song" -- is not a love song. Nor is it a kiss-off to an ex-lover or wannabe boyfriend, even though the refrain goes: "I'm not gonna write you a love song 'cause you asked for it."
No, it's a slap at her record company, for rejecting her songs while offering no artistic direction.
"I was angry with the fact that I was allowing their feedback to change the way I viewed songwriting," said Bareilles, who will headline a sold-out concert Tuesday at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis. "I started to become preoccupied with the idea of being able to please them. This is not who I am, or why I write songs. It was that moment of realization that spurred me to write 'Love Song,' and it came out really quickly because I was so angry."
The honchos at Epic Records "really liked the song but had no idea it was about them. And I had to tell them," she said. "I'm kind of an open book."
If you haven't figured it out, Bareilles, 28, is feisty. Her speech is peppered with expletives for emphasis. She even throws four-letter words into her songs, as in her new single, "Bottle It Up." The key lyric in this tune is "Only thing I ever could need/only one good thing worth trying to be/ and it's love love love love/I do it for love."
Bareilles said that song is about -- you guessed it -- the record business.
"Before I had a record deal, I wrote that song about what it would be like to have a record deal, and the struggles of how do you become an artist who feels like they haven't quote/unquote 'sold out,' and how do you stay true to your art and figure out how to make a living from it," she said. "The chorus says it all: 'I do it for love.' Music -- and particularly songwriting -- for me is such a passion, it's a very sacred thing for me."
"Love Song" and "Bottle It Up" are the brightest songs on her album, "Little Voice," most of which is dark piano pop reminiscent of early Fiona Apple. Remember, I did say that she's feisty.
"I don't know if it's because I was the baby in the family," said Bareilles, who grew up in Eureka, Calif. "I do, especially as a woman, feel like I've got to be more scrappy and fight for my position."
When she enrolled at UCLA, she couldn't handle the music-placement exam required to get into the music program. So she majored in communications with a minor in Italian -- and ended up in the music business.
It has been a long, hard road to the Top 10 for Bareilles (pronounced Buh-RELL-iss). "Love Song" was released last July. She has opened tours for the likes of Aqualung, Maroon 5 and James Blunt. In fact, she was an opening act three times at the Fine Line before getting next week's top billing.
Finally headlining is "so fricking cool," she said Monday during a break from rehearsing with her band. "It's just really gratifying to play this size of venue, and it's almost sold out the whole tour. I've got lots of songs that didn't make this album, and we're playing a lot of the album, and we're adding some covers, and we're doing some new songs."
Besides the exposure as an opening act, Bareilles benefited from appearing in a TV commercial for rhapsody.com doing "Love Song."
"That made a huge difference," she said of the Christmas-time ad. "The rhapsody commercial gave people a visual to connect with the sonic from the radio."
That buzz sent music lovers to YouTube where the official video for "Love Song" has been viewed a whopping 8 million times -- and counting.
One of my theories on the song's success is that it's a catchy, uptempo tune that you can hear in different ways. For instance, if you don't listen closely to the lyrics, you might notice that "love song" is repeated over and over in a sunny, happy way, essentially wiping out the negativity of the setup line "I don't wanna write you ... " Janet Jackson's "Nasty" had a similar effect -- while insisting she didn't want to be a nasty girl, she kept repeating the word "nasty."
"I think that's a smart theory," Bareilles said, but she prefers to think of it as "a hate song."
"I definitely get feedback from people who are attached to the fact that it's not a happy song. People are appreciative of having an anthem that gets them through their breakup or whatever it may be. I'm sorry people are so upset all the time. Glad I wrote a song about it."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719