People rarely pay attention to pop lyrics. And when they do, they often single out one phrase they like and forget about everything else—even if that means completely misunderstanding a song. That’s how something like The Police’s 1983 classic “Every Breath You Take” winds up getting played at weddings, even though it’s about “jealousy and surveillance and ownership” in the words of Sting, the guy who wrote it.
A slightly more recent example of this phenomenon is James Blunt’s 2004 smash “You’re Beautiful,” a seemingly romantic ballad that masks a darker meaning. Despite the song’s true nature, which becomes fairly obvious with even a cursory reading of the lyrics, “You’re Beautiful” melted hearts around the world. The single reached No. 1 on the U.S. and UK charts and made the British singer-songwriter one of the biggest stars of the mid-2000s.
In many ways, Blunt has never escaped his signature song, though he has scored many more hits in his home country. In 2022, the refreshingly self-deprecating and self-aware singer embarked on what he called his “Greatest Hit Tour.” That trek provides the backdrop for a forthcoming BBC documentary about Blunt that’s said to be “Spinal Tap meets Alan Partridge.”
Over the years, Blunt has offered quasi-apologies for the ubiquity of “You’re Beautiful” during the aughts—and not unnecessarily. There are huge segments of the population that despise the song. Rolling Stone readers once named it the seventh most annoying song of all time. But regardless of how it’s perceived, “You’re Beautiful” remains a fascinating example of how the public will devour a piece of art without truly grasping its meaning.
As an added bonus, Blunt’s wild pre-fame backstory involves Princess Leia, the singer behind that ’90s alt-rock hit “What’s Up,” and a military incident that nearly caused World War III.
James Blunt was born February 22, 1974, at a military hospital in Tidsworth, Hampshire, England. His father, Charles, was a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, and he wasn’t the first Blunt to serve his country. The family’s military history apparently extends back to the 10th century, when the Blunts first moved to England from Denmark.
Young James studied piano and violin before picking up the guitar at 14. He soon began writing songs and dreaming of a career in music. But first, he studied aerospace mechanical engineering—and later sociology, after changing majors—at Bristol University. Blunt’s education was paid for by the British Army, and as a result, he was required to serve four years. He trained at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and later fought in the Kosovo War, which raged from 1998 to 1999.
Blunt’s troop was among the first British units to cross into Kosovo, and at one point, the future pop star was ordered by U.S. General Wesley Clark, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, to seize Kosovo’s Pristina airport, which had been taken by Russian soldiers. Blunt, who was a captain, disagreed with the order, for fear of escalating a conflict with Russia, and he told the BBC in 2010 that he would have declined General Clark’s order, even if it had meant a court martial.
As it happened, Blunt never had to defy Clark. British General Sir Mike Jackson wound up blocking the order. “I’m not going to have my soldiers be responsible for starting World War III,” Jackson told Clark. While the BBC headline “Singer James Blunt ‘Prevented World War III’” is a touch hyperbolic, there’s at least some truth to the story.
A “Beautiful” Song
After spending six months in Kosovo and witnessing many horrors related to the war, Blunt went to Switzerland for three months and had a much easier time. He became the skiing champion of the Royal Armoured Corps, and with his trusty guitar at his side, he charmed many a young lady. Toward the end of his military stint, Blunt began writing original songs, including the future single “No Bravery,” which was inspired by his time in Kosovo.
After leaving the British Army in 2002, Blunt signed with 21 Management and flew to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, in hopes of landing a record deal. While performing at a hotel, he caught the ear of Linda Perry, the singer-songwriter who fronted 4 Non Blondes—the band behind the 1992 hit “What’s Up?”—and then penned hits for pop stars like P!nk and Christina Aguilera. Perry signed Blunt to her new label and paired him with producer Tom Rothrock.
Both Perry and Rothrock were struck by “You’re Beautiful,” a song Blunt had written with his friend Sacha Skarbek and a third songwriter, Amanda Ghost. Blunt came up with the lyrics after seeing an ex-girlfriend with a new guy while on the Tube in London. “Our eyes met, but we just walked past each other, and I went home and wrote the words to ‘You’re Beautiful’ in two minutes,” Blunt told The Guardian.
Blunt has never revealed the identity of the woman. “That person never asked for that,” he told HuffPost. But he has described the song as “a bit creepy.” “I saw your face in a crowded place,” he sings in the chorus. “And I don’t know what to do / ’Cause I’ll never be with you.”
“It’s about this guy who’s high as a kite stalking someone else’s girlfriend—and should be locked up and put in prison,” Blunt told TIME. Blunt even sings about being “f**king high” in the album version of the song, since he really was under the influence of some substance on the night in question. He changed the lyric to “flying high” in the radio edit that most people know.
Blunt included “You’re Beautiful” on his 2004 debut album Back to Bedlam, which he recorded in Los Angeles. While working on the LP, he lived with none other than Hollywood legend Carrie Fisher, whom he’d met through his then-girlfriend’s parents. Blunt even recorded his UK Top 10 hit “Goodbye My Lover” in Fisher’s bathroom.
At one point, Fisher placed a cardboard cutout of herself as Princess Leia outside the door to Blunt’s room. On the cutout, she wrote both her birthdate and predicted death date, which apparently wasn’t far off from the actual date of her passing in December 2016. “Fisher was my American mother, and a real inspiration,” Blunt told the Sunday Times. “My first album was called Back to Bedlam because I lived in a madhouse with her.”
“Force-Fed Down People’s Throats”
“You’re Beautiful” was released in May 2005 as the album’s third UK single. Neither of Blunt's previous two songs, “High” or “Wisemen,” had made much of an impact on British radio. But “You’re Beautiful” found a home on BBC2 and took the nation by storm. It reached No. 1 on the UK charts in July 2005 and held the top slot for five weeks.
By the fall, the song had cracked America, and it topped the Billboard Hot 100 for one week in November. “You’re Beautiful” marked the first time a British artist had ruled the Hot 100 since Elton John’s Princess Diana tribute “Candle in the Wind 1997” nearly a decade earlier. (Fittingly, Blunt performed “You’re Beautiful” at Elton John and David Furnish’s civil ceremony in 2005.) On the strength of the single, Back to Bedlam reached No. 1 in the UK and No. 2 in America. It went on to become the biggest-selling UK album of the decade.
The single was helped along by a memorable music video in which Blunt strips off most of his clothes and leaps off a cliff into the sea. One reading of the video is that Blunt’s character takes his own life—an interpretation one might also draw from lyrics like, “She was with another man / But I won’t lose no sleep on that / ’Cause I’ve got a plan.” However, Sam Brown, who directed the video, claimed that Blunt actually sheds his clothes as part of an effort to move on with his life. Either way, Blunt fully committed to the project by performing his own stunt, splitting his lip in the process.
“You’re Beautiful” was absolutely inescapable in the latter half of the 2000s, and that became a double-edged sword for Blunt. Speaking with Hello! Magazine in 2014, Blunt admitted that “You’re Beautiful” was “force-fed down people’s throats,” and that it “became annoying.” “And then people start to associate the artist with the same word,” he said.
“The marketing also painted me out as an insanely serious person, an earnest person and, as all my friends know, I’m anything but,” Blunt added. “I have a couple of over-emotional miserable songs that I’m known for, but I think it’s turned that corner now. People can see I don’t take myself that seriously.”
Blunt has fortunately taken back control of his own image, largely via Twitter, where his sharp and irreverent posts have given fans a new perspective on his personality. “I’m just messing around on Twitter,” he told TIME. “The weird thing is, I’ve been portrayed in a particular way by a record company who put these songs out and then made it, ‘Oh, isn’t he a romantic.’ I haven’t really had my own voice, other than the songs. And actually, I’ve never really been that way—this quiet, timid, gentle person that people thought I might be, writing these sappy kind of songs.”
Meanwhile, Blunt has continued making music. Since Back to Bedlam, he has released five studio albums, four of which have hit the Top 5 in the UK. Since “You’re Beautiful,” he has scored three more Top 10 UK hits, including the 2013’s “Bonfire Heart,” which reached No. 4. In all, he has racked up eight Top 40 hits in his home country. (Blunt hasn’t fared as well in the U.S., where “You’re Beautiful” stands as his lone Top 40 pop hit.)
But the specter of his biggest hit never goes away. Blunt references the backlash against “You’re Beautiful” in the opening lines of his 2017 single “Love Me Better,” singing, “People say the meanest things / Yeah, I’ve been called a dick, I’ve been called so many things.” Similarly, the music video for 2019’s “Cold” begins where the “You’re Beautiful” clip left off, with Blunt swimming out of the ocean in the same clothes. He’s clearly not ashamed of “You’re Beautiful,” and he refuses to speak ill of it, for fear of offending fans with deep connections to the song.
“I think most musicians and bands are searching for that one big hit," Blunt told Esquire in 2019, on the song’s 15th anniversary. “You know, I think The Rolling Stones are still looking and, and I’m just lucky enough to have it out there right now, at the top of my career.”