Matchbox Twenty’s Song ‘3AM’ Has a Heartbreaking Backstory

Admit it. When you need a good cry, you’ve got a go-to sad song that will get the job done. Music has long been said to soothe the savage beast, but it can also pull out a range of other emotions, and sorrow is often captured in the lyrics and melody of some of our most powerful tunes. Not every song that comes from a sad story necessarily sounds sorrowful, though. Rob Thomas heads up the band Matchbox Twenty, and their hit song “3AM” has a particularly tragic backstory. 

Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty performing
Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty | Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Matchbox Twenty debuted their first album in 1996

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When Matchbox Twenty’s debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You, premiered in 1996, the band seemed solidly connected to the post-grunge guitar band movement taking over the scene, as All Music reports. Mainstream, they may have been, but that served them well as the band went platinum five times by 1998. They also were no one-hit wonders and had doubled their platinum status by 2000. The band had broad appeal, seeing hits climb the charts in the adult alternative, modern rock, and Top 40 genres. 

The band’s albums have come out sporadically over the years. Their second album, Mad Season, was released in 2000. A few years later, they put out a third album titled More Than You Think You Are. Frontman Rob Thomas worked on some solo material, but the band worked together again to release a fourth studio album, North, in 2012. While nothing has quite reached the success or popularity of their first album, the band has had a steady and meaningful presence on the rock scene for more than two decades. 

‘Push’ and ‘3AM’ were Matchbox Twenty’s biggest hits

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The first breakthrough hit for Matchbox Twenty was the song “Push.” The song starts out slow and melodic as Thomas croons the opening lines. By the chorus, the tempo has picked up, and so has the intensity. “I want to push you around/Well, I will/Well, I will/I want to push you around/Well, I will/Well, I will/I want to take you for granted/Well, I will,” the song repeats. These kinds of melodramatic lyrics set the stage for Matchbox Twenty’s overall image. 

When “3AM,” a song from the same album, also started to climb the charts. It was clear that Matchbox Twenty had found a formula that worked well. While critics didn’t always respond to the band with positivity, Matchbox Twenty had a dedicated and broadening fan base that made them hard to ignore. Soon, “Push” and “3AM” were getting frequent plays on MTV and radio airwaves, making the band a ubiquitous presence throughout the late 1990s. 

‘3AM’ has a heartbreaking backstory 

At first listen, “3AM” sounds more upbeat than “Push.” As an explanation of the lyrics on Genius — penned by Rob Thomas himself — explore, the song actually has a pretty dark history. The song is inspired by Thomas’ troubled relationship with his mother. As MTV reports, the song sounds like yet another ode to a “manic pixie dream girl” with quirky appeal to the singer. The truth is that Thomas wasn’t singing about a potential lover but about his mother, and the quirkiness wasn’t rooted in charm but in disease.

As a teenager, Thomas had to help care for his mother while she underwent intense treatment for cancer. In his annotations for the song, Thomas explains how he was trying to capture both his love for his mother and their complicated relationship: “My mom and I had a volatile relationship. Some of that was in there. ‘It’s all gonna end and it might as well be my fault.’ It was touching on this love I had for her, this resentment I had for her, and all of this stuff I was having to go through. This weird relationship where we were super-super close but also at arm’s length.”