Tuesday, November 01, 2005

on iTrocities of the eighties: theory and a personal list

Worst songs have been a topic of conversation among Madison Bloggers in recent days (here and here), which got me thinking about how I would expand my recent mention of my feelings regarding the worst song of the 80's.

Namely: what would be my 10 worst songs of the 80's? But then this got me thinking about how something gets to be a worst song in the first place.

So you only get to be a worst song if you've reached some level of visibility in the popular consciousness. Like, the worst music I've actually heard in my life was from this band I heard once in graduate school called The Knievels, whose gimmick around Bloomington was that they would play any party in exchange for a case of beer. Sweet Jesus, did they suck. But, given the small number of people who ever heard them play, it's not like they inflicted widescale cultural harm with their music, and, besides, what's the fun of listing them unless I had some bootleg Knievels that I could post to the web for you to listen and wince at?

But then, if something is truly awful, how does it get to be so visible that it can make a worst song list? It could be a novelty song that some people, for God knows what reason, found appealing at that point in time but you never understood. If I was making a 90s list, Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy for This Shirt" would be a prime example of such a worst song from my perspective.

Besides novelty songs, thought, it could be a song that bespeaks the central pathologies of the age. As I was thinking back through sucky 80's music, I realized how much of it really pretty much begged for the rise of the angsty authenticity that became alternative music in the 90's--I mean, look at the top 100 lists for 1983-1987, the rise of Nirvana and Pearl Jam will seem like a historical inevitability--much less the subsequent, more radical, and more complete takeover of teenage popular music by hip-hop.

Within music that speaks of the pathology of the age, meanwhile, I think that the easiest way for something to become a worst song is for it to be something by an artist who is sufficiently established that their next effort is going to get onto radios regardless. Specifically, the worst songs to me are those where you get the sense of (1) artists having sufficient contempt for their audience as to think they can just serve up whatever uninspired drivel they imagine to think up between lines of coke as being something the audience will lap up, (2) A&R people at major record labels who share the same contempt for the audience and agree that the songs would make a great single, and (3) audiences that show themselves to be indeed worthy of all this contempt by indeed loving the song or at least loving it after they've heard it on the radio five zillion times.

The way for non-established artists to enter this pantheon, I think, is by getting their songs associated with movies or television shows that may be good movies or television shows, but which can launch songs into prominence that, in terms of the song itself, have no business being there.

Anyway, to my list.

Immediate selections (seriously, these are sure to be on the playlist of my no-off-button-and-eternally-charged-batteries iPod welded to my head in hell):
Glenn Frey, "The Heat is On" - what happens when one of the most overrated songwriters of his generation gives up any pretense of trying
Kenny Loggins, "Danger Zone" - what happens when one of the most overrated songwriters of his generation gives up any pretense of trying, for the sake of a soundtrack single
Billy Joel, "We Didn't Start the Fire" - what happens when one of the most overrated songwriters of his generation gives up any pretense of trying, and just relies on listmaking instead of writing lyrics
Def Leppard, "Love Bites"

Required some deliberation:
Beach Boys, "Kokomo" - a one-hit wonder novelty song disguised as a song by established artists
John Parr, "St. Elmo's Fire" - God, I hate this movie, and I hate the song entirely independently
Poison, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn"
Ray Parker, Jr., "Ghostbusters"
USA for Africa, "We Are the World" - yes, I know it was for a good cause. That's how it got to be ubiquitous despite being so terrible

Cannot decide which of these should be the tenth:
Bobby McFerrin, "Don't Worry, Be Happy" - amusing the first time, painful thereafter
Club Nouveau, "Lean on Me" - anyone whose adolescence intersected the 80's should be ashamed of the popularity of the desecration perpetrated by this song
Neil Diamond, "Heartlight"
Oak Ridge Boys, "Elvira"

Honorable mention - song that today icks me out the most:
Extreme, "More Than Words"


Anonymous said...

Oooh, but the remake of "More Than Words" by Frankie J is great! Incidentally, is it true that this new artist is related to Freaktoast J?

jeremy said...

I was unaware of any remake of "More Than Words." I don't know of any relation to Freaktoastt J, whose rumored to be working on a new album.

Tom Bozzo said...

I think your identification of the pop music pathology is basically correct, a mid-eighties pathology. Something gave the nineties Boyz II Men, eh? It's also possible that the expansion of the commerical alternative format beyond a few big city outlets distorts the perspective on the true (singles) chart influence of the A-list grunge bands.

You do offer some strong selections, though -- in particular, I always hated the grabbed-by-the-nuts vocal style a la Parr. But I wasn't traumatized by "Kokomo," "We Are The World," or "Lean On Me" enough to let them displace Mr. Mister's "Kyrie," Hall & Oates's "Maneater" (subject to especially heavy local interest airplay in the Philadelphia market where I grew up), or Starship's "We Built This City" (which should get some shark-jumping award). I'd also want to carve out room for Bryan Adams and/or R.E.O. Speedwagon, but they might have to make the runner-up part of the list.

Anonymous said...

"we built this city"
"sunglasses at night"
"dancing on the ceiling"
"heart of rock n roll"

Peter said...

Eddie Murphy's 'Boogie in Your Butt', which, for me, only barely edges out the love song from Footloose - 'Almost Paradise' by Ann Wilson&Mike Reno.

I actually know there is worse, but my album collection isn't on hand.

brady said...

You lay off Niel Diamond, man. He is an artist who exists at the level wherein the sheer glory of his younger years will permanently excuse anything he does later, after having stopped trying.

(Seriously, go watch his bit in "The Last Waltz" if you don't believe me.)

Anonymous said...

"Staaaaay the night"

Peter Cetera? I can't remember. But, it was bad.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:24 - It was Chicago, first track on Chicago 17, the last album with Peter Etcetera.
File that one away in Useless Trivia.

jeremy said...

"Heart of Rock and Roll" would have been on my list had I remembered it. Ugh. Perhaps also with a Lionel Ritchie song, but probably not "Dancing on the Ceiling."

I also agree about Hall & Oates, but I don't think "Maneater" is their worst song, although I'd have to think about what is.

I dissent on "We Built This City," because of its karaoke virtues.

dorotha said...

maneater has sentimental value for me. i sang it at the last karaoke, but with my mom's alternative lyrics.

first time caller, long time listener from tashkent said...

when someone mentions the song "the heat is on," i automatically think back to my 6th grade election for school president. when it came time for the candidates to give their speeches, one of them brought up a tape recorder and played the first 10-20 seconds of that song. he then began his speech with something like "well, the heat IS certainly on in this election..."

the gimmick was as simple as it was brilliant, and it provided him with much more electoral support than he would have otherwise gotten against the more popular, and much more attractive, female candidate. of course, i shamelessly voted for her. but i think he won.

an idea was on trial that afternoon, my friends. and the verdict? rock and roll can change the world, one heart at a time.

Jennifer said...

What about "The Search Is Over" by Survivor? Or "Time for Me to Fly" by REO Speedwagon? The REO Speedwagon song has the dubious distinction of containing a made-up word (intoleration). Hey, maybe you could make a list of songs with made-up words in them...

BTW--Hi Jeremy! I recently discovered your weblog. Remember me? We took a class at IU together.

jeremy said...

Jennifer: Hmm, I know a couple Jennifers from IU. Are you Jen from Library Science?