In my ongoing effort to prove that sick days are good for something besides lying down and throwing up, I've been poking around the internet and looking at people's lists of the worst songs of all time. I confess: I love these kinds of things. It makes my heart glad to see people taking revenge on our culture. To those who believe that the haters should get up off their hatin' duffs and join the cultural production game, I say that a) the cultural production game is inherently corrupt and insipid, and b) maybe composing a long list of hated songs and movies is a bottom-up version of cultural production, a chance for basement dwellers to haul their hateful creations of spit and lint and mouse turds up the dumbwaiter.
Most of the worst song lists are heavy with late 60s and mid 70s tunes such as "(You're) Having My Baby," a song that makes you want to shoot yourself with a high-caliber weapon, if only to drown out the sound of Paul Anka sounding so sincere about the joys of impregnation. The sentimental pop flare-out at the end of psychedelia allowed a lot of horrendous and misguided music into the world, but at least the artists appeared to believe that their songs had a certain worth, even if that resulted in Richard Harris bemoaning his lost cake recipe or Starland Vocal Band thinking that noontime nooky merited a single. The musical excesses of the 70s strike me as embarrassing but oddly sweet, even if most of the singles of the time were recorded in a benzodiazepine haze.
No, it's the eighties that really shoved pop music into the tiger cage and walked away whistling. The mutation of disco into machine-tooled soul combined with the merging of corporate interests to produce hour after hour of utterly forgettable crap. It was considered a good career move for a band to fill up a movie soundtrack, producing at least one tuneless single with the movie title shoehorned in somehow. Imagine composing and performing an entire song whose only purpose is to advertise an action film. Imagine doing that and then not overdosing on the bowl of Quaaludes in your dressing room. Can't do it, huh? When Reagan declared that it was morning in America, musicians from all over woke up and decided that it was time to make some money. Pop music started to feel like a theme-parked version of itself, with nobility replacing politics, titillation overtaking raunch, and record companies gulping songs down whole, all the better to regurgitate it in pre-digested form for the rest of us.
I've been ranting some. Here's my contribution to the hate - the worst songs of the 1980s.
Howard Jones - New Song
Not many people remember this tune from 1983. I'd forgotten it altogether until an internet radio station plugged this into its playlist last week. "New Song" combines everything that ever bugged me about the music of that decade into one three-minute package: canned boppy soul, unmemorable verses followed by slightly catchy chorus, and a vague inspirational message that translates to feel-good-fuck-all. The song plays like an extended dance remix of itself.
Bruce Hornsby - The Way it Is
Soft rock made softer by soft-spoken soft-headed singer.
Any Mr. Mister tune
Certainly "Broken Wings," but absolutely "Kyrie," with its pretentious title, processed guitar chords, and the sneaking suspicion that you've been made to listen to Christian rock without signing the consent forms.
Cutting Crew - I Just Died in Your Arms
If you're going to masquerade as Mr. Mister, it is a bad idea to give your band a name that sounds like a hair salon. But since Mr. Mister sounds like a discount men's clothing store, maybe it's not such a bad choice after all.
Don Johnson - Heatbeat
Was that the name of the tune? Who cares? It doesn't matter what Don Johnson sings, what he chooses to call the things that he sings, what he's saying when he sings them. When an eighties television personality - Johnson, Philip Michael-Thomas-Hall-Whatever, Jack Wagner - cut an album, the results weren't songs. They were Integrated Media Objects designed to consolidate revenue in the pockets of the people who drew up the contracts.
Foreigner - I Want to Know What Love Is
Agh. God! What the fuck was that? A bunch of stodgy seventies rockers with permed mullets trying on the ballad form? You can take a shower when someone throws dogshit at you, but how do you scrub your memory?
Beach Boys - Kokomo
Back in July 2004 I was sent to the Florida Keys to do some shooting and interview people about historic hurricane disasters. My employers put me up at the Holiday Isle resort on Islamorada, a slightly shabby hotel complex with more bars per square foot than anywhere else. Beach bar blended into raw bar spread into tiki bar tumbled into poolside bar overlooked beach bar again. Sunburned tourists ate and drank and swam themselves into a daze, their kids slowly turning pinker and crispier as the days went by. On the sand a team of wholesome tanned women with fake boobs set up a net and played beach volleyball in the afternoons. Despite the crowds, the complex looked as if it needed general repair, or at least a bit of paint. The tourists seemed to notice it too. The peeling walls turned their relaxation to agitated boredom, causing them to snap at their kids and chew on their po' boy sandwiches with a certain ferocity. On the second day I realized that the Kokomo bar was the very place that the Beach Boys had sung about, and not some Caribbean island as I had always assumed. I showed up one evening. The place was almost empty, with a few motivated drinkers at the bar and a couple of people at the tables. At a small stage someone was singing Jimmy Buffett tunes. An unconvincing tiki apparatus had been assembled to persuade customers that this place was the Polynesian paradise they'd always dreamed of getting shitfaced in. This was the place Mike Love wanted to take his girl to?
Tina Turner - We Don't Need Another Hero
Good songs do not have the word "thunderdome" in the chorus.
Starship - We Built This City on Rock and Roll, or maybe Sara
For a child born in the seventies and adolescing in the eighties, it was hard not to wonder where the hippies went. All I ever saw around me were a bunch of dull middle-class adults. But Starship cleared up the mystery for me.
David Bowie and Mick Jagger - Dancing in the Streets
I'd love to know the details on how this cover came to be. It seems like so many facets of our culture got caught up in this two-minute whirlwind of crap - it was like alien android replacements of rock musicians trying to get hip with the youth but getting the time frame fatally wrong. David Bowie appeared to have stolen Keith Haring's pyjamas for the video and thrown on a trenchcoat on the way to the video shoot.
Most of the post-Thriller Michael Jackson stuff - maybe Earth Song
Yeah, Earth Song is probably the nadir of the Michael Jackson bombast-a-thon, but I think that tune belongs to the nineties. Did you see Jackson's performance of Earth Song on the British Music Awards, where he appeared in white robes, sort of pretended to be a Christ figure and welcomed a stageful of solemn marching children into his arms? Apparently Jarvis Cocker ran up on stage and mooned him.
Quiet Riot - Mama Weer All Crazee Now
Once upon a time there were some guys who hung out in a basement, drank beer and jammed. One day they got a recording contract and released a Slade cover called "Cum On Feel the Noiz," which turned them into beer-bellied rock gods with tight pants, hairy chests and sweat that reeked of Jim Beam. They rode that single hard until it dropped. After they crawled out of a pit of groupies and meth, the band released another album. The single, "Mama Weer All Crazee Now," was another Slade cover, but this one did not have the benefit of a good hook or catchy tune. It could also not spell its own name, which was weird.
Eddie Murphy - Party All the Time
Another Integrated Media Object whose only purpose was to complete the colonization of eighties pop culture by Eddie Murphy. Fortunately the breakaway republic of Taste caught him in the mountain passes and harried his flanks until he was forced to retreat.
Europe - The Final Countdown
Making fun of this song seems unneccessary.
I don't remember a single tune that he sung, with the exception of the Otis Redding cover. I just remember the suits that looked too small and the button-up shirts. And the most dedicated mullet in the world.
Billy Ocean - Suddenly? Get Out of My Dreams? Caribbean/European/African Queen?
Didn't Billy Ocean seem somehow too old be a pop star? That was the creepiest thing about 80s pop - much of it came from people who seemed to debut in mid-career, if the receding hairlines and pastel suit jackets had anything to say about it.
John Cougar Mellencamp - Small Town
In one simple stroke, Mellencamp conquered the world's all time most difficult rhyme 'small town' by using it to end every line.
Sheena Easton - Sugar Walls
John Farnham - You're the Voice
Bagpipes? I'm sorry - bagpipes?