1) I never consider novelty songs as the worst songs of all time. If a song's intention is to annoy me, and it annoys me, it's a success, and something can't be the worst if it's a success. This also applies to antagonistic arty crap like Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music or anything by Laurie Anderson. You wanted to be unlistenable and you are unlistenable. Mission accomplished.
2)It has to be something done by a musician. The cast of Star Trek certainly could be brought before the Hague for musical war crimes, but even if Shatner is serious, Shatner isn't a serious musician. Likewise you could populate an entire list of terrible songs with selections from Bruce Willis or Don Johnson (warning: clip contains Dweezil), but that would be like populating a list of bad acting jobs with all of Prince's movies. Vanity projects don't count. I'm talking about performers who are trying to make a living from music.
3) The song has to have staying power. Most terrible music, however, goes unnoticed because it is terrible in a pedestrian sense. It takes a certain special quality for a bad song to become a legendary bad song. It's the difference between a stormtrooper and Darth Vader.
4) I exclude songs that I find awful but that I know are awful mostly to just me. For example, I hate Deep Purple, who (in my humble opinion) manage to combine the worst musical wankery with the IQ of a Hell's Angel coming down from a crank bender. But they have a legitimate place in rock history. It's not them, it's me.
There are certainly many songs to choose that fit these criteria. The maudlin ("Every Rose Has Its Thorn"). The lunkheaded ("I Can't Drive 55"). The saccharine ("Break My Stride" or anything by the Starland Vocal Band). Or Christian rock that's so bad, it's blasphemous (see Stryper or any modern Christian rock, which seems to think Jesus is a melodramatic 12-year-old who likes syrupy power ballads).
My runners-up would be "Ice Ice Baby" and "We Built This City." True abominations and a pair of songs that make deafness seem like a blessing.
However, the Brando Academy of Popular Culture and Phallus-Based Humor gives the award of Worst Song Ever to...Jermaine Stewart, "We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off."
Why did the Academy select this song?
- Musically, it exemplifies everything that is wrong with 80s music. I think the 80s get a bad shake because there was also a lot of great music made during that time. The worst of it, however, is really some of the worst shit ever recorded. Everything about the music here sounds like it was made on an assembly line: use the synth bass and drums for the frame, give it some synth horn wheels, and paint the whole thing with a fourth-rate Jackson 5 vocal. Oh, and don't forget to include the optional "Nah nah nah" backing vocal package.
- It's catchy as hell. I hate, hate, hate, hate this song. Yet the simple act of linking to it guarantees it will be in my head for a week. All the worst songs are catchy. They are computer viruses that Norton can't scrub from your brain.
- The final and most important element: the theme. We don't have to take our clothes off to have a good time. That seemingly innocent line goes against everything I believe rock and roll has tried to achieve.
The problem with "We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off" is that it's a public service announcement set to dance music. It makes no compelling argument for keeping one's clothes on, because let's face it, we don't have to take your clothes off to have a good time, but we often have more fun when we do. (See also: We don't have to drink to have good time, but we have more fun when we do). Scare me with some clever rhymes about STDs, offer a catchy dry-humping alternative, do something other than croon at me about cherry wine. I've seen chastity pledges that are more clever, and this song is so straightlaced, you could back it with a B-side of George Will rapping about not wearing blue jeans and not make it less cool.
So there you have it, my official criteria for music I hate. I'd love to hear some counterarguments in the comments. Now, let's play some (hopefully) good music.
1) "Epic," Faith No More. One of the few rap-metal songs that does not suck.
2) "Seen Your Video," The Replacements. Anti-MTV rants seem even more quaint than the idea of MTV playing videos.
3) "Radio Song," R.E.M. The one song from Out of Time that I don't think has aged well. Like "Seen Your Video," anti-radio diatribes seem so outdated. Yeah, radio still sucks, but these days, there are so many ways to experience music that it's not as much of an issue.
4) "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)," Sufjan Stevens. This seems appropriate considering the 0-16 Detroit Lions are picking first in the NFL draft tomorrow and we've had our 24th consecutive week of hearing that the American auto industry may crash and burn like a Ford Pinto. There's a great off-kilter beat to this song that seamlessly flows into a funky breakdown in the middle.
5) "Hover," Rhett Miller. A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, a whole lotta good.
6) "Is She Really Going Out With Him," Joe Jackson. One of the more contemptuous love songs that manages to stay cool by adding a dash of self-loathing.
7) "Things Behind the Sun," Nick Drake. Pink Moon may be the most intimate album ever made. I always feel like Nick Drake is write there in the room, playing his guitar and barely summoning the breath to sing his lyrics. This album wasn't created, it was captured.
8) "Keep Hope Alive," The Crystal Method. The arena rock of dance music, which is probably why I like this so much. Huge drum beats that hit you like offensive linemen. Synthesizer leads played like guitar riffs. And just repetitive enough to groove without boring me like most dance music does.
9) "True Believer," Superdrag. Now here's some Christian music that I can rock to. They even work "transfiguration" into the lyrics—that takes some serious effort.
10) "Santa Monica," Everclear. One of my favorite songs from the 90s. It's not terribly original, sure: the soft-to-loud structure is paint-by-the-alternative-rock numbers. They get around that by turning the guitars up and playing hard enough that I don't care.
11) "Returning to the Fold," The Thermals. When I heard this bit of lapsed-Catholic-inspired indie rock, I thought maybe I'd started a band that I didn't know about, because this is the kind of song I'd write. But I still have faith, if I ever had faith. That about sums it up for me.
Have a good time this weekend, regardless of the state of your clothes.