Defining Horrible Songs

It’s time to define the “Songs that are Horrible” series a little better.

Back in the day one of my brothers put together a cd called “Songs You Love to Hate.” He wasn’t the first to do this, nor certainly the last. But it contained some gems – like “Brandy” and “Seasons in the Sun” and “The Pina Colada Song.” All classically bad, bad in a way that is virtually unique. At the same time, there is something catchy about these songs, something that gets into your head and you can’t get out. I’m ready to sing “Brandy” right now – “Brandy, you’re a fine girl (what a fine girl)/What a good wife you would be/But my life, my love and my lady/Is the sea.” (By the way, I’ve sung this song in karoake and it’s harder to sing than you’d think. I don’t recommend it.)

The thing about these songs, though, is that they don’t really aspire to be anything more than what they are. They’re pop songs, with nothing deep, nothing particularly interesting. They don’t speak to a larger experience, not really. They’re meant to be catchy, to be popular, to sell. And they were. But they’re not horrible, because they don’t fail at what they’re trying to be. They aim low and clear that wall.

Songs that are horrible aren’t merely pop songs, they’re songs that seem to have a higher ambition, to say something meaningful to listeners, even though they don’t. They’re catchy, sure, but writingwise they’re strikingly inept. They fold in on themselves in that they want to be profound but end up as baffling, dopey, just plain confusing. This, then, is how I’m defining horrible for this series. These are songs that fail (often spectacularly) to be what the band wants them to be. They’re popular but embarassing.

Recently, in asking for some suggestions, I received a few nominations for songs that are pretty bad, but not necessarily horrible in the way that I’m thinking about in this series. For instance, one friend nominated “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats, a truly bad song from 1982 that has gotten stuck at least once in the head of most everyone who has ever heard it.  The lead singer of the band has claimed that the song is a protest against bouncers who were stopping people from pogo dancing to New Wave music and therefore a song proclaiming freedom of expression. Listening to it and thinking about the words, I have to tell you that this is something of a stretch. I guess it could be about freedom of expression, if I worked hard at the interpretation, but that’s giving the song a LOT of slack. The video is ridiculous, of course. The setting in medieval England makes no sense whatsoever, though it does seem to give license to the desire to include a midget in the cast, but at the same time the setting and its randomness is kind of the best thing about it. It’s not horrible, it’s kind of wonderfully bad.

Then there’s “Karma Chameleon,” by Culture Club. Another friend nominated this one and, again, understandably so. It’s bad. “Loving would be if your colors were like my dreams/Red, gold and green. Red, gold and green.” Umm, huh? Why would loving be “easy” if this was the case? Does Boy George have no blue, or brown, or orange, in his dreams? I sense a metaphor, but one that’s hard to pick out. Again, it’s a song that can get into your head, it’s got a harmonica part that gives it a Merseybeat feel, and it proved a winner commercially, going to #1 for three weeks. But that’s all it is – a very good pop song. Boy George has suggested that it’s a song about being “true” and  acting “like you feel,” but as with “Safety Dance,” this entails a bit of a stretch really. And again we have a fantabulously crazy video, with another setting that has nothing at all to do with the song! This time we’re in Mississippi in 1870, which allows the band members – who are both black and white – to interact together with a sense of brotherhood and community. Because we’re in Reconstruction? That’s not anachronistic AT ALL! I suspect that the setting was determined so that they could get everyone to dress up in costume and Boy George’s “costume” would not stand out so much. The funniest part of this? Other than some elaborate necklace around his neck, Boy George actually isn’t in period costume! He’s wearing a sweater vest over a button-down shirt. That’s just so unbelievably greatly bad that you kind of have to love it. So again, no this song isn’t horrible, because it doesn’t aspire to be actually good.

As I go forward, I will continue to look for songs that don’t work, songs that are meant to be “serious statements” but are little more than gobbledygook, songs that take themselves way too seriously. Those are the songs that are truly horrible. Pop songs can drive you crazy, but all they really want to do is to be popular. “99 Red Balloons“? Bad. Toto’s “Africa“? Horrible. Really horrible. At least Nena has a sense of humor. Toto is unbelievably insufferable. That and kind of casually racist. I’m all for bad pop songs. Ones that aim higher? That almost always leads to trouble.

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