They say music is subjective, but don’t tell that to the critics.
Lester Bangs, the patron saint of U.S. rock criticism, once said that, “The first mistake of art is to assume that it’s serious.” Yet plenty of music critics get paid to make that mistake, and even more do it on a volunteer basis.
Paid or not, critics seem to assume that the creators of a song are, like, morally culpable for the quality of their product. People hate few things like they hate a bad song. Maybe that’s just because no nuanced weighing of relative merits is as fun as a thorough critical hatchet job.
That’s why we have Sean Beaudoin in Salon sneering at the “10 Bands [He] Will Be Forced to Listen To in Hell.” (Beaudoin goes on to trash The Beach Boys, a band that inspired luminaries from The Beatles to My Bloody Valentine.) It’s why we have Pitchfork, the website that once said of Sonic Youth: “These 40+year olds continue to operate under the perception that they matter.”
Here’s the weird thing about paying really, really close attention to pop music, though: The closer you look at a given track, the harder it is to discard it out-of-hand. When you pry a song open to check out its composite elements—harmonic structure, melodic lines, counterpoint, rhythmic shifts, dynamics, all the nuts and bolts of the pop tradition—pretty much everything is at least interesting. Even the terrible stuff.
That’s the impression we get, anyway, talking to Matthew Pace, PhD, a music theorist and adjunct professor who’s about as likely to analyze a Bach Sinfonia as “We Are the Champions” in order to demonstrate secondary dominant chords. We gave Pace a list of tracks that repeatedly show up on “worst-of-all-time” lists and asked for his analysis.
“Upon further research, I only think ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ is bad,” Pace tells Urbo. “The others are all okay or even good.”
Wait, what? Let’s get into the list and find out how anyone could appreciate “Barbie Girl.”
“We Built This City” (1985)
Bloated prog-rock betrayal of the ’60s psychedelic dream or priceless time capsule of ’80s keyboard patches? You be the judge. You won’t be the first. In 2004, Blender magazine first named Starship’s ode to…rock and roll, we guess…the absolute worst song ever.
Since then, discussion of “We Built This City” has been one long internet pile-on. Rolling Stone‘s 2011 readers’ poll declared the song enemy No. 1, and GQ even published a comprehensive history of—in their words—”the most detested song in human history.”
Pace gets the sentiment even if he doesn’t share it.
“I think the reason people think [this song] is bad is because it gets stuck in your head and it seems kind of dumb,” he tells Urbo. “The melody [of the chorus] has such a limited range and is so repetitive.”
Ultimately, though, Pace finds redeeming qualities even here.
“I think it’s a good song,” he says. “It does some cool harmony stuff. During the verses, it uses a pedal point—the bass just keeps playing the tonic note while the chords keep changing—and that creates this huge tension, and by the time it gets to ‘Marconi plays the mamba,’ it finally breaks free of that note. It has all this pent-up energy. That gives it more motion than any of the other songs on the list.”
So next time they play this one at the supermarket, don’t race for the ear buds; just listen for that pedal tone.
Nota bene: We realize that a mamba is a venomous snake while the mambo is a Cuban dance, but the lyric is accurate as printed above. That GQ history quotes Starship vocalist Mickey Thomas as saying, “[Lyricist Bernie Taupin] didn’t say ‘mambo,’ he said ‘mamba,’ which is a snake. Marconi created the radio. Maybe Bernie meant to say ‘mambo.’ Maybe it means: If you don’t like this music, some really angry snakes are gonna come out of the speakers.”
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” (1998)
Whatever you know about Bobby McFerrin, the author of this unfortunate hit, there’s probably more to learn. While “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” has the dubious distinction of being the first a-cappella track to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the song’s just a dust mote on the rearview mirror of McFerrin’s musical career.
McFerrin collects highbrow accolades. He has an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music, he’s recorded with classical cellist king Yo-Yo Ma, and he even did a stint as Creative Chair of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Still, mention McFerrin and everyone says the same thing: “What, the ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ guy?” It’s dominated McFerrin’s place in the public imagination. Even if you like the song, which few do these days, it’s a shame that’s all you know about him. We’re talking about a track that landed at No. 7 on the Rolling Stone’s “10 Worst Songs of the 1980s” readers’ poll.
Pace gets why people can’t stand this faux-reggae track.
“People think this song sucks because the message is so baldly cheesy, and it’s an earworm, and it’s embarrassing to sing,” he theorizes.
That rings true to us, but not every song shares the same goal, and Pace doesn’t think McFerrin was trying to make a conventionally “good” track with this one.
and you should go to jail if you think ‘dont worry be happy’ is anything less than a tremdous song
— Buzz Beatnickle (@AngryGimmick) January 29, 2018
“The focus of this song isn’t the lyrics or the melody or anything,” Pace says. “It’s the amazingness that he built it all out of his body with no instruments. I think it’s cool. It’s like a novelty.”
Of course, no one’s rushing to defend the Caribbean-ish accent McFerrin adopts. File this one under “fake patois;” McFerrin’s on to bigger and better things.
“Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime” (1979)
In retrospect, this song never stood a chance. It’s from Paul McCartney’s reviled Wings era, there are both jingle bells and a falsetto imitation of a children’s choir, and—perhaps most importantly—it’s a Christmas song. People really hate Christmas songs.
On the other hand, this track shows every indication of Jay-Z-level business genius. McCartney wrote and produced the song. He played every instrument on the recording. As a result, he doesn’t have to share his royalties with anyone—and, as of 2010, those royalties were in the half-a-million-per-year range, Forbes reported.
Like many of the songs on this list, that unabashed acknowledgement of the business side of music seems to be a sticking point in the popular imagination. Around the time that McCartney was penning “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime,” our pal Bangs was celebrating the Clash as “desperation uncontrived, unstaged, a fury unleashed on the stage…real pain that connects with the nerves of the audience.” Musical taste was changing, and people wanted authenticity at any cost.
“[Dislike of this song] really runs into the commercialism thing,” Pace says. “Here’s Paul McCartney, he was the most out-there Beatle, into experimental stuff, and had all these revolutions in music, and then here he is writing a Christmas song to make a buck.”
Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney. I love Christmas but hearing this just makes me angry. https://t.co/cC38uTjYce
— Jonathan Dockett (@JonnyDockett) March 26, 2018
The jingle bells couldn’t have helped. So what’s the final analysis?
“I just listened to that song for the first time for this interview,” Pace admits. “That’s the first time I ever heard it. I thought it was totally fine. It was a totally well-assembled song. It had a verse and a bridge and a chorus.”
That’s the thing about a certain type of close listening. Context falls away and you’re left with a bucket of shiny bolts. “That’s not how people listen, though,” you might say, to which we’d reply: Nuts and bolts have their charms, too.
“Barbie Girl” (1997)
Nope, Mattel did not release this track to sell more dolls. In fact, the toy company sued Aqua, the band behind this Eurodance hit. (Aqua, a Danish pop band, won in the end. “The parties are advised to chill,” the judge reportedly said in court.)
From the insipid beats to the winking interjection “come on Barbie, let’s go party,” everything about this track seems like it was designed to remind pop-music fans that, yes, the grunge era was well and truly gone. But is it really that bad though?
“People might hate this song because they’re hearing it outside of a dance context, where it doesn’t make sense,” says Pace. “It’s kind of repetitive, but that’s how house music is, and house came out of disco, and that’s how disco was. [Listening] to dance music all the time is always confusing. Like, if you’re in the car and the driver has some total house four-on-the-floor beat, but they’re just driving, it’s confusing.”
So underrated. Barbie Girl has nothing on how much this song makes you uncontrollably dance.
— Tim Kubart 🐶 (@timkubart) April 1, 2018
Music critics don’t always take the songwriter’s implied context into account, which seems unfair. If your context is Vice, anything on pop radio is going to seem weak and over-commercialized. Speaking of commercialism, Pace counts the subversive subtext of “Barbie Girl” as a mark in its favor.
“I even think the lyrics are kind of good,” he says. “It’s like, you’re going out, getting all your makeup on and being totally fake, and you’re going out to the meat-market club and dancing with your Ken doll. I think it’s a cool message. It’s almost like a subversion of the commercialism thing because they’re doing it on purpose.”
“Achy Breaky Heart” (1992)
So, according to Pace, this is the only truly bad song on the entire list. That just goes to show that even music theorists, who can find something interesting in almost anything, have their limits. After all we’ve been through on this earwormy listening tour, then, what could possibly stand out about the track that landed at No. 3 on Rolling Stone’s “Worst Songs of the Nineties” readers’ poll?
“It only ever has two chords,” Pace explains. “It’s only the tonic and dominant chord. And it only has one phrase structure for the verse, and it’s the same as the chorus. They’re built the exact same.”
Hold on, though, because there are plenty of objectively great songs with only two or three chords—or even just one. The Bob Marley & the Wailers version of “Shame & Scandal” only bounces back and forth between the tonic and the dominant. “Coconut” by Harry Nilsson literally only uses one chord for its more-than-four-minute run-time. Then there are the Ramones and their legions of imitators, who get by just fine with three chords, thanks.
“It’s not like having few chords makes a song bad,” Pace says. “In fact, country music has a long history of having just two or three chords. But [‘Achy Breaky Heart’] is missing two key elements. Almost every good classic country song you can think of has a bridge or a chorus that changes chords—not [‘Achy Breaky Heart.’]”
You were listening to “Achy Breaky Heart” in 2015? This is something you want to admit to on the internet?
— Amina Kokić 🇧🇦🌹 (@MinaKokic) April 9, 2018
What’s the other missing element, then?
“Almost every good country song where the non-text part is simple, it’s because the focus is on really clever lyrics or really good storytelling. The ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ lyrics aren’t clever at all, and they aren’t a good story at all.”
To be fair, “Achy Breaky Heart” does have a consistent conceit.
“You can tell my arms to go back to the farm,” Billy Ray Cyrus sings. “You can tell my feet to hit the floor.”
You know, the protagonist’s ex can tell some of his body parts that she’s leaving—just not his heart, which might react to the news by exploding, ending the speaker’s life. It’s up to you whether that’s a compelling picture of heartbreak. If you believe the polls, though, most people don’t buy it.
“You can be simple but have really good lyrics. Or you could take a hit on the lyrics and have a more musically interesting song,” Pace says. “This gets an ‘F’ in every category.”