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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

The 30 worst songs in the modern history of popular music

Stephen H. Provost

“If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.” That’s generally good advice, but I’m about to violate it. I consider it my duty as a music lover to provide fair warning about a handful of songs I think are so bad they should never have been committed to vinyl, compact disc or any other auditory medium. Some ear worms, to be blunt, just aren’t ear-worthy.

All of the songs on this list made the charts (many of them went to number one), so chances are I’ll be offending some folks with my picks. Just remember not to take any of this personally: It’s all a matter of taste. And if radio DJs can come up with their top 30s (or 40s), I can pick my bottom 30.

So here they are, the members of Stephen’s auditory Hall of Shame, starting off with a little number that earned a Grammy for Sweet Baby James.

30

Handy Man by James Taylor (No. 4 in 1977)

I like James Taylor. I really do. I’ve even seen him in concert. It helps a little that he didn’t actually write this song, which repeats the nonsensical comma-comma-comma line far too many times. Couldn’t he have just finished this song off with a period and spared us to the egotistical prattle about fixing broken hearts? I’ll use Liquid Plumr instead.

29

Wonderwall by Oasis (No. 8 in 1995)

Oasis was lauded as the heir to the Beatles in the UK., but it was their only top 40 single in the U.S. But just what the hell is a Wonderwall, anyway? The song never explains it.  Maybe it has something to do with the 1968 film of that name, for which George Harrison composed his first solo album, “Wonderwall Music.” But if you’re looking for an explanation in that musical collection, you won’t find one: It’s all instrumental … at which point you’ve probably stopped caring what it means anyway.

The Captain & Tennille, 1976

The Captain & Tennille, 1976

28

Muskrat Love by Captain & Tenille (No. 4 in 1976)

This is the song that gave the jitterbug a bad name. (You couldn't possibly do the jitterbug to music like this, anyway.) If Love Will Keep Us Together hadn’t dominated the charts a year earlier, Muskrat Love wouldn’t have made a dent, except maybe on Sesame Street, where it belonged. It would have made the perfect B-side to Rubber Duckie.

27

The Freshmen by the Verve Pipe (No. 5 in 1997)

The forced angst of the only hit by this Michigan band is bad enough without it being driven into your head like an ice pick by the oft-repeated, impossible-to-dislodge line “We were merely freshmen.”

26

American Pie by Madonna (No. 29 in 2000)

This was a great song when Don McLean did it. Madonna synthesized, sterilized and lobotomized it by leaving out most of the verses. It should have been retitled American Stale Slice. And it’s not even the worst Madonna song on this list.

Dan Wilson of Semisonic

Dan Wilson of Semisonic

25

Closing Time by Semisonic (No. 11 in 1998)

The opening line, which is also the title, is even more annoying than “We were merely freshmen.” A little math will demonstrate why this song is so annoying: It has, in all, 32 lines, nine of which merely repeat the title and 12 of which are either “I know who I want to take me home” or “Take me home.” That leaves just 11 lines that say anything else at all ... and even these don't say very much. This vapid piece of drivel makes Eddie Money’s Take Me Home Tonight sound positively inspired.

24

Every Morning by Sugar Ray (No. 3 in 1999)

This song starts out with the singer talking about using the “halo” hanging from the corner of his girlfriend’s bed for his own one-night stand. If that’s not disgusting enough for you, the melody will push you over the edge. There's nothing angelic about this one at all. It’s pure hell … but it’s still not as bad as another song by the same band, which managed to crack the top five.

23

Mr. Roboto by Styx (No. 3 in 1983)

This piece of wannabe rock operatic fluff from the album Kilroy Was Here is an affront to everyone from Robbie to R2D2. No wonder guitarist-vocalist Tommy Shaw quit the band after the release of the Kilroy. The seemingly endless repetition of the Japanese phrase “domo arigato” probably pushed him past the brink, thank you very much.

22

Like a Virgin by Madonna (No. 1 in 1984)

There’s got to be some reason an artist named Madonna would record a song with this title, but I don’t really care. Weird Al Yankovic’s parody “Like a Surgeon” is infinitely more fun – and it’s his lyric that comes to mind whenever the music to this tune invades my ears. Madonna's original requires a hefty dose of general anesthesia.

21

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Bad by Michael Jackson (No. 1 in 1987)

About the best thing to be said about this song is that it more than lives up to its name. Atrocious would have been more appropriate, but it just doesn’t roll off the tongue. 

20

 Playground in My Mind by Clint Holmes (No. 2 in 1973)

Maybe your name is Michael, and perhaps you have a nickel. Maybe it's even shiny and new. But whatever its condition, have pity on yourself and do not use it to buy a copy of this song. In compiling this list, I chose this over the terminally maudlin “Seasons In the Sun,” which came out around the same time. That should tell you something.

19

The Pina Colada Song by Rupert Holmes (No. 1 in 1979)

Rupert Holmes is no relation to Clint Holmes, but he put out a similarly bad piece of music that became the last No. 1 song of the ’70s. Its actual title is “Escape,” which is what you’ll want to do if they start playing this on the radio. It’s an affront to the Journey album of the same name, which includes the endlessly overplayed “Don’t Stop Believin’” – a song that, nonetheless, would be a welcome relief after hearing this one.

The Bee Gees, 1977

The Bee Gees, 1977

18

Fanny (Be Tender With My Love) by the Bee Gees (No. 12 in 1975)

This gets my vote as the Bee Gees’ worst song of their disco period ... and it isn't even disco. Think about that for a moment. In the opinion of this author, whose teenage motto was "death to disco," this song is actually worse than Night Fever, The Hustle and Hot Stuff. (But not as bad as Ring My Bell, which appears later on this list.) Believe it or not, the Bee Gees were far better in their first incarnation, when they were turning out sappy syrup like Words and I Started a Joke. Everything after that was just jive talkin'. Moral of the story: Be tender with your ears and avoid this one.

17

You Light Up My Life by Debby Boone (No. 1 in 1977)

This was written as a love song. The singer, however, considered it a devotional song to God. I suppose a pyromaniac would find yet another interpretation, and if someone had set fire to the sheet music for this saccharine serenade and used it as kindling on a cold winter night, the world might have been a brighter place. 

16

We Are the World by USA for Africa (No. 1 in 1985)

How do you guarantee a No. 1 chart position for a tune? Assemble dozens of best-selling musical artists and dedicate the money earned from sales of said tune to a high-profile charity. You don’t even have to write a decent piece of music. Here’s proof.

15

Lovin’ You by Minnie Ripperton (No. 1 in 1974)

I wasn’t a morning person when this came out, so the gimmick of having songbirds chirping incessantly for 3-plus minutes did not endear me to Ms. Ripperton’s biggest hit. Neither did the la-la-la-la-la refrain that made her sound like a drunk hippie. These days, I have to wake up early, but I still don’t like this tune. Call me silly, but I prefer my songbirds in trees, not on vinyl.

Paul and Linda McCartney  in 1976

Paul and Linda McCartney  in 1976

14

Let ’Em In by Wings (No. 3 in 1976)

Paul McCartney is perhaps the pre-eminent example of a musical genius who also has an incredible knack for writing crappy music. Let ’Em In is Exhibit A. The song consists entirely of a narrator telling someone to let various people in at the front door. The effect is only slightly less grating than Mrs. Wolowitz yelling, “Howard! Get the door!” on The Big Bang Theory. Think of this half-baked musical concoction as John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance, minus the message.

13

Love Shack by B-52s (No. 3 in 1989)

This was supposed to be a fun party song, which I suppose is why everybody still wants to sing it during karaoke night at the bar nearly 30 years later. Trust me, it gets old real fast: That tin roof rusted a long time ago. (And please, no questions about why I spent so much time hanging out in karaoke bars. That’s beside the point.)

12

Cherry Pie by Warrant (No. 10 in 1990)

This song may have single-handedly killed the hair metal era, for which many people are probably grateful. But it still deserves a place on this list, if only for the ridiculous lyric “swingin’ in the living room, swingin’ in the kitchen; most folks don’t ’cause they're too busy bitchin’.” Huh? That almost makes ob-la-di, ob-la-da sound literate.

11

 Afternoon Delight by Starland Vocal Band (No. 1 in 1976)

The song’s music sounds like it belongs in a summer camp singalong. Its lyrics are, well, more than a little suggestive. Those two things simply shouldn’t go together.

10

Having My Baby by Paul Anka (No. 1 in 1974)

The only good thing about this song is that you’ll never hear a deadbeat dad singing it. The only good thing. This song will send you running from the maternity ward to the emergency room ... if it doesn’t render you comatose first. It’s so bad that you have to wonder why it only made No. 10 on this list. Until you see what finished ahead of it, that is. Read on.

9

Mickey by Toni Basil (No. 1 in 1982)

Toni Basil has a reputation as one of the best choreographers around, which explains why this song’s video casts her as a cheerleader. MTV played it in such heavy rotation it was impossible to avoid it – which is precisely what I want to do whenever I hear it. Maybe Basil should have listened to the Bee Gees before recording this. They would have given her some good advice: “You should be dancing.” Not singing.

Phil Collins

Phil Collins

8

 Sussudio by Phil Collins (No. 1 in 1985)

It’s unclear whether Sussudio is a woman’s name or a word that she’s supposed to say. Why should she say it? Mr. Collins never bothers to explain. Of course, he's no stranger to nonsensical lyrics. We’re never told, for example, what exactly is “coming in the air tonight” or why we should “hold on.” We ask in vain what “paperlate” might mean. And if “abacab isn’t anywhere” why should we go searching for it? We’re better off just leaving it behind to keep Sussudio company while we go find something worthwhile to occupy our eardrums for a while.

7

Ring My Bell by Anita Ward (No. 1 in 1979)

This song about talking on the telephone was reportedly written for an 11-year-old to sing. It sounds like it. But Anita Ward managed to make it sound sexually suggestive, which would be impressive if it weren't so disturbing. The singer also makes the word "bell" sound as though it's got three syllables, which should count for something. But it doesn't.

6

Spill the Wine by Eric Burdon and War (No. 3 in 1970)

This song is supposedly a sexual allegory, which, when you visualize it, makes you feel like you’re watching a bad porn film. (The song was actually used in the soundtrack to Boogie Nights, a movie about a fictional porn star.) I didn’t know what the lyrics meant until I looked them up ... which made me wish I hadn’t, because I like the song even less now. If there’s one thing I like less than unintelligible lyrics, it’s graphically obscene lyrics. Plus, I like wine.*

Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray

Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray

5

Fly by Sugar Ray (No. 1 in 1997)

The lyrics to this one are even more nonsensical than Phil Collins’ stuff. The line “Twenty-five years old, my mother God rest her soul,” seems to have been lifted from the maudlin but at least coherent 1972 hit Alone Again, Naturally. Its inclusion here makes about as much sense as inserting a line from Monster Mash  into The Battle Hymn of the Republic. To make matters worse, the melody is just as irritating as the lyrics. The fact that this band's two biggest hits both made this list is all you need to know. 

4

 Who Let the Dogs Out? by Baha Men (No. 40 in 2000)

I’m a sports fan. My alma mater’s mascot is a bulldog. That alone should tell you why I hate this song so much, but it would still be near the top (bottom) of my list, regardless. The dogs should never have been let out, and this song should never have been released.

3

 Jump Around by House of Pain (No. 3 in 1992)

For some reason, this song became insanely popular at shoot-arounds prior to high school basketball games. It would have been harmless enough had the band not decided to include a sound that can only be compared to horse whinnying in agony after falling down and breaking its leg. Over and over and over again. It’s enough to make your ears bleed. Someone please put this tune out of its misery.

2

Do Ya Think I’m Sexy by Rod Stewart (No. 1 in 1979)

There was a time when Rod Stewart put out some great, or at least near-great music. Every Picture Tells a StoryStay With MeI Know I’m Losing You. This was not that time. This was the disco era, and this particular song was Stewart’s supposed attempt to spoof the disco culture. The only problem is that it was too convincing, which made Stewart seem like a preening egomaniac. Come to think of it …

Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, 2011

Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, 2011

1

My Humps by Black Eyed Peas (No. 3 in 2005)

Many of the songs on this list became more annoying because I heard them repeatedly on the radio. I seldom heard “My Humps,” which alone is testament to why it’s so earsplittingly godawful. The lyrics are disgusting and the music is, quite possibly, just as bad. I’ve heard it maybe two or three times in my life, which is 100 times too many. Only a deaf camel could like “My Humps,” and being neither a camel nor deaf, I can’t recommend it. In fact, I’d walk a mile to get away from it.

Dishonorable mentions:

Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice and any other song that “samples” original material from a more talented previous artist. In fact, the only reason this didn’t make the list is that the song it sampled was so damned good: Robert Van Winkle (Ice’s real name) “borrowed” from Queen+David Bowie’s Under Pressure. Freddie Mercury. David Bowie. Robert Van Winkle. To revisit the Sesame Street theme raised briefly earlier, “one of these things just doesn’t belong.”

Any duet featuring Paul McCartney in the early 1980s (Say Say Say and The Girl is Mine with Michael Jackson; Ebony and Ivory with Stevie Wonder). I told you McCartney could be bad.

Songs included in movie soundtracks about ocean disasters, specifically The Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion from Titanic in 1997 and The Morning AfterMaureen McGovern’s theme song to The Poseidon Adventure in 1973. (Despite the title, it has nothing to do with sex.) Both hit No. 1, and neither is quite bad enough by itself to include on this list. But together, they go to show that a singer’s loose lips really can sink ships.

I Can Help by Billy Swan could easily replace Handy Man on this list. Both are songs about some conceited jerk waxing philosophical about how he’s God’s gift to women. This list just wasn’t big enough for two songs with a sexual messiah complex.

* No, I’m not going to tell you what it means. Google it.

Melting pot? Salad bowl? No, we're vegetable soup

Stephen H. Provost

Are we a salad bowl or a melting pot? Do we build a wall or welcome the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?

The answers aren’t as simple as it might appear.

At times, it feels like we’re being asked to reconcile two principles that seem almost irreconcilable: diversity on the one hand and commonality on the other. But reconcile them we must, because despite the inherent tension between the two, one can’t function without the other.

If we don’t look for common ground, we’ll find ourselves at odds with everyone. We’ll be so focused on our differences, we’ll expend all our energy trying to eliminate them by forcing everyone else to “be like us.” We’ll turn the melting pot into a crucible.

On the other hand, if we don’t embrace one another’s diversity, the salad bowl will become walled off into compartments of lettuce here, tomatoes there, and salad dressing way out on the fringe somewhere. The flavors will never be allowed to mix and complement one another.

Forgetting how to learn

Our two-party system has one inherent flaw: It encourages us to view the world in black-and-white terms. There are only two possible outcomes: win or lose. Whoever is not for us is against us.

That’s not how the real world works. There is, or should be, a third potential outcome: learn. That’s how we teach our children how to compete in Little League (at least when we’re not being overly zealous and trying to live vicariously through them). You do your best, try not to repeat your mistakes, work to improve your skills and accept the results gracefully, win or lose. Because, either way, you learn.

When we focus so much on winning that we forget the graciousness and willingness to learn that come afterward, we increase the chances we’ll lose the next time around. If you don’t win gracefully, the other side will just become that much more determined to defeat you the next time. And if you stop learning, even in victory, opponents can catch and surpass you by continuing to do so themselves.

This attitude of complacent self-importance is, at its essence, a form of fundamentalism.

Fundamentally flawed

Most people think of fundamentalism in conjunction with religious terms such as “Islamic” or “Christian,” but it’s a mindset that can attach itself to anything from communism or fascism or issues ranging from gun laws to immigration.

However it manifests itself, I’m convinced it is, civilization’s greatest enemy, because it encourages the belief that we know everything already. Not only does this mindset stop internal progress, it also creates a vulnerability to external attack. Imagine, for instance, that the company behind your computer’s antivirus stopped updating its software. Don’t think for a moment that hackers on the other end will stop looking for ways to get around it.

And, eventually, they will.

That’s not to say walls are the answer. Walls assume the those on the other side are somehow all bad people who need to be kept out. That may apply to hackers, but it doesn’t apply to human beings on the other side of a border or in the yard next door.

Appropriation or appreciation?

Yet it’s disturbing to see people on both ends of the political spectrum so eager to erect walls based on that flawed assumption.

Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border is only the most obvious example. The same thing is occurring among so-called “liberals” who’ve exchanged diversity for a sort of siege mentality.

The walls here aren’t physical; they’re psychological. They’re the kind of walls that shout, “You can’t possibly understand our situation, because you’re not one of us!” and accuse people of cultural appropriation if they decide to adopt some of your culture’s expressions.

Whatever happened to “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”?

Physical walls such as the Great Wall of China aren't the only kind.

Physical walls such as the Great Wall of China aren't the only kind.

There is such a thing as cultural appropriation. Just ask black musicians who, for decades, saw their works reissued by white recording “artists” without receiving a dime for their efforts. “Cultural appropriation” doesn’t go far enough in describing such actions. They’re theft, pure and simple. But wearing your hair in a certain style or enjoying food that originated in a different culture? That’s appreciation, not appropriation.

The opposite of appreciation is disdain, which just promotes fear and creates more walls. Is that what we really want?

Some of us obviously do.

These folks are scared of affirm our commonality because they see it as a threat to their diversity. Or they’re scared to acknowledge diversity for fear it will destroy any sense of common purpose. Yet they only see things this way because they’ve become mired in the false dichotomy of winners and losers, and they’ve forgotten how to learn.

It’s by learning from one another that we enrich ourselves. It’s by affirming one another in our diverse means of expression that we strengthen our sense of commonality.

In an ideal world, we’d be neither a salad bowl nor a melting pot, but a cauldron of vegetable soup that shares a common flavor but also contains carrots, peas, celery and other goodies that make the entire concoction far tastier.

What we’ve been cooking up lately, by contrast, is tasteless and fast growing stale.

Unless we learn to reconcile our diversity and our commonality, we run the risk of poisoning ourselves with the result.

Is Twitter's downfall imminent? I sure hope so.

Stephen H. Provost

Twitter lost 2 million monthly U.S. users in the latest quarter – 3 percent of its total.

I’m not exactly doing cartwheels over this, primarily because, at my age, attempting such would be downright dangerous. It did, however, make me smile.

There are things you do because you want to, and there are others you do because you have to.

For me, Twitter has always fallen into the second category. I pretty much have to have some presence there because I’m part of the communications business. Journalist. Author. If you’re in either game these days, you need all the exposure you can get.

But Twitter is, to me, what eating my veggies was to my 7-year-old self. It’s something I do while holding my noise to avoid the bitter taste, because I’ve been told, “You must do this because it’s good for you.” Needless to say, that imperative makes it all the more unpalatable.

Veggies have grown on me but, unfortunately, Twitter hasn’t.

I’m not alone in my disdain for Twitter, even among writers and journalists, some of whom have dumped the platform altogether. For these folks, it’s just not worth it:

Last year, a fellow journalist, New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman, quit Twitter because he got sick of dealing with anti-Semitic attacks on the platform. It had become, in his words, “a cesspit of hate.”

Lindy West, an author and columnist, also bowed out, declaring Twitter to be “unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.” She concluded her piece in The Guardian with the words, “Keep the friends. Ditch the mall.”

CNN’s Aislyn Camerota realized she was “hanging out with people who find satisfaction spewing vitriol, people who spread racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism.”

The medium frames the message

Should we blame the messenger?

As Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the message” (or “mess age,” as he sometimes quipped). I’m not sure I’d go that far, but the medium certainly frames the message, and Twitter’s 140-character format does just that … in a such a way as to discourage people from thinking. Or analyzing. Or conducting any kind of in-depth dialogue.

Why does Twitter attract the kind of people who ultimately alienated Weisman, West and Camerota? Maybe because it encourages hit-and-run attacks rather than reasoned discourse. Sound-bite politics does the same thing – and is, unsurprisingly, dominated by similar attacks. If you don’t like negative campaigning, you probably won’t care for Twitter, either, because Twitter is all about campaigning.

The platform is dominated by celebrities and wannabrities (along with their fans and sycophants), who are there to promote their name or their brand. Donald J. Trump, celebrity turned politician, is the ultimate creature of the nexus between politics and celebrity that Twitter has become.

Trump’s ubiquitous presence on – and reliance upon – Twitter has confirmed my opinions of both: of Trump as a simpleton who’s deluded himself into thinking he can tackle complex policy issues in 140 characters, and of Twitter as the platform that empowers him (and people like him) to do perpetuate such delusions.

High anxiety

This isn’t to say everyone who uses Twitter is a simpleton or a troll. My point is that the platform’s format attracts such folks, and like many others, I’m not comfortable in the kind of environment that creates.

As someone who’s generally unimpressed by celebrity, that doesn’t appeal to me. Besides that, there’s research that indicates using a large number of social media platforms just isn’t good for you. A study published Dec. 10 in Computers in Human Behavior found that people who used the risk of depression and anxiety in those who used the largest number of platforms was more than three times that of people used two or fewer.

That’s the last thing I need. At last count, I was active on Facebook (my primary platform), Instagram, Twitter and my blog. If I were asked to drop one, it would be a no-brainer to eliminate the one that seemed the most superficial, the least user friendly, the least interesting and the most, well, just plain mean.

That would be Twitter, folks. Where anxiety-inducing trolls and bullies are perhaps most prevalent.

Maybe other people are coming to the same conclusion, and perhaps that’s why Twitter’s user base – never remotely close to Facebook’s in the best of times – is starting to shrink. Maybe another part of it is Trump fatigue. Either way, I’m hoping users are sending a message by abandoning ship: It’s long past time for Twitter to change, and fundamentally, or die.