What Is Bad? A Worst Songs Countdown Goes Beyond Good and Evil

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Miley Cyrus and Pharrell Williams attend the 56th annual GRAMMY Awards Pre-GRAMMY Gala and Salute to Industry Icons honoring Lucian Grainge at The Beverly Hilton on January 25, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California.

What do “Who Let The Dogs Out” and “Stairway To Heaven” have in common? Both make a prominent appearance among the 88 worst songs of all time, as voted by listeners of triple-A WXPN Philadelphia.

WXPN unveiled the listing last Saturday, Oct. 25, as the kicker to its countdown of its top 885 “all-time greatest” songs. That either countdown took place speaks to what makes 'XPN great. But the choice of “worst songs” (and even some of the “best”), says a lot about how people view music in 2014. Like most “worst song” lists, this one often shows that “bad songs” are even more subjective than wimpy ones, although WXPN programmer Bruce Warren takes a shot at it. 

The worst song, as voted by 'XPN listeners, was Starship's oft-assailed '80s anthem, “We Built This City.” That song already struck me as too neutral to inspire such annoyance when Blender singled it out as the worst single ever, more than a decade ago. Blender is gone, while the Starship song still gets about 100 monitored radio spins a week, according to Nielsen BDS. But the tag seems to have stuck.

Many of the other “worst” songs fell into a handful of categories. Some, like Starship, are regularly assailed in lists of this sort:

‘90s/early ‘00s novelties/reaction records: Baha Men, “Who Let The Dogs Out” (No. 2), Billy Ray Cyrus, “Achy Breaky Heart” (3), Los Del Rio, “Macarena” (5), Aqua, “Barbie Girl” (11), Vanilla Ice, “Ice Ice Baby” (28), Right Said Fred, “I’m Too Sexy” (30), Lou Bega, “Mambo No. 5” (36), Hanson, “MMMBop” (42), Chumbawmba, “Tubthumping” (50), 4 Non Blondes, “What’s Up” (53), Eiffel 65, “Blue” (85).

Soft or novelty ‘70s pop: Paul Anka, “(You’re) Having My Baby” (No. 4), Debby Boone, “You Light Up My Life” (6), Captain & Tennille, “Muskrat Love” (14), Terry Jacks, “Seasons In The Sun” (15), Starland Vocal Band, “Afternoon Delight” (19), Rupert Holmes, “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” (32), Abba, “Dancing Queen” (43).

A few similar things from the ‘60s: Richard Harris, “MacArthur Park” (No. 17), Bobby Goldsboro, “Honey” (18), the Archies, “Sugar Sugar” (25), Ohio Express, “Yummy Yummy Yummy” (47).

A few recent polarizing hits by teen-pop artists: Justin Bieber, “Baby” (No. 8), Miley Cyrus, “Party In The U.S.A.” (39), Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball” (83).

A few truly outré novelties: Tiny Tim, “Tip-Toe Through The Tulips With Me” (15), Rick Dees & His Cast of Idiots, “Disco Duck” (25), Psy, “Gangnam Style” (46).

And then there are a considerable number of songs that don’t fit any of the above definitions.

Not particularly goofy songs that just happen to be unhip to everybody except the million or more people who bought them: Nickelback, “Rockstar” (No. 9), Celine Dion, “My Heart Will Go On” (20), Nickelback, “Photograph” (22), Train, “Hey, Soul Sister” (35), Creed, “With Arms Wide Open” (52), Kid Rock, “All Summer Long” (57), Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (74).

Enduring, but saturated, Classic Rock anthems: Meat Loaf, “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” (No. 12), Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin’” (13), Eagles, “Hotel California” (31), Led Zeppelin, “Stairway to Heaven” (38), Don McLean, “American Pie” (41), Kiss, “Rock And Roll All Night” (51), Bruce Springsteen, “Born In The U.S.A.”, Bon Jovi, “Livin’ On A Prayer” (71), Guns N’ Roses, “Sweet Child Of Mine” (78), Queen “Bohemian Rhapsody” (80), Billy Joel, “Piano Man” (84), Jimmy Buffett, “Margaritaville” (86).

Songs that everybody liked last year (or therabouts), but that some people now consider overplayed: Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines” (No. 21), Pharrell Williams, “Happy” (27), Daft Punk, “Get Lucky” (44), Maroon 5, “Moves Like Jagger” (75).

Those last two categories are particularly telling. We’ve already noted how many listeners seem to now regret last year’s dalliance with Robin Thicke. But it’s hard to imagine listeners begrudging “Happy” or “Get Lucky” anything more than those songs’ ubiquity. As it happens, after having not encountered it on the radio for a little while, I found myself really enjoying “Blurred Lines” again, perhaps because it was sandwiched between “Photograph” and “My Heart Will Go On.” 

Then there are those classic rock anthems. ‘XPN listeners aren’t above liking some of the same songs as fans of mainstream classic rock rival WMGK. “Stairway To Heaven” is, as it happens, also WXPN listeners’ No. 6 favorite song of all time. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is No. 11. “American Pie” is No. 80. In fact, the whole top 10 is songs that would fit on WMGK. You have to get to No. 17, Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” before you encounter a song associated more with triple-A than classic rock. The pure triple-A acts (Wilco, Dawes, My Morning Jacket, Richard Thompson) don’t materialize until the mid-30s. 

Related Worsts

The popularity of classic rock among triple-A fans is a constant source of bemusement for music researchers and triple-A PDs who see dozens of Queen, Led Zeppelin, and Rolling Stones titles at the top of a triple-A test, long before the first Ryan Adams or Ben Harper song shows up. But what drives a lot of listeners to triple-A in the first place is a search for the excitement they once got from ‘70s rock. And those songs were heard by a lot more people than any of the recent music owned by triple-A. 

Those of us conducting or interpreting music research also have to grapple with “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Sweet Home Alabama” on a regular basis at multiple formats. Both provoke increasing burn, which is still far outstripped by massive “love scores,” often from the same people. You could, if you were so determined, find the pretension or high-school poetry in “Stairway to Heaven” or “American Pie.” But most complaints are probably just oversaturation – less a vote on the song than how radio played it.

So when you see “Stairway to Heaven” on the same list as “Friday” by Rebecca Black, it’s possible that the same person could consider them both to be genuinely terrible pieces of music. It’s more likely, however, that listeners variously interpret “bad” as also including “burned,” “mediocre,” “boring” and “just not for me.” 

It’s also interesting what wasn’t on the “worst” list. After “Ice Ice Baby,” there’s little late ‘80s/early ‘90s novelty rap, unless you count Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True.” One might have expected to see Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” in there. But Biz is a treasured part of many thirtysomethings’ childhoods. At this moment, anyway, many people who remember that song as “so bad, it’s good” just seem to care how it nets out. Then there’s “Jump Around” by House of Pain, now remembered fondly across the board; the annoyance that its sampled scream caused in 1993 is long forgotten.

But why should any musical pleasures be guilty in the first place? It’s hard to imagine the circumstances under which music should prompt guilt or embarrassment. Music is supposed to cater to the individual, although it’s often the mass-appeal of polarizing songs that angers those who dislike them. I could write another brief for Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” which was no. 56 on the WXPN worst list. Or I could just direct you to the two million U.S. buyers who took it to No. 1. Or to Taylor Swift, whose sound-alike just followed Gwen Stefani and Avril Lavigne’s sound-alikes to No. 1.

In fact, time has so worn down the distinctions between hip and unhip that it’s surprising ‘XPN listeners can muster any scorn for “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” for instance. On the “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack, that song and Blue Swede’s “Hooked On A Feeling” are of a piece with “Go All the Way” by the Raspberries and “Cherry Bomb” by the Runaways. If director James Gunn considers some songs on the hit movie’s “Awesome Mixtape” more awesome than others, he gives no clues. 

I’m more likely to distinguish between “fun” and “no fun.” You would probably enjoy my “Fun Songs that Some People Think Are Cheesy” countdown. But my true “worst 88 songs of all time” list would be dreary radio, heavy on the ballads from pop music’s early ‘80s and early ‘90s fallow periods. Some of those songs would have their goofy elements, e.g., “I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene. But there’s not even camp in listening to “Set The Night To Music” by Roberta Flack & Maxi Priest. 

And that’s the problem with whoever takes voting for the top 88 worst songs of all time at face value. If you load a countdown with “Tubthumping,” “Mambo No. 5,” and “Sugar Sugar,” it will at least be fun for both of us. If your self-esteem requires you to disavow those songs first, do what you need to do. But I can’t find the fun yet in “Photograph” or “With Arms Wide Open.” There’s still a little fun left in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” after more than 25 years of classic rock saturation, but not much in “Hotel California.” 

In other words, voting for songs that are genuinely terrible, or songs that aren’t in any way terrible, can really slow down a good “bad songs” countdown. It also proves that understanding musical preference is a more complicated job now. Even understanding how people feel about “Margaritaville” is like today’s car repair – as much an IT job as mechanics.