In our Cher cover story this week, one of the most stunning revelations was that the decades-spanning hitmaker and world-renowned icon doesn’t consider herself to be much of a fan of her own music.
Since the ‘70s “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” “Half-Breed,” and “Dark Lady” have been mostly reduced to a bare minimum of quick medleys in her live shows, and you can add the Hot 100’s biggest-charting song of 1999, “Believe,” which changed the entire course of popular music with its groundbreaking use of Auto-Tune, to her s--t list.
“I’m not a Cher fan,” she offered in the story. “I just don’t think my aesthetic taste lies in her direction.”
This is strangely common throughout pop history, and not just in the rebellious spirit of rock’n’roll. Here are ten examples of artists who’ve considered one of their biggest hits to be an albatross around their neck.
Neil Young, “Heart of Gold” (1972)
The Beef: Neil Young’s one of the quintessential ‘70s album artists, and he has scores of individual classic songs, but “hit” is a word that only comes to mind once in his career, with 1972’s yearning (and Hot 100-topping) “Heart of Gold” from the folksy commercial breakthrough album Harvest. The song's destiny was likely set in stone when the far more chart-friendly James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt signed on for backup vocals.
But after an astounding 548 plays live, the tune mostly disappeared from Young’s setlists by 1976, and in his awesomely candid liner notes to 1978’s Decade, he wrote of the tune: “This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I met more interesting people there.” For better or for worse (and mostly for better, considering the man’s post-1972 run), we can at least partly credit this song’s success as Young’s motivation to become the left-of-center guitar-god crank that he is.
Is the Song Good Though: “Heart of Gold” is completely fine, even if its conceit is indeed pretty middle-of-the-road. But it stops short of bland, and it doesn’t interrupt the flow of Decade the way “A Man Needs a Maid” does (who ordered the London Symphony Orchestra? Looking in your direction, Neil). The pleasant tune is pretty indicative of Harvest, though, which despite its omnipresence, is maybe the eighth-best Young album of its decade.
Madonna, “Like a Virgin” (1984)
The Beef: In 2008, Madonna may have surprised Z100 listeners when she said on-air that “I'm not sure I can sing ‘Holiday’ or ‘Like a Virgin’ ever again. I just can’t, unless somebody paid me, like, $30 million or something.” The following year, she singled out “Virgin” again as the target of her ire when walking into a business that quickly changes the soundtrack to match their new clientele: “For some reason, people think that when you go to a restaurant or you are going shopping that you want to hear one of your own songs. It's usually ‘Like a Virgin’ and that is the one I don't want to hear.”
Is the Song Good Though: “Like a Virgin” is obviously a classic that’s mostly inextricable from the performance that made Madonna the world-dominating matriarch that she is today, writhing around in a wedding dress at the very first MTV Video Music Awards. But it’s not impossible to see why it might be the one that embarrasses her a little bit; the coquettish “Hey!”s and intentionally young-sounding delivery (and theme) don’t really fit in with the coolly self-assured persona that’s defined her non-formative years from “Vogue” through “Don’t Tell Me” onward.
Beastie Boys, “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)” (1986)
The Beef: The Beastie Boys ended up disowning much of their bratty and rude debut Licensed to Ill as they grew into surprisingly humble and politically-conscious feminists and activists for much of the remainder of their careers (and thank Buddha they didn’t actually title it Don’t Be a F----t). But its biggest hit bothered them in hindsight more than the outright sexism of say, “Girls,” just because it held a mirror up to who they were courting: frat boys at their shows threatening to outnumber women or legitimate hip-hop fans. They intended the tune as a macho parody, though they were maybe too young to execute the wink properly.
Is the Song Good Though: Why not? Andrew W.K. turned “Fight for Your Right” into an overarching career philosophy, and along with Run-D.M.C., the song’s big, Rick Rubin-trademark guitars helped usher rap, ostensibly a disco offshoot until 1984, beneath the rock’n’roll umbrella. Is it the kind of song you listen to every day? No. Would the Beasties go on to make much more creative and interesting music? Yes. But the frat-boy fans have left the building and grown up (presumably into Goldman-Sachs executives), and “Party” by itself is a wholly inoffensive start to the Beas! Tie! Boys!’s compelling redemption narrative.
Warrant, “Cherry Pie” (1990)
The Beef: Take it away, Jani Lane: “I could shoot myself in the f--king head for writing that song.” Lane would later partly recant and amend, “I'm happy as a clam to have written a song that is still being played and still dug by so many people.” But those close to the late Warrant singer have corroborated how frustrated Lane was to be mostly remembered for a silly-sexist single-entendre anthem he wrote in 15 minutes on the back of a pizza box at the behest of the record label. (See also Simple Minds’ similar grievances towards “(Don’t You) Forget About Me,” which they didn’t write and never wanted to sing.)
It’s hard to imagine Lane was too unhappy with the fate of the song, though, considering not only its commercial success, but the fact that the hilariously unsubtle “Cherry Pie” video starred model Bobbie Brown, whom Lane ended up marrying in 1991.
Is the Song Good Though: “Cherry Pie” is pretty much getting what you pay for, everything exhilarating and dated about blockheaded, boner-minded hair metal in a spry three minutes and 20 seconds. It’s a fun song that wasn’t built to last, and today, the video scans like a less creepy (if just as lunkheaded) precursor to “Blurred Lines.”
R.E.M., "Shiny Happy People" (1991)
The Beef: Warner Bros. sent them back to the salt mines for a “happy song” to release as a single fo 1991'sr Out of Time before anyone had a grasp on how earth-shaking a mandolin-driven meditation like “Losing My Religion” would become, so R.E.M. crafted the most inanely upbeat thing they could think up, hoping the major label would reject it. That didn’t work; it became the second single with bells on (well, a beanie at least). The attempt to give it an even sillier video likely hurt the band's legacy more than the label they were trying to stick it to.
Is the Song Good Though: Yes, actually! It's a genuine shame how dismissive the band and many of their fans (as well as critics) are of a tune that has surprisingly tricky shifts from 3/4 to 4/4, gorgeous Kate Pierson harmonies, and an A-list chiming guitar riff from Peter Buck. It's no dumber than “Louie Louie” or “Start Me Up,” if we're being honest -- just a lot more cynical.
Radiohead, “Creep” (1992)
The Beef: Radiohead are the quintessential tune-disowners on this list, having been tagged early on in 1995 by the immortal Clueless as “complaint rock” and quickly abandoning the instantly beloved hit that was their reason for escaping the U2-Pixies ghetto of their early work. Thom Yorke made no bones about “Creep” being a monkey on his back for years and not wanting to be pigeonholed as the self-loathing loser he embodied in the tune, though they’ve only sporadically played it live since 1998 (mostly notably at 2008’s Coachella Festival), and by the time Yorke publicly asked that Prince unblock his live cover of it from YouTube, they generally seemed to have accepted it as a giant in their canon.
Is the Song Good Though: Of course! The bona fides of “Creep” do not need to be restated. In retrospect, 1995's “High and Dry” -- also long disavowed by the band -- might be their most lightweight, regular pop tune, which couldn’t be further from their own interests. But it’s a pretty sweet breath of Mentos-era fresh air to encounter now, and it’s nice to revisit the long-apocalyptic Yorke’s falsetto in a context that isn’t trying to be spooky or haunting.
TLC, “Creep” (1994)
The Beef: The jazzy and hooky “Creep” is one of TLC’s slinkiest and most beloved hits, though the ever-bulls--t-free Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez wasn’t down with the song’s two-wrongs-make-a-right subject matter, in which the trio rationalizes the protagonist’s own cheating because they were cheated on themselves. ("Instead of telling her to cheat back, why don't we tell her [to] just leave?" she wondered aloud in a VH1 interview.)
Is the Song Good Though: “Creep” is an amazing tune and retains a humanizing gravity that few cheating songs ever reach, full of empathy and despair and desire to understand one of the world’s most unfailingly heartbreaking patterns time and time again. But rather than eliciting eye-rolls, it’s really heartwarming to know in retrospect how deeply Left Eye cared about TLC’s status as role models for young women, and not wanting the group to appear to be endorsing poor relationship behavior.
Eminem, “My Name Is” (1999)
The Beef: Eminem’s exactly the kind of rapper to disavow his big TRL breakthrough hit, particularly since he spent much of his early MTV tenure mocking said TRL peers like LFO, Limp Bizkit, and most infamously, Christian Aguilera both in and outside of his music. Sure, “My Name Is” is a novelty song, and a great one, thrusting his whirlwind of multiple personalities onto the comic-entertainment world like Robin Williams’ genie in Aladdin.
But what’s curious is that usually this type of rapper doesn’t continue releasing goofy-funny hits almost in lockstep as his first single off of four more subsequent albums: “The Real Slim Shady,” “Without Me,” “Just Lose It,” and finally, the exhausting, “We Made You,” which neatly line up in both chronological and descending order of quality, before he finally broke rank with the formula for 2010’s (literally) stone-cold sober “Not Afraid.”
Is the Song Good Though: “My Name Is” is as wondrous a proper-career opening salvo as any megahit artist has ever enjoyed, absolutely on a par with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It’s more curious that he’s stayed relatively mum about the declining quality of its bouncy, Xeroxed follow-ups, save for “The Real Slim Shady,” which is maybe even better.
Lady Gaga, “Telephone” (2009)
The Beef: In a 2011 interview with PopJustice, Gaga surprisingly called her momentum-furthering Beyoncé collaboration “Telephone” her “worst song” for both personal reasons (the process of making the song stressed her out) and aesthetic ones (now believing the brightly-colored, nine-minute epic of a video tried to “cram in too many ideas”).
Is the Song Good Though: Yes, and with all due respect, her take on the video is insane. And kind of alarming; Gaga is the rare pop star whom is almost unanimously agreed upon as thriving within overstuffed maximalism. Her efforts to strip down the dizzying, shameless enormity of her music (such as last year’s tepid Joanne) have proven underwhelming, and it’s genuinely a little frightening to imagine her trying to go back-to-basics later with a zonked-out fun revival record and coming up with the Lady Gaga equivalent of say, Beck’s Guero.
Kesha, “Die Young” (2012)
The Beef: We now know the embattled Kesha to have been troubled for far deeper and more upsetting reasons than simply clashing with her producer, collaborator and alleged sexual abuser Dr. Luke in the studio, which led to the overly-safe and half-realized Warrior album in 2012. But at the time, fans were surprised to learn the singer felt “forced” to sing its first single, which continued the spirit of her previous hits in a more generalized way.
She later clarified that she regretted its fatalistic themes coming out of her mouth in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, and hinted that she’d like to be spreading her wings into more interesting sonic territory than another irresponsible dance hit. But the internal controversy over “Die Young” was only the tip of the iceberg, sadly.
Is the Song Good Though: Very good, actually, with a major But. “Die Young” has all the makings of a summer smash except it falls a bit short in the lyric department, repeating stuff Kesha’s fans had already come to expect and simultaneously disappointing a bit because we like her at her most unexpected. The reticence comes across in her stiff delivery too, and once you know about her lack of enthusiasm for the tune, it’s kind of hard to forget it even when those otherwise blissful repetitions of the title cycle through the hook again.