Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sky Rockets In Flight

On his blog at The Nation, Eric Alterman has listed the "World’s Worst Songs: The Top Twenty." (I have added artist names and the year performed in parentheses):

"Imagine" (John Lennon, 1971)
"Afternoon Delight" (Starland Vocal Band, 1976)
"The Night Chicago Died" (Paper Lace, 1974)
"Billy Don’t be a Hero" (Paper Lace, 1974)
"You Light Up My Life" (Debby Boone, 1977)
"Mary Queen of Arkansas" (Bruce Springsteen, 1973)
"The Angel" (Bruce Springsteen, 1973)
"Wildfire" (Michael Murphy, 1975)
"Playground In My Mind" (Clint Holmes, 1973)
"Seasons in the Sun" (Terry Jacks, 1973)
"Ebony And Ivory" (Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder, 1982)
"My Love" (Paul McCartney & Wings, 1973)
"Let ‘Em In" (Paul McCartney & Wings, 1976)
"Sometimes When We Touch" (Dan Hill, 1977)
"Baby I'm-A Want You" (Bread, 1972)
"'Arthur's Theme' (Best That You Can Do)" (Christopher Cross, 1981)
"One Tin Soldier" (Original Caste, 1970; Coven, 1971)
"You May Be Right" (Billy Joel, 1980)
"We Built This City" (Starship, 1985)
"Kumbaya" (Traditional African American spiritual, popular versions recorded by Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Joan Baez, The Seekers, and others)
"Who’s Ruling Who?" (I have to confess I'm not sure what song Alterman is referring to here, but he might mean Aretha Franklin's "Who's Zooming Who" from 1985)

Alterman's friend Michael Tomasky at The Guardian has taken Eric to task for his bias against sentimentality. By and large I agree with Tomasky, although it seems to me that what Alterman objects to is earnestness as much as sentimentality per se, but that's not really what I wanted to talk about.

Looking at the years these songs were written and recorded reminds me of what generated Richard Thompson's 1,000 Years of Popular Music project. When Thompson was asked to list the "Greatest Songs of the Millennium" by Playboy Magazine, he knew they were really asking for a list of his favorite songs from the past 50 years or so. Thompson, being the clever man that he is, instead prepared a list that began with "Sumer Is Icumen In" (written circa 1260) and ended with Britney Spears' Y2K smash, "Oops!… I Did It Again." This is just one of the many reasons Richard Thompson is far more brilliant than the rest of us. Of course Playboy didn't print his list.

I imagine Alterman doesn't want us to take his list too seriously (after all, he didn't even bother to tell you who did the songs), but what are the chances that all of the top 20 worst songs in human history (with one sort-of exception) were written between 1970 and 1985? Further, what are the chances that 18 of 20 would be written in the U.S. and U.K. ("One Tin Soldier" was written in Canada and "Seasons In The Sun" is an adaptation of a Jacques Brel song)? That just doesn't seem likely to me.

Looking at the list tells me more about its author than the history of music. Even if I knew nothing about Alterman (and I don't know much), I could tell from his list that he was likely born in the United States between 1958 and 1965, probably grew up on the East Coast in a politically liberal family, and likely resented the time he had to spend singing "Kumbaya" at sleep away camp.

All of which is to say that lists like this are inevitably subjective. I don't mean "subjective" in the clichéd "there's no such thing as good or bad music" sense, but rather in the sense that one's experience of the world (where and when you are born, cumulative life experiences, etc.) shapes our understanding of the world, as well as what we value and what we disregard.

Maybe that is just a fancy way of saying "there's no such thing as good or bad music." I'm not sure I'd go that far, but at the very least--even if you are committed to the idea that there is an objective set of criteria that allows us to distinguish between good and bad music--it is undeniable that we can only make these kinds of value judgments about music we have been exposed to.

Frankly, I have never seen an argument that there is some objective standard for making judgments about music (or any other art) that isn't hopelessly tortured. I lean more toward the position that it is only through the power wielded by particular institutions that matters of preference (say a bias against sentimentality) become legitimized as criteria for making aesthetic judgments, and these criteria are subject to change across time periods and cultures.

Personally, I am not at all committed to the idea that there is a set of objective criteria for "good" music, although Starship's "We Built This City" does badly make me want to believe that there are objective criteria for what constitutes bad music, even if its postulates and axioms are elusive to my feeble mind.

**Full disclosure: I actually like a lot of these songs, even if they are bad.

**UPDATE: Alterman responds (and calls me a "really smart guy"). Also, it appears "Who's Ruling Who" is not one of the worst songs of all time, but an editing error. (If I was actually a really smart guy, I might have noticed that Alterman's list of 20 worst songs included 21 titles.)


wardo said...

Oh indeed. I love fine cheese as much as anyone, if not more. But I detect just a little bias from anyone who puts two songs from the same Springsteen album on a list, and finds three different McCartney song. Surely there are two other awful songs to make the list..."Maniac" anyone? That "bananas" song by Gwen Stefani?

Peter Hennig said...

I don't know about you, but this list looks like a great start for a mix tape!

Steve Hicken said...

All lists tell you more about the listmaker(s) than they do about the purported subject of the list. That's why they are so much fun to make and read.