It began on a rainy night in San Francisco. (Note that I didn’t write “a rainy night in ‘Frisco,” because nobody who actually lives here calls it ‘Frisco.) My husband came home from work and announced that he just heard the worst song of all time on the radio, “the one by Harry Chapin: ‘It was rainin’ hard in Frisco’ … .”
As soon as he said it, I had a flashback that came over me like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I belted, “And she said ‘How are ya, Harry? And I said ‘How are ya Sue?’ …,” even though I hadn’t heard “Taxi” since its inescapable reign during the singer-songwriter boom of the early ’70s. Up from the depths of my subconscious it oozed, this confessional about a cabbie who picks up an old girlfriend on a late-night fare. I was a sucker for singer-songwriter confessionals in my youth, and yet, this one always made me laugh, and not in a good way. I went straight to You Tube to listen to “Taxi” in its entirety and sweet fancy Moses, this song is amazingly bad! And yet, I can’t stop listening to it. I’ve ranted about it to my Facebook friends. I can’t stop bursting, Chapin-style, into hard-boiled speak-song: “She handed me twenty dollars for a two-fifty fare, she said, ‘Harry, keep the change’.”
All of this got me thinking. I’ve already written a post about the 10 songs I’d want to be marooned with on a desert island. But what are my Top 10 most loathed songs? What are the songs that, should I be marooned with them, would compel me to hollow out my own leg to make a canoe that would get me off the island (as George Clooney says in his own “Desert Island Discs” list)?
I’m not talking about novelty songs (“The Macarena,” “Who Let the Dogs Out,” anything by Fergie). I’m talking about real song that were hits, won Grammys, were admired by a fair number of people (some of whom have otherwise impeccable musical taste). To earn a spot on my list, a song had to meet one of the following rigorous qualifications: it had to make me want to cover my ears and scream, or, leave me in awe of the magnitude of its suckage.
Separating the wretched from the merely bad was no easy task. Here are a few observations.
- Phil Collins made a crapload of lousy music in the ’80s.
- The worst disposable teen-pop song (for the record, it’s Justin Bieber’s “Baby”) is only half as awful as anything by Yes.
- “Say You, Say Me” by Lionel Richie isn’t as bad as I remembered, but “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News is much, much worse.
- Certain songs from the early days of MTV have been so tainted by unintentionally hilarious videos (“I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls, “Love Is a Battlefield” by Pat Benatar, “The Warrior” by Scandal) that it’s impossible to judge them as songs.
- If a song has “lady” in the title, and it’s by a man, there’s a very good chance that it will be sappy (“Lady” by Kenny Rogers), sexist (“She’s a Lady” by Tom Jones), creepy (“Lady Willpower” by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap) or all of the above (“Lady D’Arbanville” by Cat Stevens).
Now, on with my Ten Least Favorite Songs of All Time
1. “(You’re) Having My Baby” by Paul Anka. This song is even more repulsive today than it was when it was a #1 hit in 1974. (I’m not sure if Glee is to be chastised or applauded for dragging it into a new generation’s pop consciousness.) In its time, “(You’re) Having My Baby” was much-reviled by feminists. Ms. Magazine named Anka “Male Chauvanist Pig of the Year”; NOW gave him its “Keep Her in Her Place” award. For his part, Anka defended “(You’re) Having My Baby” as simply being a love song, and denied that it was an anti-abortion anthem, pointing to the line, “Didn’t have to keep it/ Wouldn’t put you through it/ Could have swept it from your life, but you wouldn’t do it” as acknowledgment of a woman’s right to choose Maybe so. But there’s still that monumentally paternalistic chorus: “You’re having my baby/ What a lovely way of saying how much you love me.” Because, you know, it’s all about him. I’m surprised “(You’re) Having My Baby” isn’t playing on an endless loop in every shaming room in the state of Texas.
2. “Muskrat Love” by The Captain and Tennille. Toni Tennille actually has a great husky, sexy voice. But this song bites harder than a rodent in heat. Speaking of rodents in heat, here’s what the Encyclopedia Britannica has to say about the mating habits of the muskrat: “The animal is named for the musky odour of a yellowish substance produced by perineal glands. Secreted into the urine, the substance is used to mark lodges, pathways, and other landmarks throughout an individual’s home range.” Can you smell the love tonight? Add to that the Cap’n’s flatulent electronic keyboard noises and you’ve got yourself one heck of a mood-killer.
3. “Taxi” by Harry Chapin. Chapin was a tireless crusader against poverty and hunger in the U.S. and he died tragically young. I’m sorry. Having said that …
This song, from Chapin’s 1972 debut album, made an overnight star out of the dimple-chinned singer-songwriter in the manly turtleneck sweater. Clocking in at 6:44 (so you know this isn’t just a song but An Important Song), “Taxi” piles on the drama, with Chapin emoting the hell out of the role of “Harry,” an under-achieving San Francisco cabbie, who is reunited with “Sue,” his first love, by chance one rainy night in … yeah, we know. In their youth, Sue “was gonna be an actress/ And I was gonna learn how to fly.” Now, she’s married and living in a neighborhood with “fine-trimmed lawns” — i.e., she’s a sell-out — while Harry is ” ‘flying in my taxi, taking tips and getting stoned’.”
The production is a riot of ’70s tasteful-soft-rock cliches. There’s a persistent string section. There’s a trippy falsetto interlude (“Baby’s so high that she’s skyin’ …”), an even trippier “hard rock” passage where Chapin strenuously wigs out (“I’ve got something inside me/ To drive a princess blind/ There’s a wild man wizard, he’s hiding in me, illuminating my mind”), and the obligatory nod to counter-culture cool by referencing drugs and suburban ennui. The best way to describe the overall effect of “Taxi” is this: Imagine Anchorman, if Anchorman wasn’t meant to be a comedy.
4. “Young Girl” by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. Released in March 1968, “Young Girl” is the first song of a weird trilogy about a guy who has the hots for an underaged girl. “With all the charms of a woman/ You’ve kept the secret of your youth,” goes the first verse. “You led me to believe you’re old enough to give me love/ And now it hurts to know the truth.” The song’s pervy overtones didn’t prevent it from climbing to #2 on the Billboard charts (it hit #1 in the UK). Hey, I was 10 years old when I swooned to “Young Girl.” I had no idea what Puckett was singing about when he pleaded, “Young girl, get out of my mind/ My love for you is way out of line.” All I knew was that he looked dreamy in his Union Army uniform on Ed Sullivan.
“Young Girl” was followed in June of 1968 by “Lady Willpower,” which also hit #2. In this one, the narrator has failed to put that young girl out of his mind and he’s trying to talk the suddenly shy Lolita into going all the way: “Did no one ever tell you the facts of life?/ Well there’s so much you have to learn/ And I would gladly teach you/ If I could only reach you/ And get your lovin’ in return.” He finally gets into her pants the following year with “This Girl Is a Woman Now,” celebrating the deflowering in lyrics as bogus-tasteful as a black velvet painting of Venus de Milo: “This girl tasted love, as tender as the gentle dawn/ She cried a single tear, a teardrop that was sweet and warm/ Our hearts told us we were right/ And on that sweet and velvet night/ A child had died, a woman had been born.” (None of these songs were actually written by Puckett or his bandmates.)
Rock and roll (like any other art form) has always had its share of cats who wanna dance with sweet little sixteen. But Puckett’s intensely earnest singing and the drippy string and horn arrangements make the “Young Girl” trilogy skeevy in a way that Chuck Berry’s witty, ironic jailbait numbers, or the mad poetry of Van Morrison’s “Cypress Avenue” (where he’s in thrall to the “cherry cherry wine” of a 14-year-old schoolgirl), are not. Because, without wit, irony or poetry, all that’s left is a creepy dude lusting after a girl who’s “just a baby in disguise.”
5. “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. Shooting fish in a barrel. But, oh, what stinking fish it is! Extra points because it was playing in the dentist’s office during two separate root canals. I’m not even posting a video of this song. You’ve heard it, and you don’t need to hear it again. But you probably will, when you’re on hold, or in an elevator, or with your mouth full of Novocaine.
6. “Bubble Toes” by Jack Johnson. Well, Jack, you lost me right from the first verse, because I do not want to think about your girlfriend’s nasty, tar-ball-infested feet. Have my foot issues unduly clouded my judgment? Nope! The tar balls are the least of this song’s problems. Johnson’s insipid vocal, the island-slacker melody, the cloying “la-da-da-da-da-da’s” — they’re all unbearable. Note: “Bubble Toes” narrowly edged out the equally insipid “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt. I cut Blunt some slack, though, mainly because he mewls like the saddest kitten in the animal shelter, and I feel sorry for him. Also, he had the good sense to make a video of “You’re Beautiful” in which he meticulously strips off his shoes and shirt, empties out his pockets, lines up his possessions in a neat row and then commits suicide by jumping off a cliff into the ocean. Which is what I want to do every time I hear his song.
7. “Ants Marching” by Dave Matthews Band. And I bet ants march with more rhythm than this soulless, meandering sludge. This would be the perfect song for Elaine Benes to dance to. In fact, I think she taught Dave his moves.
8. “Lullaby” by Shawn Mullins. Oh, the horror, the horror. I don’t know which part of this song is worse, Mullins’ Jack Nicholson impersonation on the spoken verses, or that quivery thing he does with his voice on the choruses. And while we’re at it, L.A. is “kinda like Nashville with a tan.” Really?
9. “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin. Fuck you.
10. “_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _” by ? Sometimes, the muse just doesn’t bring her “A” game. It happens to the best of them. Out of respect for this artist, I am redacting the identifying details. Feel free to guess.
Bonus! Ladies and Gentlemen, the smooth vocal stylings of Mr. William Shatner singing “Taxi”.
© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape. 2012