Worst Songs Ever: Mike Posner’s “I Took A Pill In Ibiza (SeeB Remix)”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Mike Posner’s “I Took A Pill In Ibiza (SeeB Remix)”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #4 in May 2016

“There was something clever about [Mike] Posner’s withering takedown of drug-taking EDM bro culture. But the much more popular SeeB remix sapped it of its wit, turning it into the exact thing it was satirizing. What a comedown.” So wrote TIME’s staff in its worst of 2016 list. But “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” sucked in acoustic form too. “Withering” describes the folk singer’s voice — it withers like arugula in the Mojave.

In the original, Posner wrote about a simp dropping a molly in the Mediterranean’s best known pleasure dome. “All I know are sad songs,” he insists, and the melodies he wrings from his guitar suggest that all he knows are moribund ones too. The white man out of his depths is a familiar trope in Western culture. The pose adopted by Paul Simon in Graceland is among the more popular of the last thirty years: meeting girls at a cinematographer’s party, going to Graceland as an observer of poor boys and pilgrims much weirder than the narrator. Deluded and square, the loser in “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” acts like Chevy Chase in the “You Can Call Me Al” video: a “real big baller” with expensive shoes and a sports car. On paper and, hell, in the studio, this might work. Randy Newman, Tom Petty, and Warren Zevon have this type down cold, man. Indeed, Posner sounds like Paul Simon, even mimicking the way Simon descends a key or two to get him past a knotty polysyllabic verse. But so what? The original remains a non-entity, a dandelion cloud of pique. Keep in mind, too, that Posner already scored a top ten in 2010 with “Cooler Than Me,” a passive-aggressive horror as authoritarian as Franco about pushing its dorkiness on the listener.

I suppose I can defend the SeeB remix as a reflexive tactic: the high-pitched squeaks and light trop house motifs, thanks to which my nieces will say in 2028 “lol it’s so dated,” represent the 2016 equivalent of bottom feeder disco like David Naughton’s “Makin’ It” and KISS’ “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”, therefore the arrangement is a reflection of the narrator’s lameness. I’m reminded of the friend who when I question Birdman‘s structural adherence to a certain kind of masculine artistry will say, “But that’s the intention!” Rotten ideas, these people argue, need an airing, like a carpet on which fraternity brothers have vomited several Icehouses. If so, then the joke isn’t worth the pain.

Pity me. In South Florida, the “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” remix dominated top 40 radio in late spring and summer 2016 as surely as Justin Bieber, and it embarrassed me: slap a generic beat du jour and presto, Chris Martin can hang with Calvin Harris. Sodden and humorless, “I Took A Pill In Ibiza (SeeB Remix)” will become a touchstone of this low and dishonest decade.

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Screenings #30

Now that I’m a Filmstruck subscriber, expect viewings of treasure by the likes of Mikio Naruse and Edward Yang.

Lady Bird (Gerwig, 2017) 9/10
BPM (Beats per Minute) (Campillo, 2017) 7/10
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Lanthimos, 2017) 8/10
Wonderstruck (Haynes, 2017) 5/10
The Square (Östlund, 2017) 3/10
Taipei Story (Yang, 1985) 8/10
* An Osaka Story (Mizoguchi, 1957) 8/10
Floating Clouds (Naruse, 1955) 7/10
Late Chrysanthemums (Naruse, 1954) 7/10
* Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940) 8/10

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‘Lady Bird’ flies high on wit and empathy

Mother-daughter conflicts have rarely been depicted on screen with the acuity of Lady Bird. Because Greta Gerwig directed her own script, “acuity” also includes humor. I don’t want to sell Lady Bird short: it’s an astonishing debut, as fleet and light of tread as a bee on tulips. On the evidence she had more to do with giving Frances Ha and Mistress America their texture and sensibility than boyfriend Noah Baumbach. Continue reading

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Worst Songs Ever: Alicia Keys’ “No One”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Alicia Keys’ “No One”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in December 2007

Few contemporary singer-songwriters have done as much with so little talent as Alicia Keys. A pupil of Clive Davis’ star-making machinery, Keys was welcomed by the industry within a few suspicious seconds of “Fallin'” dropping onto the pop and R&B charts. The ballad spent seven weeks at #1 in the summer of 2001; Billboard and Rolling Stone said a new Whitney Houston arrived, albeit one who sang, wrote, and produced her hit. Even at the time this skeletal, uninhabited plaint was nothing special: basic keyboard pattern, drum machine, and a compensatory vocal that like Houston confused prowess for feeling but unlike Houston sounded to these ears abrasive and alienating, a drama kid’s idea of passion. No artists suffered more with comparisons to her forebears. When her mouth drops open, fraudulence emerges. This is soul as exertion; soul as will to power unmoored from a reason for being.

No big deal, right? She was twenty. But for the rest of the 2000s the hits kept coming for Keys, without showing evidence of melodic invention. I count two exceptions: the new tune recorded for her 2005 Unplugged segment called “Unbreakable,” embodying an estimable tradition of aspirational middle class R&B that takes in Cliff and Clair Huxtable, Luther Vandross, and Angela Winbush; and 2003’s “You Don’t Know My Name,” which benefited from Kanye West’s warm interpolation of The Main Ingredient’s “Let Me Prove My Love to You.” In each case a sample added girth to rickety structures. As sales collapsed for everyone else in the late 2000s, Keys’ fan base proved resilient. Up through 2007’s As I Am, she was guaranteed a triple platinum platform. I tend to underestimate how huge “No One” became: five weeks at #1, ten on the R&B chart, three million in American sales, and #6 on Billboard Hot 100 decade-end chart. She connected with listeners, apotheosizing her achievements to date. And every syllable — every note — is false. When she sings, she oozes un-feeling.

“I just want you close/Where you can stay forever,” Keys sings over an intentionally scratched-up drum machine and basic keyboard arpeggio, and she means it. I don’t doubt her for a moment. When her voice breaks it’s a rare human moment. But it becomes clear that she intends to sing “No One” at the same key and level of intensity with which she begun; after 1:30 she has nothing to do except repeat the hook. With each programmed cymbal hit, Keys hammers away with the insistence of Napoleon’s cannons on the Third Coalition in the battle of Austerlitz (some kind of bass keyboard plays a more interesting countermelody). We still have two minutes to go, during which Keys delivers a masterful simulacrum of feeling unleavened by the faux intensity of a middle eight.

Yet As I Am, Billboard’s number one album of 2007 (someone explain that after Future/Sex Love/Sound‘s multi-single and multiformat threat) produced no pop followups after “Like You’ll Never See Me Again,” and as the decade turned so did Keys’ fortunes. Besides her supporting role in Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind” and perhaps 2012’s “Girl on Fire,” she exists as a remembrance of crossovers past. She has suffered the fate of every R&B female singer in the 2010s: exile on the so-called adult R&B format, joined by contemporary Keyshia Cole, sometime collaborator Marsha Ambrosius, and chart rival Mary J. Blige. Justice, perhaps, hardly poetic. Having climaxed in 2007 with a masterpiece of canned histrionics, she cleared the battleground of rivals. What remained was ash and ruin.

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Worst Songs Ever: No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 on Mainstream Top 40 chart.

When record companies withdrew its support for cassette and CD singles in the late nineties, radio compensated by increasing the airplay for benchmark artists and, well, everyone. I have no proof. Anyone who lived through the second Bill Clinton administration remembers saturation play for The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You, Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” and Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” among others.  It was like the listener was Orestes pursued by the Furies. Until rules changed in late 1998 allowing airplay to count for a Billboard Hot 100 placement, fans of those songs had to buy the $16 CD or hope to be home when Y-100 cued “Torn” for the forty-eighth time in a half hour so that they could tape it. (For more information, I direct you to redoubtable chart soothsayer Chris Molanphy’s definitive account.)

But No Doubt benefited most from the draconian rule, which on first glance mirrored American consumptive habits until Sean Parker reminded us that we like to be fleeced by powerful conglomerates just once. The Californian ska band had scored a minor coup the summer of 1995 when the soundtrack to the Jane Austen adaptation Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone failed to include “Just A Girl” (listeners got one of those mid nineties soundtrack wtf oddities like Counting Crows’ Psychedelic Furs cover) despite featuring in a key moment. I’d already had some idea about No Doubt when a buddy in town for Thanksgiving weekend in 1992 played the band’s eponymous debut in his Buick tape deck; I have distinct memories of its candy-colored sleeve, of the perky Playmobil ska, of the singer’s pitch.

At worst innocuous, No Doubt had no business ruling the chart for a then-record eleven weeks, but, thanks to momentum and the pull of their inexorable gravity, hit singles create their own rules. It begins with a couple notes picked by guitarist Tom Dumont, setting up Gwen Stefani’s opening salvo, “You and me together/We used to be together,” which, in the annals of rock ballads directed at a band member pale beside “Now here you go and say you want your freedom/But who am I to keep you down now?” but acuity isn’t commensurate with verbal sophistication in rock. Stefani kills “Don’t Speak” for me. I don’t believe a note she’s singing. Whether it’s coming from Stefani or Missing Person’s Terry Bozzio, the erratically petulant squeak, first popularized by Betty Boop, presents a formidable challenge. While I can appreciate how the adolescent timbre adds to the pathos of her scenario — it’s not that we feel things more deeply as teenagers, it’s that we can’t or won’t take the larger view about disasters — “Don’t Speak” doesn’t offer much as a song to provide her with the appropriate heft. Stefani needs help from her friends, and when she doesn’t get it she’s exposed as a business person, not a singer.

“Don’t Speak” has enough promising elements (Eric Stefani’s understated organ work, for example) to raise the possibility of a cover — say, a South American singer with some familiarity with the song’s vague flamenco cadences (Dumont plays his solo on Spanish guitar). But the sad part about Stefani — there’s no tragedy is of a personage with more enthusiasm than talent. She made fun look like work, a good time like careerism.

After an ignominious 2000 flop, No Doubt released their last album before a decade-plus separation during which Stefani released an inevitable series of nattering, confused solo record. Her early Stuart Prince collaborations put her New Wave pretensions in appropriately garish settings, but that’s that. Maybe she and Blake will be happy; if not, they co-wrote a prophetic song that hoped to be the country “Don’t Speak.” Guess what? It’s more convincing than “Don’t Speak” yet she still can’t sing harmonies. And I blame No Doubt for Reel Big Fish and MTV’s “Skaturday.”

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The odious familiarity of the Roy Moore candidacy

When I read about the Senate GOP’s public displays of agony over the mall shopping habits of Alabama’s Roy Moore, I have to remind them that they needn’t worry. History teaches us that senators can tolerate all manner of sedition and outright villainy. James Vardaman, “Cotton” Ed Smith, Theodore Bilbo, James Eastland, Jessie Helms, Harry Byrd, and Strom Thurmond served in the twentieth century. Many of them ascended to leadership positions (“Cotton” Ed Smith was dean of the Senate). Even by the standards of their eras, these men were noxious racists and mellifluent about it: on learning that Booker T. Washington had dined with Theodore Roosevelt, Vardaman said that the White House was “so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stable.” Hell, I could add John C. Calhoun. Moore is in fine company.

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Worst Songs Ever: Maroon 5 ft. Christina Aguilera’s “Moves Like Jagger”

Maroon 5 ft. Christina Aguilera’s “Moves Like Jagger”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in September 2011.

Whether “Moves Like Jagger” is a joke that Adam Levine makes about himself or an expression of sexual bravado as absurd as his referent’s on “Emotional Rescue” the world will never know. A painted gecko who fancies himself an Alpine Drive satyr, Adam Levine began in the skate punk band Kara’s Flowers before discovering the financial possibilities of the wobbly, bran-cured falsetto. After an uncertain start, Songs About Jane took off after “Maneater” rewrite “This Love” became ubiquitous in 2004, followed by “She Will Be Loved,” the real menace. Despite the white R&B ballad structure offered by his mates, Levine wasn’t cut out for projecting chocolate box sentiments. He was more compelling playing a sleazebag. Luckily, 2007’s “Makes Me Wonder,” which took that same lightest-of-mechanized-funk base for uptempo ends, compensated. Maroon 5’s first #1 used the line “Kinda makes me wonder if I ever gave a fuck about you” and made the same fans of the early hits love it and gained new ones. Never mind my grade: I didn’t mind It Won’t Be Soon Before Long when I reviewed it. I was especially taken with “Kiwi,” a ridiculous erotic little skitter that makes more sense now that I’ve seen Call Me By Your Name and its peach scene. “For Levine,” I wrote, “caddishness and sensitive are interchangeable.”

Exhausted, Maroon 5 took several years off before he scared middle America with the cover of 2010’s Hands Over You. For a while, Hands Over You looked like a flop. Then, like Natalie Merchant, Levine dropped any pretense that Maroon 5 were a band. Added to later incarnations of the album, “Moves Like Jagger” was supposed to be a throwaway, a ditty co-written and co-produced by Benny Blanco, Ammar Malik, and Shellback. It was a smash in every country in the world.

Why it was a hit isn’t hard to judge, I suppose: it moves, although not quite like Jagger, and songs with whistled hooks are often manna. Leading with a rhythm guitar part indebted to Kool and the Gang and Nile Rodgers and a kick drum, “Moves Like Jagger” has a will to power that many of the songs I’ve reviewed lacked; it knows what it wants to be and is convinced the listener will succumb. At this point in the Hot 100’s history, streaming wasn’t yet a factor, but YouTube was. We can’t discount the impact of the white and tattoo-smeared Levine preening while classic Mick Jagger footage and contemporary imitators — down to the campy finger wags and trademark pursed lips — are intercut. Let it be known that Levine doesn’t even try to mimic him; what he’s after is a laying of hands, a cross-generational blessing (I don’t doubt my students know “Jagger” as the guy mentioned in a Maroon 5 song), a bid to join Dave Matthews, Living Colour, and John Lee Hooker as a ladies-and-gentlemen-Mr-[Insert Guest]! appearance.

To recoil from “Moves Like Jagger” demands no rockist defense of the young-ish singer’s falling short of the greatness of the Stones. All it requires is a listen to this thinly mixed, vacant arrangement, and I mean it literally — the nominal drum and bass tracks are less prominent than the whistling. Shellback and Max Martin produced fascinatingly recombitant tracks for Britney in 2011 — that were hits! — so Maroon 5 deserves the blame for the inertia. By the time former Jagger duet Christina Aguilera arrives, the cynicism of the enterprise overcomes its wan hook. Hitless since 2006, Aguilera acts as an unpersuaded foil for Levine, and it’s embarrassing hearing her belt bullshit about “sharing my secret” when she’s seen sexier and, well, kept better secrets. It’s like she’s been asked to boogie with the yoga instructor in her Laurel Canyon home — the yoga instructor who thinks the real Jagger praising a poor woman’s “real down-to-earth flavaaahhh” in “Anybody Seen My Baby” will get her to kick her shoes off.

Let me give Levine this: he’s a twenty-first century man, supremely comfortable with the fact that guys lust after his syphilitic body. A slut in search of anything that stinks of a hit, a scurvy dog who’s just had his day, he’s the most obvious schemer in pop music. And he hasn’t looked back. Setting that voice against the vagaries of modern production, from dubstep to trop house, has made him a wealthy man. In the same year that “Moves Like Jagger” became one of the digital era’s biggest selling hits, he contributed vocals to Gym Class Heroes” “Stereo Hearts” and presto — another hit. Six years later, Adam and the Levines show no signs of slowing down. If he had more talent, he’d be dangerous.

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Singles 11/10

How appropriate — the week’s pair of bests are yummy sex jams. The third best is Pitbull’s courtly love number.

Click on links for full reviews.

Playboi Carti ft. Lil Uzi Vert – wokeuplikethis* (8)
Fever Ray – To The Moon And Back (6)
Pitbull x Fifth Harmony – Por Favor (6)
Jessie J – Not My Ex (6)
Bolbbalgan4 – Some (6)
Cécile McLorin Salvant – Mad About the Boy (5)
Jessie Ware – Alone (4)
Tears for Fears – I Love You But I’m Lost (3)
Rita Ora – Anywhere (3)
NF – Let You Down (3)
Lil Pump – Gucci Gang (2)
Judah and The Lion – Take It All Back (1)
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Holy Mountain (1)

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Worst songs ever: John Lennon’s “Woman”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

John Lennon’s “Woman”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #2 in February 1981

Before Mark David Chapman killed him on the streets of New York City, John Lennon was delighted by the progress of “(Just Like) Starting Over,” his first original single since 1975’s “#9 Dream.” Debuting at an impressive #38, “Starting Over” took three weeks to hit the top ten, then slowed down, almost as if it knew something momentous was about to happen. It reigned for six weeks atop the Hot 100. A (re)introduction dependent on its brisk slightness, “(Just Like) Starting Over” is too inoffensive to dislike, but it demonstrated as usual Lennon’s masterful grasp of boomer politics. A new decade dawned with a Republican president-elect ready to dismantle the liberal orthodoxy that Lennon’s early seventies politics had scorned. Besides, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” as Lennon pointed out in his last interview, was a fifties song “with eighties styling”; he mentioned the Cars’ “Touch and Go” to bolster his New Wave bonafides, bu, really, “(Just Like) Starting Over” anticipated the Stray Cats by a couple years and Stars on 45 by a few months. The boomers were in their late thirties; Lennon’s gesture augured a decade when boomer rock co-existed and thrived at the same time as more innovative acts.

But there’s no excuse for “Woman,” a simpering mid tempo number that I confused for a Bee Gees number when I was a kid. A UK #1 in the wake of Lennon’s murder, “Woman” was a considerable American hit, parking itself at #2 for three weeks (behind REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You” and Blondie’s “Rapture) after sharing space in the top ten with “(Just Like) Starting Over.” Going from D and G in the chords before Lennon goes for an empathetic key change every other line adds pathos, and it’s effective in the last set of verses, but the drums aren’t aware of it. The funereal pace kills it for me; it abjures humor or self-reflection. What almost puts it over for me is the straightforward chorus: “Oooh/well well/do do do do dooooo.” It’s love light in flight; he can’t find words commensurate to what he feels. When Paul McCartney did this in Wings, he loathed him, but context matters: Lennon had hung out with Abbie Hoffmann and recorded Some Time in New York City with Yoko.

That’s the trouble: context (his murder, his leftist past) has greased “Woman”‘s acceptability. Although “Woman” is obviously about Yoko, the problem is that Lennon had already written several definitive songs about her. 1971’s “Oh! Yoko” from the Imagine album was a rolling little number with a daft piano line and the sly hook, “I’d love to turn you on,” an erotic update of his line in The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” — where once he depended on drugs, now he adored the Japanese woman to whom Beatles fans extended a widow’s sympathy but stopped short of loving. And his presence on Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and Approximately Infinite Universeone of the seventies’ most radical albums — were acknowledgments of what she had done for him personally and aesthetically. His guitar work on those sessions alone, about which he was coy, should’ve gotten him No Wave gigs. But “Walking on Thin Ice” exists.

To attack “Woman” in light of history amounts to wasted breath, but I can’t help but hear Lennon disparaging Paul and George, loudly, if they’d written something this chowderheaded. As it happens, he was half right: McCartney’s “Here Today” is one of rock’s best male-male love songs while Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago” is a horrible, plonking, execrably sung nothing retrofitted for Lennon’s death — yet it was as massive a hit as “Woman,” peaking at #2 for three weeks a couple months after “Woman” (I almost wrote about it). But Lennon had better material on Double Fantasy, which deserved modest acclaim; sharing space with Yoko’s burps and penchant for anarchy toughed his songs, and Lennon’s sentimentality coaxed out a warmth in Yoko not heretofore seen. Lennon’s “Cleanup Time,” “Beautiful Boy,” and “I’m Losing You” sported spiky arrangements that understood how devotion and forbearance don’t often co-exist. After Blood on the Tracks, boomers got comfortable recording albums about marital trauma: Shoot Out the Lights, Rumours, Love Wars, Wild City. Double Fantasy anticipated The Blue Mask and Avalon and The Night We Fell in Love. The posthumous Milk and Honey, sporting less rosy pictures of marriage, sent “Nobody Told Me” into the chart three years later; despite showing signs of being unfinished, its awkward gait dovetails with Lennon’s admitting to confusion; it was a fully deserved hit, a welcome bit of maturity on the 1984 chart, the best of my lifetime.

Double Fantasy, in other words, had better material than “Woman.” In the wake of Lennon’s shocking death, Virgin Records could have released “I’m Losing You”. This was the Lennon of “Cold Turkey” and “Instant Karma!” and “Mind Games.” Loving him, alas, meant accepting “Whatever Gets You thru the Night” and — sorry — “Imagine.”

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Comedy-thriller ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ won’t give up its secrets

Yorgos Lanthimos makes movies about adults who don’t understand children. Or won’t. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the Greek director of Dogtooth, Alps, and The Lobster refines his deadpan presentation and brittle approach to gore to new heights in telling the story about a surgeon (Colin Farrell) whose meetings with the sixteen-year-old son of a man who died on his operating table result in calamity for his own two kids. Continue reading

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Worst Songs Ever: U2’s “Angel of Harlem”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

U2’s “Angel of Harlem”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #14 in February 1989

What [rock critics] basically want is for it to be like 1969 again. It’s this thing where British – or in U2’s case, Irish – groups discover the roots of American music. U2 have discovered this and they’re just doing pastiches [his voice rises] and it’s reviewed as a serious thing because DYLAN PLAYS ORGAN on some song and B.B. King plays on some throwaway pop song “When Love Comes to Town” that could have been written by Andrew Lloyd Webber. It could be in ‘Starlight Express’ if you ask me. — Neil Tennant, 1989.

For a decade, half measures held no interest for U2. If Bono discovered “irony” after flipping through a pocket Webster in search of “ignis fatuus,” then they would spend a record exploring “irony.” If they thought Kmart and wearing T-shirts with muscle prints made a statement about American love for garish capitalism, then, by gum, they’d stage press conferences in them and wear them, respectively. The sincerity porn started with Rattle and Hum, a necrophiliac gesture that was supposed to demonstrate U2’s affection for the American musics that they suddenly discovered during the The Joshua Tree tour. Making an initial splash as Joy Division and Public Image Ltd aficionados who as an innovation inserted positivist Christian theology into the choppy underwritten arrangements, U2 had not a trace of roots music in them, to their credit. Even when they recorded The Unforgettable Fire and dropped MLK’s name and recorded a mumbled electronic embarrassment called “Elvis Presley and America” they wore their received notions of How This Stuff Worked maladroitly, but, to quote Lou Reed, in that they weren’t charmless. And like their idol Bowie they understood that poseurism took risks.

So far so good. Then Rattle and Hum. The first single “Desire” gets a drubbing, but The Edge’s riff and the rhythm section’s take on the sainted Bo Diddley rhythm works. Because I live in Miami, I didn’t hear the original mix — Y-100 played the Hollywood remix; its siren, police blotter, and Reagan samples adduced “America” better than blather about red guitars and B.B. King samples.

Things go to pot with “Angel of Harlem.” With a determined nod to “Like a Rolling Stone,” Bono and the lads tip their hats to Lady Day, then enjoying a deserved rediscovery as the CD revolution exposed thousands of new fans to the Billy Holiday, as well as to Miles Davis and A Love Supreme. But the allusions are as significant as references on a resume, with the added effrontery of knowing that only Miles might’ve returned the call (he wouldn’t have, but he did Don Johnson’s in 1985, which should tell you something about the burden of significance). The horn section these days reminds me of Feargal Sharkey’s “You Little Thief,” an admittance of loss and isolation coated in a million-buck David Stewart production that required trumpetists to blow as if through a coke fog. On “Angel of Harlem,” Bono sings to match the horns, and with the risk of wrecking his adenoids a constant threat all he could do was write,”Lady Day’s got diamond eyes/she sees the truth behind the lies”; if he’d substituted “Bette Midler” it would’ve been as meaningless.

Let us circle back to Neil Tennant’s quote above. U2 fans are an ornery lot. What I’ve written means nothing to them. They won’t hear the disjunction between the band’s ambitions and its self-importance and the way in which it produces a track intended as sincere but resulting in condescending doggerel by amateurs. In a year when a majority of the American body politic voted for a serial liar and the least persuasive spokesman for proletarian values (for George H.W. Bush, “pork rinds” were his “Lady Day”), Bono’s bellowing “salvation in the blues” made sense.

Achtung Baby, wraparound shades, and Kmart beckoned — what else could U2 do? Had they made more albums comprised of leftovers and DYLAN PLAYS ORGAN, they would have turned into Big Country. Bono sang softer, the band played slower, Eno stuffed the tunes with synth strings, and the band played as if recording the soundtrack to, well, bad Wim Wenders films. But these moves suited a quartet whose symphonic pretensions outstripped their physical abilities and like their boomer drinking buddies possessed dismal instincts for sensing public sentiment.

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Worst songs ever: Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”

 Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in February 1987

When Brecht-Weill asked “what keeps mankind alive?” they hadn’t met John Francis Bongiovi Jr. Perhaps when the seas rise and consume coastal cities we’ll understand why he and mates keep scoring #1 albums well into a new millennium. His UK success is especially unfathomable: what, Coldplay, Ski Patrol, and Oasis don’t bring the bangers and mash? Continue reading

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