Playing corporation games: on ‘We Built This City’

Everyone piles on Starship's "We Built This City," at least in part, because it's too feeble to fight back.

Before Vanilla Ice went postal with a baseball bat on an MTV set, I knew critics loathed Starship’s “We Built This City” with a zeal reserved for mothers in law. Published in the early nineties, Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell’s Worst Rock ’n’ Roll Records of All Time included 1985’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla. Now comes GQ with an oral history of “We Built This City,” which tells us everything we need to know, including how much money it made for everyone involved and how and why producer Peter Wolf isn’t Peter Wolf the J. Geils Band singer and performer of his own wtf hit:

Chaquico: I do the song with my band—sometimes as a full-on power trio, like if Cream or Jimi Hendrix were to do it, but we also do a reggae version of it, when we’re in the mood. Imagine Bob Marley singing “We Built This City.”

I have.

But calm down. I don’t think it’s a good song. Not loathsome either, let alone a tune with Bernie Taupin writing the words. I like the bridge, especially “Marcone plays the mamba.” I hear unintended compositional irony: The song validates sampling keyboards as worthwhile foundation stones in this city of rock ‘n’ roll. After all, to pluck a germane Gore Vidal quote, 1985-1986 had an awful lot of nadir to go ’round. The production sounds no more gimmicky than, say, “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” The Starship tune gets battered because many critics remained (remain?) beholden to ideas of purity. Note what one of the Starship troopers remarked: “[The song] complains about techno pop, but it’s a techno-pop song. It exemplifies the problem it’s protesting” — there it is. Techno pop isn’t a problem. Hippie farts essaying techno pop isn’t a problem. It reminds me of The Rod Stewart Problem, received wisdom for decades: somewhere in the mid ’70s Stewart cared about gold albums and models, not art, maaan. Anyone who like me wasn’t born at the time could hear the dude was always chasing tail and gold from Gasoline Alley onwards; the difference was he made slightly more consistent albums. When Robert Christgau, grandly, calls for a Rolling Stones “as an idea that belongs to history, that’s mine as much as theirs,” I respect the wish and scowl at the idea. And lysergic bullshit repulsed him more than most colleagues.

Watching the video for this collection of Synclavier splats and hippie tut-tuts, I marvel at the mousse, dissolves, Mickey Thomas’ earnest dancing, and Grace Slick’s enthusiastic teeth. Who cares about those corporation games?

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2 Responses to Playing corporation games: on ‘We Built This City’

  1. markwrite57 says:

    An almost-charming curio, hardly the worst song of all time. Back at Star Hits magazine I had to transcribe the lyrics and vaguely remember being awestruck at the er ironic depths. Fits on the old/new wave continuum with “Owner of a Lonely Heart” as you point out. Think I’ll skip the oral history.

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