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.
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 on Modern Rock chart in October 1994.
The fall of 1994 was a dark age: Newt Gingrich-controlled House; Pulp Fiction about to unleash a wave of loathsome imitations; I dropped a college math class; and Dolores O’Riordan ululating over power chords would prove a robust musical response to the Warrington bombings. For the record buying public, it was. “Zombie” went into heavy rotation on MTV and college stations, boosting second album No Need to Argue to sales of more than seven million copies. According to iTunes, “Zombie” remains the Cranberries’ best-selling song. And it may have killed their careers.
How? By encouraging a lissome Irish quartet to settle for a mode for which it was, to be kind, ill-suited. When the Cranberries hit the top ten in America months earlier with “Linger,” fans of the Sundays wondered if that quiet pearly sound, as indebted to Cocteau Twins as it was to the Smiths, was finally crossing over in America – indeed, the Sundays had gotten their first (small) taste of mainstream acceptance when their cover of “Wild Horses” started popping up in commercials and on Gap playlists. Even better was the followup “Dreams,” which suggests that such a thing as good Stone Roses existed. Guess who was a fan of “Dreams”? Why, My So-Called Life‘s Angela Chase, and few people were cooler than Angela, or, rather, few things were cooler in the fall of 1994 than admitting to liking My So-Called Life.
To chide O’Riordan for her subject matter is offensive, but “Zombie” falls into the trap of many protest anthems, a trap diagnosed by countryman William Butler Yeats: we make out of the quarrel with others rhetoric, out of the quarrel with ourselves poetry. Hobbled by a lumbering rhythm that soaks listeners in portent, “Zombie” has an arrangement that can neither limn the scale of the atrocity nor summon a musical release commensurate with the outrage. Worse, O’Riordan’s vocal choices (the notorious “zombie-EH zombie-EH” chorus) call attention to herself; I’m too busy wondering what the hell she’s doing to get angry at the tanks, bombs, and guns. As shown on Morrissey’s Viva Hate and Blur’s period work, producer Stephen Street is a wiz recording airy music with lots of acoustic guitars and keyboards (the same album’s “Twenty One” is one of the Cranberries’ loveliest songs), miscast at recording thicker music. Mixing the Cranberries to sound like tracks from Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral is a delicious thing to read, not experience.
And they got worse. Credited as the only writer on “Zombie,” O’Riordan and former partner Noel Hogan only wrote four tracks on 1996’s To the Faithful Departed, which led to the horror of Dolores Unbound. She had become what every pop star wanted to be: an expert in geopolitics, a consigliere to Brent Scowcroft. “At times of war we’re all the losers/There’s no victory/We’ll shoot to kill and kill your lover/Fine by me,” she intones on “War Child.” But she and Hogan are responsible for “I Just Shot John Lennon,” a fictional re-creation of what it must have been like to be Mark David Chapman from the point of view of a writer who hadn’t read any fiction and hadn’t heard any spoken English. The adverb and cause and effect problems in the following verse alone would devastate STEM courses: “He had perceptively known that it wouldn’t be nice/because in 1980 he paid the price,” with the guitars playing a kind of electro flamenco.
Chastened, the Cranberries released the less strident Bury the Hatchet in 1999, shifting a half million units instead of their double platinum ceiling. Who knows what damage “Zombie” caused to their career. Possibly none — the slings and arrows of outrageous whatever, etc. But time has been kind: I still hear “Dreams” and “Linger” on A/C radio. And “Zombie” has given birth to boneheaded progeny, as Brad Paisley and LL Cool J don’t want you to know.