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.
Maureen McGovern’s “The Morning After”
PEAH CHART POSITION: #1 in August 1973
The Poseidon Adventure is about watching the 1970s happen to Old Hollywood: ruffled tuxes, kabuki eyeliner, visible armpit stains, bow ties the size of flatbread. Two years earlier, Airport became the first disaster movie smash but was far worse — a junky production with TV movie values that bestowed a Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Helen Hayes, her first since The Sins of Madelone Claudet forty years earlier (playing the Suffering Mom archetype in 1931 flipped later to the Adorable Old Biddie) Anchored, no pun intended, by Gene Hackman acting as if starring in Eugene O’Neill, The Poseidon Adventure is entertaining camp directed by the Brit who made The Horse’s Mouth: from captain Leslie Nielsen’s dress rehearsing for Frank Drebin and Ernest Borgnine bringing the heart, to Shelley Winters’ Olympic swimmer dying of a heart condition, it doesn’t stop the laughs or generating suspense (i.e. who’s going to die in a boiler room accident next).
Insofar as The Poseidon Adventure had a real-life captain, it was Irwin Allen, sci-fi schlock meister for TV who would produce 1974’s The Towering Inferno as well Flood!, Fire! and other pictures that could afford exclamation points yet didn’t buy any but The Swarm had bees so that was cool. Megabudget productions need to be, as they say, totalizing experiences. This means commissioning songs. With a title presaging the name of an important contraceptive drug and Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn’s “The Morning After” was once called “Why Must There Be a Morning After?” until, according to Wiki, the record label demanded optimism from a love theme soundtracking a movie about a ship that flips over. Maureen McGovern, a secretary and part-time folkie, took a crack at it. The result was a #1 hit in the summer of 1973 when the nation, in the summer of the Watergate hearings, needed laxatives.
According to my research, a South Park episode featured “The Morning After.” I had no idea — I’ve seen a season and a half’s worth of the show. I suppose “The Morning After” is the kind of song and performance on which the South Park writers would expend a great deal of needless scorn, akin to the hatchet job they gave Minnie Ripperton’s “Loving You.” But “The Morning After” is a detestable time capsule, the aural equivalent of Old Hollywood insisting on its values: strings, a vocal insisting that every line came from the Gettysburg Address, and an ambience evoking cigarettes smoked in living rooms with brown shag rug. To McGovern’s credit she gives “The Morning After” an amateur’s sincerity; when she holds notes she’s a plainspoken Joan Baez. Rita Coolidge and Nicolette Larson approached their material with similar enthusiasm, as if hoping their hits would become Pepsi commercials. But the record abjures tension; it applies its harpsichord like Mercurochrome, and can you believe there’s a drum credit? “We’re moving closer to the shore/I know we’ll be there by tomorrow,” she assures The Poseidon Adventure survivors as if they were kayakers in Disney World.
But America needed the baleful somnolence of “The Morning After” in 1973 — the year in which what we recognize as The Seventies began (the decade ended in late 1982 or early 1983). I prefer to think of the bathos of “The Morning After” as the cri de coeur from the forty-five percent of Americans who didn’t vote at all for either Nixon or the Democratic candidate with whom Maureen McGovern happened to share a name: an emphatically sensitive lament for lost consensus, an elegy for a time when everyone agreed strings and polyester went together like cigarettes and carpeting. McGovern herself barely survived the decade’s gyrations: her last hit was the theme song to the ABC series Angie, starring, naturally, Airplane!‘s Robert Hays. Either he had trouble distinguishing parody from sincerity or he understood too well.