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.
Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #15 in December 1994
Hell, if awards show formed part of your diet in the 2000s, then my choice might piss you off. A peek into Spotify and iTunes’ charts confirms my suspicion: the song written by Chrissie Hynde with Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg is her biggest seller and streamer. Next? “Brass in Pockets,” followed by “Back on the Chain Gang,” “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” and “Middle of the Road,” which makes sense. The last in the list aside, these are the Pretenders’ highest charting American hits, including two top tens.
Thanks to the lubricious “Night in My Veins” (“He’s got me up against the back of a pick-up truck/Out of sight of the neon and glare”), I gave the Pretenders a try in spring 1994. Buying the eponymous debut was one of those epochal moments that rock fans still write about. Putting aside the phenomenon whereby male writers praise the forthrightness of a woman’s sexuality because it jives with their own wet dreams, Pretenders offered more unexpected chord changes, melodic curlicues, and songcraft than most bands expend in a whole career. I can understand those who think Chrissie Hynde and essential collaborators Martin Chambers, and the late Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott never topped it — Hynde herself made clear she topped, bottomed, did unspeakable things with mouths and holes and living room carpets and sandy beaches; the band’s brutal, supple arrangements were up to her challenges.
Because Chrissie Hynde is my favorite singer in rock and among my favorite songwriters, my good will extends beyond the reach of most casual fans. Pretenders II and Learning to Crawl need no defenses, no matter the at times tuneless hard rock textural wash of the former (I can’t improve on Bob Christgau’s ” “); the latter remains one of the more formidable post-Thriller blockbusters, “post-Thriller” because it coughed up hit after hit and likely would’ve debuted at #1 in the Soundscan era; all this, and a comeback and a new lineup up to Hynde’s copping to maturity. Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain produced 1986’s Get Close, and it sounds like it. Forget the realization that “Pretendersr” is a moniker for “Chrissie Hynde + side men” — the reverb-laden production and arena-rock foregrounding of guitar shields a plethora of aesthetic shortcomings; nevertheless, “Chill Factor” is one of my beloved Hynde showcases. Much better is used bin squatter packed!, compensating for quieter jangle with half an album’s worth of novel approaches to raising kids while holding on to one’s political convictions.
I understand why “I’ll Stand By You” became the Pretenders’ first hit in eight years. 1994 saw All-4-One’s “I Swear,” Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You),” and Mariah Carey’s “Hero” hold at bay a hip-hop revolution and post-Nirvana confusion about what constituted pop and rock. For Hynde working with songwriters for hire like Kelly-Steinberg, authors of “Like a Virgin, “True Colors,” and “Eternal Flame,” wasn’t by definition an acquiescence: the trio wrote “Night in My Veins,” a S&M song on host album Last of the Independents called “977,” and a fine album opener (“Hollywood Perfume”), not to mention Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” and the Bangles “In Your Room.” In “I”ll Stand By You,” based on those credits, it is unclear who cedes the most ground.
Yet Hynde’s idiosyncratic instinct for vocal melodies betrays her in a song requiring a singer who belts without irony. I can hear her resisting the piano-led arrangement. She can be that conventional vocalist, as the first verse proves. She wakes up in the second third — “If you’re mad/GET MAD.” But the pre-chorus twaddle about “standing in the crossroads” defeats her; her larynx crawls into a burrow like a frightened rabbit. The rest of “I’ll Stand By You” is a compendium of held notes, choirs, and peripheral rhythm guitar interjections. On “Back on the Chain Gang,” “Show Me,” and as far back as “Kid,” Hynde wrote about sex in the home and the tensions of the road without being abject about it; on “I’ll Stand By You,” the plodding chord progression and expected climaxes abjure subtlety; she’s just lucky to get to the end.
But “I’ll Stand By You” refused to give up the ghost; by the end of 2010 it had become Hynde’s biggest revenue stream. Girls Aloud took it to #1 in England in 2004. Three years later as part of a charity project Carrie Underwood took it ten points higher on the American pop chart. The results were, ah, variable, but both versions projected less ambivalence about their country pop sentiment. Luckily for Hynde, Last of the Independents was solid, and 1999’s Viva el Amor!, home of a couple more Kelly-Steinberg collabs, more so. Her memoir proved less revealing, fraught, and crinkly than her songs. Was anyone surprised?