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.
Tom Cochrane’s ‘Life is a Highway’
PEAK CHART POSITION: #6 in August 1992
Tom Cochran came from Canada. He may live there now. On first listen the 1992 hit “Life is a Highway” sounds like a Joe Walsh throwaway — I mean, study that photo. As much as the eighties get credit for singles that reflected the flash of MTV videos — for conceiving videos that needed aural accompaniment — this tendency persisted well into the nineties. Study the top forty of the summer of 1992, a full six months after the changes wrought by Soundscan coughed up more than its share of singles that looked like one-hit wonders as much as “Puttin’ on the Ritz” or “Pac-Man Fever”: Sophie B. Hawkins’ “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover,” Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart,” Jon Secada’s “Just Another Day,” Kriss Kross’ “Jump.”
Every one of these artists proved the dismissal wrong, but that’s the point: these singles were so sonically different from each other that it seemed like the American public might not give these artists a second chance. Thanks to Soundscan, a kind of gold rush euphoria penetrated the minds of top forty programmers; if consumers were buying more country, hip-hop, and AOR than we’d reckoned, they reasoned, then let’s play anything.
In this climate, “Life is a Highway” is almost excusable. On the July 22 chart when Cochran’s hit jumped four places into the top ten, Sir Mix-a-Lot ruled, followed by usual suspects like Madonna and Mariah Carey. TLC’s “Baby-Baby-Baby” got the token R&B slot. Another Canadian interloper named Celine Dion, a year and change after “Where Does My Heart Beat Now” became her first American hit, was falling off the chart with a song first recorded by Patti LaBelle. The Cover Girls, a freestyle group in decline, scored a final time with “Wishing On a Star,” which I don’t remember hearing on Miami radio (when you’ve lost Miami…). Then the nutters appear: the Red Hot Chili Peppers squeezed its death grip with “Under the Bridge” while Secada and Cyrus continued to surge. Add “Life is a Highway” and you have a Billboard top ten chart that is a masterpiece of diversion; a college committee could’ve have done better.
Blowzy and vulgar, “Life is a Highway” is the Bud after a shot of Wild Turkey. Its success compensated for a decade when Sammy Hagar, .38 Special, Ratt, and other AOR workhorses couldn’t get any higher than the top twenty (at best!). Maybe “I Can’t Drive 55” would have soared into the top five in 1984, I dunno — every other single released in 1984 did. The riff at its center isn’t all bad, not out-of-place in nu-country; I can imagine John Anderson, himself in the middle of a significant comeback, scoring a “Money in the Bank“-type hit with it. But Anderson had its strangled yawp, Cochran just yells. “Life is a Highway” wasn’t a Taco Bell anthem by the grace of a non-existent god.