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.
Semisonic – “Closing Time”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #11 in June 1998
To look at lists of the best songs and albums twenty years ago is to marvel at what a schizoid year 1998 turned out to be. A president impeached and eventually acquitted whose party gained seats in an off-year election. Saving Private Ryan losing to Shakespeare in Love at the Oscars. “Ray of Light” peaking for one week at #5 while Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” and Semisonic’s “Closing Time” refused to give up the ghost on the Modern Rock and Billboard Hot 100 charts.
Alert readers will notice that I do my best to flit from decade to decade, rarely dipping into the same one twice in a week. I broke my vow because “Closing Time” and “Sex and Candy” are that awful. Reeking of piano barroom singalongs, “Closing Time” is the lowest kind of frat house sludge; the chug-a-lug guitar riff on “Closing Time” even summons the warm beer and stale cig smoke of 2 a.m. last calls of the late Clinton era when bars still allowed patrons to smoke. It is a literal song, let’s say that: as a bartender’s lament, it means what it says. But the chord and tempo changes in the chorus have the post-grunge anonymity of Sister Hazel, Matchbox 20, and any band that went pop with the Nirvana innovations in mind. “I know who wants to take me home,” singer Dan Wilson moans, mildly, perhaps with the expectation that no one will answer his own last call. The unfinished mess annoys me most. Please tell us who wants to take you home — why are you so damn self-assured? Nothing in Wilson’s vocal suggests self-parody: someone, probably a woman but who the fuck knows, is turned on by his command, and she’s going to listen to him because…he can point the soda gun dispenser?
Of more intrinsic interest than “Closing Time” is what in this cultural moment allowed such dull material like this and “Sex and Candy” to hold Modern Rock and Hot 100 playlists hostage all summer. Forget what the latter chart showed as #1. Besides the marvelous “Torn,” Marcy Playground, Semisonic, and Fastball’s “The Way” (marginally better), were the summer songs of 1998: faster than the dirges that conquered the somnolent 1981 chart, but still infested (seventeen years later!) with a received sexism. With hip-hop booming but, admittedly, not reflected in this early summer charts, what on earth persuaded white people to put their stakes in this drivel?