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.
Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin – “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #18 in December 1985
Magpies whose considerable technique allowed them to position themselves as genre generalists, Eurythmics experienced their greatest success when they replaced their austere synth pop with soul signifiers on 1985’s Be Yourself Tonight, in turn showing the limits of technique. Stevie Wonder on harmonica, Tower of Power-inspired horns, and Aretha Franklin — BYT is an album-length elaboration on the line, See, English weirdos aren’t bad people. Tom Petty recommended David Stewart to Stevie Nicks and Bob Dylan. Mick Jagger, encouraged by the moderate success of She’s The Boss, was eyeing them closely.
But the truest sign that Stewart and Annie Lennox had crossed over to American taste maskers happened when Aretha, summoned to the studio, decided Lennox wasn’t a lesbian after all (Franklin had uneven, often antediluvian ideas about sexuality). Eurythmics had a song for her. Included on BYT and Franklin’s own Who’s Zoomin’ Who, her brief return to platinum acclamation, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” is supposed to be a romp, a joyous call and response from the most powerful vocal talent on the Hot 100 and a would-be Scottish rival. They didn’t sweat the technique. Once again, there’s something to be said for the agility with which Lennox holds her own against Franklin; she might be the only one of Franklin’s countless duet partners to emerge unscathed.
A pity their exertions are in the service of a series of aerobics exercises set to a bass sequencer: empowerment as jumping jacks. At the student newspaper I advise, I stress that the mentioning — the framing — of a cliche doesn’t absolve the writer from using it in a serious manner. Thus, when Aretha and Annie chant, “There was a time when they used to say/That behind every man there had to be a great woman,” they show themselves up as charlatans. Delegitimating feminism by embalming it in an anthem instead of letting Franklin be, “Sisters” sounds like it was written by six dudes in an RCA boardroom. “A thesis statement as a song,” I wrote when I trashed Franklin’s other dud ’85 single “Freeway of Love.” But the grossest element in “Sisters” has to be Mike Campbell’s guitar interjections: armpit noise disguised as it’s-soul-maaaan. This after “The Boys of Summer”! They’re so tacky that I thought Stewart was the guitarist. The way in which Lennox and Franklin sass up the polysyllables in “The conscious liberation of the female state” is the only burst of lightness.
Franklin would do better the following year on the blank by design Aretha; “Jimmy Lee” and her “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” cover rank with her friskiest work. And Petty, Jagger, et. al had good as well as smart reasons to call on Lennox-Stewart: when they wrote the right song and didn’t smother it in nostalgic raiment, they excelled at the pop single. 1986’s Revenge, easily their most revolting album — Annie ‘n’ Dave do “Alive and Kicking”-era Simple Minds or something — still coughed up “Missionary Man”; and 1987’s Savage has in recent years gotten the re-appraisal it deserves: a return to synth-pop austerity with three years’ accumulations of cynicism…and technique. But Savage flopped in America. Meanwhile “Sisters” lived a second life as soundtrack fodder for films with sodden ideas about feminism.