Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Hollaback Girl" by Gwen Stefani (2005)

I want to like Gwen Stefani. I really really do. I think it's leftover affection from "No Speak", an undeniably excellent song. I do like ska music a lot, but I never really took to No Doubt's overly exuberant take on it. And towards the end of their career as they devolved into claptrap like "Hey Baby" (or decided to cover Talk Talk's "It's My Life" in a version that sounds exactly like the original), I actually thought that the idea of her 'going pop' (like, what was No Doubt exactly?) was a good one. I figured she'd fit the top-40 mould quite well.

But let's make no mistake about it: this is a deeply, deeply annoying song. I don't really even want to call it a song exactly, since it's just a chant, but there's some interesting instrumentation scattered throughout the track. An accident, I'm sure, or at least no fault of Gwen's, who is about as annoying as she's ever been here. The song is based primarily on her shouting "I ain't no hollaback girl" (perhaps hoping we'll care about what that might mean), singing 'it's my shit' or repeatedly spelling the word 'bananas'. I kid you not. This is what Gwen Stefani considered single-worthy (and in fact she was right, as the song was a massive success: must resist urge for misanthropy...).

Apparently this song is, in part, a response to Courtney Love's labelling of Gwen Stefani as a 'cheerleader' (which she very obviously is, as an archetype). I'll certainly not defend Courtney Love, but if someone disses you, and you respond by giving them ample material for the diss... well, either you're a glutton for punishment or you just want to fill swimming pools with money, Unca Scrooge-style.

Well... I guess I can't fault Gwen Stefani that. But when she coos "ooh, it's my shit, it's my shit" over and over again, she's about as honest and observant as she's ever been.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Iko Iko" by the Dixie Cups (1965)

Apparently, the song "Iko Iko" is rooted deep in New Orleans folklore, coming from Creole and Amerindian heritages - things that ought to make the song worthy of an exhibit at the Smithsonian, and things that, I believe, have allowed this song a certain amount of prestige, despite the fact that it is indesputably crap.

The lyrics consist of verses that rhyme 'fire' with 'fire', talk about warring grandmothers and flag boys, and feature a chorus of gibberish.

But here's the thing: that's the best part of it. I know other people have recorded this song, but the only other version I'm familiar with is the one from Rain Man, which at least has nice bass. This version, by far the most famous one, is perfomed on a Coke bottle. That's correct. The cynicism of the music industry in the nineteen sixties was such that a group of teenage girls with painfully flat singing voices could bang on a Coke bottle, sing a half-remembered song from their grandparents' and publicly release it and make a hit from it. Remember that this is the decade that so many people, in a bleary-eyed fashion, describe as the 'golden age of pop'. 1965 is the year that, among other things, the Beatles released Revolver, John Coltrane released A Love Supreme, Bob Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited, and both the Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd played their first concerts... yet we were still in a world where Coke bottle music could become commercially successful and, what's more, iconic.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Don't Worry, Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin (1988)

Okay, a bit obvious, I realise. there is, today at least, pretty much no one on the planet that will deny the fact that this song is about as enjoyable as getting a root canal and an enema simultaneously. What amazes me, though, about it is simply just how wrong-headed it is.

I will come out and say this right now: Bobby McFerrin is awesome. Type his name into YouTube, click on any video not featuring Robin Williams, and what ensues will be awesomeness. His schtick, making clucking and singing noises while thumping his chest, doesn't seem very promising, but he really can make beautiful music.

I guess there's something to be said for 'selling out', if you realise you want your career to be in music and if your chosen format (a capella free improvisation) doesn't always inspire the millions. I don't blame Bobby McFerrin for making a cheery pop song in order to line his wallet. But this song is just so fatuous, so glib, so smug and so ear-bleedingly annoying that it had, ultimately, a detrimental effect on his career, I imagine. It's the "I Just Called to Say I Love You" effect writ large, but at least Stevie Wonder had almost 20 years of popular genious behind him at the time. This song could do nothing more than make McFerrin a permanent one-hit-wonder, and even worse, a Crazy Frog style one-hit-wonder.

What's so god-awful about it? Well, the cod-reggae is unpleasant as a capella, but it's tolerable compared to the cheesy Jamaican accents in the song. (Jamaica in the 80s built an entire marketing campaign around the phrase "No Worries": this, I guess, is the rationale for the Jamaican overtones.) The dumbing-down of serious problems into an insulting "forget-about-it" philosophy. The whistling. The spoken-word interjections. The whole nauseating mess. As Chuck D pointed out in "Fight the Power", this garbage went to number one. Atrocious.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Johnny Get Angry" by Joanie Sommers (1962)

Ah, nostalgia. Some people get misty-eyed and weepy over any old thing, inevitably claiming, whatever the topic, that things were better ‘in the old days’.


Some things were most definitely not better back then, and a woman’s lot in life was definitely one of them. As a kid, I could never really understand the time scale of sexual liberation in the United States. 1955 is always seen as ‘year zero’ for youth culture, and you’d almost get the impression for the way things are reported that in that single year the USA went from total repression to complete liberation. Yet “Leave It to Beaver”, a great visual example of conservatism and sexual repression if ever one existed, actually débuted in 1957 and lasted until 1963, the year of Kennedy’s assassination and of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. All of the ‘sock hops’ and ‘daddy-o’ and now embarrassing ‘youth culture’ of the era happened when women still aspired to be June Cleaver, and aspired to have a Ward Cleaver tell them what to do.

Or did they? The present horrendous song was indeed sung, breathily, by a woman. Yet my research shows that it was written by Hal David, shocking since he was also responsible for many gorgeous songs including “Say a Little Prayer” and “Walk On By”. Yet Mr. David also presumably had a penis, and thus was putting these words into a woman’s mouth either because he presumed this is how women thought or because, on behalf of a male hegemony, he wanted women to think this way.

The story is sickening. Testing her boyfriend’s commitment, she feigns breaking up with him and she dances with another boy, hoping to bring out his rage. Johnny, by ‘hanging his head’ disappoints the woman. Her expectation was that he would get angry and shout at her. She hoped that he would become a ‘caveman’ and, in so doing ‘show me that you care, really care, for me’.

You heard that correct. She’s asking her boyfriend to abuse her as a sign of love.

I really can’t comprehend the thinking that goes into a song like this. Regardless of era, regardless of the gender holding the pen, this is sick. It’s not an excessive outbreak of political correctness but mere common sense to say that songs like this cheapen and exploit the trauma battered women undergo and not only make domestic abuse socially acceptable but even imply that it’s what women want. There is no acceptable “it’s only a song” argument to be made here. If popular culture has repercussions, then being “only a song” is no mitigation whatsoever.

Musically, the song is similarly dreadful, at one point taking ludicrous to a whole new level by introducing an ensemble of kazoos. Yet the musical background here is significant only to the extent that it sugar-coats the words sung over top of it.

k.d. lang brilliantly subverted this song more than a full generation later. Her over-the-top shrieks and pathos turn the song into a clever piece of performance art with very obvious political repercussions. Yet that was all those years, all those struggles, later. And the fact is that, wonderful as k.d. lang’s effort to reclaim the song was, the original still lay hidden in our collective subconscious, entirely without irony and even more dangerously buried below layers of false nostalgia and wrong-headed chronological relativism, ready to quietly pass its message onto a whole new generation of abusive men.

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

"Barbie Girl" by Aqua (1997)

Okay, as you may have noticed so far, kitsch and novelty don’t grate me as much as they grate some people. A song that can laugh at itself will generally not bother me as much as some masturbatory piece of wank that takes itself dead serious. Pop can get pretty light and still please me. The thing is that some people seem convinced that music is always art and should be challenging. Yes, I love challenging art, but music is more than one thing. It can also be entertainment that aspires to nothing more than being uplifting.

In this case, though, I’m not really sure what it is that I’m hearing. To a certain extent, this song seems calculated to annoy. I man, if it’s just a song for kids, fine. Some kids’ music is pretty good, actually, but where it isn’t (Sharon, Lois and Bram) I just say, “well, I’m not a kid, so this music is not for me.” Sticking a Raffi song on this list just for the purpose of saying, “Pffft! Doesn’t this suck!” is not only Grinch-like but also entirely pointless.

But this song appears to be juvenilia for adults. The Japanese can do this, but the Europeans don’t seem to have much of a knack for it. The lead vocalist’s singing is pitch-shifted to the point that it crosses a pain threshold, while the group’s Fred Schneider seems to actually aspire to evoking anger in listeners.

By being hateful-cute, this song does a great disservice to enjoyable-cute stuff everywhere. And the fact is that the juvenilia aspect of it is really quite upsetting. It seems to evoke blow-up sex toys and innocent child playtime in equal measure, and it does so with a smirk on its face that is frankly the most unsettling part of it. I suppose there are little girls who bop around the room happily when they hear this song, but all I can imagine are greasy-haired middle-aged men guffawing as the song comes on the radio.

This is one of very few songs that appear both on this list and on the countless other lists of ‘worst songs ever!’ out there, because frankly my sense of what makes a bad song is different from most other people’s. That hatred of this song is so nearly universal almost makes me wonder if that was the point of the song: a kind of Crazy Frog before its time.

But if this song was deliberately annoying, all of those people (adults) who rushed out and bought it, in volumes high enough to, according to Wikipedia, send it to #1 on the charts in Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Italy, the UK, France, Ireland, Belgium (for two months, no less), Germany, Australia and Switzerland: what the hell was wrong with them?

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