They say one man's trash is another man's treasure, and nowhere is that old adage more true than with music. Indeed, as a person who has written about music off and on his entire adult life, I find myself endlessly fascinated with the phenomenon of songs that I view as truly terrible acquiring widespread appeal, or the reverse phenomenon: Perfectly good songs that have found themselves, one way or another, fallen into disrepute.
“Music is subjective and not everyone likes the same thing,” says local singer-songwriter Sean Ryder. “Human perception is subject to human biases and can be influenced by things like peer pressure, upbringing and DJ play counts. New flavors of music emerge in response to overproliferation of another style. This is seen time and time again over music history. Grunge was a response to hair metal. Americana surged in response to bro country. Disco was destroyed by the resurgence of rock 'n' roll music. Hell, even rock itself was born out of a backlash against slickly produced Pollyanna Top 40 popular music.”
He has a point, but even with that in mind, there are still plenty of songs that you might find yourself cringing at, but which you still sing at full volume when they appear on the kitchen radio. I'm not fond of the phrase “guilty pleasure,” as I never see music as something to feel guilty about, but I have to occasionally check myself when I'm belting out Britney Spears' “Toxic” as I do the dishes. In order to understand this mystery, I put out a call to Worcester musicians and their far-flung compatriots and asked them: “What's the worst song you love?” Then, I asked them to cover it for all the world to hear.
The results were eclectic, and more than a little revelatory. Ryder, for instance, covered both Lionel Richie's “Hello” and "Buffalo Stance," by Neneh Cherry. Worcester musician Kayla Daly offered "Danny's Song," by Loggins and Messina. Rocker Michael Kane, of Michael Kane and the Morning Afters, delivered a rendition of Blue Oyster Cult's “Burnin' For You.” Jazzman Mauro dePasquale played a cover of Rod Stewart's “Maggie.” Poetry-music combo the Duende Project took on David Crosby's “Triad.” Industrial music artist ITOARAZI tackled "Numb," by U2. Amazing Dick put together two different versions of the Banana Splits' "I Enjoy Being A Boy (In Love With You)," which, he explains, “was released by a group created by Hanna-Barbera, on a fan club 45. I ordered it off a Frosted Flakes box.”
An auspicious beginning for any single! By that same token, musician Karen Maguire discovered her song, “Stop,” sung by none other than “Beverly Hills 90210” star Shanon Doherty, in a Lifetime Movie. “I figured 'Lifetime Movie' was synonymous with 'cheesy' and 'guilty pleasure.'” Not that there was a lot of guilt to be had among the musicians. Most of them were happy to own their love of a song at which others might snicker.
California musician Jeff Burton said his song – "I'm Too Sexy," by Right Said Fred – “takes me back to the early '90s; a time when I was young, dumb and … stuff. It was dumb fun song for a dumb fun time.” Likewise, Amazing Dick describes his song as “It’s pure sugary pop and the first record I owned … ” California musician Sean Carbone – who recorded Hall & Oates' “You Make My Dreams Come True” with his teenage children as The Undecideds – says he loves the song “because it's an ear worm. It screams '80s innocence. It's the kind of song that you uncontrollably sing in the car. The video just puts it over the top.” To prove his point, Carbonne and his children recreated the video, to hilarious result.
Nostalgia's one thing, but the musicians were also quite cognizant of the issues with the songs they chose. “While I realize there is some tongue-in-cheekiness to it,” says Burton, of “Too Sexy,” “the song, and especially the video, is just gross.” Poet Tony Brown of the Duende Project says that while “Triad” has “a gorgeous melody and chord progression,” its message of polyamory seems a little less enlightened and a little more … manipulative … over time.
Worcester's Jacob Leevai says his song, Eddie Murphy's “Party All the Time,” “was written and produced by Rick James to be Eddie Murphy's breakout single. It sounds like a track that wasn't good enough for a Rick James album that was then given to Eddie like, 'eh I wasn't using it anyway.' The disco '80s cheese aged just about as well as the music video. It's catchy, but definitely not peak songwriting.”
But it was teenage singer Katyana Hall, who covered "Wake Me Up" by Avicii, who best summed up the shared biggest sin of most of these songs: “It was played so much it just got so annoying to hear.”
Ryder agrees, saying, “I don't think ('Hello') is trash either. I think it is a romantic masterpiece that is both musically interesting and well-produced. I think it was way overplayed, and somewhere along the line it became cool to hate Lionel Richie. That's what I think. Wikipedia tells me that John Taylor from Duran Duran called 'Hello' the most hated song of 1984. Speaking of 1984, if you ask me, I think a world without Lionel Richie would be dystopian indeed.”
George Alexander of Harmless Doves concurs. Saying his song, Journey's “Don’t Stop Believin'” is “definitely not trash but it’s definitely a go-to karaoke or 'night out' anthem that gets overdone … so in that way it’s a guilty pleasure.”
Somewhere along the way, whether it be familiarity breeding contempt or some other factor, some songs just get deemed “uncool.”
“There’s a snowball effect that’s strongly reinforced through peer pressure,” says Will Ryan of TenThousandDollarMan, who covered Jason Mraz's “If It Kills Me.” “Music tastes are majorly forged during teenage years when you are the most vulnerable to the tyranny of other people’s (expletive) opinions. It takes a while to build up the confidence to trust your own tastes. I don’t think it takes very much for a new song to be pushed into the uncool column and then it’s a spiral down into ridicule from there."
For Daly, “The subjectivity of music is what makes it wonderful. … Music teaches us that there's such an array of emotional experiences throughout the lifespan and that is exciting that we have an art form that can hold all of that for each and every one of us.”