"We Built This City" has been named the worst song -- again. Rolling Stone announced this week that its readers have dubbed the #1 hit as the worst the 1980s have to offer. The vote was apparently a landslide. The synth-driven tune -- synth drums, synth slap-bass, synth synths -- had earlier topped a Blender magazine list of the worst songs ever. Since then, it has proved the best at being named the worst.
But more revolting than Glenn Frey's "You Belong to the City"? Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone"? Color Me Badd's "I Wanna Sex You Up"? Really?
Listening back a quarter century for the worst requires selective ear muffs. Auto-Tune hadn't even been invented. Lady Gaga's "Edge of Glory," a radio staple this summer past, is clearly the most horrible number to receive saturation airplay. Nobody fails as spectacularly as the famous.
Ms. Gaga claims that her grandfather's death inspired the cliché-ridden cut. "And I got a reason that you're who should take me home tonight/I need a man that thinks it's right when it's so wrong/Tonight, yeah, baby!" Is she suggesting that there was something really "wrong" with her grandpa? "I'm on the edge of glory/And I'm hanging on a moment of truth/I'm on the edge, the edge, the edge, the edge, the edge, the edge, the edge." We kinda get the point.
Surrounded by so much that sucks, must we really go back 26 years to find the apex of awful? Alas, "hits" are often an anagram solved only later. Starship's "We Built This City" topped the charts in November of 1985 before its descent to the bottom rung. It's infectious, but like gonorrhea. We liked it before we hated it.
Why are listeners no longer "knee deep in the hoopla"?
"We Built This City" is a painful mirror into the baby boomer soul. It is a sonic reminder of how much a generation of self-professed idealists had sold out. Here is Grace Slick, once the drugged-out darling of Haight-Ashbury, belting out a pop-pandering song (probably written in a boardroom) set to soulless artificial instruments. It would be as if Jerry Rubin had become a capitalist.
The lyrics suggest something vaguely subversive: "The police have the choke hold" and "Someone's always playing corporation games." But it's as dangerous as a Jonas brother dating your daughter. Starship's equally atrocious video, featuring a singing Abraham Lincoln and giant dice rolling toward a fleeing mob, concludes with a Les Miserables feel. Like Starbucks, Starship marketed their corporate commercialism within an anti-corporate framework. The people who really hate "We Built This City" usually fall for that ruse (see Ben & Jerry's, Apple, Whole Foods, etc.). Gestures and pretentions didn't cut it here.
They certainly did a generation earlier. The epiphany-inducing "We Built This City" jarred more than a few holdovers into grasping that perhaps the Summer-of-Love Jefferson Airplane was no more sincere than its Reagan-era remnant. It's not as though the big-haired Grace Slick of 1985 was more trapped in the times than the hippie chick imploring listeners to "Go ask Alice." Ever feel like you've been had?
If "We Built This City" had merely reminded aging hippies that yet another hippie icon had sold out, it would not explain the enduring visceral response. It is not so much a betrayal as a reflection. The song is a sonic evocation of a whole generation's phony idealism.
Yippies-turned-yuppies didn't appreciate MTV and FM radio incessantly broadcasting aural evidence of the counterculture defecting to the cash-counting culture. They may have bristled at an acid Aquanet-overdosed Grace Slick singing with a smiling, mulleted dude resembling Marty Balin's better-looking cousin. But it's not the evolution from "White Rabbit" to "We Built This City" that truly horrifies them. It's their personal long, strange trips.
The journey from Jefferson Airplane to Starship is the road more travelled. Eldridge Cleaver became a Republican. Jane Fonda hawked aerobics videos. Abbie Hoffman killed himself in a turkey coop strangely converted into a human apartment. They had become what they hated or they hated what they had become.
The sixties had a bad eighties.
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