Something’s come over me as I’ve contemplated this, the fourth edition of what promises to be a six-part series (the invention of time travel seeming unlikely before I conclude, sometime around Memorial Day). My sentimental generosity toward music I once liked, whether I still do or not, has been replaced by a tendency to see the lameness of every single song on the charts. I only want to think about stuff that’s obscure, stuff with mopey vocals and jangly guitars and drone-y synths, songs that make me want to either have sex or kill myself. Plus, I’m starting to grow hair on my balls â€¦
Of course! Adolescence!! That must be it: I spent most of the ’80s in full hormonal rage. The decade began in the middle of my freshman year of high school; Thriller and “Every Breath You Take” accompanied my high school graduation; Live Aid found me sowing summertime-on-campus oats; upon college graduation I still hadn’t found what I was looking for; etc., etc. As a teenage boy â€” and then as a college-paper rock-crit slacker â€” it was, of course, incumbent upon me to hate everything commercial and seek out the morose and the morbid. (Not that this always worked out; if my high school friends read this they’ll be happy to point out my Hall & Oates worship or the way I’d sing along with Rick Springfield in the yearbook room.)
My point is, you’ll have to excuse the fact that while it was difficult at times to come up with 10 chart-topping hits that I truly hated from the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s, I had a hard time finding 10 such singles to like from the 1980s. There were 241 number-one hits during those god-forsaken Reagan years, and I wanted to include about 220 of them on this list. In fact, before we launch into the bottom 10 (or so), let’s indulge in a chronological rundown of 30 songs that didn’t quite sink low enough to make the Big List, yet are richly deserving of mention:
“Do That to Me One More Time,” “Call Me,” “Sailing,” “The Tide Is High,” “The One That You Love,” “Abracadabra,” “Who Can It Be Now?”, “Hello,” “Ghostbusters,” “A View to a Kill,” “Miami Vice Theme,” “Separate Lives,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “On My Own,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Who’s That Girl,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Anything for You,” “Hold On to the Nights,” “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” “Love Bites,” “Wild, Wild West,” “Baby I Love Your Way/Freebird Medley,” “Look Away,” “The Living Years,” “Toy Soldiers,” “Batdance,” “Cold Hearted,” “When I See You Smile,” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
In tribute to the MTV decade, get ready for a YouTube fiesta â€” every one of the following songs poisoned not only our radios, but our TVs as well. (I could swear that one of these tunes, in particular, is actually responsible for blowing out my old Philco in 1988. Guess which one.)
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10. “Dirty Diana,” Michael Jackson. The ick factor here comes from so many different directions, it can make your head spin while your stomach churns. Is this song about Diana Ross? If so, what kind of freaky relationship must those two have had? Is this a gender-confused fantasy anticipating the kinds of shenanigans Michael eventually would get involved in at Neverland Ranch? Of course, the notion of the Gloved One getting freaky with anybody seemed laughable at the time of this single’s appearance; the love- and sex-related songs (and their accompanying videos) from the Bad album had all seemed entirely unconvincing, from “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” to “The Way You Make Me Feel.” In the wake of the doctor’s mask, the plastic surgeries, the hyperbaric chamber, Bubbles, and the rest of it, Mike seemed like an anthropomorphized action figure in 1987 â€” but one who couldn’t possibly be getting any action. I guess he showed us, huh?
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9. “Ebony and Ivory,” Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. Yes, Macca makes his third consecutive appearance on a worst-of list with this cloying trifle that might serve as a fine exercise in Race Relations for Preschoolers, but sounds plain stupid to anyone over the age of 5. It’s too bad this song had to soil our drawers at the close of the magnificent Tug of War album; I guess it served its purpose, though, propelling the album to number one and becoming Paul’s biggest solo single ever. So, everybody, sing along! “I am dark and you are light / You are blind as a bat and I have sight / Side by side you are my amigo / Negro, let’s not fiiiiiight!” (Trivia question: the Saturday Night Live episode in which Eddie and Joe turned “Ebony and Ivory” into a national joke was hosted by another presence on this list. Who was it? Stay tuned â€¦)
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8. “Stuck With You,” Huey Lewis & the News. In which Huey jumps the shark â€” and, at the 2:15 mark in this clip, is almost eaten by one. As David St. Hubbins said, “It’s such a fine line between clever and stupid.” Huey crossed the line here, and stayed on the wrong side of it for pretty much the rest of his chart career. OK, Huey, we get it: You like beach music. You proved that with “If This Is It.” Did you have to go to the well again? And if you did, did you have to do it by re-writing the earlier song and dumbing down the lyrics? Of course, his next single was his definitive one, in which he argued that it was “hip to be square” â€” at which point every self-respecting person under 35 bailed out on the Huey bandwagon once and for all.
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7. “The Greatest Love of All,” Whitney Houston. Forget that this was the song that turned Whitney into the diva to end all divas â€” the every-one-of-my-singles-goes-to-number-one-and-what-are-YOU-gonna-do-about-it monolith that lasted right up until the time she married Bobby, told Rolling Stone that she had gotten “a lot looser with my shit,” and came to like the powder a little too much. Forget, too, that “I believe that children are our future” has become a resounding clichÃ©, on the lips of anyone who wants to play the philanthropic fool. Why is it that this song was so good when George Benson sang it, but so baaaaaaaad when Whitney wrapped her pipes around it? Maybe it’s because Whitney’s so bombastic, so impressed with her own abilities, that one can’t help but sense that she finished “learning to love [her]self” a long time ago. I’m also pretty sure she was looking in the mirror when she sang, a few years later, “I will always love you.”
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6. “Kyrie,” Mr. Mister. Let’s see, now: Stupid-ass band name? Check. Sub-Mike and the Mechanics snoozefest techno-rock? Check. Crypto-religious lyrics that don’t mean a goddamn thing? Check! Singer Richard Page (is he Mr. or Mister?) told Fred Bronson, “I don’t remember writing it â€” it just happened.” No fuckin’ kidding. These guys are lucky they’re not taking up two slots on this list; if you want your girl to “take these broken wings and learn to fly again, learn to live so free,” then why would you also want “the book of love [to] open up for us and let us in”? If I remember correctly, that’s pretty much the plot of Scooby Doo and the Witch’s Ghost. I know there are some Popdosers out there who like this band, so let’s be clear: I am not among you.
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5. “Hangin’ Tough,” New Kids on the Block. How bad were the ’80s that this piece of sheeee-it is all the way down at number five? “Get on the floor and do the New Kids dance!” No? A confession: The first time I heard the New Kids’ first single, “Please Don’t Go Girl,” I was in a kinda-hip record store and had no idea what I was listening to. I was briefly convinced I was hearing some Stylistics or Manhattans oldie. Little did I know I was hearing the opening strains of the Wahlberg dynasty, and that “Hangin’ Tough” was just three short, but ever-worsening singles away. One other note before I turn away from this train wreck: My nieces Christina and Sarah were 7 and 3 when New Kids were at their peak, and their bedroom was a New Kids shrine the way that my daughter’s is currently a Hannah Montana lovefest â€” until the day that Sarah took a close look at the Kids singing “Step by Step” on TV and screamed, “Eeewwww! Donny’s got a ringnose!” Considering the rapid sales decline that soon followed, I’m pretty sure an entire nation of teenyboppers thought the same thing.
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4. (tie) “We Built This City”/”Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” Starship. I’m sorry; I couldn’t help myself. How could I separate the horror that is “We Built This City” from the crime against humanity that is “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”? One is perhaps the most ridiculous song in history; the other is a love song to a mannequin. One was accompanied by perhaps the worst video of the decade (Run! Run, you zombie-fied Merry Go Round kids! Run from the tumbling dice!); the other is a love song to a mannequin. Blender magazine famously named “We Built This City” the worst song of all time, but I have to say, I hate “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” even more. Maybe it’s our first sight of Grace Slick in the video, motionless behind glass like a museum piece. Maybe it’s Grace’s atrocious vocal, or how out of place she seems singing such a treacly ballad. Maybe it’s the notion of how far the fall is from “White Rabbit” to this. Or maybe it’s because it’s a love song to a mannequin.
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3. “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Stevie Wonder. How could you do it, Stevie? You wrote “Superstition,” and “Living for the City,” and “Higher Ground,” and “My Cherie Amour,” and “Sir Duke,” and Fulfill â€¦ Fulfillingness’s … Fuck it! You know â€” the good one! And then you wrote an AT&T commercial. I believe the instrumental track was one of the pre-sets on a Casio keyboard â€” a cheap Casio keyboard. Turning the column over for a moment to Jack Black in High Fidelity: “It’s sentimental, tacky crap. Do we look like the kind of store that would sell ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’? Go to the mall! … Do you even know your daughter? There’s no way she likes that song â€¦ Is she in a coma?” Speaking of which: My wife (who is awake and almost fully functioning, thank you very much) didn’t want me to include this song: “My mommy used to call and sing that song to me,” she pleaded. Exactly. (I love you, Memaw, but honestly â€” this would be the sappiest song ever written, if not for â€¦)
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2. “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Bette Midler. Ladies and gentlemen, The Sappiest Song in Pop History. So syrupy, so molasses-coated, so sticks-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth yucky that Kenny Rogers and Barry Manilow were approached to sing it during the early ’80s and both said, “No, thanks â€” too syrupy.” The kind of song that, when the DJ puts it on, you’re forced to leave your own friend’s wedding reception (true story). It’s really a bellwether of sorts â€” one of those indicators you can use to measure someone’s personality. Guys, if you’re on a first date and you ask, “What do you think of ‘Wind Beneath My Wings?'” and the woman gets all verklempt and can barely pull it together to sob “Beaches!”, you must Leave Immediately. Oh, no â€” here it comes â€” the image of Bette at the end of the video, waving her arms like a bird as she overemotes, “Flyyyy â€¦ flyyyyyyyy â€¦ fly hiiiiiiiiiigh away, you let me fly so high” â€¦ Thank you, Bette. Thank you. Thank God for you â€” the finger down my throat.
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1.5. “Kokomo,” the Beach Boys. Do I really need to discuss this song? You know it’s terrible, I know it’s terrible, Brian fucking Wilson definitely knows it’s terrible. But Mike Love just laughs at us, then deposits another royalty check. How much annoying ’80s pop is Tom Cruise responsible for, anyway? First he and his underwear turned “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” into a clichÃ©, then there was the trash from Top Gun, and Clapton’s creative coma on “It’s in the Way That You Use It,” and then this. I’m sorry, I can’t go on â€” the mere idea of this song makes me ill.
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1. “Physical,” Olivia Newton-John. It makes sense that the biggest hit of the ’80s was also the very worst, and generated a completely asinine video as well. When Olivia crammed herself into the tight leather at the end of Grease, she seemed to take the moment as a metaphor for her career. Over her next two studio albums (not including the sexually neutered wonder that was Xanadu), she seemed hellbent on transforming herself from Sandra Dee into Emmanuelle. It was one thing for the still-vaguely-hesitant Liv to lament “Where did my innocence go?” while giving herself over to temptation in 1979’s “A Little More Love.” It was another thing entirely to dive into the hackneyed melody, repetitive chorus, and unconvincing carnality of “Physical” (not to mention the goofy aerobics-porn of the video). That video was the first of the MTV era to drive the imaging behind a huge Top 40 hit (the channel had launched just a month before the single debuted on the charts), and it wasn’t a terribly auspicious beginning. The gay ending was slightly redemptive, though. (By the way, you know who really hates “Physical”? Foreigner! Mick, Lou & Co. spent nine weeks cooling their heels at number two with “Waiting for a Girl Like You” while Olivia dominated the top spot, and wouldn’t reach the summit themselves for three more years.)
I know, I know â€” I cheated. Why couldn’t I have cut “Dirty Diana” some slack, or combined Stevie Wonder’s contributions like I did Starship’s, and kept this list at 10? That’s just the way I roll, people, and besides, Nigel Tufnel already put it best: This one goes to 11.
If you’re wondering how I could have left off “Maniac” or “Sussudio” or “Rock Me Amadeus” or “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” or “When I’m With You” â€¦ or Milli Vanilli â€¦ well, you’ll just have to make your own list. But first you’ll have to prove that you don’t still have a copy of Girl You Know It’s True squirreled away behind your other CDs, or tucked into a file folder on an external drive under an assumed name.
By the way, Olivia is the answer to our trivia question (see #9 above). She hosted SNL and sang “Physical” in place of an opening monologue, on the night Joe Piscopo’s Frank Sinatra imitation became something vaguely resembling a national treasure. Eventually, of course, it manifested itself in his “I Love Rock and Roll (Medley),” which I offer here as a gift/punishment for making it to the end of this column.
And not to pile on the Piscopo, but have you seen this? It’s funny â€” for about two minutes â€” and it seems a propos â€¦
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See you in the ’90s! There’s a new breeze blowing â€¦ Can you feel it? I feel it â€¦ or is that just the flatulent sound of an ever-constipated Michael Bolton?