The farther back we go in time, the harder it is to fairly judge what sucks, because tastes and styles change. Complicating matters is the post-modern ironic distance through which we look at almost everything. I provide this caveat because this week’s entry in World’s Worst Songs was staggeringly popular in its day, blasting up the charts to #1 and staying there for five weeks, beating back all comers in one of the greatest years popular music ever experienced. To listeners in 1968, Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” was not as awful as it seems to us now.
But holy crap it seems awful to us now.
“Honey” was written by Bobby Russell. He also wrote “Little Green Apples,” which won a Grammy for Song of the Year and briefly threatened to become a standard, and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” a #1 hit for his then-wife, Vicki Lawrence. He also scored a handful of minor hit singles as a singer. Most of his songs were sketches of middle-class domestic life in the 60s, and “Honey” is the ne plus ultra of the form.
“Honey” is told in the voice of a husband describing life with his wife, who is “always young at heart / Kinda dumb and kinda smart.” And right there we get at what drives modern listeners to “Honey” around the bend: the singer condescends to nearly everything his wife does, and everything he does for her. She wrecks the car and fears his wrath; after he pretends to be angry for a while, he forgives her, and (instead of being pissed off at his emotional manipulation) she hugs him. He buys her a puppy but the goddamn thing keeps him awake all night. She cries over sad movies and he thinks its silly. You half expect him to eventually say, “Women—what are you gonna do?”
But then the proceedings take a dark turn: “I came home unexpectedly and caught her crying needlessly / In the middle of the day.” And within half-a-verse more, she’s dead: “One day while I was not at home / While she was there and all alone / The angels came.” (Perhaps if he’d paid more attention to her as a human being, he might have known her crying wasn’t needless.) We do not know what happened, whether she had some disease he couldn’t be bothered to find out about, or whether she killed herself in despair over being treated like a child. In any case, once she’s gone, he realizes he’s lost, well, something: “Honey, I miss you / And I’m being good / And I’d love to be with you / If only I could.”
“Honey” is produced to tug the heartstrings, with an easy-to-hum melody, a whispery angel choir, and chimes that ring out when Honey departs this vale of tears. And at the fade, when Goldsboro repeats the song’s first verse, he does so with an audible lump in his throat.
It’s a fine performance for its time and its audience, but you wouldn’t do this song now, and if you did, you wouldn’t do it this way.