For the Love of Bad Music

Jani Lane, former lead singer of Warrant, who died yesterday at age 47 of unknown causes, often expressed regret for writing “Cherry Pie.” He needn’t have. It was as catchy as it was mindless, which is probably why it made the top 10. It came out the year I went to college, and I can remember thinking, as I heard it played in the dorms, that if college was full of people who listened to this schlock, I might be able to survive there after all.

But, of course, “Cherry Pie” had historical significance that went far beyond my higher education. Its appearance marked the beginning of the end of the hair band era. Grunge was already waiting in the wings, ready to seduce listeners with music that was just as loud, just as threatening to parents, which was played by musicians who were just as self-destructive, but which was in every way more intelligent. They say a candle flares up just before going out — well, in the period preceding “Cherry Pie,” the wick of cheese metal flared at both ends. In 1988, Poison released “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” which is a classic — good enough to have been covered by Miley Cyrus. The following year, Skid Row released “18 and Life,” which is downright haunting. Something had to take glam back to its roots so it could rest in peace; “Cherry Pie” filled the bill.

But the thing was, I never got into grunge. It was too substantial, too thought-provoking, and for that reason, impossible to relax to. It may be that I never tried the right drugs, but I’ve never been able to think and enjoy myself at the same time. I often tell people I have no ear for music, by which I mean to imply that I suffer from some neurological problem that only Oliver Sacks could fix. The truth is, I have an infallible ear for terrible music. The closer a song comes to bubble gum, the more it smacks of novelty, the better its chance of making my desert island list.

Into this category, I would put:

They Might Be Giants: The melodies are unchallenging, the performers are not attractive in any way that would make me hold my manhood cheap. The lyrics, are clever, not profound — the two qualities tend to exclude one another. “Particle Man,” may refer to particle physics, but it’s easy to make yourself forget that, and the song goes down easier once you do. It’s got an accordion — it can and should be about nothing.

Really bad white hip-hop. Anyone who’s watched student films or read MFA writing assignments knows tat the twilight separating what’s touchingly hopeless from what’s good but unpolished is a fascinating place to roam The early 1990s — perhaps not coincidentally the end of the hair band era — saw a flowering of these acts. Third Bass, Young Black Teenagers* and even House of Pain all emerged in this nascence of cheese. Their charm is in their sensible refusal to take themselves seriously; the got by on sheer brio. Even the Beastie Boys, who are legitimately talented, hedged their bets by giving the impression they were playing it for laughs.

Melanie Safka. People tell me this woman is still alive and performing. Personally, I like to tell myself she died, Karen Carpenter-style, right after recording “Brand-New Key.” It was the perfect novelty hit, full of dorky lyrics and performed by a pretty folkie at a time when other pretty folkies — Carly Simon, Carole King, etc. — were starting to take themselves seriously. For the divine Ms. Safka, life can only have gone downhill from there.

Songs about death and dismemberment. There was a time when pop music was macabre as a general rule. In the British Isles during the 18th century, balladeers sang about dying maidens asking for graves long and narrow, and young syphilis patients hoping none of the guests at their funerals will smell the rot. Then came Queen Victoria, from whom it was only a short step to Bing Crosby. Still, every once in a while, non-country singers who aren’t Glenn Danzig will break the grave barrier. Whenever one does, the results are arresting.

To begin with, you’ve got your car-crash kitsch songs of the early 1960s, like the Cavaliers’ “Last Kiss” and Dickie Lee’s “Strange Things Happen in This World.” I think it was Edgar Allen Poe who said the most poetic thing in the world was the death of a beautiful girl. Well, if he’d lived in the 1960s, he could have cha-cha’d to one.

But all this is still pretty genteel. It took the pickled genius of the Pogues’ Shane McGowan to take a sledgehammer to taboo. The fact that the band titled its second album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, and chose Gericault’s Scene de Naufrage for the cover should give you a fair idea of the tone they affect. In one song, “The Old Main Drag,” McGowan sings in the voice of a ruined rent boy:

And now I am lying here;
I’ve had too much booze.
I’ve been spat on, and shat on
And raped and abused.
I know that I am dying,
And I wish I could beg
For some money to take me from
The old main drag.

Now, this was — and is — a real social problem. McGowan knew enough London fringe characters to have infused his lyrics with journalistic accuracy. Nevertheless, his delivery is so lugubrious that he almost seems to be striving for the opposite effect. As Oscar Wilde said of the death of Dickens’ Little Nell, one must have a heart of stone to listen to it without laughing.

I mean this as as a tribute to the late Mr. Lane. If it weren’t for bad taste, I’d have no taste at all, which may be why the deaths of George Harrison, Johnny Cash and Michael Jackson couldn’t squeeze so much as a single word from me. Cherish those bad songs even as you cherish the good ones, people. They’re as finite and precious as good ones.

*Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. They sound white, okay?

  • jkm

    They Might Be Giants are not not cool or anywhere near bad. You probably just didn’t know anyone cool enough to tell you that. Their name is even deeply cool, in that it references not only the exquisitely cool Man of La Mancha himself, but also the title of the Best Movie Never to Be Available on DVD, starring the exquisitely cool George C Scott and Joanne Woodward. Plus, the album Flood (from which Particle Man comes) actually contains everything you need to know to complete a Humanities BA at Antioch, and if that’s not cool well jeez.

    Please relisten.
    (And while you’re at it
    Keep the nightlight on inside the
    Birdhouse in your soul)

  • http://piercework.typepad.com/ Jennifer

    I like Exquisite Dead Guy a lot more than Particle Man.


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