Starship - We Built This City

Starship, We Built This City, and Musical Honesty

Every once in a while I see it: an online reference to “We Built This City,” a 1980s smash hit for Starship, now considered in most polls to be the worst song of all time. And just yesterday I saw a 2016 article that I hadn’t read before: “An Oral History of “We Built This City,” the Worst Song of All Time.” Whether you’ve love or hate the song, it is a good read.

Fix Your Songwriting Problems - NOWWhen you hear a problem with your song, but don’t know how to solve it, you might find the answer in “Fix Your Songwriting Problems – NOW!” Get this eBook separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”

I think about the songwriters, and their realization that they may have written the worst song that’s ever been written… that’s got be pretty heavy. The first “official” mention of “We Built This City” as being the worst came in a 2004 Blender poll. Once that happened, it became almost impossible to have a neutral attitude. You either agreed to hate the song, or you were left to defend it.

A Perfect Storm

Personally, I think “We Built This City,” which was possibly the most 80s-sounding 80s song the 80s ever produced, suffered from a perfect storm of circumstances. It was performed by Starship, and that fact alone magnified the fact that they were simply trying to make some bucks. It sounded nothing — and I mean nothing — like anything they had done in their early days. It simply didn’t sound like an honest musical attempt by a group that rose from Jefferson Airplane.

The lyrics are confusing, and not just a little pretentious and over the top. “Knee-deep in the hoopla”, “Marconi plays the mamba”, “Looking for America coming through your schools” — it’s hard to get a read on what the actual intent of the lyric was. Some say it was bemoaning the loss of live music venues, others say it was about music execs ripping off bands, but who knows?

The music itself, which usually gets criticized along with everything else about the song, is no more obnoxious than anything else being done at the time. It’s powered up, highly synthesized and in your face, but if you made a list of other such songs from the 80s, the list would be long.

I think the hoopla (if I may say) over how much we’re supposed to hate “We Built This City” was the early-2000s attempt to hate the 80s by pointing to something very 80s. The Bee Gees were similarly reviled in the early 80s for being the poster boys for 70s disco. They were blamed for an entire genre.

A Friendly Reminder From Your Audience

All of this serves to remind those of us who write music: audiences don’t require a real reason for hating something. They’re not required to do research.

They’re allowed to have an uninformed opinion. Nothing an audience thinks needs to be proven.

Audiences will like or hate a particular song, and they’ll form that opinion quickly. And (this is the hardest part for those of you who put lots of time and effort into your songwriting) they can hate something because an online poll tells them to hate it.

I would put it out there that if no poll existed that branded “We Built This City” the worst song ever, we’d probably have a pretty neutral attitude to it. Some would love it, some would hate it, many would be in the middle… just like pretty much every other song from the 80s (and every other decade.)

Audiences are fickle. And the higher you move in the music industry, the more prone you are to the vagaries of their opinions.

If there’s one thing the whole Starship and “We Built This City” controversy has taught us, it’s this: it may not actually be the song that people hate… it’s more likely they’ll have a bad attitude to what they perceive as a lack of musical honesty.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting ProcessThousands of songwriters are using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” to polish their songwriting technique. Discover the secrets to writing great melodies, lyrics, chords, and more. And get a FREE copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process”

Posted in Opinion, songwriting and tagged , , , , , .


  1. Hi Gary, First of all, I am a big fan of your page and songwriting suggestions… I would probably agree that this song was written to be a “commercial radio hit” (hard to believe “The Starship” picked it up; rather than for “song of all time” value. But, on the other hand, the two key songwriters of the piece were Bernie Taupin (with respect to anyone, has more songwriting under his “royalty belt” than most, and another great under-rated songwriter, Martin Page who slammed the industry with his first album. Now, back to Bernie… There is a bootleg Elton DVD where he is interviewed and one of the issues asked, beside what “Daniel” was about (I will get to that) was what was “Take Me to the Pilot” about. Bernie’s response was “I don’t know, you tell me.” In other words, the words fit together or were “orphaned” lines he had without a song to go to which he elaborated upon. It is called as you know “artistic licensure” or taking leeway with a meaning of a lyric way past what a song’s original intentions may or should be… Back to “Daniel” who when I met Bernie back in the 80’s after he penned, ” This City” and also Heart’s, “These Dreams” (Great Song/Lyrics) during a writing hiatus from Elton, it was found that “everyone’s” though of a blind war veteran was as “blind as the true bearing of the song.” It was more artistic license inspired from a true story and as you know writers/lyricist do this. “Daniel” was based on a Life magazine article of a Viet Nam vet who served his country (without injuries or anything that would make him a “hero,” but he came back to his hometown in Texas) as the only vet from the small town. He was given a ticker-tape parade which he found as hard to understand because he just did his duty to his country while others around him were killed or wounded. Bernie took the article and through artistic licensure rearranged the lyric to fit his artistic licensure and imagination (a large part of writing of any venue). Hopefully, this all is taken in a proper and polite context as I have a high respect for your writings and songwriting tips… BTW, I do have your e- books… Concise, to the Point, and Fabulous… Thanks and My Best, Michael C. Senisch, Claymont, Delaware, USA

  2. Some valid points here, but I remember my mom mentioning on more than one occasion that it was a terrible song, and she died in 2001…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.