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.
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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.
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