Most inexplicably popular songs
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Last week we talked about bands that inexplicably never got as big as they deserved to be. Here’s a take on the opposite question: What songs enjoyed success to a degree that you never particularly understood?
It wasn’t a billion-seller or anything, but for a couple of months in early 2009, “The Rake’s Song”—the first single from The Decemberists’ The Hazards Of Love—was inescapable on mainstream radio, and I could not for the life of me figure out why. It was always jarring when it came up alongside other charting songs of the time, like Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and “Just Dance” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).” First off, it wasn’t remotely dancey, processed, or electronic; it didn’t sound like anything else around it on the radio at the time. Second, it’s an almost monotonal, musically repetitive, melodically droning song about child murder. Third, it’s an odd song to stand on its own, given that it’s a character portrait from the middle of a lush rock-opera theme album. And fourth, it isn’t even the most catchy or compelling song on that album. It always felt to me like an anomaly on radio, like radio programmers were thinking “We have no idea what this thing is, but we recognize the name of the band, so jam it in there somewhere.”
It’s often amusing when the true meaning of a popular song is lost among the masses. Plenty of people sang along to Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” or Cyndi Lauper’s “She-Bop” without realizing they were paying homage to crystal meth and masturbation. But Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” is a different beast: Here’s a song that was misunderstood unconsciously as often as it was misunderstood willfully. First picked up in the political press by conservative columnist George Will, then by Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign, “Born In The USA” was used as an aural signifier for all things awesome about America. Delve into the lyrics themselves, however, and it’s clear just how bleak and unsparing Springsteen’s vision of the country truly is in that song. Plenty of his songs feature romanticism in the face of hardship, but “Born In The USA” is an angry, sarcastic cry for a lost generation, masked by anthemic keyboard chords meant to evoke irony, but instead evoking a misplaced sense of patriotism in many of its listeners. It’s one thing for people to lose the meaning of songs that go to the top of the charts. But it’s another thing when the song in question charts innocence lost. Had Springsteen released his original, acoustic demo of the song (below), he might not have had a huge hit, but his message might have come through more clearly.
I really did stop in my tracks after hearing Modest Mouse’s “Float On” on New York’s K-Rock radio, 92.3. It was Spring 2004, and I was driving to work on Long Island from Brooklyn. I’d listen to The Howard Stern Show and stay contented as the station segued into modern-rock hits. This was still about six months before Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” truly broke, freshening up U.S. airwaves, and a few years prior to online and digital radio, not to mention the blogosphere’s bottom-up influence. “Float On” sounded so strange on that frequency, and that early in the morning. Yes, it was also hard to believe that the same band whose Lonesome Crowded West kept my freshman year of college weird had somehow burrowed a tunnel to the mainstream’s edge, but I wasn’t feeling entitled. Isaac Brock had written the year’s unlikeliest anthem, during a year that was unusually weird in every other cultural facet. In retrospect, it was perfect. And in 2011, oddball indie-aesthetes like Brock have become the sound, voice, and architects of popular music in a new media age. But sometimes, I still can’t believe that a group of “Cockroach”-doin’, Calvin Johnson-allied Pac Northwest weirdoes successfully threw the FM dial out of tune.
Hahaha, yacht rock! Hilarious, right? To me, though, it’s not a joke. I’m of the age where the soft-rock hits of the ’70s and early ’80s left a distinct, significant footprint on my impressionable young psyche. That said, I still marvel at the popularity of “I Go Crazy” by the late, great Paul Davis. The song was inescapable in the late ’70s—yes, I listened to the radio a lot when I was 6; no, I didn’t have a lot of friends—and it climbed to No. 7 in the charts in 1977. It even set a record at the time for the longest run of a single on Billboard’s Hot 100. In retrospect, though, I listen to the song and wonder “How the fuck did that happen?” Don’t get me wrong; some of Davis’ other hits, like 1981’s “Cool Nights” and 1982’s “‘65 Love Affair,” are near-perfect examples of how indelibly infectious, immaculately crafted, and soulfully saccharine soft rock could be. But “I Go Crazy”? It isn’t even catchy. At all. The verse is drab and unmemorable. The playing is drab and unmemorable. The vocals are drab and unmemorable. Which is all okay… because they chorus is going to kick major ass (relatively speaking), right? Nope. While the best soft-rock artists—including, for the most part, Davis—knew how to inject at least one buoyant, majestic hook into every hit, “I Go Crazy” just sags. Not to speak ill of the dead, but if this is the sound of Davis going crazy, I’d hate to hear him stone-cold sane.
I was surprised that Everlast’s “What It’s Like” was released as the first single from Whitey Ford Sings The Blues, Everlast’s shockingly successful attempt to recreate himself as a bluesy, guitar-stroking troubadour after the breakup of House Of Pain. “What It’s Like” didn’t sound anything like House Of Pain. As a bluesy dirge about life’s misery and the interconnectedness of all suffering, it didn’t sound like anything on the radio. Yet the single connected with the public in ways I never envisioned, and became nearly as big a hit as “Jump Around,” albeit for very different reasons.
When it comes to pop musicians having their biggest commercial success thanks to millions of people ignoring or twisting the political message they were trying to send, not even Bruce Springsteen has anything on Chumbawamba, the creators—some would say the perpetrators—of “Tubthumping.” I can’t say I’m honestly bewildered by the success of that song; it’s ingeniously constructed and a catchy son of a bitch. But it’s such an unlikely story. First, a self-styled leftist-anarchist band—which had been around long enough to have put out an album called Pictures Of Starving Children Sell Records, attacking the mid-’80s benefit-concert fad—releases a single that makes vicious, sarcastic fun of the idea that the representatives of the working class are demonstrating any kind of resilience and spirit when they hit the pubs after work and get drunk and sing the old songs and boast of their own indomitability, when they should be out protesting on behalf of striking miners or something. Then the song becomes a massive international hit, because it turns out that it’s great for shouting along to at bars and sporting events, and to use for drinking games. Adding insult to injury, today “Tubthumping” has been stuffed into the same general category as “MMMBop” and “Wannabe,” and is a regular feature of “Worst Songs Of All Time” lists and riffs about how we sure did listen to some dopey shit in the ‘90s. It may well gall the band that its best-known song became such a ubiquitous part of the culture and was heard, enjoyed, and then condemned by so many people who never grasped its intended meaning. But last I heard, they hadn’t offered to give back the money.
This response might be showing my age, but even when I was a wee 10-year-old back in 1981, I never understood why the Stars On 45 Beatles medley was such a monster hit, going No. 1 all over the world, including in America. Sure, it was a fun medley to roller-skate to, stringing snippets of various Beatles songs together using a disco beat and hand-claps as a through-line that made it all make dance-hall sense. But it’s not like the world was lacking in Beatles nostalgia, even a mere 11 years after the band broke up. Beatlemania! had a successful run on Broadway in the late ’70s, and Beatles tunes were played even more on the radio than they are now, thanks to its crossover appeal to oldies stations, album-rock stations, and the Top 40 AM stations that were still hanging on by a thread. Maybe there was an uptick in demand after John Lennon’s murder in December 1980, but that still doesn’t explain why people took to these Dutch studio musicians doing impressions of Lennon and McCartney.
Two questions came to mind about the song when I re-heard it before writing this: 1) Why did they append the guitar riff to “Venus” and the opening strains of “Sugar, Sugar” to the song? Neither are Beatles songs, and from what I remember, most Top 40 stations cut that out in the versions they played. And 2) What were John and Paul smoking when they gave these guys permission to use their songs?
On one level, I get why Bob Carlisle’s “Butterfly Kisses” became a Top 20 pop hit in 1997. It’s a tearjerker, specifically designed so daddies can dance with their daughters to it at weddings, and that’s something that never goes out of style. It’s just that “Butterfly Kisses” is so… creepy. Actually, I’m underselling: This is the creepiest goddamn pop hit of the last 20 years. It opens with the sound of children cavorting on the playground. Then the improbably soulful Carlisle settles into a sultry Luther Vandross groove, singing about the joys of “butterfly kisses after bedtime prayer” with his sweet little girl. She is “one-part woman, the other part girl” who’s looking more like her mother every day. “I’m only going to kiss you on the cheek this time,” she tells Bob at one point. Does anybody else feel uncomfortable? I’m not even going to address the line where the daughter asks for him “walk beside the pony, daddy, it’s my first ride.” There’s a darkness in this sappy ditty that’s too skeezy to contemplate.
I don’t remember when I became aware of The Flaming Lips, but I remember having a genuine WTF? moment when “She Don’t Use Jelly” became a fluke hit. Just when you think you have this music thing figured out—as I undoubtedly thought I did at age 18—the world embraces this weird, shuffling song with nonsensical lyrics and vocals that could charitably be called “amateurish.” I think I was living in a dorm when the “She Don’t Use Jelly” storm hit, and I remember guys on my floor being similarly perplexed, but oddly mesmerized by it. (But it was a welcome relief from people constantly blasting Green Day’s “Basket Case” and The Cranberries’ “Zombie.”) I hardly ever hear the song anymore, but when I do, I’m still struck by how strange it is—and how oddly pervasive. I really didn’t expect it to pop up in season three of Friday Night Lights, in a scene showing a band playing it during rehearsal in a garage, but there it was, as awkward and entrancing as ever.
This might be a little regional or a little “I went to a large public university,” but I really never understood why O.A.R.’s “Crazy Game Of Poker” got as massively popular as it did among people my age and younger. (I’m 30.) For the unfamiliar, “Poker” is a poorly written story song from 1997 involving, as far as I can tell, a crazy game of poker, revolution, and Jah. It was wildly popular where I went to college—Ohio University, Playboy’s #1 party school 2011! Bobcats!—and somehow, the success of this song in that arena and in other similarly beer-minded schools translated into massive popularity for the band as a whole. Almost 15 years after this song hit, this band is still touring successfully, playing all the big hippie fests and headlining sold-out shows more often than not. That really must have been some crazy game of poker.
My first thought was Modest Mouse’s “Float On,” but since Kenny beat me to it, I’ll go with my second thought, which comes from an equally notable indie-rock poster boy from the previous decade: Folk Implosion’s “Natural One.” After years of living in J Mascis’ shadow and unable to match the success enjoyed by Dinosaur Jr. following his unceremonious ouster, Lou Barlow finally started building a buzz around himself with Sebadoh’s fifth full-length, 1994’s Bakesale. A year later, he enjoyed his greatest mainstream success, and it came from way, way out in left field: Barlow’s little-side-project-that-could with John Davis (as well as a couple of his other bands, including Sebadoh) wrote a bunch of songs for the soundtrack to Kids, Harmony Korine and Larry Clark’s film full of explicit depictions of children partaking in sex, drugs, violence, and other things kids probably shouldn’t be doing. And from this illicit, controversial movie came “Natural One,” a moody, beatsy, groovy tune that didn’t sound anything like what Barlow had done before, and seemed completely out of place on commercial alt-rock radio stations that were still enamored with all of the shitty Hootie Vedder bands that came in grunge’s wake. The amount of promotion that went into 1996’s Harmacy seemed to suggest that Sub Pop figured Sebadoh could piggyback on the success of “Natural One,” but even Folk Implosion was never able to make it to a large amount of ears again.