I like to consider myself something of a connoisseur of bad music. Hard as it is for me to admit, I used to love—love—modern country music. When I say that I owned every Garth Brooks, Brooks and Dunn, and Clint Black tape, you’ll understand how long ago this was, and yet the memory of that embarrassing failure of taste haunts me to this day. My first CD was Ace of Base’s The Sign (which I’m still willing to defend), followed shortly by, if I’m not mistaken, John Michael Montgomery’s Kickin’ it Up (which I am not).
By the time I hit middle school, I was deep into Oasis, a band that seemed to arouse irrational loathing in all of my friends, but whose first two albums I still listen to on occasion. My musical fever finally broke in high school when I began hanging out with people whose palates were significantly more developed than my own, but to this day I confess to a guilty pleasure in disposable pop songs by such eminent musicians as Avril Lavigne, Ke$ha, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga.
So although my taste in good music is open to challenge, I defer to no one in my knowledge and appreciation of bad music. I began the process of choosing the worst songs of the 21st century by soliciting nominations from colleagues and friends. Unfortunately, I then had to actually listen to the songs they suggested. As difficult as it was—believe me when I say that the 21st century is already overflowing with bad songs—I finally narrowed the list to the 10 most atrocious, apocalyptically bad songs released since 2000. Because describing the full horridness of these songs is too much for one person, I invited our features editor Katharine Shilcutt to provide occasional commentary.
Let me know in the comments section what songs I should have included, and watch this space tomorrow for the final five songs.
10. Katy Perry, “Last Friday Night" (2010)
So many terrible Katy Perry songs to choose from—the bubblegum banality and gratuitous use of Snoop Dogg in “California Gurls”? The blatant Sara Bareilles rip-off “Roar” (whose lyrics are themselves stolen from Helen Reddy and Survivor)? What puts “Last Friday Night” over the top is the story it tells, which becomes creepier and creepier the more you think about it. On Pop Dust, Katherine St Asaph points out that the song begins with Perry waking up in bed with a stranger, having no memory of what happened, which strongly implies date rape. Other incidents related in the song: table dancing, maxing out a credit card, having a ménage a trois, and getting kicked out of a bar, not to mention dodging cops who are out to arrest her. In other words, the perfect song for kids!
Shilcutt: “This video pisses me off because you think you’re about to watch some fabulous ’80s movie like ‘Better Off Dead’ or ‘Just One of the Guys,’ and then Katy Perry’s dumb face pops up and ruins everything with her wild stench of desperation.”
9. Maroon 5, “Payphone” (2012)
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: nobody uses pay phones anymore. Joel Schumacher even directed a very bad movie, Phone Booth, in which the main character finds himself trapped in New York’s last remaining phone booth. And that was in 2002. This song’s conceit might have worked for Garth Brooks in “Callin' Baton Rouge,” where Brooks sings about spending all his change “down to my last dime” (which dates the song quite well), but these days lead singer and Proactiv pitchman Adam Levine would have to look pretty hard to find a pay phone. The first time I heard this song, all I did was wonder what happened to the dude’s cell. Fortunately, the band answers this question in the song’s video, which begins with Levine standing next to a burning car, fiddling with a dying flip phone. Evidently his car has just exploded—right next to a payphone, conveniently enough.
Frankly, it was difficult to choose just one song by Maroon 5, a band that has distinguished itself from the beginning by its soul-sucking triviality, its sanitized, pasteurized, flavor-free version of corporate pop. Unfortunately for listeners, Levine’s contract seems to require that he use his fingernails-on-a-chalkboard, slit-your-wrists-bad falsetto in every single song, and “Payphone” offers perhaps the most egregious example. “One more f***ing love song, I’ll be sick,” Levine croons in the song. I know how he feels.
Shilcutt: "Wiz Khalifa has terrible taste in friends, as evidenced here and in collaborations with will.i.am and Miley Cyrus. Basically, having Wiz Khalifa attached to your musical project is the same thing as having Udo Kier in a movie; it's a guaranteed cheesefest."
8. Akon, “Sexy Bitch” (2009)
This is a song so bad that it got Akon banned from an entire country. I remember this because the country was Sri Lanka, where I was living when popular outrage flared up in 2010 over the music video for this song, which features bikini-clad women dancing in front of a Buddha statue. To protest Akon’s upcoming concert, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists started Facebook groups with names like “We Hate AKON (Abuse Music Video Against Lord Buddha) and “AKON Who Disgraced Buddhism—STOP Sri Lanka Concert.” A peaceful protest march against Akon turned violent when a gang of thugs ransacked the headquarters of the television station that was sponsoring the concert, and the Sri Lankan government responded by refusing to allow Akon to perform in the country.
Normally I would side with the artist in this kind of dispute—free speech and everything—but in this case I couldn’t help but think Sri Lanka had been spared the sleazy individual and cancer on pop music that is Akon, as I wrote in an op-ed for a local newspaper. And, really, the song is bad enough to deserve banning even without the sacrilege. Consider such sensitive, chivalrous lyrics as the following: “She’s nothing like a girl you’ve ever seen before / Nothing you can compare to your neighborhood ho / I’m trying to find the words to describe this girl / Without being disrespectful.” Sorry, Akon—too late.
7. Linkin Park, “Numb” (2003)
Although Ben Folds wrote “Rockin’ the Suburbs” two years before this song came out, Folds’s satirical channeling of a whiny, over-privileged singer fits Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda to a T: “I’ve got s**t running through my brain / So intense that I can’t explain / All alone in my white-boy pain / Shake your booty while the band complains.” Okay, Shinoda is part Japanese, but in this song he’s doing his best to sound as white as possible, complaining about the difficulty of fulfilling his family’s (or possibly a girlfriend’s) expectations: “Can’t you see that you’re smothering me / Holding too tightly, afraid to lose control.” You want to pat the guy on the head and tell him it’s going to be okay.
Shinoda spends the video screaming into a microphone, his bleached hair and earrings loudly proclaiming his pseudo-individualist nonconformity. Along with Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, Linkin Park was responsible for the disastrous early-aughts subgenre of “rock-rap,” of which this song is a particularly noxious example. The fact that a genius like Jay-Z partnered with this sorry excuse for a band on an entire album says more for his business acumen than his taste. Unfortunately, not even a mash-up with Jay’s “Encore” could make this song listenable.
Shilcutt: “It sounds like the soundtrack to a date rape.”
6. Black Eyed Peas, “My Humps” (2005)
It’s hard to imagine, but the Black Eyed Peas were once respected hip-hop artists and critical darlings. Then they added Fergie, starting wearing bizarre futuristic clothing, and attained massive radio play with party-hearty songs like “Let’s Get Retarded” and “I Gotta Feeling.” But nothing they’ve done before or since can match “My Humps” in its lowest-common-denominator idiocy or mindless, robotic commercialism. This has got to be the least sexy song ever written, with Fergie, in an asinine call-and-response with Will.i.am, referring to her butt as her “hump” and her “lovely lady lump.” Fergie later complicates things by also using humps/lumps to refer to her breasts. Ooh, a double meaning!
The only thing more embarrassing than Fergie’s singing, with her ritual invocations of her favorite brands, is Will.i.am’s rapping, which includes such enticing come-ons as his offer to “Mix your milk with my cocoa puffs / Milky, milky cocoa puffs.” The music video features—surprise!—lots of loving close-ups of Fergie’s lovely lady lump.
Shilcutt: “This is one of the few bad songs that makes me angry. Like, just flat out angry. At everything.”
To be continued tomorrow...