Honestly, there’s not much in particular I want to say about the worst pop of ‘83- it largely continued along the trajectories set by ‘81 and ‘82, and the bad synths won’t really start setting in until ‘84 or ‘85. Frankly, ‘83 was a pretty damn great year for pop, and even if these 10 songs are as garbage as ever, we’re rapidly approaching the point where things really start to go south, so I want to stay positive while I still can- On with the show!
#10: Lionel Richie- Truly
“Truly” is the real start of Lionel Richie’s ascension to the throne of paste-bland balladsville, the moment where he became a contender for the all-time champion of bloodless, sterile proclamations of romance. There isn’t really much meat to dig into here otherwise: Richie is a competent enough composer and singer, but his boring, overproved arrangements and utterly clichéd lyrics leave him lacking in any kind of personality or real emotional heft. It’s all just very one-note; even some of the more interesting chords in the verses seem to be hammering home the same flat wedding-song mood. As we’ll soon see, Richie had much worse to offer as an artist, but even stripped of his myriad shortcomings he was never especially interesting or exciting, and “Truly” is a prime example of why.
#9: Joe Jackson- Steppin’ Out
The early-to-mid 80s saw a smattering of hits tanked single-handedly by an overreliance on new tech that wasn’t quite ready for prime-time. Joe Jackson is a guy with a fair bit more chops than your average pop singer, and his jazzy, nimble piano stylings are undeniably “Steppin’ Out”’s greatest asset. However, the song winds up dragged into the depths of sub-mediocrity by the Korg drum machine Jackson made the baffling decision to use for nearly the entirety of the song’s percussion. The little machine spits out a pitiful, grooveless skitter with nowhere near the power to support the rest of the composition, and on top of just sounding awful on its own, it renders the rest of the song chintzy and plastic. It highlights all the song’s worst qualities, from the dorky, stuttering synth bass to the aimless vocal melody. Hell, even those tasty piano chords end up seeming cloying and uncanny more than anything, all because that damned beat is just too weak to properly anchor the whole thing. Especially in combination with Jackson’s unimpressive voice it’s outright crippling, leaving the song a long way from evoking the glamorous snapshots of New York City populating its music video. Luckily, Jackson never had much interest in being a star, turning to jazz and classical composition in the latter half of the decade and abandoning pop entirely by the start of the 90s. He also came out as bisexual in the early 2000s! Good for him. Overall, “Steppin’ Out” reads as little more than a misfire, a speedbump in a talented man’s journey towards more fruitful endeavors.
#8: Frida- I Know There’s Something Going On
In stark contrast to “Steppin’ Out”’s wimpy Korg pitter-patter, “I Know There’s Something Going On” boasts some of the most smotheringly massive drums of the year, and not a whole lot else. It’s a smashing, thunderous rhythm, largely undeserved by the personality-free vocals and barren arrangement it’s matched with here. I suppose there’s an argument to be made that the slivers of keening synth and noodling guitar poking their way into the otherwise-vacant midrange of the mix here are “atmospheric”, but the trick to atmospheric pop is pairing a good, likeable hook with production that really lets it breathe and simmer. With that enormous dramatic drumbeat always booming away, nothing else has any room- it’s simultaneously empty and overstuffed. To make matters worse, the melodies are as forgettable as they come, and Frida’s voice has a multi-tracking effect slapped on it here that only manages to take her from “unremarkable” to “incredibly grating”. The final product has an overwhelming stink of pop-by-committee: vaguely approximating every cool new sound on the market while bungling the finer details beyond recognition.
#7: Musical Youth- Pass the Dutchie
My immediate reaction to Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie” was that it sounded like a Kidz Bop version of a reggae song. Though that knee-jerk first impression actually ended up being more literally accurate than I expected (it’s an almost-cover of the Mighty Diamonds’ “Pass the Kouchie” that replaces all the pot references with child-appropriate food references), Musical Youth actually had a little bit more cred than that description might imply. The band was initially put together by the members’ fathers- one of whom was Frederick Waite, a founding member of pioneering rocksteady act The Techniques- and they had been gigging around their home town of Birmingham for several years before being scooped up by MCA Records. They weren’t a synthetic label creation, but real musicians who, despite their young age, had experience playing actual live music. It’s a shame none of that came across on record. As previously mentioned, I instantly clocked “Pass the Dutchie” as a squeaky-clean, sanitized version of reggae by and for schoolchildren, and even knowing the group’s actual history I just can’t hear it as anything else. The vocals here are the most chirping, boyish yawps I’ve had the displeasure of hearing since the early days of Donnie Osmond, and the production overall is severely hurt by the lack of any deeper textures or grit- it sounds too polished and too studio-perfect. It just ends up as another example of why I don’t think pop and reggae mix well- If I’m going to listen to reggae, I want something raw and soulful, something that hits hard and makes a statement, or barring that, some textured, laid-back music to relax and, er, imbibe to. Otherwise, all that’s left is syncopated bubblegum.
#6: Taco- Puttin’ on the Ritz
In a way, I’m just sort of stunned that this song actually exists. “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is, of course, not originally of the 80s, dating back to the early 1930s when it became one of the hottest tunes around thanks to the Harry Richman/Joan Bennett musical of the same name. I know 1930 sounds like a long, long time ago, but rest assured that in 1983, 1930 was, in fact, also a long, long time ago! This song becoming a hit in 1983 would be like if someone reached the top 10 with a trap rendition of “Sunshine of Your Love” or “Summertime Blues” today, an absolutely nonsensical fusion of retro and modern that should by all rights be almost unlistenable. And, shock of shocks, almost unlistenable is exactly what this is! I’ll be honest: this is only as low as #6 because I have a grudging respect for Taco’s hubris here; if this list were ranked in terms of how quickly I’ll reach to change the station if a song comes on the radio, this could handily be as high as #2. Synth pop is all about cold, robotic synths and vocalists that, while maybe not very conventionally gifted, often bring a unique edge to their performances. It speaks to the anxieties and problems of the modern world, and the friction between it and our ingrained human instincts. Swing jazz, conversely, is about classical showmanship, showing off your chops while still being loose and silly and playful. Those old 30 jazz singers often seem to exist in a state of constant jovial bemusement, having “fun” in the very most traditionalist sense. These are two diametrically opposed approaches and they just don’t mix. It’s nothing but creepy and unsettling, especially with Taco sounding like a demonic carnie on top of the whole thing. Oh, and let’s not forget the backup singers wearing blackface in the music video! Fun stuff, fun stuff.
#5: Styx- Mr. Roboto
“Mr. Roboto” had real potential to be an all-time so-bad-it’s-good classic, especially that absolutely dorktastic chorus. I have a lot of unkind things to say about this song, but that “domo arigato, Mr. Roboto” hook was etched into my memory from a far younger age than damn near anything else on these lists, and that ain’t worth nothing. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the song hews much closer to Styx’s usual brand of underwritten pomp, with a whole bunch of added narrative tomfoolery that never really amounts to anything. Kilroy Was Here, the disastrously half-baked concept album that spawned this song, reminds me more than anything of the Kingdom Hearts series- Just with the compelling anime aesthetics and slick, atmospheric soundtrack replaced with low-budget ‘80s sci-fi and dated, corny arena-prog. Both are full of confusing plot threads that go nowhere and gestures towards hazy, portentous themes of good and evil, and both ride almost entirely on unshakeable, adolescent confidence that this is all the coolest damn thing ever. If you can’t tell, I’m not a huge Kingdom Hearts fan either, but at least Tetsuya Nomura knows how to walk the walk! If you can’t tell a coherent story or write a sympathetic character, it’s all gonna come down to style, and “Mr. Roboto” is just about the least stylish song of the year.
#4: Toni Basil- Mickey
To an extent, it’s hard to really hold “Mickey” at fault for its flaws. Love it or hate it, it occupies a unique space in culture that no other song does, and part of me feels a bit guilty for not filling this spot on the list with some faceless synth-pop drivel no one remembers- surely there are songs whose sheer lack of enduring cultural presence makes them worthier contenders for the worst of the year than this? Still, even if there are other songs I respect far less, “respect” and “enjoy” are two different things, and “Mickey” is one of the most purely irritating songs of the early 80s to me.
Toni Basil, if you didn’t know, is one of the most acclaimed and successful dancers and choreographers of the past half-century- by every indication, an incredibly talented woman who seized her chance to shine when the music world finally allowed her to integrate her primary skill into a pop context. Here, however, all of Basil’s strengths work against her. The same commanding physicality that makes this song’s music video so indelible translates to an unpleasantly overwhelming listening experience. Cheerleader chanting, much like musical theater, is meant to be experienced at a distance- on stereo speakers (or, god forbid, headphones), it’s so shouty and rah-rah-rah that you feel worn out just by listening to it. Even the rather ingenious melding of Elvis Costello-y new wave to that chanting only serves to infect the more normal-sounding parts of the song with loathsome cheering chipperness. Basil’s weaknesses also, unsurprisingly, work against her here. She had been fairly successful in showbiz for nearly two decades by 1983, without doing a whole lot in the way of singing, and “Mickey” shows that that may have been for a reason. Sure, the spiky guitar backdrop mitigates her lack of tunefulness, but at the end of the day she’s still way out of her depth. In a lot of ways, “Mickey” represents a turning point in the history of the music video. Like many of MTV’s early adopters, Toni Basil was an extraordinarily gifted creative, enticed to make something striking and unique by a medium that had yet to be explored, and this song’s stubborn persistence in American life makes a compelling case that she at least partially succeeded. Like the hordes of vapid eye-candy that began flocking to the channel around this time, she ultimately didn’t have the tunes to back up the image, and leaned on an unholy blend of high-energy gimmickry and rote repetition to fill in for interesting songwriting. “Mickey” is a land of contradictions. “So fine”, it most certainly isn’t.
#3: Stray Cats- Stray Cat Strut
The Stray Cats suck. They were probably the first act that could be fairly called a product of MTV, and I mean that in the least complimentary way- If Devo and their new wave compatriots saw the Music Video as a new frontier of musical expression, the Stray Cats saw it as a shortcut to undeserved fame and fortune. I have enough faith in the decency of the record-buying public to assume that if the Stray Cats hadn’t had the benefit of Brian Setzer preening and posing all over their ridiculous music videos, the ugly, tuneless sludge they were attempting to pass off as the second coming of Sun Records would have been summarily dismissed by any and all. Of the two hits marking the band’s mercifully brief stint as top-40 royalty, “Stray Cat Strut” is undeniably the less egregious, which is probably the nicest thing I can say about it. This sounds like a first draft, the kind of thing Chuck Berry would have shit out in 10 minutes to fill the back half of an LP. It sacrifices the zip of “Rock This Town” (probably their least awful single to date) for a minor-key, midtempo slink, but it falls totally flat because it just isn’t cool at all. For this kind of simmering bluesy groover, you need lyrics that actually sell some sense of badassery, and “a cat doing cat things” is no one’s idea of badass. Furthermore, you need confidence and charisma, and Brian Setzer will always and forever come off like a desperate fanboy working his ass off to emulate his ‘50s heroes. He doesn’t have the starpower to sell it. Even if the production wasn’t a muddy disaster, even if the songwriting had a bit more substance to it, the hard truth about rockabilly is that you need to be a true-blue rock god to pull it off. These cut-and-dry wannabes never had a prayer.
#2: Air Supply- Making Love Out of Nothing at All
“Making Love Out of Nothing at All” is the worst Air Supply song, which in a way means that it’s also the best Air Supply song. This band’s biggest problem from day one was their inability to incite even the most meager emotional response through their milquetoast approach to soft-rock balladry, so the fact that this song manages to get a bit of a rise out of me is arguably a point in its favor that none of their other songs can claim. Lame and uncreative as they are, I don’t actually find any of the duo’s previous hits to be worth much hate, but “Making Love…” is absolutely worth a groan and an eye-roll each and every time it comes on in your local grocery store, since it has enough of a flavor to be noticeably distasteful. I’ve said that Air Supply’s music wasn’t overblown enough to go up against any proper power ballads, your “Faithfully”s and your “Total Eclipse of the Heart”s (both of which also hit the charts this year). “Making Love…” proves me at least partially incorrect there: ramping up the melodrama doesn’t do a thing to lift Air Supply to the level of those other songs. Matter of fact, this and “Total Eclipse” were both written by the same guy, Jim Steinman, and in a lot of ways the two songs are very, very similar, especially in how a more intense vocal cadence in the chorus leads up to a more subdued refrain that includes a title-drop. But where Bonnie Tyler had a voice that could fill a stadium and lyrics that at least approximated romantic angst with a bit of oomph, Air Supply has Russel Hitchcock belting out the same whining, reedy moans that stunk up so many other bands in this lane (COUGHstyxCOUGHCOUGHchicago), and Steinman penning an absolute fever dream of poetic vagueries and underhanded bragging, which his lead vocalist is unsurprisingly ill-equipped to handle. As their last major hit in the mainstream, I suppose you could make the case that Air Supply ended on a high note with this one. They clearly didn’t have the talent to make something actually good, but at the very least they managed to suck with a little more fire in their bellies before bidding the pop charts adieu.
#1: Stray Cats- (She’s) Sexy + 17
So, having established that the Stray Cats are complete poseurs sweatily mimicking the likes of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins to greatly diminished returns, we must now turn our attention to the point where their already tiresome and threadbare schtick sank to truly reprehensible depths, “Sexy + 17”. Every production issue plaguing “Stray Cat Strut” has been ramped up to the nth degree, with an overly-reverbed mix that sounds almost unlistenably cluttered given the quicker tempo and more energetic performances on offer. Even the high-definition digital remaster sounds like wet garbage; I can scarcely imagine what it sounded like coming through an FM radio or cable signal in the 1980s. On a purely sonic level it’s one of the ugliest singles I’ve encountered in at least the last half-decade’s worth of year-end charts, and things only get worse once attention is paid to the lyrics. It should probably go without saying that Setzer and co. get into some unfortunate gray areas here- and let’s be fair, it is still only a gray area, given that the narrator is probably meant to be of a similar age . Yeah, you’ve got “Just a dollar ticket in and twenty-five cents for a beer” implying he’s at least 21, but with the rest of the lyric belaboring as it does a very teenaged “SCHOOL SUX” mentality, I’d forgive anyone for giving this one a pass, even if I personally still find it sort of skeevy. The bigger problem is how totally dull and boilerplate it all is, a soulless rehash of “School Days” that totally misses everything that made that song work. I’m actually not a huge fan of “School Days” either, but I’ll give it this: it recognized how silly and juvenile the premise was and leaned into it instead of, again, trying to make it all “badass”. But no, this can’t just be a fun song about a kid ditching class. No, he has to go party hard with his friends and hit up a bar he probably isn’t even old enough to get into and play a totally sick guitar solo maaaan. You see what I mean about these guys being poseurs? Everything about their music and image conveys just how badly they wanted to embody pure Outsiders greaser cool, but it’s that very obsession with coolness that rendered them so wretchedly lame. As punk rock rewrote the rules on what counterculture looked like and stood for, “Sexy +17” scanned as passé, yes, but also as image-conscious, in a way that no song about being horny for a 17-year-old should ever, ever be.