It feels like I should have more to say at the top of the worst list for my least-favorite year for chart pop. But I don’t. 1989 sucked, and these 10 songs sucked the hardest. On with the show!
#10: New Kids on the Block- I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)
This is probably at least somewhat a function of the generational gap between the band and I, but New Kids on the Block really just do not seem ready for prime-time to me. Not that they were strictly untalented or even outright bad, they had a couple pretty good songs and only a few outright stinkers, but even the songs of theirs I don’t hate have the distinct aroma of a first draft, a formula yet to be refined to its most potent self. Songs like “I’ll Be Loving You” sound like the moment where someone first realized that all the teen-pop trends of the past 30 years could be assimilated neatly into an unstoppable moneymaking ray aimed directly at adolescent hearts, the first steps towards cobbling the Osmonds and the Beatles and quiet storm romance and dance-pop bombast and hip-hop ‘tude all into one unified Thing that transcended the sum of its parts. NKOTB never really got that far, though— all their songs sound at least a little like somebody else’s, lean a little too far in one direction (ha) or another and let the dizzying, dead-centered pop alchemy of future greats like the Backstreet Boys or BTS slip through their fingers in the process. Towards the end of their run, this mostly manifested as deeply sweaty attempts at establishing “street cred”, but in their 80s infancy, the New Kids were investing more into the boneless adult-contemporary that still somehow had the charts by the balls. Speaking of being had by the balls, the track is brought down an awful lot by lead singer Jordan Knight’s Frankie Valliesque falsetto, managing every bit of the nails-on-chalkboard aggravation of the original article (see, there’s another kink future groups would iron out: boy bands should not have “lead singers”). It’s brought down even further by flimsy production and a pointed lack of enthusiasm on Knight’s bandmates’ parts, but all these issues orbit the central, crippling fact that no one involved with NKOTB really seemed to have much of a guiding vision for them. It sounds like they just aren’t sure yet what a “boy band” is meant to sound like, and in a year where everything was sounding more and more like everything else, that lack of identity is all bug, no feature.
#9: Breathe- How Can I Fall?
What “How Can I Fall?” lacks in vague allusions to spirituality it more than makes up for with, um… hang on, it makes up for it by… hmm. Not much, really. Frontman David Glasper puts a little more oomph into his delivery, belting where “Hands to Heaven” intoned, but other than that, this song finds one of the most generic bands of the decade shoring up their anonymity for a finished product that can indeed be called a finished product. The music is such stock 80s gruel that it would only waste my time and yours to describe it any further, but the lyrics are where the everything-to-everyone train these guys love to ride fully derails and flies into a gulch. The narrator is with a girl, see, but he doesn’t love her and is trying to find a way to let her down easy. Or, uh, he does love her but he feels like the relationship is moving too fast? Or maybe he isn’t with this girl at all, but she wants to get together and he isn’t ready to be in a relationship yet? He says his heart’s “not always there”, so maybe he likes her but wants to wait until he’s sure it’s more than just a crush? All equally plausible interpretations, all equally supported and unsupported by a pile of vague and clichéd allusions to romantic strife of some kind. “How Can I Fall” is the rasa-est tabula of the year: easy to project onto, sure, but handing in a blank canvas is only ever gonna get you a big, fat F in my gradebook.
#8: Paula Abdul- Straight Up
It’s very refreshing to be able to say this: “Straight Up” sounds like a million bucks. The synth bass has enough weighty resonance to anchor the verses, the guitar chords underpinning the chorus give it a buzzing sense of drama, and the synth fills are unleashed so robotically that you can almost hear the gears whirring behind ‘em. It looks like a million bucks, too: Abdul had been making music videos for much longer than she had been making music in ‘89, and she and director David Fincher put their heads together for a simple black-and-white clip that uses blurred movements and super-tight shots to get the viewer in the same what-the-hell-is-going-on headspace the lyrics describe. On that tip, though, we must now turn our attention to the songwriting on display, and for all the compliments I can lavish Elliot Wolff with as a producer, when it comes to constructing a competent radio hit he’s badly lost at every point past the broadest strokes. “Straight Up” is a veritable clinic in how not to write a pop song, peppered with a million tiny, maddening missteps and things that would just make so much more sense if only they were tweaked ever so slightly.
Take the chorus, for instance: When you write a pop chorus, you want to start strong and finish strong, kick in the door with something flashy and exciting and leave ‘em eager to hear it again in 45 seconds. Let’s use one of my favorite songs as an example, “New Mistake” by Jellyfish. The first thing that happens in the chorus is a walk-up into the singer’s falsetto register (“ooh, he’s singing different, better pay attention!”), and the last thing that happens is a title drop (“Ah, so that’s why the song is called that!”). All this is to say that, when you have an incredibly direct, no-frills chorus with the same melody line twice over an ABAB rhyme scheme, choosing whether to finish with “hit and run” or “having fun” should really be a no-brainer. I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that everybody who likes this song would like it just a teensy bit more if the first and second halves of the chorus had been swapped, allowing the question of the narrator’s partner’s devotion to build to a dramatic head (tinged with a bit of genuine horror, I daresay): Am I caught in a hit and run? The reverse feels like putting emphasis on the wrong syllable. “Straight Up” is crammed to the goddamn gills with wrong syllables. It’s never the sort of thing you’ll notice just humming along in your car, but put it under a microscope and you will quickly find that you can barely go two beats without a word that has to stretch out awkwardly to make a rhyme fit, or a line that doesn’t do anything to develop the emotion of the song, or “caught in the slamming door”, or a fade-out in a song that should under NO CIRCUMSTANCES have ended with a fade-out unless they just couldn’t think of an actual ending and didn’t bother to write one. From stem to stern it’s some of the sloppiest, laziest writing I’ve ever seen on a hit song, and the many considerable points in its favor, for me at least, only add up to a whole lot of wasted potential.
#7: The B-52’s- Love Shack
I do not care very much for “Love Shack” at all. I find it overbearing. Nothing against the B-52’s as a band! Heck, I’ve barely listened to ‘em outside this song, and reports are generally pretty positive from those who have. To complicate things even further, this song’s parent album Cosmic Thing was not only a long-overdue mainstream breakthrough for an act that had been proving their rock bonafides for over a decade at this point, it was also a heart-warming comeback after the tragic, untimely death of guitarist Ricky Wilson from AIDS in 1985! So to eliminate any and all ambiguity, I exclusively dislike this song because its retro aesthetics strike me as garish and cloying, because frontman Fred Schneider’s delivery sounds like he is yelling directly into my ear in a misguided attempt to be zany, and because the hook just keeps. On. Going. I can get with a good incessant hook if the repetition reveals further details in the songwriting or instrumentation, but alas, “Love Shack” is not a song of further details; I don’t think that even the song’s fans would dispute that it’s pretty much a WYSIWYG situation. And hey, more power to the band for making those candy-colored party jams for those who appreciate ‘em, but I prefer my pop sugar rushes a lot less kitschy.
#6: Fine Young Cannibals- She Drives Me Crazy
I’ve alluded to the suffocating homogeneity of the late 80s several times now, but what that usually means is that everything was boring, nothing took me off guard, every second felt like I could have guessed it right at the beginning. The monogenre stew is bland, sure, but at least I can choke it down with a little effort. In the case of “She Drives Me Crazy”, however, the monogenre becomes something much worse: ear-scrapingly irritating. This is mostly thanks to FYC frontman Roland Gift, who sings the hook here like Jimmy Fallon doing Barry Gibb, a breathy, halting keen that’s just powerful enough to wheedle its way into my brain stem without being powerful enough to actually, y’know, sound good. The end of the chorus is frankly unacceptable for any group claiming to be professional musicians; the weak, trailing-off cadence of “I can’t help myself” combining with Gift wheezing out the words at his very most nasal makes for the worst ten seconds in pop this year. The rest of the song is just as annoying and pointless, featuring a slew of processed-to-shit guitar chords and a thudding drum machine that drives me nearly as crazy as Gift’s pitiful shrill. It’s a little bit funk, a little bit rock, a little bit dance, and a major damn headache all-around.
#5: Milli Vanilli- Girl I’m Gonna Miss You
An ‘89 worst list without Milli Vanilli would be like a ‘76 worst list without Starland Vocal Band, or a ‘62 worst list without Pat Boone— for anyone who was there at the time, they will forever be synonymous with the Top 40’s most vapid and cynical proclivities. Fewer reputations in pop have cratered faster or harder than that of the the hottest R&B duo of 1989 (and ONLY 1989); they wouldn’t even make it to New Year’s Day 1990 before everyone and their mailman was deriding Milli and their Vanilli as talentless frauds propped up by shadowy corporate machinations.
Here’s the short version: a weird little goblin named Frank Farian came across two photogenic black German dudes with eye-catching, chest-length dreads and decided to make them the faces of his faceless pop song assembly line, mostly by lying that he would eventually make genuine pop singers of them. The resultant music is mostly much too prefab and shallow to get much of a reaction of any kind from me (“Blame it on the Rain” is so unremarkable that I didn’t even remember I had already heard it when I listened to it a second time for the 1990 year-end), but “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” is inept enough to capture the essence of the whole shameful enterprise. First of all: why on Earth did Farian not trust his two beefcakes to sing what is very possibly the least vocally challenging song to hit the charts to this point? Especially given the poor job done by the singers on the track, the whole thing already sounds like the karaoke bar version of itself; it’s hard to imagine Fab Morvan or Rob Pilatus faring much worse on the stumbling, half-rapped verses and wispy choruses. Of course, that’s only its most noteworthy problem. Its biggest problem is— stop me if you’ve heard this one before!— that it’s a drippy bore with hideous, chintzy production that somehow drives the fake-rhodes/fake-woodblock/fake-strings trinity even further into the ground than the likes of Lionel Richie had already driven it, and that’s before they bust out what has to be the most limp-dicked saxophone noodling this side of Kenny G.
#4: Bette Midler- Wind Beneath My Wings
The last time Bette Midler appeared on a worst list, it was for “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, one of my very least favorite pop songs of all time. Despite being Midler’s first big hit, “Bugle Boy” felt even at the time like a detour, a genre exercise for a talented young entertainer looking to show off her range. And range she most certainly had! Her greatest hits albums feature more Beatles and John Prine covers than old jump-blues numbers, and when she finally returned to the top 10 in the 80s, it was with swelling piano ballads and belted vocals that more evoked fellow glammy multi-hyphenate Barbra Streisand than the song that originally made her a going concern in the music world. 1980’s “The Rose” indicated that this shift was probably for the better, a lovely little number whose biggest crime is just not really being my kinda thing, but “Wind Beneath My Wings” does its damnedest to prove that her “new” sound can be every bit as excruciating as “Bugle Boy”. It doesn’t succeed, of course, because nothing is as excruciating as “Bugle Boy”, but it still comes far closer than I’d prefer. If someone ever wrote a musical tribute to me, I’d be pretty damn insulted if it’s even half as backhanded and self-serving as “Wind Beneath My Wings”. The lyrics here are, I suppose, somewhat touching coming from Midler specifically (Anyone here who thinks Martin Von Haselburg is the bigger star of the two? Nobody?), but as a general sentiment, “I know it must be hard being in the background while I get all the attention, but just know that I appreciate you being my sidekick”, is, put lightly, not exactly the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard. But sing along if you know the fuckin’ words, because maybe it would feel more romantic if it didn’t have the same soulless, slick, nothing sonic palette of every bad 80s song; it truly sounds like hot, metallic garbage. Especially compared to the stately grand piano and spacious orchestration of “The Rose”, “Wind Beneath My Wings” really underlines just how far the standards had fallen for ballads in only 9 short years.
#3: Cher & Peter Cetera- After All
Once again, as promised (sorry Cher):
#2: Prince- Batdance
Standing here, on the border between decades, we can see two Princes (two Princes who adore you). Behind us is Prince the icon, Prince the musical polymath and visionary pop-culture innovator, the man who single-handedly reinvented funk for a new generation. Ahead of us is an inscrutable, pretentious weirdo who insists on being called “o(+>” and seemingly spends more time plotting against his record label than recording in the studio (which is saying something because he is still spending a lot of time recording in the studio). And right in between, there’s “Batdance”, a demo reel disguised as a soundtrack single and one of the most profoundly weird hit songs I have ever heard in my entire life. Wikipedia describes it as “an amalgam of many of Prince’s musical ideas at the time”, which is fandom diplomacy if ever I’ve seen it.
More so than any other Prince song or even any other song, period, what “Batdance” reminds me the most of is this video (https://youtu.be/rrcV2W73rGc) of Wu-Tang Clan’s producer mastermind RZA tossing off a beat on a new gizmo he has clearly been using for all of fifteen minutes. There’s a similar brain-breaking absurdity at play here, watching one man who’s been a genius for so long he’s forgotten it takes actual work fart out something off the top of his head and declare “good enough”. I realize I’m sort of talking in circles here, but it’s awfully difficult to get to the core of a song that’s seemingly been built without one. Everything it does is so tenuously related to everything else it does that by the end you might not even realize that most of the pieces are sort of lacking on their own terms. For instance, the beat: It’s a testament to Prince’s skills that it took me multiple listens to fully clock how grooveless and leaden it is, but holy moly is it ever grooveless and leaden, landing like a cinderblock at precisely the two and the four until it gets interrupted by something or another. It does not spark joy and it certainly does not spark any dancing besides the ghastly little ballet routine shown in the music video. I never thought a Prince single with the word “dance” in the title would barely be able to coax so much as a head-bob from me, but that’s exactly where this aimless, cluttered rush job lands. ‘The artist formerly known as’, indeed…
#1: Tone Lōc- Funky Cold Medina
I won’t string you along: “Funky Cold Medina” is at the top of the worst list because I find it incredibly misogynistic. I gave it two points out of ten and both of those points are exclusively for the guitar-heavy 80s-rap beat, which makes good use of previous worst-list entrant “Hot Blooded”. It feels awfully strange to find myself writing a “sexist rapper” blurb in 2022, especially after a childhood spent absorbing the tail end of America’s moral panic over violent, degrading hip-hop music corrupting the souls of our schoolchildren. It seems even sillier today than it did when I was eight: come on, do these goobers also fear the politically incorrect influence of the WWE? Sex and drugs and violence did a plenty good job glorifying themselves before N.W.A. came along, and all the Scarface shit is just for effect anyway; the fantasy is only even sellable as a fantasy.
“Funky Cold Medina” is also a fantasy (at least I shitsure hope it is), about a magic elixir that causes anyone who consumes it to become irresistibly sexually attracted to you. See, we don’t have to adopt some ridiculous, concern-trolling register to criticize this song— even as a purely imagined and chemically improbable scenario, this shit makes my skin crawl. It isn’t just getting laid, or getting laid more often, or even being able to woo any gal you want without breaking a sweat, the fantasy here is SPECIFICALLY AND EXPLICITLY centered around undermining women’s agency for sexual gratification. But wait, you say! Aren’t the second and third verses both about how using the drug goes wrong for the narrator? It’s like a silly cautionary tale, right? Right, of course, how could I forget the part where he decides to stop drugging women because one of them starts expecting commitment (you know how wimminfolk are, right fellas)? Or the part where he throws one of his victims out of his house (and punches her, in the video) after finding out she’s trans, because even a date rapist wouldn’t dream of sleeping with some disgusting crossdresser. Fucking hysterical. Hope you’re having fun with your spots on the nostalgia circuit, Tone. I’ll be over here in the 21st century, enjoying rappers that can actually flow.
SPECIAL END-OF-DECADE PARAGRAPH!!!
…Whew, that was a whole lot of negativity right there. As I do at the end of every PGTY season, I want to take a moment to thank each and every person who has read along, commented, shared, or even argued with me to this point. I truly cannot express how much it means to me that this thing has actual fans— possibly even more than 20 of them! I hope it hasn’t shown too blatantly, but I’ve struggled a lot to find motivation for the last six or so PGTY lists, especially the worst lists. Even as this project has far surpassed my (admittedly very low) expectations of success and writerly fulfillment, keeping up with the grind and forcing myself to analyze songs I hate every other week has definitely been wearing me down lately, especially given my particular ire for the years I’ve covered most recently. All this to say that, yes, PGTY is taking another hiatus while I get a head-start on plotting out season four.
HOWEVER, given my recent flirtations with writing burnout, I also want to change things around a bit, give myself a carrot to help cope with the stick of the worst lists, something to skew my perspective more positively and keep my mojo up. To this end, I am introducing the Pop Goes the Year Non-Hit Honorable Mentions list: ten more songs, tacked onto the end of each worst list, which have not seen much chart action, but which I enjoy a great deal and want to get the word out about anyway. I love music and love to love music, and I want to reinforce that spirit by leavening the meaner reviews with some cool stuff that I think deserves a wider audience. And 1989 is a great place to start, being one of the oldest years where I actually do know a considerable number of songs that weren’t hits from this year! So, without further ado, my top 10 favorite non-hits of 1989:
- Soundgarden- Loud Love
- The Cure- Pictures of You
- Kate Bush- Love and Anger
- Pixies- Monkey Gone to Heaven
- NoMeansNo- Oh No! Bruno!
- Beastie Boys- Shadrach
- The Flaming Lips- Hari-Krishna Stomp Wagon
- Bitch Magnet- Joyless Street
- Fugazi- Suggestion
- The Stone Roses- She Bangs the Drums
Fun stuff! Anyway, join me in (probably) the first few weeks of 2023 to get jiggy with the decade that birthed yours truly: THE NINETIES. Until then, happy listening!