Imbecile at Work

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(Pictured: Harry Chapin, godfather of “World’s Worst Songs.”)

I used to have a wider audience than I do now. From 2008 to 2012, I wrote for CBS Interactive, after the company relaunched legendary New York City album-rock radio station WNEW as a website and Internet stream. I still can’t imagine by what alchemy they found me on this lightly traveled corner, but it was fun for a long time, at least when they remembered to pay me. (Many freelancers will tell you that the bigger the company, the harder it is to get paid in a timely fashion.) A little of the site survives at Internet Archive, but most of it is gone.

Between 2011 and 2013, I contributed to Popdose. At that time, the site was a vibrant pop-culture magazine that deserved an audience of millions—it was that good, with an excellent stable of writers and inventive content. One Day in Your Life appeared there for a while, as did a series about #1 albums (which also appeared at WNEW for a bit), and a series called World’s Worst Songs. Pieces on “Taxi” and “Same Old Lang Syne” that were first seen at this website appeared there, and lots of others written exclusively for Popdose.

I was looking for something else the other day and ended up rereading a few of my World’s Worst Songs posts, and I was amused by some of the reader comments.

Tell somebody that something they like sucks, arguing in detail, and they tend to get defensive, or angry, or mean, or weird. My criticism of “Taxi,” in which I suggested that Harry Chapin leaves out too much of the story to make it worth caring about, inspired a lot of people to suggest that the imagery is too subtle for my poor limited brain to comprehend—and then they went on to make subtle interpretations that the text doesn’t support: “What’s left unmentioned is that the girl is a prostitute (she was gonna be an actress, get it?).” Or they simply shake their heads at what an idiot I am: “She’s unhappily married and trapped. He’s moved past the whole thing because it was a long time ago. It’s really not that hard to figure out…..Sheesh!” That guy had it right, actually. That is the story, but a recap does nothing to respond to my point, which is that the story is poorly told.

Some of the other comments on the “Taxi” piece bordered on non-sequiturs. One was similar to several I got on “Same Old Lang Syne”: “Who hurt you to produce such bitterness?” As if the only reason one might be critical of a piece of art is because they have suffered a personal wound somehow related to it, or they have some emotional baggage or defect that comes into play. People respond to music criticism that way all the time, and it’s befuddling to me. (When someone says they don’t like a particular book or movie, nobody responds, “Wow, who hurt you?”) Another said, “Low blow. Harry Chapin prevented thousands of people from dying from hunger.” That’s true, but it’s also completely irrelevant. Chapin’s admirable record of philanthropy doesn’t make his record suck any less.

The comments of earnest folk defending a song they like need to be separated from those of Internet trolls. During the time I was writing, Popdose had a prolific one, a guy who used to excrete vicious nonsense on everyone’s posts (and not just at Popdose): of my “Taxi” post he wrote, “If the death penalty could be administered for risibly imbecilic music criticism, we’d have to direct the drone attack right over your home. Go get AIDS and die, you execrable piece of human garbage.” In the comments to a different post, he wrote, “Go gargle with razor blades, you fucking imbecile.” I did not feel like I was in personal, physical danger from him; he was only seeking attention. (I suppose there’s an argument that I should have felt threatened, and I might if it happened today, as opposed to 2013). But I ain’t mad about it, either. Of all the responses to anything I ever wrote anywhere, those two are my favorites.

Coming next week: more hate-comments. Coming this Friday: new podcast episode.

8 thoughts on “Imbecile at Work

  1. As you doubtless know, the razor-blade line is stolen from Joe Pyne. I would give the troll more credit if his/her (really, is there any chance it’s a woman?) shtick were truly original.

    I have heard a few criticisms in my time, particularly on a Bay City Rollers-related post from some years ago whose main point (which was actually positive toward Rollers fans) seemed to whistle past the people I was complimenting.
    That one still dogs me; I assume I was so wrapped up in the glory of my own words that I did not make my point clearly enough.

  2. mackdaddyg

    Now that you mention it, I guess there’s not a lot to Harry’s story, but the song runs six or seven minutes as it stands, so maybe more detail would just bog it down. Sometimes less is more, I reckon. Given the length of the song, I’m surprised Taxi was a hit.

    Are there any Chapin songs you do like? WOLD seemed to be a dj fave even if the programmers didn’t like it.

    1. Each listener has certain artists who leave us cold without much of an explanation. Harry Chapin is one of mine. I never cared for any of his stuff. Even “WOLD,” which has a lot of truth in it for a radio dude. It’s OK, but only just.

  3. Leo Edelstein

    Love your reviews. Thanks for dredging up Harry and “Taxi.” I had never listened closely to the words, but totally captured by the voice, melody, quirks, choir, uniqueness of Harry’s style. Now that I listen again, still love it. Never had an old flame enter my Boynton Cab #585, but do remember taking UWM chancellor J. Martin Klotsche home from Billy Mitchell Field, about 1973.

  4. mikehagerty

    “Taxi” is bloated, but it left an impression. A couple of years back, an unexpected mention of it from a stranger gave me a starting point for the review of the Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack Widebody:

    https://tirekicker.blogspot.com/2018/11/conversation-starter-2019-dodge.html

    Beyond that, well, I’m with JB on “WOLD” and “Cat’s In The Cradle” wore out its welcome on its way up the charts in ’74.

    “Sequel”? The actual sequel to “Taxi”? Best left unsaid. “What Made America Famous”? Worse. Right up (down?) there with Richard Harris’ “The Yard Went On Forever”.

    Though I couldn’t defend it beyond “I like it”—there is one. “Sunday Morning Sunshine”. And it’s two full minutes until he hooks me with “and I’ve never felt so far from alone, ’cause baby, you brought me half the way home”—and then into the chorus, which just somehow works at that point:

  5. porky

    “Cat’s in the Cradle” is better than “Taxi” but the “O. Henry ending” is there from about the first 30 seconds. And the line “as I hung up the phone it occurred to me…” is a cheap literary trick. It occurred to him he only had so many minutes to finish the song/record.

    Working in the used record biz in the late 80’s the LP with “Sequel” was one of those out-of-print records lots of folks wanted that you could always sell exorbitantly when a copy came in the store.

    1. mackdaddyg

      To be fair, I think his wife wrote the lyrics for “Cat’s in the Cradle” and he just wrote the music.

      Still, it was a hit and it will never go away for better or worse.

      I’m a casual Chapin fan but I understand why some folks don’t dig him. The style certainly hasn’t aged well (like a lot of things from the 70s) but as an entertainer, especially when it comes to fan interaction and using whatever celebrity power he had to help fight world hunger, he’s tops in my book.

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