The Music Police

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(Pictured: Charlie Daniels, on the right, at Volunteer Jam in 1980.)

As I wrote last week, I got a lot of hate-comments on my World’s Worst Songs posts at Popdose, when I wrote there a few years ago. One that upset many was about “The Legend of Wooley Swamp” by the Charlie Daniels Band. Like “Taxi,” this extremely minor 1980 hit offended me because it aspired to tell a story but then didn’t bother.

Something bad is going on out there, way back in Booger Woods: “they say the ghost of Lucius Clay gets up and he walks around.” He does not materialize, neither does he creep—he merely gets up and walks around, like he was a coronary bypass patient on the second day. Clay was a greedy old man who kept his money in Mason jars, except “on certain nights if the moon was right / He’d dig it up out of the ground / He’d pour it all out on the floor of his shack / And he’d run his fingers through it.” . . . 

Some local boys try to steal the money and end up sucked into the swamp for all eternity, but the story is told in such a dull manner that it’s barely worth caring about.

Ultimately, “The Legend of Wooley Swamp” is remarkably lazy. If it were a creative essay in a high-school English class, it would get red-penciled: “needs more vivid detail.” In a more advanced class, the note might be, “lacks narrative drive.” It’s a first draft that got handed in when the assignment was due.

And people got Big Mad:

IF U DONT LIKE IT,THEN DONT LISTEN IT !!! WHO THE HELL R U , THE MUSIC POLICE , YOUR AN IDIOT AND AN ASS (prolly a yankee asswell!!!)

Well, as a matter of fact, I am the Music Police: Officer Yankee Asswell, at your service.

While I respect the fact that you don’t like the song. This condescending article does almost nothing to prove it’s “one of the worst.” And this is not just some ignorant listener who’ll buy into anything with some kind of southern accent. I know a good deal about music and storytelling.

Well if you say so, it must be true.

And anyway, it’s an interesting contrast that he understates these strange happenings. It would be a cliche if the ghost “materialized and crept around.” If he “gets up and walks around” we get a vague image, yes, but we get an image of both a the story and the narrator. We know he’s not going into much detail, and we feel like there’s a reason.

So, better writing through weaker metaphors, then? Next:

its a hell of a story and verywell written and composed.if you can do better id like to hear it. . . . 

Anybody who writes about music anywhere is going to get this from time to time: “Can you write a song?” I cannot. But you don’t have to be the cook to know when dinner was a flop.

Next: people want to figure out what it is about you that makes you so wrong:

Maybe if you weren’t a city-raised millenial, you might understand.

I was raised on a dairy farm, jack, and I’ll bet I’m older than you. No really, I am:

You pussies weren’t even born then anyway. CDB was not Southern rock. .38 Special, Molly Hatchet, LS, Allman Bros. were Southern Rock. I would suggest you look for some of the CDB concerts called Volunteer Jam to see what different styles of music we listened to before PC bullshit came along and destroyed music.

“CDB was not southern rock”? Charlie Daniels himself would have disagreed with that. And even though Daniels consistently outed himself on social media as a horrid right-wing bigot, I didn’t say one damn thing about his politics. Yet this commenter decided to defend him on those grounds anyhow.

Will say again: “what about”-ism is the lowest form of argument, but lots of folks think it’s persuasive:

Coming from a site called POP DOSE, and you people care what they think about a southern rock/country rock song? LOL I don’t believe they have the right to call anything lazy giving the state of rap and pop music. It gets far far worse than this song! For those who wont even listen to the song, at the point you opinion is invalid because it’s uneducated!

What’s most interesting about that last comment (beyond its borderline illiteracy) is when it was posted: in November 2020, eight years after the original post appeared. It’s so good to hear from my readers in a timely fashion.

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.

Have Yourself a Skeevy Little Christmas

This post was in the can over at Popdose, but before it could run, the song it discusses was part of Popblerd’s Jukebox From Hell feature. Then Jeff and Jason took it apart for Mellowmas. So I yanked it from there and I’m putting it here. And screw all you guys.

Certain songs are so identified with the people who first recorded them that they should never be touched by anyone else. The original performance is so unique, or the style is so personal, that in the hands of any other artist, the song becomes a dumpster fire. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is one and “Stairway to Heaven” is another. You can probably think of more, but here’s one you may never have thought of before: “Santa Baby.”

“Santa Baby” was released at Christmas 1953 by Eartha Kitt, known mainly as a film and television actress in the 50s and 60s. You might know her as the actress who took over the part of Catwoman in the Batman TV series after Julie Newmar left the role. She is best known, however, for “Santa Baby,” in which she croons her Christmas list, stuffed with luxury items. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s an indelible performance.

The next-most-famous version of “Santa Baby” is the one by Madonna, released 25 years ago this Christmas on the first volume of A Very Special Christmas. Where Kitt comes across as a woman of substantial sexual power whose demands will not be ignored, Madonna’s more uptempo take sounds like the whine of a spoiled gold-digger, a woman who will perpetually want something, and after she gets it will start in asking for something else. It runs about 2:40 and couldn’t have taken much longer than that to record.

The first page of a “Santa Baby” search at YouTube uncovers versions by Taylor Swift, Kylie Minogue, Shakira, Kellie Pickler, and the cast of Glee. But there’s one in particular that needs to be singled out, because it is not merely a cover version of a song that should never be covered, but it’s a gender-switching version. Although Michael Bublé doesn’t change the title, he sings the song as “Santa buddy,” and there’s no mistaking it as one of the World’s Worst Songs.

Bublé changes up the list, asking among other things for a Rolex instead of a sable, decorations bought at Mercedes instead of Tiffany’s, and in the most painful substitution, “Canucks tix for kicks” instead of “a duplex and checks.” And instead of referring to Santa as “cutie” and “honey,” as female singers do, he calls him “pallie” and “poppy” in addition to “buddy.” Never mind that nobody talks like that, there’s something remarkably skeevy about it. It puts the “obscene” in “obsequious.”

The original “Santa Baby,” co-written by a woman, Joan Javits, is a clever holiday play on the cost of maintaining arm candy; putting that sensibility into the mouth of a male singer turns it into something I can’t find a word to describe except “ewwwww.”

Give Your Mom Some Cigarettes for Christmas

(I wrote this post for World’s Worst Songs over at Popdose, but then decided not to run it there. So it doesn’t go to waste, I’m editing it some and putting it here. You will probably find my drift to be familiar.) 

Christmas inspires many emotions. Boiling, murderous hatred should not be one of them, but the world does not always conform to our wishes. Of all the things there are to hate in this world, I hate “The Christmas Shoes” more than almost anything else.

“The Christmas Shoes,” for those amongst the readership fortunate enough to have avoided knowledge of it up to this point, was originally recorded by Newsong, a Christian rock outfit from Georgia that toiled in obscurity until “The Christmas Shoes” briefly busted them out of it. The song, about a ragged little boy who can’t afford new shoes for his dying mother and the department-store kibitzer who buys them for him, went to #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart at the end of the year 2000. The next year it inspired a novelization, which was turned into a TV movie the year after that. In one of the most delightful pop-culture juxtapositions of all time, the movie starred Rob Lowe, then 14 years removed from pioneering the celebrity sex tape.

Christmas is a sentimental time of year, no doubt. But “The Christmas Shoes” is an especially rank bit of sentimentality built on a relentlessly stupid idea: “I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight.” Shoes? The kid wants to buy shoes? What the hell? She ain’t walking anywhere. It won’t be long before her feet gonna be down in the damn casket where nobody can see them. Don’t you know anything about dead, boy?

It would be a lesser waste of the narrator’s money if he bought the kid a carton of cigarettes.

Despite its utter lack of redeeming value, “The Christmas Shoes” remains remarkably popular. People don’t run from the room when it comes on, and they sometimes call radio stations to request it.

Maybe it’s just me who runs from the room. Because I do. Every time.

I’d rather listen to “Same Old Lang Syne.”

On The Subject of Good Holiday Music: I hope you saw the AV Club essay on A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is loaded with solid observations: that the Peanuts perennial represents the last stronghold for two prominent 20th century American art forms now in decline, the comic strip and jazz, and that Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack permits viewers and listeners to improvise their own meanings, of the show and of Christmas itself. It’s the sort of essay I aspire to write, but can’t.

On The Subject of Holidays Past: It’s About TV is a website that shares a mission similar to the one at this blog. Each week, Mitchell Hadley uses past issues of TV Guide as his looking glass, much as we use record charts around these parts, to learn what we can about the way we used to be, and the way we are now. The most recent of these essays looks back to the issue of December 9, 1967. That series of essays in particular and It’s About TV in general are highly recommended.