Here we are at the end of 2013, what has turned out to be a fairly excellent and noteworthy year for music (Check out my other blog for coverage of the music I liked this year.). But like every year, there was plenty of bad to go with the good. Still, I had second thoughts about putting together another list of the worst songs of the year (2012’s list, in case you missed it). In writing this blog I’ve always tried to be civil and unprejudiced, to dig beyond surface impressions and simple analysis. But negative criticism is just as valid as positive criticism, as long as it’s genuine and well considered. If you can’t be passionate in your distaste for bad art, how can you be passionate in your love of good art? The following songs range from the dull to the idiotic to the morally repulsive, and I am very passionate about all of them.
11 Fall Out Boy: “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)”
2013 will surely be remembered as the year of the big comeback, but there are some bands the world was better off without. Fall Out Boy clearly don’t consider themselves one of those bands, they even named their album Save Rock and Roll, as if rock and roll was something that needed saving and they were just the group to do it. Lead single “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)” doesn’t sound much like salvation, in fact it sounds more like turgid, melodramatic arena schlock, complimented by falsetto screeching that would make an 80s hair metal band shake their heads in disdain. The lyrics are standard stuff, though significantly more embarrassing when you remember that lines like “a constellation of tears on your lashes, burn everything you love” and “I’m in the details with the devil” were written by a bunch of thirty somethings and not a teenager on MySpace in 2006. Fall Out Boy have never been critical darlings, but at least in their mid-decade heyday they were young and kind of relevant. Now they’re a joke, clamoring for an audience that probably listens more for nostalgia’s sake than the music itself, like a premature oldies act.
10 Avril Lavigne: “Bad Girl” (feat. Marilyn Manson)
In comparison to Fall Out Boy at least, an Avril Lavigne comeback might have been more welcome. Avril’s early hits were delightful pop cheese, full of cutely manufactured teen punk angst. But the chances that an Avril nearing 30 could convincingly recapture those mall punk glory days were slim to begin with, and all but impossible once new husband Chad Kroeger got involved. The singles are inoffensively bland—a duet with Kroeger, a couple of second-rate Taylor Swift imitations—but dig deeper and you’ll find “Bad Girl”, a remarkably ill-conceived collaboration with someone even more irrelevant than Avril, Marilyn Manson. “Just lay your head in daddy’s lap, you’re a bad girl,” Manson slurs disgustingly at the song’s start, setting a tone less of erotic fantasy than sexual abuse. Avril caterwauls Broadway-style over a sludgy hard rock riff about being a bad girl and a tease who wants to be choked and stroked. By Marilyn Manson, I guess. Not an image anyone wants to think about, surely. ”Bad Girl” was co-written by Kroeger and it ultimately recalls Nickelback’s long history of nauseating sex jams by being vaguely creepy, entirely unsexy and viscerally unappealing.
09 Jay-Z: “Picasso Baby”
It seems obvious now that Jay-Z stopped caring about music after his supposed retirement ten years ago. Besides the occasional flash of limited brilliance (2007’s American Gangster, mainly) his career has become a kind of tiresome quest to keep the Jay-Z “brand” relevant, fresh and profitable, and the music has been mostly awful as a result. This year’s Magna Carta Holy Grail was announced via commercial just days before the release of Kanye West’s Yeezus, and the whole campaign felt like a transparent attempt by Jay-Z at grabbing back the spotlight from his former protégé. Note the punny title, the minuscule gap between announcement and release date, the presence of Rick Rubin (He wasn’t actually involved in the production.). It looks like pure desperation, Jay-Z pleading to be seen as an authentic, creative figure, like Kanye.
"Picasso Baby" isn’t the weakest track on Holy Grail but it easily highlights the album’s shortcomings. Through most of the track Hove raps over a dated, fangless Timbaland beat about buying expensive paintings, incessantly name dropping the likes of Basquiat and Koons. Bragging is an integral part of hip-hop but Jay-Z’s art talk is so free of meaning or even indulgent fantasy that it becomes obnoxious. On another level, it’s insulting to the art and the artists themselves, proudly engaging works of art as pure status symbols, like expensive sports cars. He even spent six hours at the Pace Gallery making pretend performance art for the video, rapping at all sorts of famous faces, including Marina Abramović. Jay-Z may know how to exploit great art to sell albums (and Samsung phones) but he has no idea how to make it anymore.
08 Atoms for Peace: “Before Your Very Eyes…”
I know, we all went through that intense Radiohead phase at some point (apparently Avril Lavigne is going through it right now) but 2011’s The King of Limbs represented a disappointing slip into dull territory, and Thom Yorke’s side project Atoms for Peace has proven to be a deep and probing exploration of mediocrity. Featuring Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Atoms for Peace sounds more like an excuse for Yorke to explore the kind of electronic music he’s been spinning at celebrity DJ sets for the last few years. But unlike the dubstep and techno luminaries that dot his set lists, Yorke’s band sounds shapeless and flat. The songs on Amok all sort of blend together but lead single “Before Your Very Eyes…” is fairly representative: a colorless mush of plucky, aimless guitars, throbbing synths and ornately dull, pitter patter beats. Yorke’s signature mumble has transformed into a mind numbing drone, rarely changing pitch or form as he meanders through an entirely forgettable vocal melody. It sounds like electronic music made by people too unimaginative and out of touch to see what makes today’s best electronic music so vibrant and appealing.
07 Florida Georgia Line: “Round Here”
I’ll admit, there’s not much for me to say about “Round Here” that I didn’t say last year about Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah”, but I continue to be enamored with the way pop country divorces itself more and more from anything actually resembling country music. Oh the boys of Florida Georgia Line (one of whom appears to be the lead singer from Puddle of Mudd, I’m not really sure) will tell you all about stackin’ hay bales and drivin’ Chevy’s and puttin’ on the “country boy charm”, and they’ll twang every word of it to hell and add some banjo twiddle, but the sound you hear is essentially standard rock radio shit, and some particularly boring and odious shit at that. Maybe someday all the real, good old fashioned, down-home country boys listening to this garbage will realize they’ve been duped for years by the music industry, but I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon. I’d joke that in a year’s time we will have had our first bona fide dubstep country hit, but it’s probably true.
06 Pitbull: “Feel This Moment” (feat. Christina Aguilera)
Oh, Pitbull. Despite his doughy bald head, misguidedly enthusiastic showmanship and terrible taste in seemingly everything, you just can’t hate someone who is so incredibly embarrassing and so joyfully unaware of it. You can certainly hate his songs though, because they really are terrible. Pitbull has built his chart-topping career by structuring his songs around the most obvious samples imaginable, and “Feel This Moment” may be the most glaring example yet, grabbing everything it can from A-ha’s unmistakeable “Take On Me” and tacking on a stock house beat. Pitbull strings together some lines about making money and traveling the world, Christina Aguilera oversings some inspirational nonsense about glowing in a castle(??) and by the time you’re done listening, you start to wonder who actively seeks out and purchases this kind of music. Small children who don’t know any better? Floridians? I don’t know, but bless them for fulfilling the unlikely dreams of this funny looking man.
05 Imagine Dragons: “Radioactive”
Despite what their name would suggest, Imagine Dragons is not a one man vaporware project inspired by an obscure CD-ROM game but an rock band from Las Vegas who have deftly combined most of the worst things happening in music in the last few years into one awful sound. Their single “Radioactive” somehow mixes brostep squiggle synths, obnoxiously heavy and monotonous percussion (the guy in the video is literally beating a giant drum), groaning post-grunge vocals and Mumfordian barn dance shout-a-longs into a gormless lump of macho mediocrity. It’s been a massive hit, hurled forcefully into someone’s ears roughly every ten seconds by a trailer or commercial that wants to “welcome” us “to the new age” of their tired video game franchise or recently rebranded snack chip. See also the latest releases by OneRepublic, Bastille and AWOLNATION for more of this year’s ever increasing trend of vaguely “indie” anthems custom built for advertisers by spurious rock dudes.
04 Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: “Same Love” (feat. Mary Lambert)
I’m sure Macklemore’s heart is in the right place or whatever but “Same Love” has become a potent symbol of how misguidedly ignorant and silly “LGBT ally” culture has become. There are so many naggingly wrong things about “Same Love” that I’m not even sure where to start. Take for example Macklemore’s repeated, self-conscious reiteration of his own sexuality in that awful, self-centered first verse. Or how he maintains a painfully narrow focus on the most mild and least pressing issues possible (“Have you read the YouTube comments lately?”) Or how he manages to use a gay slur in his gay rights anthem. Or how he’s insistent on the idea that he’s essentially the first rapper to ever support gay rights, as if there isn’t an entire thriving community of queer rappers out there who he could have engaged with and given exposure to if he actually wanted to undermine homophobia in hip-hop. And of course, he’s an utterly terrible rapper. “When I was in the third grade I thought that I was gay, ‘cause I could draw” may be the worst lyric of the year.
Musically speaking, “Same Love” actually has a lot going for it. Ryan Lewis’s delicate, Impressions-sampling production is far from original, but still very pleasant on the ears, and the hook, sung by Mary Lambert (a real live gay person!), is quite lovely. It might have been great paired with a better MC (check out Angel Haze’s superior remix) but Macklemore is like a black hole of mediocrity, dragging down everything around him with the gravitational pull of a billion bad lines. The sentiment is nice and all but no one asked Macklemore to turn himself into some kind of gay rights icon, and queer people don’t need another straight guy trying to speak for them.
03 Lady Gaga: “Gypsy”
Though “Applause” looked like a mildly promising return to form for Lady Gaga, ARTPOP turned out to be nearly as much of a mess as Born This Way, and even more of a slog to get through, mired in boring, poorly structured songs. For the most part, the album carefully avoids the controversial subjects that Born This Way stumbled all over, but it wouldn’t be a Gaga album anymore without some casual racism and reappropriation. Opener “Aura” (originally titled “Burqa”) may have gotten all the attention but “Gypsy” is probably the most cringe-inducing offense ARTPOP has to offer. “Gypsy” is a standard dance belter that playfully exploits a racial slur and trivializes an entire culture so Gaga can moan about how hard it is being alone on the road.
In the song’s outro she jabbers, “I’m Russia, UK, Paris, I’m Italian, Asian, kompai, Africa, India, I’m a gypsy, gypsy, gypsy, I’m Latin American, I don’t speak German, but I try, someday in Jakarta, I’m American, I’m gypsy.” See, because she’s a “gypsy” traveling the world, Gaga can become a citizen of any nation or culture! And then of course go back to being a white American whenever she wants (thank god!). Listen, is this really so hard? Is it really so difficult not to be awful? Isn’t Gaga rich enough now that she could hire someone to gently close her lips and say “shhhhhh” whenever a racist idea falls out of her mouth? I’m available, if you’re reading this Gaga, please get in touch and I’ll send you my resume.
02 Brad Paisley: “Accidental Racist” (feat. LL Cool J)
Everything about Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist”, from the title onward, is egregious. See Brad is just a “proud rebel son” (from West Virginia, a state that seceded in order to avoid becoming part of the Confederacy) and he knows that his Confederate flag t-shirt offends a whole lot of people, but he’s just a “white man, comin’ to you from the Southland”, and he doesn’t understand why we can’t stop trying to “rewrite history”. Of course, while it’s important to move on and forget about the past completely (for those still sore over that slavery business), you should really take into account the effect the Civil War and Reconstruction had on the South and all those poor white folks. See, the effects of that are still being felt today. Paired with an unbearably maudlin country ballad tune, Paisley expresses this argument with all the intelligence, consideration and coherence of an anonymous commenter on a Yahoo! News article.
Halfway through “Accidental Racist”, LL Cool J shows up to make possible what might be the first ever musical approximation of the “I’m not racist, I have a black friend” argument. The Deep Blue Sea star backs up Brad’s lyrics and pleads with the listener for racial understanding. As the song triumphantly climaxes, he adds “if you don’t judge my do-rag, I won’t judge your red flag, if you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains,” thus equating modern hip-hop fashion with the systematic enslavement of millions of human beings. Stunningly horrible. “Accidental Racist” is the same idiotic, culturally inept argument that casual racists have been making to justify their casual racism for decades, transformed into a tone deaf pile of musical slop.
01 Robin Thicke: “Blurred Lines” (feat. T.I. and Pharrell)
"Blurred Lines" was arguably the biggest song of the year, propelling the modestly successful Robin Thicke to star status and worming its way into millions of heads. For all the attention and controversy it’s garnered (I’ll get to the controversy part in a moment) "Blurred Lines" is a fairly unremarkable song, musically speaking. It bobs along drunkenly through a grooveless groove that recalls white weddings, embarrassing dance moves and tired 70s pop staples more than anything else. It’s not just boring but surprisingly lazy, borrowing heavily from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” and Funkadelic’s “Sexy Ways”. Just, you know, sapped of all soul or funk. It’s disappointing work from producer Pharrell during an otherwise stellar comeback year, and it’s even more disheartening to see him galavanting around with Robin Thicke in the music video, giggling at tits like a schoolboy.
That video is really where all the controversy started, with it’s tiresome, crass parade of Terry Richardson-esque female nudity and the insufferably smug mugging of the song’s male creators, but the lyrics quickly drew even sharper criticism (and not just for how lazy they were too—“You wanna hug me? / What rhymes with hug me?” is not cute or clever, Robin.). Much has been written about the song’s content, both in outrage and defense, and while the music industry has produced mountains of more blatantly misogynistic songs, it’s dangerous to discount “Blurred Lines” as an innocent trifle. The song’s entire premise is that a woman’s sexual agency means nothing if she seems attracted to you, or if you just want to fuck her, with a repeated refrain of “I know you want it”. These kinds of lyrics may not read as “rape-y” to many people, but when compared to the words of actual rapists as reported by their victims, they become more than a little unnerving. Thicke himself has mostly shrugged off critics, telling GQ, “What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.” Thus proving once and for all that being sexist or racist or homophobic is totally cool, as long as it’s just like one or two times.
Misogyny is not remotely new territory for pop music (or any genre), male lyricists have been threatening and leering at women behind the guise of romance and innocent fun for decades, but “Blurred Lines” is unique because it’s the most popular song of the year, a song with a disgusting message pretending to be cute and harmless, accepted happily by millions of people without hesitation or criticism. That’s not only rape culture in powerful action but a sad example of the dark side of pop music. I love pop, I believe in it, I believe in good pop’s ability to inspire and empower (ahem). “Blurred Lines” proves that bad pop has just as much power to denigrate and trivialize.