Friends, it's been a hell of a year. Mostly in bad, bad ways. But you know what else was bad, in a glorious, redeeming way? 2016's pop music, which chugged along as reliably as ever, full of forgettable hooks and risible lyrics. In a year when politics turned upside down and cherished celebrities died in droves (I started writing this on Tuesday, and 5 minutes after I wrote this sentence, I learned of the deaths of both Carrie Fisher and Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, which for me is probably the saddest death of the year, though mitigated a bit since the man was 96), pop music was there for us in its comforting mediocrity, lulling us into sweet numbness with its lukewarm-oatmeal aesthetic.
As usual, I listened to way too much of it (the things I do for you people). What's glorious about the songs that stuck out to me this year as the worst of the worst is the way they seemed to fall into stereotypical narratives thrown around in the world of pop music. So instead of a numbered list (though I will designate the final song as the worst of the year), I'm presenting them this year with a title attached to each to explicate its place in a pop music geography that, no matter how much the sounds change, remains suspiciously static. These songs are all listed as being released in 2016, and in general they are those that I discovered via Top 40 Radio; I may be a masochist, but in a lazy way, and I'm not going out of my way to plumb the crappy depths of subgenres like country or metal. I also have no interest in trawling through MySpace to find the actual worst song of the year, which was likely written by a teen garage band from Sioux Falls with a name like Cannabus Stop! So, without further ado:
Justin Timberlake - Can't Stop the Feeling!
The narrative: Pop star who sells out and produces an unbelievably irritating song for a major motion picture.
I'll say up front that I'm a secret(ish) admirer of Justin Timberlake, who consistently creates impeccably produced, undeniably catchy pop songs. And I'm not surprised that Timberlake, who lends his voice to the Trolls movie, would also step in to provide an upbeat sonic confection to slap onto the soundtrack.
What baffles me about this song is this: Timberlake is the proud father of a small boy. You'd think that would make him sensitive to the concerns of parents, who regularly have to deal not only with being dragged to subpar animated films to get their kids to shut up for a few hours, but also the songs churned out from those films, scientifically designed to be screamed over and over again by young, tone deaf voices. (Remember "Let it Go"?). So why, why, why would Timberlake inflict this monstrosity of a song on the world? It manages to combine the utter catchiness of Timberlake's oeuvre with the earbleed-inducing stupidity of, well, all children's music. What's extra strange is that it keeps the basic format of a Timberlake song (I'm gonna get you on the dance floor and sex you up with my sexy body) and runs it through the PG scrub filter, in such a way that the resulting lyrics are somehow more creepy than they would be otherwise. Gems like "All those things I shouldn't do/But you dance, dance, dance/Ain't nobody leaving soon so keep dancing" sound like they should be coming out of a loudspeaker at a North Korean labor camp.
(Special note: the video I've chosen for this song is not the official music video - rather, it's the "GoNoOdle" workout (?) video for kids. Nothing else seemed to capture the glitter-and-poop aesthetic of the song so well)
Meghan Trainor - Me Too
The Narrative: Musician who disastrously tries to swap out their signature style for another, even worse one.
When Meghan Trainor forcibly crowbarred her way onto the national pop scene a few years back, she did it via a "sassy" approach to body positivity and a misbegotten affection for doo wop. Her "hit" "song" "All About That Bass" melded these two traits together into a Frankenstein of a song that was, all in all, a little too bland to be truly offensive, but a few good notches below listenable.
All I can say for Trainor's 2016 hit "Me Too" is that it makes me long for the halcyon days of "All About That Bass". To paraphrase the great Walter Sobchak, say what you want about the tenets of faux doo wop, at least it's an aesthetics. Trainor has here traded in her somewhat distinct (however lame) sound for a factory approved, heavily technologized monotone. It does her no favors.
As for the lyrics, well, I get that she's presumably trying to poke fun at her celebrity status here, but the result is so toothless it couldn't slurp down a bowl of creamed corn. Seriously, this is a song about celebrity so anodyne it makes Nickelback's "Rockstar" seem like it flowed from the pen of H.L. Mencken. The most irritating thing about the lyrics is the fact that the song can't even nail down its tenses properly: "I thank God every day/That I woke up feeling this way". Hand that sentence to a high school English teacher and watch their head explode as they try to parse it. A consolation prize should be handed out to the couplet "My life's a movie - Tom Cruise/So bless me baby, achoo", truly a masterwork of blurting out the first thing that comes into your brain when in a lyric-penning session.
I will admit though, I'm pretty jealous of that giraffe hoodie she's wearing in the video. If that's the sort of thing celebrities get to wear with impunity, sign me up.
American Authors - Go Big or Go Home
The narrative: awful white men inexplicably get a second chance.
Look, if you are reading this blog post, you are presumably a sophisticated, web savvy person, so I don't want to insult your intelligence by assuming you haven't already seen the video of the greatest sports press conference of all time. But, it's relevant here, so here's our man in Havana Dennis Green to set us up:
No other video can adequately sum up how I feel about American Authors. If you know me well, you probably know of my long running feud with this band's turd of a 2014 single "Best Day of My Life" (second in intensity on my list of feuds behind only my vendetta against Jai Courtney), which is the song equivalent of a #blessed selfie. Look, I guess I'm not too surprised that we didn't instantly relegate American Authors to the realm of national embarrassments never to be spoken of again, like Warren G. Harding or the Macarena craze, but I am disappointed.
And here they come again, only two years later, with a song which seems utterly indistinguishable from "Best Day of My Life". Paean to YOLOing? Check. Godawful banjo? Check. Lead singer with the most smug, punchable face this side of Milo Yiannopolous*? Check and check!
At the same time, I have to admire American Authors for their complete dedication to crafting songs as devoid of content as possible. I've written before about the plague of vagueness in songs, but these guys are spearheading the effort to make such vagueness an art form. They are the avant guarde of the local craft inanities movement. Spend a few minutes analyzing lines such as "I gave the dice a roll/And then we lost control/You know we're lucky that we survived" or "It's getting crazy/We're gonna do some things that we won't forget" and then tell me honestly that the lyrics to this song couldn't have been written by a Van Wilder promotional Bro Phrase Generator. Shame on us, America, shame on us.
*If you don't know who this is, count your blessings, and please, please don't look him up.
Twenty One Pilots - Heathens
The narrative: indie act breaks through, becomes immediately insufferable.
Look, all power to Twenty One Pilots, who spent a good number of years touring and building a fan base before finally breaking through this year into the mainstream. I haven't absolutely hated the several songs they have had chart this year, but there's something about their sound that just sticks in my caw. Thankfully they released "Heathens" as a part of the Suicide Squad soundtrack, so I have a convenient receptacle into which to channel my disgust.
Full disclosure: I haven't seen the Suicide Squad movie (I'm not that much of a masochist), but from everything I've seen or heard it appears to be the celluloid incarnation of a Hot Topic Store. If that's true, then "Heathens" is the sweaty, pimply cashier manning the Hot Topic register in his "I Hear Voices. They Don't Like You" t-shirt. The only bright spot about the song is that it appears to be built entirely around a sample of a bullfrog letting loose its barbaric yawp in the Louisiana bayou.
Seriously, this is the sort of song that comes across as profound to teenagers who wear the same Slayer shirt day in and day out, until a nice crust has built up around the armpit area. And why not? Lyrics such as "Just because we check the guns at the door/Doesn't mean our brains will change from hand grenades". Whoah, dude, are you telling me that you are seriously disturbed and that your brain works differently than others, so much so that you must compare it to an explosive device? Too deep for me. I bet that you're so strange that faces come out in the rain, too, right?
I love that the end of the song involves the person being addressed throughout, and told to stay away, joining up with the group - BECAUSE THEY'VE BECOME STRANGE TOO. Given that the true fans of Twenty One Pilots (many of whom are presumably unhappy that the washed masses have decided to like them as well) call themselves the Skeleton Clique, this feels appropriate. Like Juggalos, but somehow less interesting, Twenty One Pilots fans are true believers - normies need not apply.
The Worst Song of the Year
Goo Goo Dolls - So Alive
The narrative: rock has beens return from county fair duty for one last shot at glory, instead produce drivel.
Look, I'm not sure I can scientifically measure the terribleness of every song this year, so perhaps "So Alive" would get edged out by another song if the process were more rigorous. But here's why I gave it the edge: not only is it absolutely terrible, it certainly feels like the least necessary song of the year. It has been 18 years since Goo Goo Dolls released "Iris", their only song to really leave its mark on the public consciousness. Who was begging for another round of plain oatmeal from one of the blandest acts in pop music history?
Yet here they come, saddling up for one more ride. Even though they're getting to old for this hit... making scene, they've bravely saddled forth to save us from the perils of actually memorable music. And so they bring us "So Alive" a song destined to be played on loop at anesthesiologist offices, accountant conventions, and any other gathering spaces where those in charge can't risk the mood turning mellow - they don't want things to get that out of hand.
I would analyze some of the lyrics, but I'm afraid staring at lines like "Breaking down the walls in my own mind/Keeping my faith for the bad times/Get up, get up, stand like a champion/Take it to the world/Gonna sing it like an anthem" will put me to zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Oh, sorry. Where were we? Oh yes, "So Alive". Remember two slots ago when I talked about the YOLO aesthetic of "Go Big or Go Home"? Well, "So Alive" is what happens when that aesthetic gets drained of any spark of energy. It's a kid who's been put on Ritalin even though what he really needs is a few laps around the backyard. It's the sort of song you would hear in a movie montage about conformity - be it in the Soviet state of the halls of a high school - and think, "Now that's a little too on the nose for a music cue". It's the "punt on 4th and 1 in your opponent's territory" of songs. But maybe that's what we needed in 2016. In a year of craziness, perhaps we just needed a song to slowly drain all feeling from our bodies. Thank you, Goo Goo Dolls, for numbing our pain just a little with your mediocrity.