“Fight Song” by Rachel Platten

I gave this song something of a pass while it was actually a hit, but two things have made me reconsider that generosity in the meantime. One was that I realized that this its very presence essentially kept Kelly Clarkson’s “Invincible”, a vastly superior song with almost exactly the same concept, off the charts in 2015. The second is that I finally heard the actual album from which this song was drawn, and realized as a result how intolerable this song really is when surrounded by eleven other songs just like it.

The best way I can describe Platten’s style is ‘Debbie Boone on steroids”: hackneyed, saccharine, nauseatingly faux-inspirational, and above all else loud. The cliche-ridden lyrics and weak rhymes do tend to sound worse and worse with every repeat hearing, but the real problem is the song’s overblown bombast with no actual content or depth to back it up. Platten is clearly trying to be Kelly Clarkson, but even when Clarkson dabbles in cliche (as on “Mr. Know-It-All” or “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You”)), the music itself has an intensity and power that this burst of empty noise doesn’t even approach.

This isn’t the worst song on Platten’s album that year (her duet with Andy Grammer, the point-blank unlistenable “Hey, Hey, Hallelujah”, almost manages to make this one look like some kind of classic), but it’s still a warmed-over imitation of a song model that had already been done better by just about every major Pop artist four years before this song was even released.

Verdict: Bad.

“Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood

I blame the existence of this song, which was one of the two massive clinkers (along with “Jesus Take the Wheel”) that sabotaged Underwood’s reputation early on, primarily on Nashville record executives trying to create a tamer version of early Miranda Lambert. You see, the year before they released this turd, Lambert had come out with her debut album and its title track, “Kerosene”. This was before Lambert really went mainstream even in the Country sphere, but the song had gotten a lot of attention from those who had heard it for being the kind of blazing woman-scorned Country-Rock scorcher that had never been seen before in the Country genre at the time.

The record executives clearly wanted to harness this new genre model, but they felt the need to tone down the song’s sheer violent rage when they made their copy, and that was their mistake. If you take “Before He Cheats” literally, it comes across as the stupidest attempt at revenge ever conceived: infidelity isn’t something you can go to jail for, but vandalism is, and according to the lyrics, she literally signed her crime by “Carv(ing) her name into his leather seats”. Meanwhile, if you take it as an over-the-top revenge fantasy, then frankly it’s pretty lame. You fucked up his car. Big friggin’ whoop. “Kerosene” climaxes with Lambert gunning down her cheating ex and his new girl in the street…that’s how you do a revenge fantasy.

Verdict: Even if this wasn’t an absolutely moronic song (which it is), the very existence of “Kerosene” makes checking it out a complete waste of your time.

“One Foot” by Walk the Moon

I will admit that Walk the Moon’s third album did constitute something of a sellout move. After the phenomenal success of their crossover single “Shut Up and Dance”, they seem to have decided to reinvent themselves as a straight-up Pop act, and this album find them abandoning their Indie roots for the same stale, prepackaged Pop-Rock sound used by modern Maroon 5 and their imitators such as the reunited Jonas Brothers.

However, while this sound is admittedly far less interesting than the retro-New-Wave they were making on their first two albums, there is still something vital to remember…Nicholas Pettrica, the band’s frontman and principle songwriter, is an absolutely brilliant songwriting talent. This is the guy who wrote “Anna Sun”, “Shut Up and Dance”, and “Different Colors”, and his gifts didn’t evaporate just because the group changed its sound.

This is actually a rather fascinating demonstration of what Maroon 5’s style would be capable of in the hands of a first-rate songwriter, as it has that same homogenized Pop/EDM-masquerading-as-Rock sound, but also features a terrific tune and intelligent, penetrating lyrics. Granted, the rest of their third album was less interesting, but this lead single proves that they’ve still got the potential to make something of themselves in this new field.

Verdict: Good.

“St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” by John Parr

John Parr likes to tell the sad story about how he was unfairly muscled out of the music business, but he seems oblivious to the reason that happened in the first place…that reason being that he isn’t any good. Styx may have been the general poster child for bad Arena Rock, but at least Styx had their own style. On his embarrassing debut album, John Parr was trying to be Foreigner (and failing badly, I might add). On his songwriting gigs for Meat Loaf, he was of course trying to be Jim Steinman, and let’s just say that as poor man’s Jim Steinman substitutes go, this guy is no Desmond Child.

On this, his only real hit of any stature, he’s clearly trying to be Survivor…specifically, “Eye of the Tiger”. Leaving aside the fact that the movie he wrote this for is a Brat Pack film and not a sports movie, this song doesn’t even approach the lean, focused intensity that has made “Eye of the Tiger” so enduring.

The melody and production are incredibly cheesy, the lyrics are so hyperbolic and self-consciously faux-inspirational that they sound like a parody, and Parr’s wailing vocals are reminiscent of Michael Bolton as his absolute worst, except for the fact that Parr actually has a much less interesting voice. It says something that this is still probably the best thing Parr ever recorded…this is what this idiot sounds like on a good day, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Verdict: I guess you could make a case for this on the grounds of enjoyably bad Eighties retro-camp (although even that excuse doesn’t really work for any of Parr’s other songs), but it’s not ‘good’ by any other standard.

“Tea for Two” by Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar

This is the 1920s’ equivalent of the kind of thing that would wind up in Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs, but because of its advanced age it is perceived for some reason to have some kind of vaguely-defined distinguished pedigree. As a result, critics (or at least the older ones) tend to give it much more leeway than similar annoying Pop tunes from the Sixties onward, or even equivalent songs from the Fifties such as “How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?” or “Oh, My Pa-Pa!”.

But the sad truth is, it’s not really a different phenomenon…there was puerile, overexposed Pop music in that era too. Yes, Vincent Youmans’ melody is both pretty and memorable, but this song is every bit as cloying as Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey”, and just as inane as Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun”, and the catchy melody only makes those qualities more insidious.

I honestly don’t see why people today can’t acknowledge this song for the insipid trash that it is; people at the time certainly had no trouble doing so (James Thurber devoted an entire chapter of his book Further Fables of Our Time to mocking it). The musical from which this song originally came, No, No, Nanette, actually contains a number of good songs. This is not one of them.

Verdict: Bad.