Elvis’ 1969 hit “In the Ghetto” gets included on a lot of amateur “Worst Songs of All Time” lists, and generally gets written off these days as a piece of lugubrious schmaltz. There’s no denying that the song is extraordinarily depressing, and it isn’t exactly subtle about the social message it’s trying to convey. That said, it’s an acknowledged truth that sometimes preachiness and didacticism in works of art are justified in the name of greater good in the real world, and it would be hard to find a situation in which that applies more than this one. Granted, worthy ideological aims don’t automatically transform a bad song into a good one, but the song can hardly be accused of bad craftsmanship. The lilting melody is far more effective for this purpose than the lugubrious sound Elvis usually used for these kinds of songs. As for the lyrics, they are surprisingly penetrating, making particularly haunting use of imagery and repeated, cyclical phrases and humanizing the subject by telling a poignant human story as an example of the suffering it depicts.
Also, you have to remember that just making this song was a sizable risk for Presley. However much of a radical he had been earlier in his career, Elvis still always had one foot in Nashville, and there were still plenty among his fanbase at the time who wouldn’t want to hear their idol sing a song like this. In fact, I venture to suggest that the reason this song gained a negative reputation in the first place is because it makes many people think and feel things they don’t want to think and feel, and declaring it to be just some piece of melodramatic tripe helps neutralize the discomfort it causes them.
However, as I said, worthy motives don’t automatically turn a bad song into a good one, and Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” is a perfect illustration of that. This song deals with exactly the same subject matter as “In the Ghetto”, but that fails everywhere that song succeeded. The music is just dull, morose Adult Contemporary balladry with none of the distinctive qualities Collins’ work had been known for in earlier years, and the song has no real interest in drama, only in proselytizing. At least “In the Ghetto” actually told a story…this song is just a guilt-based harangue about what a bad person you supposedly are. I understand this song had good intentions, but it simply has nothing to offer artistically, and those intentions would have been far more successful if Collins had actually tried to make a good song and not just to send a message. It’s basically a solo “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, only instead of Christmas and Africa, it’s every day and the local homeless.
Verdict: Good for “In the Ghetto”, but “Another Day in Paradise”, however sincere its intentions may have been, is simply a bad song. Of course, neither of these songs even approach the gut-wrenching tragic beauty of the definitive song on the subject, Stevie Wonder’s “Village Ghetto Land”, but that just indicates that neither Mac Davis (who wrote “In the Ghetto”) nor Phil Collins were world-changing musical geniuses on the level of Wonder at his peak, which should come as a surprise to absolutely nobody. (Granted, Elvis was arguably that kind of genius, but then, he didn’t write the song).