“I Love Rock’N’Roll” by Britney Spears

I don’t know whose idea it was to have Britney Spears cover Joan Jett, but the fact that it was one of the singles from the grisly Crossroads movie does at least mean that the people involved were not known for their good judgment to begin with. Actually, the very early-2000s Pop instrumentation is as big a problem as Spears, sounding incredibly obnoxious and utterly out-of-place. That said, given that Spears’ vocals are a serious liability even in songs written specifically for her, it’s not surprising that she sounds downright unlistenable trying to match Joan Jett’s range and force.

Verdict: Bad (but only this cover. The original song is still a masterpiece.)

“I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher

I don’t think that many people really consider this a ‘bad song’ (although Dave Barry does, according to his iconic volume Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs), but it does get some backlash simply because it was basically declared the official anthem of the Hippie generation, and while it does as good a job of living up to that as any song can be expected to do, a claim like that is never going to satisfy everyone. Granted, Sonny Bono is not overburdened with performing charisma (the guy had songwriting talent, but he never would have made it as a performer without Cher as his partner). Also granted, some of the lyrics might read a little trite on paper, but when set to the song’s soaring and stirring melody, they still sound every bit as profound that they were made out to be at the time. Granted, the actual vocal melody is one of those two-note wonders that people used to accommodate tone-deaf singers before autotune was invented, presumably so Sonny Bono can actually sing it. But the instrumental accompaniment, which manages to create the illusion that it is continually ascending into higher and higher keys with each repetition, provides all the melody the song could possibly need. This is still one of the best songs Cher ever released, and is further proof that the Soft Rock genre had genuine respectability before it was bastardized in the Eighties.

Verdict: Good.

“The Hamsterdance Song”

This early equivalent to awful internet meme songs in the “Friday” vein was based on the “Whistle-Stop” title theme from Disney’s dreary Robin Hood film, which was written by Roger Miller during the ‘blackout drunk’ era of his career, and remains the worst piece of music ever written for a theatrical Disney animated film. And believe me, the last thing that abomination needed was to be sped up into a chipmunk voice and played on an endless loop.

Verdict: Actually worse than the song it’s based on, which is saying something

“Good Morning, Starshine” by Oliver

This song’s bad reputation can be chalked up to a simple misunderstanding. This was originally a song from the musical Hair, and its sappy tone and nonsense-word chorus made perfect sense in the context of a Hippie-themed Rock musical. But when you take it out of the show and try to market it as a pop tune, it just seems pretentious and ridiculous, and as catchy as it is, it may not have been the best choice from the Hair score to become a hit single.

Verdict: Good in its original context, but I understand why some people find it annoying.

“Convoy” by C.W. McCall

This song tends to get its reputation as a ‘bad song list’ staple from people who hate Novelty Songs by definition, but as Country novelty songs of the era go, it’s not really that bad. True, it’s not on the level of Roger Miller or Shel Silverstein’s work in the genre, but the colorfully incomprehensible trucker lingo that makes up the lyrics is oddly fascinating in terms of pure sound, and the lead singer gives a superb performance. Yes, it’s silly and ridiculous, but calling a Novelty Song ‘bad’ for that is kind of missing the entire point of the genre, and this song, while not exactly ‘funny’ in the classic sense of the word, is bizarre and colorful enough to qualify as a success on Novelty-Song terms.

Verdict: Good

“Barbie Girl” by Aqua

I understand that this song was going for a biting satire of then-contemporary pop culture, and if you manage to listen long enough to catch the lyrics, some of them are actually rather disturbing (“Make me walk, make me talk/Do whatever you please/I can act like a star/I can beg on my knees”). The problem is that the music and the vocals are so intensely annoying that the lyrical content is ultimately beside the point; virtually no-one is ever going to be able to tolerate the song’s sound long enough to appreciate its intended point, and frankly the songwriters have no-one to blame but themselves.

Verdict: Bad

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens

This song has become a bit overexposed over the years, but it isn’t really all that bad. True, it’s a watered-down pop version of a classic Folk song, but like “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” by Allan Sherman, that stills puts it ahead of the vast majority of novelty hits from that era that aren’t based on great musicals classics of the past.

Verdict: Good, but the original “Wimoweh” is about ten times better

“(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs” from Hairspray

This song has a reputation for being the one dud in the otherwise fantastic score of Hairspray. Leaving aside the fact that the Hairspray score, for all its sublime highlights, isn’t as uniform in quality as you might think (does anyone even care about “It Takes Two”?), let’s examine just what people seem to think is wrong with this song. Granted, the lyrics are extremely crude and frankly rather juvenile, even by the standards of the show’s lyrics as a whole (which were not above the occasional puerile joke at the best of times). But the melody…a rangy and wildly overblown tango that perfectly fits the hammy delivery of the lyrics…does do a lot to sell this song. And remember, the number was specifically designed for the original Velma Von Tussle, Linda Hart, and, at least when performed by her, it’s actually kind of a riot. Also remember that the earlier attempts at a number for this scene had come off as too mean-spirited and humiliating for Tracy (sample title: “No-one On This TV Show Will Ever Look Like You!”), so having Velma lost in her own reminiscences for most of the number was actually a pretty clever solution. As for the Hairspray film’s version of this number, which is far subtler and less overblown, Michelle Pfeiffer played it with a fair amount of relish, but a song with lyrics like ‘they padded their cups/but I screwed the judges’ probably doesn’t gain a lot by being finessed. Overall, it’s not the strongest number in the score, but it’s a very suitable way to musicalize that particular moment, and actually pretty entertaining when you get a performer with sufficient panache, and I can think of plenty of songs from much more lauded musicals that are far weaker (e.g. “It’s a Scandal, It’s an Outrage” from Oklahoma).

Verdict: Not ideal, but oddly effective in actual performance, and far from the worst song to appear in an otherwise wonderful early-2000s Broadway hit (“Love Is My Legs”, anybody?).

“Intermission Talk” from Me and Juliet

Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musicals, Me and Juliet was probably the greatest disappointment. It did throw off one enduring standard, “No Other Love”, but despite an ambitious concept (a sort of proto-A Chorus Line treatise on theater), it never really fulfilled its potential. The plot was little more than an Oklahoma retread set in a Broadway theater, and the score was mostly composed of tuneful-but-generic ballads and up-tunes. However, it did feature two brilliantly inspired numbers that show what the show might have been if it had followed through with its premise…the introspective “The Big Black Giant” and this one. This number, appropriately positioned as the second-act opening, starts out with a collection of random bits of slice-of-life dialogue one might hear in an actual theater lounge, and then segues into a debate between genuine theater lovers and naysayers who insist the theater is dead. It’s a lot of fun to point out this number to modern theater snobs, because it demonstrates that even in the Fifties (which today’s theater snobs tend to view as the peak of their imaginary ‘golden age’), enough people were espousing the same absurd argument they’re peddling today that Rodgers and Hammerstein, of all people, felt the need to write a song about it. The arguments they offer even sound eerily reminiscent of those made by later theater snobs, showing, I suppose, that little has really changed about that class of people (granted, the ‘shows are too serious’ argument was more common in the Eighties and Nineties than it is today, but the point still holds). Admittedly, this song doesn’t feature a top-drawer Rodgers melody, but the unique brilliance of Hammerstein’s lyric more than makes up for it. If everything in Me and Juliet achieved this level of inspiration, the show would be considered a top-level R&H masterpiece today.

Verdict: Good, and a lot of theater critics and commentators today could really stand to take its message to heart.

“Murder, Murder” from Jekyll and Hyde

The people who think Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde musical is a piece of sensationalist trash like to cite this song as though it proved their argument, and even those who view it as a guilty pleasure tend to see this as something of a low point in the score. But the devoted fanbase who unreservedly revere the show tend to relish it as a ghoulish delight, and the truth is that they have a point: for what it’s intended to be, this song is pretty successful. Unlike the other song from this score that everyone complains about, “Facade”, which is actually quite dark and glowering, this song was clearly designed from the beginning to be intentionally cheesy. After all, Jekyll and Hyde‘s camp element is at least partially intentional, and this is simply the most overt example of that. The result is an utterly unique novelty number, simultaneously spine-chilling and enjoyably silly, a kind of much campier equivalent to “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”. And the goofy lyrics which everyone complains about (like ‘To kill outside St. Paul’s/requires a lot of balls’) are clearly a deliberate component of that effect. They may be invoking the enjoyably bad on purpose in this number, but that’s a time-honored art in musical theater, and if it works (and it does), then this song is ‘good’ on the same evidence as, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Baby June’s numbers in Gypsy.

Verdict: Good.