Those of us who bear the burden of an unhealthy obsession with pop culture are often stereotyped as being unreasonably nostalgic. I’m not sure I buy that. Those of us with more discriminating tastes know that the pop music of the past isn’t really better than the pop music of today, but the appeal of shitty songs from the past is no less mesmerizing. Nostalgia isn’t the right word; I don’t yearn for the days when Whitney Houston battled Eric Clapton for the year’s biggest tearjerker. I don’t fondly remember turning on MTV and seeing the “Unbreak My Heart” video three times in a row. Regardless of this, cultivating an appreciation for pop music I once hated is a vital part of my education as a music snob. Sure, I may spend my days studiously furrowing my brow at high-minded avant-garde music that plebeians like you could never properly appreciate, but that doesn’t mean I won’t throw on a Color Me Badd record once in a while.

Geniuses like me can appreciate great music on all possible levels, while you can only hope to appreciate great music like a retard appreciates a flower. Even so, you and I probably appreciate silly pop music on exactly the same level. I don’t buy the notion that pop-culture nerds only like outdated pop music on an ironic level, either. As far as I’m concerned, claiming to like a song ironically is a cop-out. Whether you’re spinning “Rump Shaker” by Wreckx-N-Effect with the intent to smile wryly or with the intent to actually zoom-a-zoom-zoom and a boom boom, it matters not; you’re still spinning “Rump Shaker.”

Why is it that a snob like me will joyfully listen to crap from the past while violently eschewing crap from the present? Let’s put it this way: the war against shit like Maroon 5 is still claiming lives. You simply don’t fuck around with Maroon 5. It’s too dangerous. However, the war against Bobby Brown was won over a decade ago, and his outrageous New Jack Swing singles are the spoils. I can still get pissed off at the overplayed pop music of the present, but staying mad at disposable pop music, unless it’s truly heinous, is almost impossible.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing about terrible music that I hate. As we all know, I love hating terrible music. My articles don’t usually offer up much hope for the future of music, because being nice about things is for the weak, but I will say this: in ten or fifteen years, the songs you hate today will probably be hilarious instead of annoying. You’ll be driving your kid to school in your hoverbubble with the radio tuned to “00’s Retro Breakfast,” and a smile will creep across your face as Hoobastank’s “The Reason” comes up. “I remember this song,” you’ll tell your pasty and unpopular son. “This song used to be crap!” And you’ll love every minute of it.

When I was a bright young thing, the music on MTV was crap, just like it is now. The difference is that back then, they played crappy music almost all day, instead of in half-hour blocks twice a day. If you’ve gleaned any insight into my personality from these columns, you’ll have no trouble believing that I sat and watched that crap all day, unable to stop, hating every minute of it and remembering every detail.

Now, inexplicably, songs from my youth have lost their capacity to irritate me; “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips is a lot better when you don’t have to hear it at the top of every hour. In fact, I recently spent a day cataloguing all the crap I used to hear fifty times a week and seeing whether or not it still sucked. I now present to you the results of my experiment:

Part I: Pop-Metal and Cheesy Hard Rock

Scorpions – Wind of Change
Only a year before, Axl Rose had made the extended whistling solo a marketable rock and roll device with “Patience,” and Scorpions use it to great effect. My dominant memory of this song is the fact that I’ve never figured out what the hell he’s saying at the start of the verse: something like “I followed the mo-squaw / down to donkey paw.” Also, bless his poor little German heart, he pronounces the line “magic of the moment” like “midget of the moment.” It’s probably a boon that some of the lyrics are unintelligible, because the ones that aren’t are grotesquely terrible: “on a glory night / where the children of tomorrow dream away / in the wind of change.” Despite all the whistling, bad lyrics, and midgets, this song manages to kick a tiny bit of ass. Not as much ass as “Rock You like a Hurricane” or “Big City Nights,” but enough ass that we can forgive most of its minor flaws.

Verdict: Pretty fucking bad, but not entirely awful. Well, except for the bridge (“the wind of change blows straight / into the face of time!”).

Guns N Roses – November Rain

Weep for little Slash.At the time, this song (and the video for it) was the bane of my existence. Seeing a video several times a day is annoying to begin with, but it gets even worse when the song is nineteen and a half minutes long and filled with synthesized string arrangements and rain/pain rhymes. I used to have nothing but contempt for the song, which seemed to be a ridiculous explosion of Axl Rose’s pretensions, but I later managed to look deeper into the song’s subtext and find true beauty in it. You see, although the video features Stephanie Seymour as Axl’s love interest, it’s merely a ploy. As I understand it now, the song is one of the greatest homoerotic love ballads of all time, detailing Axl’s strained relationship with bandmate and ex-lover Izzy Stradlin. Izzy, the band’s pretty-boy rhythm guitarist and moral compass, was notoriously at odds with Rose both over the band’s artistic direction and their failed affair. Rose penned the song as a last-ditch effort to win Stradlin back, but to no avail. It was the song’s inclusion on the album and release as a single that prompted a furious Stradlin to leave the group; he considered the song “too personal.” The video, which I used to consider laughably pompous, is actually quite affecting. Slash, like a confused and frustrated child caught in a messy divorce, uses his guitar solos to vent his anguish. We see a solitary Slash in a wind-swept church, his guitar crying in pain and bewilderment; we see him atop Rose’s piano, his solo screaming for the attention of a father-figure who has forsaken him. Even despite the fact that this is all made up, it makes me like the song a lot more.

Verdict: Considerably more awesome than it used to be. The gloomy string into to the song’s final act is a perfect sample for a hip-hop song. I’ll bet you ten bucks that Just Blaze will build a track around it within a year.

Extreme – Hole Hearted
In hindsight, listening to this song again, even just for research purposes, represented extremely poor judgment. If hearing it only once could so firmly implant it in my brain, I can’t imagine how awful it must have been for everyone back in 1990 when it was on the radio every day. Luckily for me, I didn’t download their other big hit of the time, “More Than Words,” because a double-dose of Extreme would probably cause me to quit my prestigious Something Awful writing job and devote my life to tracking down everyone even peripherally involved in the album’s creation and demanding lengthy written apologies. Extreme were sort of a wimpier version of Hagar-era Van Halen, which is amusing, considering that Extreme’s lead singer was eventually Hagar’s even-worse replacement.

Verdict: Never listen to this band again if you value your sanity.

Ugly Kid Joe – (I Hate) Everything About You
Ugly Kid Joe, if you don’t recall, were a rather pathetically late entry into the Hair Metal milieu; their first record came out in 1992, making them exactly 10 seconds too late to enjoy any sort of cultural relevance. Aside from being an anachronistic reminder of a sub-genre the world was more than ready to cast off, “Everything About You” was also one of those irritatingly “clever” novelty hits that nobody really likes for more than a day. Little did we know that the song’s redemption would come out of nowhere; a couple of years ago, a terrible nu-metal band called Three Days Grace released a single called “I Hate Everything About You” which was exponentially worse, making Ugly Kid Joe’s dismal effort seem like a radiant beacon of musical genius in comparison.

Verdict: Miraculously, only the second worst song about hating everything about someone.

Part II: Clash of the UK Dance-Rock Titans

Look familiar? Oh yeah, you've seen twenty copies of it at every used record store in the world.Surely you can see where this is going. There were plenty of minor UK dance-rock hits around 1991, like “Step On” by the Happy Mondays and “Divine Thing” by the Soup Dragons, but when it comes right down to it, this is destined to be a two-band brawl. In one corner we have the illustrious Jesus Jones, still tenaciously clinging to fame due to the continued usage of “Right Here, Right Now” in commercials that need to lazily get a message across; in the other corner, we have the EMF, the Epsom Mad Funkers (I remembered that on my own!), famous for the unforgettable hit “Unbelievable.” I’m not entirely sure how to judge this contest; both songs are excellent in their own ways. Jesus Jones wins in terms of melody, but EMF wins in terms of rhythm. Jesus Jones just barely wins in terms of lyrical content, but EMF wins in terms of production. In the end, we’ll probably have to settle this by secondary singles: Jesus Jones also released “Real, Real, Real,” and I can distinctly remember the chorus of that. EMF followed up “Unbelievable” with “Lies,” and although I remember the song’s title and the video, I can’t remember a single note of the song. Based on this and this alone, I award the King of 1991 UK Dance-Rock Acts Who Had Hits in America award to Jesus Jones.
Verdict: Both still pretty good.

Part III: The New Jack Swing Era

Bell Biv Devoe – Poison

(Artist's rendition.)If you can’t identify “Poison” by the chattering drum intro alone, then you’re hopelessly ill-equipped to have any meaningful discussions of modern music. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. If someone says “never trust a big butt and a smile” and you don’t catch the reference, then you’re probably a complete square. These guys were destined to be big news in the New Jack Swing scene, since they cut their teeth in New Edition along with the esteemed Dr. Bobby Brown, who invented the genre mistakenly while trying to come up with a new material to make lighter tap shoes. I was delighted to find “Poison” included on the soundtrack to the latest Grand Theft Auto game, because it will introduce the song to a whole generation of twelve-year-olds who tricked their parents into buying a game about mulching officers of the law with a thresher. I don’t think I even have to tell you that “Poison” is still just as good as it’s ever been, or better. In fact, if anyone ever writes a better song than “Poison,” I’ll eat my hat.

Verdict: Caaan’t get it outta my heeaaad!

Bobby Brown – Humpin’ Around
Even Bobby Brown’s fame for beating up Whitney Houston seems to have faded away at this point, and the only reference point modern listeners seem to have is the pedestrian Britney Spears cover of “My Prerogative.” Back then, Bobby Brown was all over the tube, jittering his way through incoherent interviews and producing elaborately choreographed videos about “Humpin’.” Despite his waning popularity, the youth of today might learn a lot from “Humpin’ Around,” with its positive message of trusting your boyfriend and believing that he’s not cheating on your even if he’s Bobby Brown. On second thought, maybe we should keep this one away from the kids…

Verdict: This song kicks Whitney Houston’s ass. In a good way. Not that there’s a bad way to kick Whitney Houston’s ass.

Boyz II Men - Motownphilly
How come Boyz II Men didn’t release more singles like this? This song kicked my ass back in 1991, and I bought the record, and most of it was just sort of run-of-the-mill R&B pap. What a disappointment! This song has it all: snappy banter about how well they can sing, a video featuring their orange blazers and high-top haircuts, something about all the steaks they can eat, that part where they go “dmm dmm dmm da da,” and the best drum intro this side of “Poison.” In fact, I think they even shout out BBD in the song. Why, Boyz II Men, why did you have to turn from top-notch New Jack Swing singles to shit like “I’ll Make Love to You” and other 8th-grade dance fodder? I’ll never forgive you as long as I live, Boyz II Men. I’ll hold on to my copy of Cooleyhighharmony though, just to remind me of what might have been. Maybe sometimes I’ll read the liner notes and shed a tear.

Verdict: A heartbreaking glance at an alternate universe in which Boyz II Men didn’t suck.

Tony Toni Toné! – If I Had No Loot
A bit of an underdog among New Jack Swing hits, but for some reason I remember this one quite clearly. Perhaps I think of it when I think of New Jack Swing because the sample in the background repeatedly shouts the phrase “New Jack Swing!” This song doesn’t project well on the charisma of the singer, since his main point is that he’d have no friends if he weren’t rich; it doesn’t seem to be so much a “Love Don’t Cost a Thing”-type message as an “all my friends are only using me for my money” message. The most depressing part of it is that he never seems to take a stand against it; he identifies the fact that his friends are all gold-diggers, but he seems to just passively accept it like a spineless doormat (if you’ll pardon my outrageously mixed metaphor). In fact, between verses he even says “now I don’t want to step on nobody’s foot, but uhh…,” as if to apologize in advance for calling out his no-good friends. Grow some balls, Tony (or Toni or Toné or whichever one is singing)! Even though this song is pretty good, I’m afraid I just can’t recommend it due to its rather pathetic message.

Verdict: Listening to this song makes me embarrassed on their behalf, the wimps!

Buy one today!Now swallow your pride and go pick up some crappy old records! You can probably find almost all of those for five bucks at any local used CD shop, or you can just download them if you’re a thieving, unscrupulous bastard. I do have one request of my kind readers, if I may be so bold: tell me about stupid radio pop songs that you used to hate that now delight you. Don’t be embarrassed, it happens to all of us. Do you want to “sex up” Color Me Badd? Does Paula Abdul cause you to become “Straight Up”? Do you get a “wet sprocket” when you think about Toad the Wet Sprocket? Does “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” give you a special feeling in your “Deep Blue Something”? Do you want to take Take That “Back for Good”? Are you all wet for Wet Wet Wet? Do you get drunk on the Gin Blossoms? Do you find that nothing is better than Better Than Ezra? Do you… oh fuck this, this is getting really stupid. Anyway, e-mail me at [email protected] and tell me about your love of goofy old pop songs. And put some detail into it!

– Dr. David Thorpe (@Arr)

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